Robotech was the introduction to an entire generation to the wonders of anime (at the time called Japanimation), and (perhaps more importantly) of expansive genre entertainment. That is, entertainment in a specific genre (in this case sf/space opera) that had a complicated and evolving serialized plot with real drama (characters development and even death) that eventually led to a conclusion. This was not the norm for youngsters watching animated television in the ’80s, where every episode of He-Man or Thundercats was essentially self-contained and interchangeable.
Robotech was a TV series that was produced from the footage of three unrelated anime TV series into one epic story. It was a syndicated series, and the rules of syndication required a certain number of episodes: to get 85 shows, Carl Macek of Harmony Gold fitted together the animation of Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA into a multi-generational storyline about the battle of humanity against various alien races, all for the control of a power source called Protoculture.
Maybe for the latter-day archivist, Robotech serves as an example of cultural misappropriation. For a suburban kid in the ’80s, it was a fantastic (if weirdly visually uneven – these three anime series did not look the same) glimpse into a completely different world. It seemed, in contrast to the other series of the day, something worth taking seriously. Much of this was helped by the production values – while the animation was as TV choppy as anything on American networks, the attention to mechanical detail of those fantastic transforming jets (the Robotech Alpha Fighters) were unlike anything else on television at the time.
All of which leads to this two-disc set, The Shadow Chronicles, packaged with Love Live Alive, two 90-minute movies set in the Robotech universe, and each exhibiting in turn the greatness and great flaws that mark the series, and the eras of animation in which they were made: one produced a few years ago with CGI, the other made from clips of the original hand-animated shows.
The Shadow Chronicles is an original movie, screened at independent film festivals in 2006 (though, to my knowledge and minimal research, never getting a real theatrical release.) It continues the story of humans fighting for the survival of their planet right where the Robotech TV series left off.
The accompanying film, Love Live Alive, is a feature-length recap of the final third of the Robotech TV series, as told by Yellow Dancer (pop star and soldier whose street name is Lancer, one of the main protagonists of the series) to a reporter before he puts on a big concert celebrating the end of the war. It is, indeed, a 90-minute clip-show.
For an audience interested in an entertaining experience, I can’t imagine a duller time. For an old fan of Robotech who hasn’t seen much of it since his age reached double digits, it was interesting. I was reintroduced to characters I hadn’t seen for a long time (including in scenes I’m sure had not been broadcast on American TV – Yellow Dancer pretends to be a woman as a disguise. I remember it being very ambiguous when I was a kid, while it is explicit in scenes from the very beginning of Live Love Alive.)
A central aspect of these latter day Robotech episodes was the appearance of Ariel, a humanoid version of the invading species the Invid. She was sent as a spy, but she came to identify with her human protectors, and was integral in ultimately brokering a relatively peaceful solution to the entire conflict.
This is shown, both at the end of Live Love Alive and at the beginning of The Shadow Chronicles. The Shadow Chronicles focuses on the main human fleet and their attempts to fight the Invid with new technology given to them by a new ally race, the Haydonites, including extremely destructive new missiles, the Neutron-S. Meanwhile, Admiral Rick Hunter of the SDF-3 has communication troubles, and it is up to Captain Grant of the Icarus to find where he is, and what he needs.
If this rush of alien and ship names just looks like a headache, Robotech isn’t for you. It is military SF, and while the series dealt with the different cultures and attitudes in various battlefronts, Shadow Chronicles is about neat ships shooting each other and flying around in space. There are attempts at character depth (Lt. Marcus, whose sister was to marry hero of Live Love Alive era’s shows Scott Bernard, has a genocidal hatred of the Invid and doesn’t take too kindly to his almost brother-in-law replacing his dead sister with the humanoid Invid Ariel) but the film is too heavily packed with action to give any of it much weight. It doesn’t help things that the first 35 minutes are mostly scene setting, with some major characters barely introduced before they make heroic sacrifices that affect the audience not at all.
