Robotech consumed our childhoods. In a lot of ways, it created the American anime industry as we know it. But some people find the show's complex origins baffling, as well as what makes it so unique and important. So here's everything you should know about Robotech — and why.
It’s made up of three different TV anime series which have nothing to do with each other.
A man named Carl Macek knew that if he could bring and adapt an anime series titled Super Dimensional Fortress Macross to America, he’d have a cartoon hit — one he wouldn’t even have to animate. But Macross was only 36 episodes long, and there was a minimum of 65 episodes need to syndicate TV shows back in the ‘80s. His solution was to license the completely unrelated anime series Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada and then edit and rewrite them into three “sagas,” turning them into one long series. Shockingly, this worked out far, far better than it should.
It’s about the ends of the world.
Macek based this new series around an alien power source called Protoculture, which powered a massive alien warship that crashed on Earth in 1999. Humanity, realizing it wasn’t alone in the universe, joined forces to rebuild the ship and use the alien technology inside to create Robotechnology, resulting in power armor and transforming jets such as Veritechs. The aliens, called the Zentraedi, eventually did arrive and thus began the first Robotech War, which resulted in the death of most of the people on Earth. When the Zentraedi and humanity realized they were actually part of the same race, the Zentraedi having been altered by a race of aliens called the Masters, they formed an unsteady truce and began to rebuild Earth together. In the “Southern Cross” saga, the Masters themselves arrived and attempted to conquer the planet, which ended with the Flower of Life — an alien plant that produced Protoculture — covering the planet. And when “New Generation” began (a.k.a. Mospeada) the Earth had already been conquered by another alien race called the Invid, and the remaining humans were slaves. Humans do not have an easy time of it in Robotech.
Its main innovation was planes with arms and legs.
Robotech was originally a name that the model manufacturer Revell called their imported Japanese model kits from anime series that American kids neither knew nor cared about. Revell partnered with Macek’s company Harmony Gold to bring Japan’s Macross toys to America, and Macek took the name Robotech for the series. The major vehicle of the Macross saga, and the whole of Robotech, was the Veritech, which could transform from a jet into a robot, or into Guardian mode, which was a strange half-jet with arms and legs. It was weird, but it was unique, and is one of the most famous giant robots in pop culture — not least because Hasbro had originally licensed the Japanese Veritech (called the Valkyrie) for its Transformers toyline, naming it Jetfire.
It was unique from every other American cartoon.
When Robotech first aired in 1985, kids could tell it was massively different from He-Man, G.I. Joe, and even the Transformers cartoon. First of all, it looked different — it was many kids' first exposure to anime (Joe and TF were animated in Japan, but for Western audiences — Macross was made for a Japanese audience, and thus its spiky air, large eyes, and other tropes were in full force). Second of all, unlike the other cartoons of the time, it told a single, ongoing story. There wasn’t an indivudal plot each episode, but the saga of Rick Hunter, who gets drawn into the Robotech war, fights against the Zentraedi, falls in love, alongside countless characters who had their own conflicts and struggles, day by day — you had to keep watching to know what was going on, and many kids loved watching a show that trusted them to remember what was happening the next day. And there were no obvious, hackneyed lessons learned at the end, either.
It was revolutionary in other ways, too.
Besides the maturity of an ongoing narrative, Robotech was phenomenally advanced in other ways. It was the first cartoon — often the first story, period — that showed kids a scenario where a hero could die, as Rick’s best friend Roy Fokker gets shot during a skirmish and loses his life. That revelation empowered kids as much as it devastated them, and we loved Robotech even more for not treating us like children pretending all the good guys always won. And then there was the completely uncommented-on mixed-race relationship between Roy and his girlfriend Claudia. And then there was the heavy focus on romance, which was unheard of in boys cartoons, as Rick was in a love triangle with young would-be pop star Lynn Minmei and Lisa Hayes, the captain of the rebuilt alien spaceship — but while Rick chased after Minmei, who was oblivious to how she constantly broke Rick’s heart, Lisa — ostensibly the most powerful human woman in the universe — would wash Rick’s underwear. Truly, no other cartoon has ever been so brutally honest as Robotech, and we loved it for it.
It’s the greatest love story of the 20th century.
Seriously. I’ve commented on this before at length, so I’ll use the money quote:
The most powerful woman in the galaxy is so in love she washes the underwear of a young pilot who is in love with a 15-year-old Chinese pop star who is in love with her cousin, who throws gin bottles at her.
Robotech conveyed love in all its blindness and messiness and stupidty, and even boys taught to think that girls were gross ate it up. Robotech was one of, if not th,e first cartoons that boys and girls both enjoyed simultaneously, which was another thing that made it unique. Robotech had official fashion dolls on sale at the same time it sold Vertitech toys and action figures, and both lines sold.
It was made by the hero anime needed right then.
Carl Macek effectively created Robotech by licensing all three shows, and rewriting them to 1) make sense for American audiences, 2) be acceptable for young American audiences, and 3) make some kind of coherent sense together. For a long time, hardcore anime fans derided Macek for making these changes, for altering three classic anime series and misrepresenting them in America. He’s seen as some kind of butcher of anime. This is the dumbest thing ever. This is the dumbest thing ever because this presupposes that somehow Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada had any chances of coming to America, unedited, before Robotech, and they didn’t. I promise you. Even with Robotech’s existence, a series that was nationally broadcast five days a week during the '80s, the original, unedited Macross series wasn’t released in America until 2001. How much longer do you think it would have taken if Robotech hadn’t existed?
The entire American anime industry exists because of Robotech.
Robotech was the first anime series in America that people actually knew was anime, that it was a style of animation created in Japan, and thus it ended up creating more anime fans than any other imported series before it. The rise of the ‘90s anime and manga industry owes almost everything to Robotech and its massive popularity. It created fans that wanted more, than wanted to find out about Japanese animation, and wanted more it, allowing companies to import things like Dragonball Z, Ranma ½, Evangelion, and others. If Robotech hadn’t existed — if for instance Starblazers had been the last “big” anime series in America — we might still be waiting on licensed versions of countless anime masterpieces.
It’s a legal nightmare.
There is one undeniable problem Robotech has caused, and that’s that it has turned the Macross portion of the series into a legal clusterfuck. Harmony Gold originally licensed the Macross anime from Studio Tatsunoko, which had helped produce it. However, Studio Nue actually created the show, and won the rights to Macross years later. This has left Harmony Gold with the Robotech license, which includes its story and the characters, but not the character designs, the Veritechs, or the look of anything that appeared in the original show. This is why when creating the sequel movie Shadow Chronicles, the names of the characters stayed the same, but the characters no longer looked like their original versions, and all the mecha were different. This also means Nue and Harmony Gold often sue each other whenever one tries to bring out Robotech or Macross merchandise for various rights infringements.
So I wouldn’t hold your breath for a live-action movie.
Since Hollywood turns things like G.I. Joe and Transformers into big-budget movies based a great deal on nostalgia, the idea of making a Robotech movie that looks absolutely nothing like what people remember and liked isn’t that appealing. While you’d think Tobey Maquire and his production company — who have licensed Robotech for a potential live-action movie — could solve this with a massive check to Studio Nue, the Japanese remain so bitter about the whole mess that they probably wouldn’t grant these rights unless Harmony Gold was completely cut out of the deal — but Harmony Gold has the rights to the name Robotech. Could it be solved? Sure, but not easily and not quickly, and there are plenty of other old cartoons and TV shows to turn into movies that would be far less aggravating, no matter what Tobey Maguire says.