One of the main reasons why it took me so long to give any Macross series a try was because I was aware of how integral singing was to the plot of the original series. The idea of singing being a big part, and even a tool, of conflict just sounded ridiculous. Once I gave Frontier a try though I was able to see how it was worked fairly well into the show, having a physical effect on the Vajra, and then in SDF Macross how it wasn’t the music itself but the lack of Zentradi culture that made it effective. Even so, this role for music relies on very sci-fi concepts to work. But while the role of music in Macross and other anime series might seem ridiculous, fanservice, or a blatant attempt to broaden the fanbase that merchandise can be sold to, there may be some small connection to the real world at the core of the concept.
What brought me to this thought was a book I had read recently, Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie. It’s his personal account of being a US Marine in World War II (his name may be familiar if you’ve watched HBO’s The Pacific; he’s one of the individuals that part of the series was based on, though I have yet to see it myself) from his point of view as an enlistedman. His writing was very thoughtful and at the same time even cynical, it’s the view of a very intelligent and incisive man in a role that you wouldn’t necessarily think would be volunteered for by such a poetic writer. At least three times during the course of the book he mentions he and his comrades wishing for a song or a battlecry, something simple but powerful to motivate them. To quote:
It is sad to have to go off to war without a song of your own to sing. Something like a rousing war song – something like the “Minstrel Boy” or something jolly and sardonic like the Englishman’s “Sixpence” – might have made the war a bit more worth fighting. But we got none. Ours was an Advanced Age, too sophisticated for such outdated frippery. War cries or war songs seemed naive and embarrassing in our rational time. We were fed food for thought; abstractions like the Four Freedoms were given us. Sing a marching song about that, if you can.
If a man must live in mud and go hungry and risk his flesh you must give him a reason for it, you must give him a cause. A conclusion is not a cause.
[Helmet for My Pillow, page 29.]
For as intellectual as Leckie was, he was not ‘above’ the simple, sentimental things that inspire people to bravery. Rather his intelligence made him realize and be self-conscious about how much impact a song or a slogan, properly worded and meaningful, can have on the people who recite it. Being someone who was born long after the war Leckie went though, living in a totally different era and not experiencing the conflict and hardships that he did, I have to say that I tend to think of such things as embarrassing, just as he wrote. They seem naive or ridiculous or even jingoistic to my ear, they might even be outmoded in the modern or postmodern or whatever label you would give to the kind of life most of us know in the 21st century (at least in the First World anyway.) But he makes a very strong point about how they can matter to someone who has to risk their life and endure hardships. The sort of naive simplicity may be rugged and enduring precisely because it is so simple. It’s a basic and easily understandable and tangible thing that can make taking an action simpler. While I still feel the urge to turn up my nose at many of the instances of music in anime war narratives, in light of his words I’ve had to rethink some of my opinions in this regard.
There seem to me to be three broad categories of how music is used in anime war narratives. First is the classic ‘something to fight for’ kind of songs. They need not be rousing battle songs like US Civil War-era Battle Hymn of the Republic, they just need to remind one of what they’re fighting for, even if it’s indirectly such as the nostalgia for the Australian homeland in Waltzing Matilda. The second kind tries to bring together the two sides of a conflict or stop them from fighting. While their real world parallels are generally topical and thus less known, there are plenty of them though they usually take a sharper tone than the peace and love ones in anime, songs that either denounce conflict in general or highlight its brutality in hopes of giving both sides pause. Edwin Starr’s War from the Vietnam War era would be an example of the former, while U2′s Bloody Sunday is a familiar example of the latter. Last is a sort unique to anime, where the song itself is a weapon and doesn’t have a real world parallel unless you really stretch it to include music as psychological warfare like the bagpipes and taiko drums which may have served a purpose but weren’t game changers in battle. Music has played a role in the maneuver of pre-radio armies, such as marches and signal trumpets, but it’s not used directly to fight, just organizationally, and thus is outside the scope of this editorial. Since I’m trying to explore the link, however tenuous, between the real world role of music in conflict and that in anime, I will be discussing only the first two. For more of how music is used directly, I’d direct you to this post over at We Remember Love.
Music as Motivator in Anime
Anime rarely uses the directly motivating kinds of songs like Battle Hymn of the Republic, the majority being of the catchy tunes that remind the troops of home and what they’re out fighting for, or to use that favorite Japanese phrase, what they’re out there to protect. They do exist though they often seem to be confined to older shows, perhaps indicative of that shift into an “Advanced Age” where such overtly patriotic tunes have become embarrassing. While not a part of the narrative as such, the OP from Space Battleship Yamato is a straight out of WWII Japan (and earlier times) kind of proud, naval ballad that contains everything you’d expect: sadness for leaving home, a desire to protect one’s loved ones there, a strong will to fight, and a spirit of camaraderie. There’s also the Free Planets Alliance Anthem from Legend of the Galactic Heroes. While it’s not the war ballad from Yamato, it serves an important function. It states what the Alliance stands for, and even with its good amount of English language mistakes it’s less silly than you’d expect a full length song written in English by a Japanese anime staff. It contains all the key components of the Alliance’s national myth, ideals like freedom and the struggle to attain and keep that hard won liberty.
