booksfilminterviewsmusictechnology
Appleseed
Macross Plus, vol. 1
Classic anime and manga spinoffs get two radically different treatments
Appleseed
Manga Entertainment
Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
Japan, 1988

Macross Plus, vol. 1
Manga Entertainment
Directed by Shoji Kawamori and Shinichiro Watanabe
Japan, 1994
In the mid-1980s, two Japanese productions--one anime, the other manga--tapped into the "gosh-wow" center of my psyche. The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross series did it with its skillful interweaving of an engaging soap-opera storyline, cool action sequences, and humankind being forced into growing beyond Earth and finding its destiny among the stars. These were handled well enough that one could forgive the corniness inherent in another major plot point--the idea of winning a war against powerful aliens because a cute girl sang at them.

The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross series did it with its skillful interweaving of an engaging soap-opera storyline, cool action sequences, and humankind being forced into growing beyond Earth and finding its destiny among the stars. These were handled well enough that one could forgive the corniness inherent in another major plot point--the idea of winning a war against powerful aliens because a cute girl sang at them.

Appleseed, a manga created by Shirow Masamune, was fascinating due to its interesting handling of complex themes set in the utopian city of Olympus, rebuilt from the ashes after World War III. There's nothing new about post-apocalyptic settings in Japanese manga and animation, but in Appleseed the setting was used to explore sociological themes as well as to show cool action scenes.

Now it's the mid-1990s, and Manga Entertainment has released two new anime properties: one is Macross Plus, the latest in a series of spinoffs from the original Macross series; the other is the anime adaptation of Shirow's Appleseed.

The first video I watched was Appleseed. I'd already seen this video in the original Japanese years earlier, and I wasn't too impressed with it at the time. Aside from one or two action scenes, the animation ranges from substandard to mediocre. In fact, everything about this video--editing, storyline, direction, sound production--is stunningly mediocre. And that's a shame, because everything about the Appleseed manga is top-notch.

Shirow puts a lot of care into his manga work, and this is what attracts people to it. His worlds are carefully thought out from the overall scenarios to the people living in them. His technology is usually realistic, and where it becomes unreal it's at least convincing. He spends a lot of time dealing with the little design details that you would never notice, but which unconsciously make his two-dimensional worlds very believable. His characters often contain those little dichotomies and idiosyncrasies that real people have, making their trials more complex and engaging.

It doesn't quite work that way in the Appleseed OAV. The story focuses on the two main characters of the manga, Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires. At some point before our story opens, the two are rescued from the Badlands, and their survival/combat skills are put to good use as part of Olympus' ESWAT (Extra Special Weapons and Tactical) squad.

Now why would an utopia like Olympus need ESWAT squads? It's a question the manga spends a lot of time answering, but which the OAV answers quite simply: to fight bad guys, of course. In this case, the bad guy is a particularly nasty terrorist named Sebastian, aided and abetted by Charon, an ESWAT cop who is trying to shut down Gaia, the city's central computer. Why? It seems his sister couldn't adjust to living in an artificial utopia filled mostly populated by artificial people (called "bioroids"), and killed herself. Now he wants to right Gaia's wrongs.

This is a condensed retelling of one of the stories within Shirow's manga, but it's retold pretty badly. The material is rich for social commentary, pontificating on the human condition, and what have you. The manga mines this wellspring of ideas, but the OAV skips over it and gets right to the shooting, swearing, and angst. The OAV's story quickly becomes a case of Deunan and Briareos going through the buddy/cop movie motions--trying to find their crooked cop, being wrongly accused, and then trying to thwart his and Sebastian's plans. It's essentially a standard buddy/cop movie with some minor Appleseed elements thrown in to justify using the title.

It seems that what the producers did was take the Shirow out of Appleseed. Shirow's detail-laden characters and backgrounds are streamlined suitably for animation--and that's the only positive comment I can make. The characterizations and motivations are as flat as the cels they're painted on, and we don't care enough about anyone to feel any sort of tension throughout the movie. In Shirow's manga, everyone is an armchair philosopher; here, maybe a dozen lines are spent on anything you wouldn't find in your average police action movie. This seems a little strange, considering that Gainax produced Wings of Honneamise, Nadia, and Gunbuster--three of the most innovative commercial works for the theatrical, television, and OAV markets in Japan in the last decade.

What it boils down to is a lack of caring. Gainax didn't care about Appleseed, so they gave us a product with slipshod animation, a watered-down version of what used to be an interesting and thought-provoking story, and a dull soundtrack. The folks at Manga Entertainment who dubbed Appleseed into English obviously picked up on this, as the voice acting on the dub is pretty awful--and for some reason, Briareos' name has become "Bularios". Huh?

With some trepidation, I then watched Macross Plus. Like Appleseed, Macross Plus has a lot to live up to: Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, the original television series, is a classic of television SF anime, and Macross: Do You Remember Love?, the incredibly popular movie, taught some lessons about adaptations the producers at Gainax should have studied. Skillfully rendered and animated, the Macross movie managed to stay faithful to the spirit and character of the series, despite the fact that they simplified, eliminated, or rearranged key events and characters from the show.

Macross Plus starts us off the way an adaptation should: in territory familiar enough for fans of the original Macross series or movie, but with just enough elements explained that people new to this universe can get into it with minimal discomfort.

Macross Plus focuses on hotshot fighter pilot Isamu Dyson, who through sheer recklessness gets taken off of active duty and made a test pilot on the planet of New Eden. In true Macross soap opera fashion, New Eden is his old home, and his rival for the title of Top Dog Test Pilot is his ex-friend and old romantic rival Gold Bowman. Also in true Macross fashion, the object of their old rivalry has also returned to New Eden; one Myun Fung Lone, who is now the producer of the system's hottest entertainer, the virtual ("virtual" as in computer-generated) idol singer Sharon Apple.

This episode of Macross Plus is the first part of a series, so a lot of subplot and unexplained bits are woven into the first part, just to whet our appetites. Explained as above, it seems quite confusing, but it's presented in a manner which either makes things quite clear, or gives us just enough tantalizing hints to leave us wanting more, if only to see if our guesses are correct.

Unlike Appleseed, Macross Plus had the benefit of having an old Macross hand around: Shoji Kawamori, director of the original series and the movie, returned to direct this OAV series, after skipping over the so-so Macross II. Kawamori's touch is evident throughout, as Macross Plus displays the care that Appleseed didn't have. The direction, design, and animation is excellent all around; where shortcuts are used, Kawamori draws your attention elsewhere so that you don't notice. The score, performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, is superb, not at all like the cheesy synth-pop of Appleseed. The translation and English-language dub is not only acceptable, but first-rate--a rarity for translated anime.

Aficionados of both Appleseed and Macross expect the best; fans of the former will be sorely disappointed, while fans of the latter will probably be doing what I'm doing: waiting eagerly for the second volume.

Originally printed in fps #5 (Winter 1995)