Wednesday 12 October 2016

Anime REVIEW: Macross Delta

Macross Delta

Despite Macross celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2013, it’s been a whopping eight years since the hugely popular franchise’s last animated outing Macross Frontier (four if you include the movies and its Macross 7-flavoured spinoff). While it did celebrate this milestone with the Macross 30: Voices Across the Galaxy PS3 game, it wasn’t until 2016 that Macross finally returned to television screens with a brand new instalment – Macross Delta (also written as Macross Δ). Series creator Shoji Kawamori returns once more as the chief director and mechanical designer, with animation duties once again handled by Satelight - the studio also responsible for both Frontier and Macross Zero.

Hayate Immelman
Taking flight

In the year 2067 (coincidentally also eight years since the events of Frontier), a remote part of the Milky Way known as the Brisingr Globular Cluster is plagued the an illness known as the Var Syndrome – turning its victims berserk without any obvious cause. The only force able to heal its effects is Walküre, an idol group whose songs are able to calm down victims. They are supported by the Delta Squadron, a team of Valkyrie pilots working for the interplanetary civilian military contractor Chaos.

The story follows Hayate Immelman and Freyja Wion, two people who meet purely by chance but end up with their lives intertwined. 17-year-old Hayate wanders throughout the galaxy without any real aim in life, while 14-year-old Windermerean Freyja dreams of nothing but joining Walküre on stage and runs away to audition. After both finding themselves in a Var attack, Hayate is scouted for the Delta Squadron while Freyja is successful in joining Walküre. Together with their friends and colleagues, including ace pilot Mirage Farina Jenius and Walküre’s mysterious lead singer Mikumo Guynemer, they head into battle against the Windermerean Kingdom and it’s Aerial Knights – who are using the Var as a means of continuing their war against the New United Government.

Freyja Wion
Rune Pika Beam~

The Macross franchise has always been one that’s about change, growth and evolution. Despite their sporadic release, each subsequent entry has built upon what preceded it – joining the dots while taking the core elements to their next level. The same can certainly be said of Macross Delta, which immediately takes things in a fresh new direction while at the same remaining fundamentally Macross. At last the action is moved away from a travelling space colony, with our cast visiting different alien worlds all while having their own planet as a home base. Of course there’s still plenty of space travelling, along with a Macross class cruiser to keep things familiar. The show features a far wider variety of aliens than ever before, focusing on Windermereans but also including the amphibious Ragnans. However there are still Zentradi around (most prominently Macross Elysion captain Ernest Johnson) to make show that it hasn’t forgotten its roots. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But the biggest shake up Macross Delta has to offer is of course Walküre – a tactical sound unit that actively participates in skirmishes while singing. There have been sound forces in Macross before, but the sight of five elaborately dressed idols jumping around the battlefield is certainly new – and something many initially struggled to get to grips with. However when the series later tackles the franchise’s underlying debate of “music as culture or a weapon” head on its immediately clear that this is the exact direction things have been heading for, as each subsequent idol has displayed more and more supernatural ability. The Valkyries have not been retired in their place though, and Delta still contains plenty of transforming jet fighter action to appeal to fans purely in it for the mecha. Perhaps not as much as some might like, and Satelight’s clinical CGI is still no match for the originals beautiful 2D work, but enough to make the big dogfight scenes worthwhile.

Welcome to Walküre World

The other integral element to Macross is the obligatory love triangle, this time between three of the show’s four most prominent leads – Hayate, Freyja and Mirage. While the triangle gets off to a strong start, it quickly begins to lull and just over the halfway mark Mirage’s character development and prominence take a serious blow – making the outcome much too obvious for it to still be an ongoing factor. Hayate and Freyja however stay nicely developed throughout the series, the latter going through some particularly great moments as she’s torn between her people and her love of music. It seems many expected Mirage’s story to focus more closely on her family line, but the emphasis was instead on her trying to break away from it. A perfectly good idea, but then there’s very little substance to fill its place. The fourth most prominent character in the series is Mikumo, who remains mysteriously aloof during the show’s first half before becoming the plot’s focal point in the second. The supporting cast, including Walküre members Kaname Buccaneer, Makina Nakajima and Reina Prowler as well as Delta Squadron pilots Arad Mölders, Messer Ihlefeld, Chuck Mustang are all memorable, but certainly don’t feel just as important. On the other side of the coin there’s the Windermerean Kingdom and the Aerial Knights, whose opposition to the New United Government isn’t just a straightforward case of conquering. Although their individual characters aren’t that expansive as a unit their back story is fairly rich with potential, which makes it all the more of a shame that the finale parallels that of Frontier’s (in terms of villain, plan and execution) so closely. 

