The first Macross Frontier movie was damn good, on all levels. It handled all that it wished to cover exceptionally, a vast improvement over the presentation in the series for the most part. There will be several posts about it, both from my comrades and I and on other blogs, but right now, as the adrenaline from finishing it still flows through me, I’d like to concentrate on the first thing that struck me about the movie. Where the original Macross Frontier felt rather bland to me visual presentation (even with all the pretty CG Valkyries), The False Songstress is engaging in its visuals right from the start. More than just looking good, they also show a great deal of creativity that was lacking in the series, and this creativity is used to great effect in communicating several things. To start with in this post, the sense of scale and the meaningful touches to the environment and shots were as communicative as dialog.
From the start what I noticed was the sense of scale that the visuals imparted to the show. It’s a sense you never really got in the series so much, but from a scooter ride to the final battle it’s impossible not to notice how BIG everything is. The scale is really driven home to the viewer through the kinds of visuals used. First there’s the Frontier itself.
The Macross Frontier Fleet
While the numbers of inhabitants are quoted in the series and we get an impression of the hilly environs of the Island Frontier and surrounding smaller Islands, the immensity of it is never driven home in quite the same way as it is from the start of the movie. Large vistas like in the picture above show the scale in three main ways. Seeing all the buildings, the traffic, and the infrastructure demonstrates what the population numbers suggest. Another way is that the elevations changes are clearly visible whenever the characters are outside. The heights and islands and skyscrapers give the Frontier that ‘big’ feel to them. As much as I hate to say it, Macross 7 actually did a better job of conveying this than the original Frontier series, but here it is in glorious high-budget animation. And finally, the false sky that Alto yearns to leave behind seems to be more present than in the series, with the lines of the outer shell crossing the skyline in nearly all the shots. The movie also allows us to see through the false sky a bit more, making ships and Islands visible that are nearby.
There’s also a smaller, detail-oriented scale to things, and a method that conveyed more than words could about the history and present day of the Macross universe. For instance, the above image from the memorial hill area. While the cemetery and body recycling system already mark it as a place of remembrance, there are things like this engraved map of the Sol System to remind humanity of where they came from, and what they’ve lost. Earth by this point isn’t quite the bombed-out, lifeless sphere it was after the Zentradi bombardment in SDF Macross, but at least as of a few years ago it seemed that Macross City was one of only a few areas now fully rebuilt. There are also plenty of shots that provide a more human scale to things. Parks and city streets just felt ‘right’ in conveying a real sense of place instead of just being a stage for characters to interact. Michel trailing after Ranka on the city streets, the nature trail Alto and Sheryl rode down, and the park where Alto sought out Michel’s advice had the right perspective and detail to make them feel almost like real places in a real city (spaceship.)
You just couldn’t resist, could you Kawamori? You damn dirty hippy! That said, shops and signs really did add to the feel of the city, and were used more prominently than in the series.
A quick word also on the concerts. As one would expect from a movie with a larger budget:runtime ratio, they’re bigger, flashier, and more elaborate. This further adds to the sense of scale in the Macross Frontier movie. Everything’s just bigger!
The Scale of War
Combat is also something handled with an appropriate scale and nice amount of detail. While the series had its share of urban combat, quite impressive at times, you never got the sense of scale that you do here, on the macro or micro level. The city feels appropriately large, so that all the combat isn’t just in one area. The initial fighting is spread out, and late in the movie when Alto’s flying through the streets in gerwalk mode it shows that it’s actually possible to run, evade, and ambush within it, instead of it just seeming like a single fairly open ‘stage.’ The Valkyries and their Vajra opponents also feel appropriately massive, which I think was a result of them being shown up against buildings, cars, and familiar backgrounds for effective scale reference by the viewer. In that way it reminded me of the ‘Fight of Fights‘ in Gundam: the 08th MS Team. Continuing that same feeling were smaller details, like the shell casings in the second image. Ranks is huddled amongst them, and while not specifically afraid of being hit by them, the potential is there. It also goes to show just how big the Valkyries and their weapons are compared to the small, squishy humans the gigantic armored machines are there to protect.
