The Macross universe can be a daunting thing to navigate, especially for newbies. It spans several decades, is populated with a diverse cast of characters and technologies, and tells some of the grandest stories in all of anime. From the original Macross series (which comprised part of the American Robotech series, but that's a totally different beast altogether) to Macross Plus to Macross 7, from Macross: Do You Remember Love? to Macross II (not officially part of the Macross canon, but we'll include it for completeness' sake), there's a ton of material out there, and among it some of the very finest anime has to offer.
And now comes Macross Zero.
Conceived of and directed by Mr. Macross himself, Shoji Kawamori, Macross Zero's 5 episodes actually serve as a prequel of sorts, taking place one year before the events of the original Macross series. An alien spaceship, filled with technology beyond anything mankind has ever seen, has just crashed on a remote Pacific island. The world, already in the throes of war, has been thrown into chaos, with the United Nations and anti-UN forces vying for supremacy.
Shin Kudo is a young hotshot pilot for the UN forces. After an intense dogfight with anti-UN forces (one of the episode's first stunning CGI sequences), Shin's squad is attacked by a mysterious aircraft capable of transforming itself into a giant robot. Shin's plane is no match for this mysterious craft, and is shot down. When Shin awakes, he finds himself on the primitive island of Mayan. Mayan is home to a group of people who have abandoned modern technology, hoping instead to live in harmony with nature. The island is led by Sara Nome, an enigmatic woman who serves as the culture's high priestess. Naturally, she is suspicious of Shin, since he represents the modern and violent world.
Meanwhile, a team of UN scientists have discovered a mysterious energy source somewhere in the Pacific. Their military forces, led by Roy Fokker (a name instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up watching Robotech) rush to its location, and come into conflict with the same anti-UN forces that destroyed Shin's squadron. Soon, the tranqility of Mayan is destroyed as UN and anti-UN forces clash in the skies overhead, each side unleashing their transforming, "variable" aircraft.
This being the first episode, the story's details are still pretty sketchy. It's obvious that one of the series' primary themes will be the conflict that arises as the world is dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new and frightening era. This conflict will be keenly felt on Mayan, as the islanders who have eschewed technology must come to rely on it if they want to survive the coming war. The episode ends with more questions than answers, especially concerning the mysterious Bird Man that the islanders worship, and its relation to the new energy source. But hey, they have to save something for the next 4 episodes, right?
Even if you finish the episode a little confused on the plot (and you will), you'll still be blown away by the episode's visuals. Macross Plus was one of the first anime OVAs to incorporate CGI, and at the time, it was lauded as revolutionary. Heck, it still looks good. Since then, CGI has become widely used throughout anime. But it's rarely been used as skillfully and beautifully as it is in Macross Zero.
My jaw was literally on the floor during the episode's opening dogfight, as Shin's F-14 tore through the clouds, unleashing a barrage of missiles that filled the sky with snake-like exhaust trails. Between this and Gonzo's Yukikaze, fans of anime aerial combat will finds themselves very satisfied. But that's just a tease compared to the episode's sweetest scene: the most detailed Veritech transformation ever. When Focker's VF-0 takes on the anti-UN forces, we're treated to a transformation sequence like none other. The animators show us the sequence from every angle, both internally and externally, as Focker's craft changes from Fighter to Battroid in a sequence that will have Robotech geeks drooling.
And it's all CGI, and it easily stands toe to toe with the likes of Square (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Final Flight of the Osiris). One complaint I've always had with CGI is that it often looks stiff and wooden, but the execution in Macross Zero is just flawless. And the rest of the animation is gorgeous as well, from the character designs to Mayan's lush, tropical setting. All in all, its a very topnotch work.
So far, Macross Zero's visuals are among the most striking of any in the canon. However, it's always been the dramatic elements — the storylines, characters, and relationships — that have defined the "Macross" titles and made them so endearing. Just try to imagine the original "Macross" series without its love triangle, or Macross Plus without the tragedy that haunted its characters. Having seen only one episode, I can't even begin to make a judgment on how Macross Zero's storyline will turn out, though we see hints of something growing between Shin and Sara. And a lot can still happen in the next 4 episodes. But what I've seen so far holds much potential, and I'm incredibly excited to see where the series goes from here.