In that post-Gundam glut of real robot TV shows, few soared quite as high as Studio Nue’s Super Dimension Fortress Macross . Reworked from a pitch for an outright sci-fi comedy and produced by fans-turned-pros working alongside seasoned veterans, it was rushed, rough around the edges, and still somehow impossibly cool. But after a 36 episode TV series, a big-budget animated movie, and a direct-to-video pseudo-finale to wrap it all up, it was also a series that creator/director/planner/designer Shoji Kawamori didn’t want to keep iterating on. At least, for a while. Following a seven-year absence from the franchise, he created, that all changed when Kawamori returned with not just one, but two new Macross animation projects in simultaneous production.
Both Macross Plus and Macross 7 premiered within months of each other thanks to a parallel production schedule was particularly exhausting for Kawamori. While Macross 7 was a 49-episode TV series that echoed the original series, Macross Plus was a four-part OVA that took the franchise in a different direction. Never complacent enough to repeat himself, Kawamori’s dual production schedule led to some unexpected freedoms despite the accompanying exhaustion.
In Macross Plus, there were no invading aliens. No teenage musicians. No massive space battles. Instead, Plus was a smaller story of former friends reconnecting on a backwater colony planet named Eden. Set against the backdrop of a test flight center in the desert on an otherwise idyllic planet–an echo of a shelved Kawamori project from the ‘80s– Macross Plus retained the core elements of the franchise: love triangles, music, and transforming mecha. With huge fan expectations and an enormous amount of work required to juggle multiple projects, Kawamori’s return could have easily been a massive misstep, but instead, it set in motion a trajectory that the franchise has followed for the last quarter-century.
Never Say die
“I don’t want to be concerned with Macross forever… the story is done.”
Animage, October 1984
Let’s start at what was supposed to be the end.
Franchise helmsman Shoji Kawamori was never reticent about how little he wanted to make Macross sequels. The success of the original Macross led to a theatrical feature, Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? , but contemporary interviews with Kawamori regularly touched on the issue of sequels and how uninterested he was in them.
He eventually returned to Macross (obviously—if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this), but for a time it looked as though the direct-to-video Macross Flash Back 2012  would be the capstone to not just to the story of Minmay, Misa, and Hikaru, but to the series itself. At around 30 minutes long, Flash Back 2012 was an elaborate music video compilation more than anything else, but it blended music and footage from the TV series and film in an attempt to provide some sort of closure to both. Flash Back’s finale, a brief sequence of new animation based on never-animated planned endings for both the series and movie showed Minmay’s final concert on Earth and her departure into the interstellar sunset with Misa and Hikaru onboard a long-range colonization ship.1 While brief, that scant few minutes of new material provided a hint to where Kawamori would take Macross when he returned to the franchise seven years later, but not necessarily in the direction fans expected.
Leaving the fate of beloved characters open to interpretation no doubt irked fans (and indeed, if internet comments crying out for a “proper” sequel to the original series are anything to go by, it still does), but Flash Back 2012 was a master class in budget original video animation production that managed to craft an ending for the stylistically disparate TV show and film. Perhaps not the ending fans wanted, but it was an ending. Between Kawamori’s apparent refusal to revisit Macross and Minmay, Misa, and Hikaru heading off to be space pioneers, where else was there to go?
“In the current animation market, it’s getting harder and harder for an original project to be approved. A project has to be based on an already-popular story to stand a chance. In the case of Macross Plus, I decided to go with the Macross name and make the series I wanted to make.”
Animerica, Vol. 3 #1, 1995
It’s difficult to talk about anime production in the early ‘90s without talking about real-world economics. Without getting too far into the weeds, know that the Japanese economy was in bad shape by 1993. The asset bubble that had fueled the economic powerhouse of Japan Inc. in the 1980s had burst, and with it, support for animation projects became harder to come by. Funding was hard to get without a well-known name and so it was only a matter of time before someone must have said, “Do you remember Macross?”
Macross II: Lover’s Again  was produced without the involvement of Kawamori or Studio Nue, although two prominent members of the original staff did return: character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto and screenwriter Sukehiro Tomita2. Set eight decades after the original series, it featured new characters fighting a new alien threat—although most fans will tell you that the six-part OVA didn’t feel very new at all.