While the first Macross Frontier movie leaves out much of the darker themes that were present in the series (to be discussed in part in a future post), it doesn’t omit the level of destruction caused by the Vajra attacks. Here’s hoping that said darker elements are back and as well done as the content the first movie chose to cover, but for now I can be content that the movie didn’t make things too much nicer for the characters. Scale is also something seen in the presentation of the destruction caused. But the large scale damage doesn’t devolve into the sort of playful glee at destruction for the sake of spectacle that some series and movies like to use. No “Bay-splosions!” here, thankfully. What it does show, particularly in the casualties at the concert is exactly how many people and how much infrastructure are being destroyed. It wasn’t even concentrated fire that caused the scene before Ranka’s eyes that made her act, just some stray shots. The destruction and subsequent compromise of the Frontier’s environment was an interesting detail of the series, but here it’s presented directly to the audience instead of a more indirect approach. Here I think is another indication of the superior cinematography in the movie, with the destruction given the proper scale by using points of view closer to that of a person who might actually be standing there. Using relatable objects like cars, and effective framing with rubble and debris also make it feel more like you’re looking at a real disaster scene.
Shot Composition and Individual Scale
On a more intimate scale, the Macross Frontier movie also blows away the original series. While I greatly enjoyed the series, one of my problems with it was that it felt kind of plain and generic. This wasn’t about specific things, as I liked the story, characters, universe, and mecha, but rather the general feeling the series gave off. The details were satisfying, but it didn’t feel like it had the overall richness to match. While elements of the story have been changed significantly in the movie, they are basically the same, and it’s a wonder what some actual creativity and artistry in the presentation can do it give events a real feeling of depth. As two examples there’s the scene where Alto is confined to quarters when Sheryl is suspected of being a spy, and the scene at the Family Mart where Alto and Ranka are able to talk about her rising stardom and what Sheryl means to Alto. The first is Alto all alone, and whether or not the Fold Quartz actually directly conveyed memories or not, it was interesting even without this plot device. We have Alto, caught between what he knows of Sheryl and what he’s been told about her, plus his own growing connection and sympathy with her via acting. Sitting in the candlelit room is atmospheric in itself as he contemplates important things, but it has even more. The framing of the bunk beds adds an even more enclosed feeling while he ponders his inner thoughts, and the candle returns as a motif for him anytime he thinks about acting and its role in identity. And then the earring, which at first is a reminder of Sheryl, triggers a moment of both Alto doubting his identity and further identifying with Sheryl.
In the other scene, Alto catches up to a previously silent Ranka when she suddenly becomes talkative and tells him all about her career as a singer taking off, right as her Family Mart jingle plays over the speakers. And while this serves to advance the plot, it also is interesting for its presentation. The ‘camera’ follows them through some of the aisles, always keeping a fairly low, eye-level position. And then there are the shots like this one. The store scene always feels cramped and confined, and incredibly commercial with all the glossy magazines and various foods and items on sale around them. Adding on to this are shots like the one above, almost looking as if they were taken from a security camera. It literally adds another angle to the cramped feeling of the scene, reinforces the commercial feel (where else would have a camera like that?), and feels invasive, like people are watching Ranka in the same fashion she’s now being watched as an up-and-coming idol. In a way Ranka comes to Alto from a position of strength, telling him the good news about her dream. But at the same time she seems to be losing power and volition as the demands of her jobs increase, which is reinforced through such a confined and commercial setting/camera angle. She’s desperately trying to connect to Alto while trapped in this little commercial box of a store (with someone (Grace, the public) perhaps watching her.) Macross has from the start liked to tackle the idol phenomenon over the decades, as well as commercialization’s up and down-sides, and I think the Family Mart scene does this visually while the characters’ dialog handles the plot itself.
A minor final note, but one worth mentioning, is a better focus on representing events from the pilot’s point of view. This was something done very well in SDF Macross and Macross Plus, but which unfortunately was rarely or poorly done in the Frontier series. But here there are a variety of shots that make you feel like you’re in the cockpit, either through the pilot’s eyes or through an imaginary RIO/co-pilot in a rear seat. Immersion in this way was something I really missed in the Frontier series, and it’s great to see it back again.
Macross Frontier: The False Songstress is impressive on many levels. Indeed, I had to separate my thoughts into three potential posts on it all, so more is on the way. One way it does this is by adding the artistic and thematic techniques that were largely absent in the series. And the effect is dramatic, making it very much more engaging minute-to-minute than the series. In a way it seems like a return to the original SDF Macross in terms of cinematography and thematic conveyance. Despite its age, the very first Macross series was adept at shot composition, meaningful visual details, and picking the right camera angles to help convey information or the meaning of a shot or scene. And now the Macross franchise is back in form, providing a rich and satisfying visual experience that makes both the interpersonal and the military scenes so much more satisfying.