Mirage Falina Jenius
Third wheelin'

However problems begin to arise at the halfway mark, likely due to the fact that supposedly originally Delta was only slated for 13 episodes and a movie. When early episodes proved popular, the episode count was doubled. The result of this the story quite obviously becoming increasingly drawn out with no clear direction, as well several episodes dedicated to various forms of exposition. One of these does prove a particular highlight though, as it runs through the Macross chronology (making a nice little nostalgia piece for long time fans and a quick introduction for newcomers) and links all their big events neatly to Delta’s plot. The second half also has some genuinely fantastic heartfelt and action-packed moments too, but there’s always that lingering feeling that something feels a bit off in comparison to its first half. As the show becomes more explicit in its past references it also becomes far more frustrating – especially when it hints at the discovery of the MIA Megaroad-1 (containing original series leads Hikaru Ichijou, Misa Hayase and Lynn Minmay, whose fates have been uncertain for decades) and then doesn’t follow it up. Equally tedious are the hints as to who Chaos’ mysterious head “Lady M” is – a character that remains unrevealed and unseen for the entirety of the series.

These hiccups in the second half lead onto one of Macross Delta’s more glaring problems – it doesn’t really have an ending. While the immediate threat that the series deals with is resolved, there are a number of lingering problems that aren’t really addressed in a satisfying manner. Admittedly this isn’t really new territory for the series, but with Macross installments being as sporadic as they currently are it’s definitely something that has become more frustrating over the years. Any future Delta projects may expand on this, but that’s not only a question of IF they ever come but also whether they’ll choose to follow the show’s timeline or adapt it to create something alternate – just look at the Frontier movies for example.

The VF-31 Siegfried
Big bad battlin' battroids

Of course a Macross series is only as good as its music, and Walküre have more than earned their place alongside the likes of Minmay, Sharon Apple, Fire Bomber, Sheryl and Ranka. While Macross 7 had previously experimented with a band there were still only two vocalists, making Delta the first time the franchise has truly experimented with a multitude of singers. This is only really true in theory though, as Walküre’s music is largely dominated by Mikumo and Freyja. Vocally the pair share a similar dynamic to that of Sheryl and Ranka, with Mikumo taking up Sheryl’s deeper grandiose tones while Freyja emulates Ranka’s more youthful energy. That isn’t to say Kaname, Makina and Reina are completely forgotten about though, and each get at least one good solo outing even their roles in the most memorable songs are that of backing vocals. The singing quality is incredible (special mention to Mikumo’s singing voice JUNNA, who shows unbelievable range for a 15 year old), and the songs themselves catchy. With highlights like Ikenai Borderline, Ichido dake no Koi nara, Koi! Halation The War and Giraffe Blues – the latter of which will hopefully go down as one of Macross’ all time greats, there plenty to enjoy over and over again.

Heinz Nerich Windermere
Little Lord Fauntle-rune

Though not without its problems, Macross Delta is a welcome and long overdue comeback for the franchise. What it eventually lacks in story development it makes up for in exemplary world building – tying the franchise together in unexpected ways and making the Macross universe feel richer than ever before. Once past the initial shock of Walküre’s more active role in conflict the musical side of things fall into place, feeling like a natural progression of the idea the franchise has been pushing since 1982. Propped up with great characters and great music, it is a thoroughly enjoyable series that potentially was only marred by its own unexpected success. Let’s just hope it isn’t another eight years before the story reaches its next destination.