By borrowing heavily from the original TV series and feature film, Macross II disappointed by delivering a show that was a bit too familiar and then doubled down on that disappointment with a budget that seemed to dwindle with each subsequent episode. That said, there are those who will defend Macross II, and… they’re not entirely wrong, either. Koichi Ohata [M.D. Geist, Genocyber] and Kazumi Fujita [Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam] provided powerful mechanical designs, animator Masami Obari [Gundam Build Fighters, Super Beast Machine God Dancougar] turned in an incredible opening sequence, and the story offered up some interesting twists on a well-worn formula (a few of the more noteworthy twists included a female ace pilot in the show’s mandatory love triangle, a civilian protagonist, and the weaponization of Minmay as a literal defense system, and civilian variable fighters).
Macross II was by no means an unusual production for its time, as it fit well within the trend of producers digging up old shows and series with a recognizable name to turn into a new OVA. The early ‘90s had plenty of similar projects, although most were duds and didn’t leave a lasting impact. The second show in the Super Dimension series3,” Super Dimension Century Orguss  also received an OVA sequel, Orguss 02  around the same time although it took the opposite approach of Macross II by radically changing its setting and story. Yasuhiro Imagawa’s Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still  may be the standout example of this approach, as it masterfully reworked Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s entire oeuvre into a retro-themed series. To many long-time fans, Macross II may have been a misfire, but it was decidedly on-trend for the industry at the time.
In retrospect, Macross II other Macross merchandising around that time (perhaps most notably Scramble Valkyrie on the Super Famicom and a couple of games on the PC Engine that took place before Macross II) offered a tantalizing “what-if” scenario for the franchise had Kawamori not returned. Perhaps Macross would have turned into a mid-tier franchise with a series of spinoffs and sequels that looked the part but couldn’t conjure up quite the same je ne sais quoi of the original; it certainly wouldn’t have been alone if that had been the case. It isn’t too difficult to imagine Macross turning into such a series, with each new series handed off to a new team and new creatives taking the formula in different directions. However, it wasn’t to be.
Shortly after the release of Macross II, it was announced that Kawamori was returning to the series he’d helped create with not one, but two new Macross animation projects.
WELCOME TO SPAREFISH
“They dangled the cheese, and I got involved with something I said I wouldn’t do again.”
This Is Animation: Macross Plus Movie Edition, 1995
Kawamori’s return to Macross was no simple task. Rather than setting out to create one new series, he set his sights on two. The scale and contrast in formats necessitated two separate studios for two very different projects, with Triangle Staff producing the OVA while Ashi Production tackled the TV show. In an interview with Kawamori in Animerica magazine, he recounted a conversation with Bandai producer Minoru Takahashi who had explicitly warned him against trying to do both projects with a single studio, reportedly saying, “You know it’ll be impossible if you think about the size of Japanese studios.”
The realities of producing two very different anime projects with very different schedules and animation expectations meant that both Plus and 7 were separate shows with different staff, different characters, different styles. There was overlap, of course—a CG variable fighter4, some music, the occasional reference, Kawamori’s mechanical designs—but they occupied different corners of the same universe, with different styles and staff to match.
Those two concurrent animation projects almost had a third, albeit live-action project, to accompany them. In the midst of working on Plus and 7, Kawamori was also, apparently, in talks regarding the development of a Hollywood adaption of Macross with the subtitle “Final Outpost Earth.”
Information about this project remained hard to come by for years (though, amusingly, it seems hinted at in Kawamori’s interview in the This is Animation Special: Macross Plus Movie Edition5), with the Macross Compendium listing it among Macross productions and including a single, tantalizing image of Kawamori meeting with producers in Los Angeles. That photo is dated July 1994, just one month prior to the release of Macross Plus Vol. 1 and three months before the debut of Macross 7 on TV. Those must have been a busy few months!
A few years ago, the script for this shelved project turned up among the collection of the Kevin Seymour6, an American anime industry pioneer that passed away in 2014. The script was auctioned off, but it isn’t hard to find a scanned PDF online if you’re curious.
In broad terms, Macross Plus was the more grandiose project with a budget and style that garnered comparisons to American big-budget films, even though its story was smaller in scope than Macross 7’s. Rather than return to the pop idol music of the original, Plus channeled the electronic club music of the ‘90s with a cutting-edge computer graphics look and A.I. idol to match. Appropriately, the OVA was also an early pioneer in integrating 3D computer graphics with 2D animation, although traditional animation still did the heavy lifting. In comparison, Macross 7 was a more traditional TV project and carried with it the limitations and traditions of that type of production; simpler designs, a limited animation budget, and a more familiar pop-rock soundtrack.
