Angsty yet detailed characters, fantastic mechas, an engrossing, complex and thrilling story, fantastic animation… Robotech had it all. It was a beast of nature, genetically engineered to fascinate geeks of all ages in the 80’s. It was an absolute revolution.
When the show came out, the real story about its origin was something that had fans intrigued all over the world. These fans who organized themselves, and created fanzines, conventions, events and projections were what eventually became the Japanese animation fandom in the west. The show left a mark on those who were lucky enough to watch it back in the day. The problem was that fans were left heart-broken as soon as they started researching and found out more about the show.
The story goes as follows: in the early 80’s, animated Sci-Fi shows for adults were still relatively new and unexplored in Japanese TV, but aided by the success of shows like Mobile Suit Gundam and Yamato, some new projects got green light. A group of young artists, fans of these shows, amongst whom were Shoji Kawamori and Haruhijo Mikimoto (two names that became staples when discussing Japanese sci-fi) were tasked with creating a new show for TV. Said group, Studio Nue, were responsible with creation Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, the show that became the absolute referent of Japanese animation of the 80s. Its production was plagued by changes in the number of episodes, delays, and budget issues, but when it finally aired in October 1982, it showed that the wait was worth it: they had created a 36 episode beast that would remain in the Japanese collective consciousness for years to come, and even today gets frequent re-runs and merchandising.
The plot was about a love triangle amidst the middle of a cosmic conflict between two races with a common origin: humans and zentraedis. The realist, deep way in which characters were written played a key role in the shows’ success: many characters die as the Earth suffers a holocaust that kills the vast majority of mankind, and viewers saw the devastation and the post-war reconstruction that, just like real life, ends up being worse than the war itself.
Around the same time, in America, a businessman named Carl Macek had heard of the show and decided to bring it to the west with his company, Harmony Gold, to be sold in video. Once they acquired the rights, though, a very interesting opportunity to actually air the show on TV came up. Unfortunately, the system they were offered was that of daily running shows so they required a minimum of 65 episodes to qualify for the contract. Macross only had 36. Like a mediatic Dr. Frankenstein, Macek yelled “leave it all to me!” while he traveled to Japan and visited Studio Nue. After seeing their diverse creations, he decided for two other shows: Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada. Both of these were similar to Macross: military environment, transforming mechas and all that. The first one had been a commercial flop, while the second one was mildly successful.
The legend goes that Macek went back to America and saw both shows, without knowing any Japanese. Shortly after, and probably after a drug binge, Macek had a basic script to re-write all three stories to make it seem like each was a sequel to the other. That’s were the concept of “Protoculture” comes from which in the Japanese original referred to “Macross”, the civilization the Zentraedi had created.
As they translated the shows, dialogs and music were rewritten and simplified, a unifying opening was created, and relationships between characters were invented. Because of that process, for example, Jeanne Francoix from Southern Cross became Dana Sterling, daughter of Max Sterling from Macross. Also, every character became American (in the original, there were Russians, North and South Americans and Japanese). A voice in-off was incorporated to narrate and ease the transition between scenes and, as it was gonna be shown during day-time, blood and nudity were removed. Despite this massacre, Macek knew the show was meant to be enjoyed by adults, and tried to not dumb it down too much so it could be approved. The unifying name “Robotech” came from toy manufacturers Revell who had been selling Japanese model kits (with some Macross models included) under the name “Robotech Defenders”, so the name was reprised.
In the end, the show had 84 episodes, so they even had to create a flashback episode (“Dana’s Story”) to make the show have an episode number multiple of 5 (more bureaucracy). The show ended up being more successful outside of America, were people were more used to Japanese animation (like Europe, Latin America or Asia), but the show was successful enough to sell a bunch of merchandising and to get people asking for a sequel.
Macek, neither slow nor lazy, started working on Robotech II: The Sentinels which was gonna be 65 episodes long, and this time, made out of entirely original animation. The story for “The Sentinels” was as epic as the original and one could tell they truly wanted to do things right this time around. This second story would take place between the first and second generation, and tell about Rick Hunter’s trip to Tirol, the planet of the Masters of Robotechnology and their first encounter with the Invids, while incomunicated with Earth.
Sadly, two events led to the cancellation of the project. One was the failure that represented Robotech: The Movie, another Frankenstein made out of Megazone 23 part 1 and reused parts of Southern Cross. The mixture and incoherences didn’t work at all. To give you an idea of what a spectacular failure it turned out to be, this movie wasn’t even edited in the USA in video. The second factor was the fluctuation between the yen and dollar which made the project unviable. When the cancellation occurred, only 100 minutes of animation had been produced. Not even one episode, but mere fragments. To save costs, Macek edited this in video under the predictable name of Robotech II: The Sentinels. On this long episode of sorts, one could see Rick and Lisa’s wedding, and the first encounter with the Invids as well as the destruction of the planet of the Masters of Robotechnology.
The whole storyline was finally adapted to comics and novels, and wrapped up in a third part called Robotech III: End of the Circle, meant to tie all loose ends left by the show. Despite this tragic destiny for a show destined to greatness, every once in a while it gets reruns here and there, or new comics or toys. Robotech might be the (second?) most beloved Frankenstein ever.