Sunday, July 26, 2009

Southern Cross don't need men around anyhow!

I watched a bit of Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross the other day. In the heyday of 1980s space-opera anime, it became the middle act of Robotech’s three-show splicing job, and that’s how most kids of the ’80s recall it. I, however, do not. I watched Robotech back when the Armed Forces Network aired it in Germany, but I only remember seeing the Macross part of the series, the one with Rick Hunter and Minmay and the jets that turned into robots and jet-robots. While that’s the most popular third of the show, you’d think I’d at least have some memory of the other two. But I don't, and so Southern Cross is pretty much new territory for me. At most, I recognize some of the more ridiculous sights from Robotech's intro, like the woman in the evening gown floating through laser fire.

Southern Cross is also part of my ongoing exploration of robot-filled anime from the 1980s. Over the past few years, I’ve checked out various well-regarded shows from the era: Ideon, Votoms, Layzner, Dunbine, L-Gaim, and a bunch of Gundams. Most of them are terrible. They’re poorly animated, awkwardly written, sexistly cast, badly paced, and just plain boring. Even Zeta Gundam. Wait, especially Zeta Gundam, which convinced me that Yoshiyuki Tomino, the esteemed co-creator of Gundam, cannot tell a remotely coherent story or grasp how actual human beings behave.

Lousy animation and poor writing are hardly unique to anime from the 1980s, and yet so many of these older mecha series are considered great. While I could understand if anime fans liked them with loads of irony, I’ve seen them praised as legitimate classics far too often. There are several possible explanations for this. Perhaps fans watched these tepid mecha slogs back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when they lacked anything better in the way of semi-realistic space opera with big robots (which I find plausible, since we’ve all been entranced by dumb cartoons just because they dared to kill off characters). Perhaps fans just like them because they’re not as freakish and pedophile-oriented as some modern anime shows (which I find hard to believe, since good is more than the absence of bad or, in this case, the absence of fetishy horrors). Or perhaps it’s proof that too many anime fans will watch, buy, and defend just about anything.


Anyway, Southern Cross has the same cheap look and jumbled storytelling as other series of its era. It also backs some surprisingly dull robots and spaceships, considering it was partly designed to sell toys and models. Yet I find it interesting that Southern Cross is one of the few 1980s mecha anime where the three major characters are women. Our lead is the impulsive, self-spoiled, unjustly promoted pilot Jeanne Francaix, who’s constantly butting heads with her efficient rival Marie Angel and the exasperated, by-the-book officer Lana Isavia.

Surprisingly, there’s no male protagonist for them to surround during a war between aliens and an isolated human colony, and I wonder how hard it was for Southern Cross to avoid putting in a heroic, audience-identification leading man (Tomino, to his credit, tried to build mecha series around women, but he was shot down by Sunrise). The show’s primarily about Jeanne, as she's usually pissing off her commanders, tracking a skilled (and handsome) enemy pilot, and driving her equally laid-back brigade into whatever battles she feels like fighting. Like Macross, Southern Cross is halfway to a comedy, a precursor to Nadesico, Captain Tylor, and other anime satires of the 1990s.

Unfortunately, Southern Cross is still a mecha show for toy-buying boys and geeks, so its three leads act the way that lazy ’80s anime writers thought women acted. When not piloting robots and flipping through fashion magazines, Jeanne takes baths and showers constantly, thus showing herself naked and proving that these Japanese cartoons are NOT KID STUFF. She also bickers with Lana and Marie over dresses and relationships, and all three of them are shoved toward love interests, often unrealistically, over the course of the story. That, however, wasn’t enough to save the show in the eyes of male viewers. It was canceled early, leaving the writers to hurriedly finish up a plot that was supposed to span almost twice as many episodes. Oh well.


And that’s Southern Cross. It doesn’t change my rapidly declining opinion of 1980s mecha anime, but at least it did something different.

3 comments:

octa said...

Macross was pretty much the only giant mecha show I remember from the 80s, I didn't realize it was "anime" until much later in life :) I tried to go back to watch stuff like Southern Cross but just couldn't stomach it. 80s anime was pretty bad in general...

I have some fond memories of 90s mecha anime though. In particular, the oft forgotten Teknoman (Tekkaman Blade in Japan). Since the show was relegated to a 6:30am Sunday timeslot, my parents pretty much hated me through its whole run. It sure did make me fall in love with the genre though. A chauvinistic hero quick to rage and a bad ass mecha suit that defied physics and all common sense. I quickly dove into Gundam and Eva from there but they couldn't capture the same sense of bad-assness that Teknoman had. Ahh mecha anime, I hope I get to see your unreasonable and inefficient uses of robotic technology in modern warfare some day.

Daryl Surat said...

Were it not for Robotech, nobody would ever remember Southern Cross even existed. I file this under yet another of Robotech's crimes. That said, while I'm with you 100% on the mecha designs being ass, I maintain that the "future samurai" style armor designs of Southern Cross are totally sweet.

This doesn't apply to Southern Cross, but something to consider: nearly all of the shows you mentioned as examples of well-regarded 1980s robot anime that you don't like are made by Sunrise. Sunrise mecha series all follow a very similar formula, and while part of that is driven by toy sales as you say I think a lot of it is just Sunrise stuff in general. Perhaps you don't like that "Sunrise mecha series formula"? It's not uncommon.

Nowadays, it's the norm to tell an entire show from start to finish in 13 episodes. To go back now and watch these 80s Sunrise mecha series where the first 13 episodes are relatively uneventful yet simultaneously unskippable can therefore give the impression that this is all a big waste of time. Indeed, even I haven't watched any Sunrise mecha series in years. They work best when you're watching them one episode a week rather than my preferred viewing method: all in succession on DVD. I tried to change my ways once years ago and resolved to watch the latest Sunrise mecha series one episode a week, as it came out. Unfortunately for me, the latest Sunrise mecha series was Gundam SEED: Destiny, and so my faith is eternally shattered. Never again, I say.

This all factors into why mecha are largely anathema in anime nowadays. The "70s style" formula is "too childish (and a shameless toy commercial)," the "80s style" formula is "too plodding (and a shameless toy commercial)," and the "90s style" formula is "too much like Evangelion," and the "00 style" is "embodied by Gundam 00." There's always some sort of fairly large hurdles to overcome or inherent flaws that the viewer needs to accept, which they're not inclined to do unless they already liked some other aspect present in the show anyway: "giant robots" or "potentially gay boys" being the most popular of those aspects.

ArugulaZ said...

Gee, I didn't know Sandy Duncan starred in a Japanese cartoon.