Kawamori described the difference as one series being “realistic” and the other being “manga-like,” a comment that immediately calls to mind the juxtaposition of Haruhiko Mikimoto’s character designs for Macross 7 and Masayuki’s character designs for Macross Plus. Mikimoto was, of course, the character designer for the original Macross and so his designs for the TV series brought a sense of familiarity and the subtle comfort of nostalgia. Masayuki’s designs were more angular and “realistic” albeit less in the Katsuhiro Otomo sense and more in the vintage Madhouse OVA sense.7 The choice of Masayuki as a character designer and the direction he took is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that despite a storied career in animation that includes everything from Cream Lemon: Pop Chaser to Evangelion, he rarely works as a character designer.
In regards to the technical approach for each series, Kawamori described a “world of difference” between the production of an OVA and a TV series—the former needing “thoughtful attention” while the latter called for “efficiency.” Plus can, at times, feel overwhelmingly well-crafted. From tiny world-building details8 to eye-wateringly beautiful hand-drawn animation sequences thanks to animators like Ichiro Itano. The ‘90s were a decade of masterfully crafted big-budget productions, and Plus sits comfortably in the company of films like Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell  and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke .
And indeed, it’s often the little details that make Plus’ world-building work. Much of the series revolves around New Eden Test Flight Center and a competition between two prototype variable fighters, the YF-19 and YF-21. While it clearly drew inspiration from the real-world Advanced Tactical Fighter program of the 1980s9, it also built on Kawamori’s work on Advanced Valkyrie, a Macross pseudo-sequel side project intended to promote a series of all-new plastic models. While the Advanced Valkyrie project was shelved, in the years following Plus many of the variable fighters designed for it would find new life in future Macross projects like the Dreamcast game Macross M3 , light novel Macross the Ride , and TV series Macross Delta .
Behind the scenes, Plus, like the original Macross, helped elevate a new generation of creators. The original series saw young talent like Mahiro Maeda, Hideaki Anno, Toshihiro Hirano, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, and Hiroyuki Yamaga flex their talent under the guidance of Noburo Ishiguro and Artland studio. Similarly, Plus offered up new talent, most notably in the case of director Shinichiro Watanabe who would later direct Cowboy Bebop , but also with the likes of screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto (Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain) and composer Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne).
“But there are things I could only do because the projects were simultaneous, too. I got to test out making a totally polar opposite work because of it. Plus by itself would have been tough in a few ways.”
This Is Animation: Macross Plus Movie Edition, 1995
Macross has been described as having “three pillars” (music, romance, and mecha) and in each of these areas the differences in approach and style between Plus and 7 become more apparent.
The computer-tinged production of Macross Plus was echoed in its music, crafted by composer Yoko Kanno, but drawing from a wide range of inspiration and artists. While the music carried a variety of influences, it was a score with a predominantly electronic sound, appropriate for an animation project that had positioned itself on the cutting edge of technology and featured an A.I. “virtuoid” idol, Sharon Apple. Megazone 23’s Eve Tokimatsuri predated Sharon by a decade, but Macross Plus and Sharon Apple came at a time when the notion of an artificial pop star felt like it was right around the corner and the idea was becoming more commonplace in media. It wasn’t even limited to anime; William Gibson’s novel Idoru was published in 1996, the same year that Horipro debuted their “virtual idol” Kyodo Date. Over two decades on, holographic concerts by characters like Hatsune Miku or deceased musicians are, if not perfectly normal, then at least common enough that your parents have probably heard about them.
Macross 7, by comparison, took a different albeit more traditional approach. Its more old-school sensibility was reflected by Nekki Basara and Mylene Jenius of Firebomber, a band onboard the Macross 7 colony fleet. Ironically, while Sharon Apple may have been the virtual idol, it was Firebomber that crossed over into the real world with a dearth of albums (Sharon Apple only had one) and plenty of concert performances over the last few decades.
The changes between the two projects were evident in other areas, too. Rather than fresh-faced youths, the three central characters of Plus—Myung, Isamu, and Guld—were older[Note]Admittedly, just barely—Isamu was 24 in Plus while Basara was 21 in 7.[/note] and had a world-weariness about them that seemed to run counter to the romance of the original series. Each of them, in one way or another, has become who they hoped to become, but none of them seem particularly happy. In contrast, the love triangle of 7—Mylene, Gamlin, and Basara—feels more like the adolescent romance of the original Macross, although in truth 2/3rds of that triangle are only a couple of years younger than the characters in Plus (and Mylene is 14, eesh).