The Shadow Chronicles is essentially six episodes worth of show packed into about three episodes worth of time. The first part drags, the latter parts are too rushed, with character conflicts introduced and dealt with almost at once. While there are intriguing aspects of the story – the humans new allies the Haydonites have a long history with the enemy Invid – it ultimately feels more like an expensive prospectus for investors rather than a whole story on its own, a glimpse at what a new season of Robotech might look like, and not a real feature film with a self-contained story.
Visually, Shadow Chronicles is a mix of 3d and 2d animation (though all of it was done directly on computers.) Watching this relatively modern production after the 90 minutes of clips from a cheap TV series made 20 years previously is like having a class in what has been gained, and lost, in the transition away from traditional hand-drawn forms. The animation is generally smooth, and in the 3d scenes too smooth.
Although it is odd to say that fights out in space seem too weightless, it is the case. And while 3d cg animation makes it much easier to have thousands upon thousands of ships on the screen, this is not necessarily a good thing. In the enormous fleet battles that occur in Shadow Chronicles, it’s difficult to get a sense of what is going on at any one time, since there are so many things flying by the screen, making it an uninteresting chaos (kind of what happens in the latter-day Star Wars films, but at a much lower budget.)
Another visual problem with this modern production is more subtle. The CG-colored and animated objects lack texture. One of the visual styles that’s prevalent in manga (and subsequently anime, which draws many of its visual cues from manga) is the simplified character drawings contrasting highly detailed environmental or mechanical art. In anime, these were then hand-colored, which brings another level of texture that can’t be matched by the more uniform and consistent tools that computers bring to bear. While the relatively simple character designs in the clips on Live Love Alive had a few flat colors, the colors wouldn’t look flat, since they were hand painted. In the computer-animated Shadow Chronicles, a flat patch of light pink looks the same over the whole area it covers, on each frame, frame to frame. Similarly, while the ships themselves would have textures instead of flat colors, they repeat in a uniform way. While one may not consciously note the repetition, it makes a difference. Even if Shadow Chronicles’ character designs were exceptional (and they’re not – too generic, particularly with the female characters who all seem to have the exact same body), the flat-colored presentation makes everything a little boring to look at.
The voice performances are also uneven – some fine, some oddly terrible, most just passable in that anime dubbed way (even though this was an original Western animation production, and these English voice performances are original to this show.) When the film ends, though the personal and direct conflicts introduced in the story are settled, there’s clearly a lot more story left in the Robotech universe, which makes Shadow Chronicles more like an opening salvo, than a concluding chapter.
Love Live Alive is, as I’ve said, a clip show. I can’t imagine it being interesting to anyone new to the series, and would have been interminable to anyone without a historical and nostalgic interest in the series. The Shadow Chronicles tells a fairly interesting military SF story without much help from its characters, or its visual style. It feels like a small part of a bigger story, which might have been a poor choice. Taking the chance of using this film to put a cap on the Robotech universe could have made for a more memorable experience, one that felt like a film and not a bunch of episodes of TV. It was fun for an old Robotech fan to return to an old fictional universe, but it would be difficult for me to recommend it to anybody who didn’t already have an emotional, and maybe mostly nostalgic, attachment to the franchise.
Notes on the Discs: Love Live Alive is based on an old direct-to-video Mospeada feature, though it is 40 minutes longer, and contains some new animation. It was made for 4:3 TV ratio, but this feature is 16×9. This leads to some squashed out or over-zoomed compositions. The Shadow Chronicles looks better (with the caveats discussed in the review.) On the Shadow Chronicles disc, there is a 45-minute documentary about the production of the film which is surprisingly decent for what is ultimately a direct-to-video feature, a few more feautrettes of Robotechiana, some deleted scenes (many of which aren’t really deleted, but just pieces of draft footage) and a commentary track on the film with the director, writer, and composer, all of which (from my minimal internet research) were available on the Collector’s Edition release of the DVD.