The Debt of Macross to Tom Wolfe

One fine day, after he had joined a fighter squadron, it would dawn on the young pilot exactly how the losers in the great fraternal competition were now being left behind. Which is to say, not by instructors or other superiors or by failures at prescribed levels of competence, but by death. – Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (1979)

Episode 3 of Macross Delta is indebted visually and thematically to my personal favourite of all Macross productions, Macross Plus. It remains, however, a somewhat weak episode for this. It cleaves closely to its inspirations in a way which simply does not fit what has been built up in the previous episodes. While the allusions to Macrosses II and 7 and Frontier have been equally evident, there has been a thematic framework – the marrying of soft and hard power, the militarisation of the non-military, etcetera, to ground this. It has built up Hayate and Freyja as outsiders inducted into what Tom Wolfe calls in his book The Right Stuff, which is in part about the business of fighter-piloting, “the ziggurat pyramid of flying”, unready but determined. An episode about Hayate’s training should have him, by this metric, the person working their way up. It does this, in a fashion, but undermines it in how else it depicts Hayate and for this to make sense one must understand Macross Plus.

Hayate is shown to be, by all accounts, unfit for piloting. Easily made airsick, rash, complaining about unfairness. His victory in the episode comes from some instinctive, innate talent that surprises the instructors. It is the very model of a stock rookie plot in mecha anime and were it played out in this way in a series that suited this, it would be unremarkable but fine. His resentment of military rules and his tangling with the authoritarian figure of Mirage is the most stock-in-trade comedy possible in this genre, capably handled but unsatisfyingly implying that at some point Mirage will be “softened” around the edges first into grudging respect and then most likely into swooning over Hayate. This arc might be dull but it is in keeping with the Hayate Delta has presented so far; someone who is stupid enough to run into a warzone in the interests of saving a life. The problem comes, I feel, in the transformation of this carefree bloody-mindedness (bloody-mindedness a term which sums up the Macross male from Hikaru to Basara to Alto) into instinctual talent at throwing a plane around the sky with no autopilot or automation. Hayate’s conduct – scaring his instructors, disrespecting his officers, even down to his sniping at his Zentradi counterpart – is Isamu Alva Dyson from Macross Plus. The stakes are very different – Mirage is no Guld, the duel between the two of them in (another homage) red and blue VF1s is not the visceral meanness of the YF19 and YF21 being smashed together in a brawl or the brush with freefalling death and sabotage that one sees in Plus. The episode’s climax even involves a plane in apparent freefall being saved at the last minute, and the pilot pulling off insane aerobatics to beat a superior foe. It is a digested best-of Macross Plus‘s rivalry without the sex element.

Macross thrives on homage and self-reference. This is not an unusual or unexpected decision but it is, I feel, a very unfitting one. Isamu is introduced in Plus as an already-trained, incredibly competent but at the same time incredibly reckless pilot. Someone given a job because they need to be taken away from the front lines. He goes to his new post ordered to thrash a new plane to its limits and plays about to push the boundaries of the tests and prove himself to an old rival. Hayate has been presented in Delta as someone without experience, without a proven career, and so his going on the same journey is unearned. His “mercat” maneuver is not Isamu’s crowning moment of piloting skill to outsmart the YF21, a climax of a series of action sequences – it is the beginning of his military career. Rather than the ace showing off, he is the rookie presenting himself as a prodigy.

Why does this matter? For that, one needs to read more closely into Plus’s apparently superficial action-movie characterisation. Isamu is, I would suggest, easily and transparently read as a reference to Chuck Yeager – the real-life bad ass fighter jet pilot who did the impossible, flew planes with broken bones, broke the sound barrier, and generally became the epitome of what Wolfe calls The Right Stuff in his book of the same title.

Wolfe writes this about the bravado of “fighter jocks”:

…[a pilot would] go up into a vertical climb until the weight of the ship exactly canceled out the upward pull of the engine and his airspeed was zero, and he would hang there for one thick adrenal instant – and then fall like a rock until one of three things happened: he keeled over nose first and regained his aerodynamics and all was well, he went into a spin and fought his way out of it, or he went into a spin and had to eject or crunch it.

Familiar stuff for anyone who has watched Macross Plus. Wolfe is writing about the journey from rookie to ace here, the extracurricular danger which pilot candidates put themselves through to muck in with the experienced pilots, to be a part of which Wolfe consistently paints as a kind of macho clique. But even so he is writing about pilots who have done their training, the pursuit of the next step of career advancement. You can see in this extract what is being attempted to be conveyed in Delta, but it rings wholly hollow because of one fine distinction. It is not junior pilots trying to show off to earn a superior place within a fraternity they are already a part of. It is someone who has barely stopped vomiting when he flies. Two things are being conflated here in Delta choosing to use Plus as its model for Hayate’s debut in the air force – the showing off within a squadron, the juxtaposition of camaraderie and life-threatening stunts to build reputation, and the opportunity for the untrained pilot to show some potential.

Macross Plus used its conflict between bravado and suppressed aggression to contribute to a story about two experts using their job to hash out a personal disagreement; something that should have been left on the ground was taken into the sky as both pilots nearly killed each other. Isamu’s showing off built to his display of genuine skill – what began as trying to impress ground crew ended up being what he needed to do to save a city. By contrast Delta takes the visual language of this, and puts it in a framework of the cocky protagonist trying to prove his love of flying to his “stuck-up” officer. It is in some ways typical of how Hayate has been presented (if one wishes to see his initial presentation as a setup for a dull, mildly chauvinist stock-in-trade story of the goofball man making the straight-laced woman lighten up) but at the same time is doubling down on his arrogance in a way that does not quite work.

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One comment

  1. megaroad1

    Like you I’m a huge fan of Macross Plus. On many levels it’s probably the best out of all the Macross series. Funnily enough, it is also not very popular amongst younger fans and completely tanked in Japan as far as I can understand. I don’t think Delta runs that risk though 🙂

    I have never read Tom Wolfe’s book but now have a reason to. Thanks for the tip.

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