With the news that a live-action adaptation of the classic ‘80s anime series Robotech has found a (fourth) director, it might be time to go back and revisit the beloved cartoon—or check it out for the very first time. Not only does it stand the test of time, it also holds an important place in the history of American kids’ cartoons and the U.S. anime industry. Here’s your guide to experiencing the wonder of Robotechnology in all its myriad forms.
A lot, but without question, the most important part of the franchise by far is the original cartoon, which premiered in 1985 and ran for 85 episodes. Although it tells one continuous story, it’s divvied up into three main arcs, the Macross saga, the Masters saga, and the New Generation saga:
The Macross Saga—When a giant alien spaceship crash-lands on Earth, humanity bands together to use its technology, called protoculture, and protect itself from potential alien threats. This includes Veritechs, jet fighters that can transform into humanoid mecha, and the reoutfitted spaceship, rechristened the SDF-1. When giant aliens called the Zentraedi come to retrieve their property, stunt pilot Rick Hunter gets sucked into an interstellar war—as well as a love triangle between budding pop star Lynn Minmei and SDF officer Lisa Hayes.
The Masters Saga—After the Zentraedi join forces with humanity, their Masters come to Earth with a new armada to seize the galaxy’s only source of protoculture. Dana Sterling, daughter of two Veritech aces from the Macross Saga, defends the Earth from the Masters’ assault and meets Zor Prime, a clone of the creator of protoculture.
The New Generation Saga—An alien species called the Invid invades and conquers the Earth in their attempt to take protoculture from themselves. When the Robotech Expeditionary Force is destroyed in a bid to free humanity, a survivor named Scott Bernard assembles an unlikely team of freedom fighters to stop the Invid themselves.
Why are there three different story arcs, each with new characters, plots, villains, and mecha? Well, that’s because Robotech was cobbled together with three completely different Japanese anime series of the early ‘80s, titled Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada. Why? Because producer Carl Macek wanted to be able to sell a kids cartoon that could be syndicated, i.e., aired multiple times a week like other series such as Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, G.I.Joe, etc., and a show had to have a minimum of 65 episodes to qualify. So Macek and his team rewrote the scripts, renamed the characters, and dubbed the three unique series to become one story.
Robotech became popular enough that many attempts at a sequel were made, which were complicated by a major rights issue between Robotech and Macross (it’s very complicated, but here’s a great breakdown), which prevented those attempts from gaining much traction. Robotech II: The Sentinels was an original creation and direct sequel to The Macross Saga, but it was considered quite horrible and only three episodes were ever aired.
A CG movie titled Robotech 3000 was announced, but the trailer was so scorned the project was scrapped. A direct-to-DVD sequel movie titled Robotech: Shadow Chronicles, set soon after the show’s last episode, managed to come out in 2007, but failed to impress fans. Most recently, another sequel to New Generation titled Love Live Alive was released in 2013, but it was cobbled together from a 1985 Mospeada direct-to-home video title and wasn’t exactly received to rapturous delight.
If you have a limited amount of time, just watch the original series’ Macross saga, which ran for 36 episodes. Not only is it the beginning of the show, which means it’ll make the most sense, it’s also the most popular part of Robotech by far. Indeed, while Southern Cross and Mospeada have mostly been forgotten in Japan, the original Macross series was so popular it’s had multiple sequels, movies, manga, and more over the last 40 years.
Not as much as you might think. Many names were changed and Americanized—Hikaru Ichijyo became Rick Hunter, SDF officer Misa Hayase became Lisa Hayes. The main fighter jet/mecha were mainly called Veritechs in Robotech, while in Macross they were exclusively known as Valkyries. But the show was primarily edited solely to take out things that, while appropriate for young Japanese audiences, were considered inappropriate for young American audiences, like blood, a bit of nudity, characters getting drunk, and things like that.
All in all, the Macross saga is a pretty accurate translation of the original Japanese series as New Generation was to Mospeada, although of course the Flowers of Life seen in the latter have nothing to do with protoculture. It was Southern Cross/Masters that received the biggest changes in order to form the connective tissue between the two other series, turning the main character into the daughter of two Macross characters. The original Southern Cross wasn’t even set on Earth!
It is a classic by any standard. It’s a classic American ‘80s cartoon, it’s a classic ’80s mecha anime, it’s a classic example of how America used to adapt anime back then, too. But Robotech was also a pioneer in many, many ways, at least in America. It was one of the first animated series to have a serialized story in the U.S. instead of telling episodic tales like Transformers or He-Man. While the violence was somewhat toned down, Robotech did not flinch from showing the horrors of war and even featured a main character dying. It featured far more mature storytelling than its American cartoon contemporaries, and many viewers became obsessed with the show.
This is why Robotech had such an integral role in the birth of the American anime industry. Very few Japanese series had been imported prior to it, and while Robotech wasn’t as popular as its American peers, those kids who did become fans often became obsessed with the show. What was so striking about Robotech, despite its American adaptation and English dub, was its foreignness. Robotech inspired kids to investigate its origin and discover the world of anime, leading to its increasing popularity throughout the ‘90s and eventually the American anime boom of the ‘00s that continues to this day. It’s not an overstatement to say Robotech was a crucial step in anime’s invasion of the U.S., without which the world of pop culture would be very different indeed.
Right now, all three sagas of the original Robotech cartoon, the few remnants of the justly maligned 1986 sequel Robotech II: The Sentinels, and the so-so 2007 movie Shadow Chronicles are all available to stream on the Funimation streaming service, which presumably means they’ll become available on Crunchyroll once it absorbs the anime licensor completely. You can currently rent the series via Prime Video, iTunes, or Vudu, but nothing else.
If you want to watch the original Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada, it’s much trickier. A small anime licensor named AnimEigo brought out the original Macross, unedited, with the original language soundtrack, on DVD back in 2002, while the defunct ADV Films imported Southern Cross and Mospeada shortly thereafter. However, they’ve all been out of print since then, the latter two because of lack of interest and the former as a casualty of long-running rights disputes. So if you want to track them down, happy hunting!
Since those very complicated legal battles between Robotech owner Harmony Gold and Macross owners Big West and Studio Nue were resolved last year, it’s entirely possible—plausible, even—that a new release of Super Dimension Fortress Macross could be on the way sooner rather than later. Stay tuned!
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