Episode 6 of Macross Delta is one of the “difficult episodes” of robot anime in many ways, one of the points where a series must make its moral compass plain and present its heroes and villains (not simply the antagonist army to be fought but the relatable and repellant characters on both sides.) It is an episode, ostensibly, about the crisis of confidence of the soldier’s first kill. This is, obviously, a vast and challenging topic explored in more depth and nuance in fiction not intended to present an exciting adventure about idols and robots – for a more serious discussion of the morality of war and the crises of moral confidence faced by soldiers go anywhere but a Macross series (or indeed robot anime in general).
So if this is a topic which I hold to be too vast and nuanced for merchandising-driven pop-entertainment to cover, why is it important when such media does engage with it? If one approaches the “difficult episode” from the mindset that it is a failed gesture, surely the best response is simply to accept failure and proceed with different thematic interrogation? It is because robot anime uses the morality of soldiering, and in many ways a naïve and conflicted understanding of pacifism and just wars, to paint heroes and villains within its cast. Principle in much robot anime is fighting without undue killing, and – with a few notable exceptions with extremely skewed moral compasses (either the ultraviolent exploitation flick where amoral violence is the source of enjoyment, ala MD Geist or the efforts to paint some depressing, pragmatic “reality” ala Iron-Blooded Orphans) the hero is the pilot who ends the war efficiently. The Kira Yamato, the Kio Asuno – or, to cite shows significantly more enjoyable in their handling of these themes – the Gainer Sanger or Loran Cehak.
This is an unremarkable moral compass, really; it is no challenging worldview to believe war is generally bad, sometimes unavoidable, and should be fought with some semblance of humanity. It gains a naïve, hypocritical nuance in its depictions in robot anime where the intent is to make weapons of mass destruction (for, to pull no punches, the Strike Freedom or indeed any other robot are in such a league of superiority to their foes it is asymmetrical warfare) saleable by presenting them as weapons of peace piloted by personable, moral people. As a result the “peaceful option”, the fighting for peace without killing, is shown to be if not easy in itself made easy by a sufficient technological advantage allowing one to “avoid shooting the cockpit”. The most able series that pursue this morality are those that show it to be difficult, require significant personal skill on top of a technological advantage or frame and film their fights appropriately. Turn-A Gundam and Overman King Gainer have exceptionally low kill counts but their whole action choreography and character drama is centred around the difficulty of fighting carefully and picking the right fights.
Thus from this diversion into the realm of Gundam SEED Destiny, intended to lay out the “not shooting the cockpit” school of pacifism, to Macross Delta. This episode is ostensibly about Mirage’s crisis of confidence and Hayate’s blooding. It is an equally interesting look into the personality of Messer, a character I declared from the previous episode to be a dull authoritarian. He is still not an interesting or new character in the grand scheme of robot anime, still largely a drill-sergeant “straight-man” figure – yet within Macross there is little precedent for him. Ozma in Frontier was not as authoritarian as Messer. Gamlin in Macross 7 is a comedy figure a lot of the time. Roy Fokker is the template in robot anime for the irresponsible ace. Having a straightforward tough foil to an irresponsible lead is very much a Gundam thing; the South Burning figure, or even a character like Bright Noa (although there the relationship is captain-pilot rather than camaraderie within a squadron). The episode, nevertheless, begins with him lecturing the squadron about their failings as pilots; everyone is found wanting and Hayate is beneath contempt (as fits the established relationship.) One of the key things he criticises in Hayate and Mirage, the “heroes” of Delta, is their efforts to shoot to disable. Immediately this is a stance that rings warning bells. One of the reasons I loathed Mika in Iron-Blooded Orphans by its end was the show’s failure to provide any kind of meaningful payoff for his amorality, eventually turning a slow-burning wrongness into tacit acceptance of the sort of soldier who would shoot someone who has surrendered.
But Delta exceeds expectations; Messer understands why one should avoid killing, but through him Delta sets out its superior take on the topic; this is difficult. It is the hard road, the morally proper one, but the hard one. Mirage and Hayate are simply not good enough to do it. Chuck and Messer do, and in time the others should, but they cannot. Thus when the fight comes, and Hayate is in a difficult situation, he does not magically pull a flawless “pacifist” victory from nowhere, he simply shoots and hits, and an enemy pilot is downed. When he has the advantage, technologically and strategically, he is seen to be disarming enemies in melee rather than firing indiscriminately, but this is limited only to the mind-controlled UNS forces, and is shown to be still a challenge. There is another nuance here; the “enemy” are properly differentiated. The UNS forces are mind-controlled, and so do not deserve to die (and thus efforts are taken not to kill). The Windermere forces, on the other hand, are engaged normally; there are not the efforts to score some cheap moral points over them by having Delta disarm and capture them, to show that every enemy can be redeemed. Windermere has the technological and skill advantage at this point. The series shows this by its fight choreography – removing the arms from a VF17 derivative so its pilot can be helped is depicted differently to Messer’s fight against the White Knight.
The episode ends interestingly, too; Mirage opens up to Hayate about her own moral doubts, as a kind of challenge to pragmatism and normalisation, but in return Hayate simply seems driven to succeed. He has fought, he has protected people, he accepts that this requires making difficult decisions and he has accepted that he will have to continue doing this. This is not said in some unsubtle, amoral fashion; the text does not present Hayate as enjoying the act of killing in the way Mika did, but instead accepting that it is a necessary evil. This dovetails with his line from the previous episode about wanting to end the war quickly, and contextualises it as something more palatable; he is someone that embodies that amiable, unchallenging “anti-war-ness” I mentioned above; it is bad, in this case necessary, and should be fought as cleanly as possible. And, in the scope of much robot anime, this is the best possible take on this difficult question.