The visual differences in mechanical design between the Plus and 7 are fascinating, too. Because 7 takes place a few years after Plus, Guld’s YF-21 and Isamu’s YF-19 make appearances as their respective mass-production counterparts. Plus’ designs though make use of more somber, almost “realistic” colors; greys, beiges, dark blues. Comparatively, the variable fighters in 7 were typically brightly colored, with Basara’s VF-19 Kai decked out in bright red and yellow, while the enemy Varuta designs were purple. Part of this no doubt is owed to the color pallet of a TV show versus an OVA, but more obviously, Macross 7 was a giant robot TV show that needed to sell plastic models and toys. Merchandise based on Plus’ mecha was, at the time, limited to garage kits.
AFTER, IN THE DARK
When they premiered, the differences between Macross Plus and Macross 7 were jarring; two very different projects, two very different approaches, two very different sequels. Nearly three decades on, however, and things seem to fit together a bit more coherently. In the years since those two series premiered in 1994, Macross has proven itself to be reliably different; Kawamori’s dedication to doing something different has resulted in plenty of sequels since that may not always hit quite as hard, but certainly can’t be accused of doing the same old thing.
During the late ‘90s Macross boom that followed the release of Plus and 7, many of the side stories and spinoffs drew inspiration from the series that revitalized the franchise. Macross Dynamite 7  was a four-part OVA set after the events of Macross 7 that saw Basara caught up in the drama of an out-of-the-way planet far removed from space wars. Video games like Macross VF-X, its sequel, and Macross M3 assembled variable fighters from both Plus and 7 for players to pilot (plus a few updated designs from Advanced Valkyrie for good measure). Macross Generation, an audio drama set on a different colonization fleet, and Macross 7 Trash, a manga drawn by Haruhiko Mikimoto, took place during the same decade as Plus and 7. Elements of Plus, 7, and Dynamite 7 can be seen in the series’ return to animation in Macross Zero , and the Macross phenomenon has marched on ever since; recognizing and iterating on what came before it but, to Kawamori’s credit, always adding something new to the mix and never dwelling too much on the past.
In an era when so many big sci-fi franchises rely too much on the power of nostalgia and the self-referential ouroboros that can kill a show’s momentum, it’s fascinating to see a creator like Kawamori and a series like Macross carry on while never being complacent enough to do the same thing twice. The series could have turned out very different, but ever since 1994, it hasn’t been the same.
- 1984 Interview with Shoji Kawamori from Animage booklet: “Minmay: Ai Miemashita ka”
- Shoji Kawamori Interview from This is Animation Select Macross Plus Movie Edition
- Shoji Kawamori Interview, Anime Interviews: The First Five Years of Animerica, Anime & Manga Monthly
- According to the liner notes for the AnimEigo DVD release of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Kawamori and Kazutaka Miyatake had originally hoped to have the launch of the SDF-2 Megaroad take place at the end of the TV series, while Minmay’s Sayonara Concert had been planned for the end of the film.
- Tomita’s involvement in the sequel went beyond just writing the anime, as he also wrote a series of novels base on the story with additional volumes that took place after the OVA
- The Super Dimension “series” wasn’t actually a series at all but instead branding used for three consecutive shows sponsored by advertising agency Big West. While the first two shows with Super Dimension branding (Macross and Orguss) were created by Studio Nue, the third show, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross , was created in-house at animation studio Tatsunoko.
- The 3D VF-19 Kai seen in the opening of Macross 7 reportedly shared some elements with the 3D YF-19 seen going through a space fold in Vol. 4 of Macross Plus.
- Specifically the line “Could you give us an overview of this new Macross project, starting from the beginning? Did they approach you after planning a Hollywood movie plus a TV series?” which also begs the question of how much of Macross 7, if any, was planned prior to Kawamori returning to the franchise?
- If you watched dubbed anime in the 1990s, you’ve probably heard the work of Kevin Seymour. He worked on tons of dubbed anime, including U.S. Renditions’ dub of Macross II and Manga Video’s dub of Macross Plus.
- In interviews with Kawamori, he has referred to Masayuki’s designs as being more suitable for “American taste” and it’s difficult not to consider the type of late ‘80s and early ‘90s OVAs that were all the rage among mainstream Western fans at the time Macross Plus was in production. Perhaps it’s reading into it too much to see a resemblance to Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s character designs from Demon City Shinjuku  or Cyber City Oedo 808 , but also… maybe not. Masayuki handled the character design for Madhouse’s Doomed Megalopolis , so the comparison isn’t totally outrageous.
- While the original Macross played off contemporary designs with sci-fi technology, Plus played up its far-flung setting with plenty of touches that no doubt felt futuristic in the ‘90s but contemporary today, like holographic concerts, digital billboards, and wireless earbuds.
- The design competition that eventually saw the UF-22 adopted for production as the VF-22 Raptor.