The majority of the songs as motivators in anime tend to be of the less high-minded variety, ones that cheer up the troops (and the population in some cases) with happy pop tunes that both give a moment of respite and remind them of the homes and lives that they’re trying to protect. SDF Macross does this as Minmay’s rise to stardom in the military-sponsored idol contest eventually makes her a recruiting tool for the UN Spacy. My Boyfriend is a Pilot, while not originally intended by Minmay to bring in new recruits, ends up being a powerful motivator after the initial Zentradi attack. Her songs are what give hope to the population and crew of the Macross, and in talking about love and the usual happy, pop subjects provide the pilots with something to protect and come home to. When it is discovered that the Zentradi have no culture of their own, culture becomes something that humans are patriotic over. By the time of Macross Frontier, Culture (with a capital C) is the underlying principle of the human-Zentradi people. It is as strong and unifying to them as liberty and equality is to a modern democracy. Beyond the battlefield applications of Sheryl and Ranka’s songs, they also inspire the people by reminding them of Culture and how that makes them unique. The music itself, even if the topics don’t even come close to addressing war, is something that can instantly be rallied behind as a symbol of Culture and of what must be defended. Gundam SEED Destiny follows this route as well when Meer Campbell goes on tour posing as Lacus Clyne, rallying the troops and reminding them of their lives and of the ideals of ZAFT in accordance with her direction by Chairman Dullindal.
Music and Reconilliation
Quite common in anime is well is music as a way to reach both sides and bring and end to their conflict. The way it is presented in anime is highly unrealistic in all examples I have seen, but it does serve to inspire in the way Leckie wrote about, just in the opposite direction of peace. In the real world no reaction is so quick, no song has ever stopped a war, but in a gradual and long-term sense songs combined with a wider movement can inspire people to work towards resolving or preventing conflict. The anti-war movement in 1960′s-early 1970′s America had many, many songs that served to inspire its members, for example, and while the link is not concrete and direct, the many songs written about the insurgency and protests known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland at least increased awareness of the suffering involved. Here songs contributed to building enough political and social momentum to bring an end to conflicts. Anime is not so realistic in its time scale, often because its writing tends to be very shallow politically, but in a way it does at least draw some inspiration from the real world.
Gundam SEED and Gundam SEED Destiny both use this very SDF Macross kind of ability for songs to bring two sides together, but it’s rendered far less believable because both sides are human with their own culture. It’s an unsuccessful attempt to bring the Macross singing trope into the Gundam universe. In the first series Lacus uses her influence and her songs to bring together forces from the Earth Alliance and ZAFT to combat Chairman Zala, her song a rallying cry for them to fight (briefly) for the sake of peace. Gundam SEED Destiny continues this, but earlier on in the show, when it was brilliant instead of the wreck it became by the end, they took this idea and showed the cynical side of it. If songs can be used to influence people, is it not natural for political leaders to try and use them as well? Chairman Dullindal doesn’t know where Lacus is and she probably wouldn’t take orders from him anyway, so he recruits Meer Campbell to impersonate her and do his bidding. What was so great about Dullindal, again before the series wrecked him too, was that he was a benevolent leader who used tactics that the pure shounen spirit at the heart of anime always casts in the most negative light: subterfuge, manipulation, and cool calculation. Using Meer’s singing he was able to calm the population of ZAFT after the Earth Alliance’s failed nuclear bombardment of their colonies, and then when he could no longer find a peaceful solution, had her both rally the troops and remind them that they were part of a limited war. Dullindal used a full-spectrum approach to his intervention in the first half of the series, dispatching the military but using humanitarian gestures, political speeches, and Meer’s singing to reinforce to his own people and those of Earth that ZAFT was not waging a war of conquest despite being attacked first.
Music in anime war narratives often appears, and sometimes is, silly. Aside from series that have an in-universe reason for it to have power, it can seem jarring and out of place in the story of conflict. But given how it has inspired soldiers and populations in times of war, there may be more to be said for its use in some series. A song does not need to directly address a war or any ideals that it is fought on behalf of to inspire. A catchy tune and reminders of home may be enough of a cause to inspire men to risk their lives and bear hardships and deprivation. In some anime series it serves this purpose, though it is not always directly presented to the audience that it does. And while music as an end to war in anime is a shallow and simplistic concept, if looked at over a longer time span and with accompanying society-wide movements it has been at least a small part of ending conflicts in real life. This latter point is far more of a shaky connection than the former, but as much as I despise the trope it cannot be 100% dismissed, perhaps just 99% consigned to the annals of ‘LOL animu!’