SDF Macross is perhaps the strongest progenitor of compelling female characters compared to earlier mecha anime. However that doesn’t make it perfect.
In 1982, director Noboru Ishiguro debuted his exciting new giant robot, space opera series Super Dimension Fortress Macross to the excitement of mecha-loving otaku everywhere. It had been two years since the finale of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam, and fans of the genre were itching for a series geared towards older audiences. SDF Macross featured the voice talent of Mari Iijima as Lynn Minmay, one of the two main love-interests and a fashionable idol character—a role that would launch Iijima into instant fame. Ever since SDF Macross’ initial airing, the series has become an icon of the genre, best known for its catchy pop songs and love-triangles that would later be a hallmark of the franchise.
Those in the West, however, probably best know about SDF Macross as the first “saga” of the Robotech series. While sharing plenty of similarities with the original, Robotech stands alone as its own unique project produced by Harmony Gold USA. SDF Macross’ original animated film Do You Remember Love, is still considered a classic and has been referenced by Gainax and other major studios. SDF Macross is, in short, a staple of the mecha genre, and perhaps the strongest progenitor of compelling female characters compared to earlier mecha anime. However that doesn’t make it perfect.
Our main boy is named Hikaru Ichijou—all he wants to do is fly. In Robotech, he’s known as “Rick Hunter,” perhaps the strongest deviation when it comes to the Japanese name localization. Hikaru’s passion for aviation doesn’t necessary translate into a talent for understanding (much less emphasizing) with women. On several occasions, he’s strongly against listening to his female commander, Misa Hayase. Hayase is a spirited, no-bullshit personality woman who graduated at the top of her military education, earning her a spot in the headquarters of the SDF Macross ship. In other words, she’s the protagonist’s boss—although Hikaru’s constant belittling of her seems more like harassment rather than ham-fisted flirting. His comments towards Hayase during his first “mission” aka a hijacking of a Valkyrie mecha, is translated in Robotech as “an old sourpuss,” which becomes an ongoing gag. Hayase is repeatedly referred to as the “mature” option for Hikaru compared to the young blossoming idol Minmay. All this teasing is supposedly a form of endearment, however re-watching the series now, I find it more so bordering workplace harassment in its perpetuity rather than comedic.
The most defining moment of Hayase and Hikaru’s relationship is rather early in the series—when Hikaru’s team including Hayase are captured by the evil alien Zentraedi forces, they are forced to enact the “human ritual” of kissing. What is bizarre about this particular scene, however, is Hikaru’s insistence that women shouldn’t be allowed to lead certain missions, specifically this mission. The comment is definitely one of Hikaru’s shittier moments and surprisingly was kept almost word-for-word in the original 1984 Robotech dub. Surely this wouldn’t give young boys wrong ideas about women. Nonetheless, Hayase seems to fall head over heels for the amateur pilot-turned-lieutenant Hikaru, leaving much to be desired writing-wise.
The development of Hayase and Minmay’s motivations to end up with Hikaru isn’t the best. Hayase is depicted as acting irrational, and being overwhelmed with “women’s emotions” during important missions, such as sitting in a room reading books thinking about her brother after activating a bomb on an abandoned Mars headquarters. It seems as though the writers were deliberately trying to put Hayase into ridiculously perilous situations that enforce the damsel in distress trope, rather than emphasize her role as Hikaru’s superior and commander. It’s almost painful to watch such an interesting character be reduced to office-chatter with her female co-workers and wistful pining just for the sake of romantic interest.
As for Minmay, well—she’s Minmay. Perhaps the blueprint for the anime idol fever raging nowadays, Minmay was clearly designed and written as a flighty fanservice character. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t have her strong points—compared to other women in mecha series before SDFMacross, she had far more development character-wise. Minmay, a girl with humble beginnings at a Chinese restaurant, becomes a pop idol sensation aboard the SDF Macross ship while her “good friend” Hikaru blows up aliens. In the io9 article “Why Robotech is the greatest love story of the 20th century,” Nabokov is invoked for his depiction of Lolita and how the novel has been touted for its supposed romantic appeal. Minmay is definitely Macross’ version of Dolores Haze—naive and eager to please under specific circumstances, but inevitably unable to commitment to anything long-term or special.
Minmay is the shiny, exciting youthful option for Hikaru, but her characterization is only Still, Minmay is teased as a feasible option for Hikaru despite all this by the writers—inevitably dropping her as Hikaru settles for the mature old sourpuss Hayase instead. Minmay lives in a world of glamour and fantasy Hikaru will just never be a part of—while Hayase is stable in the military bureaucracy, somewhere Hikaru has so far established himself as a working adult. It’s not fancy, but it’s reality.
On a side note, I’d also like to mention the weird merchandising tactics used in the US release of Robotech. Around the mid 1980s, a line of Matchbox toys were produced called “The Women of Robotech” which featured Hayase and Minmay as Barbie-esque dress-up dolls going on dates with Hikaru/Rick. Probably the most interesting part is watching the kids put the dolls inside a jet plane and flying off—when was the last time you saw that in a girl’s toy commercial? The girls are even depicted as role-playing on a keyboard and headset with the commander Hayase/Lisa doll. It’s a kinda neat thought-bubble into what Hayase’s character could’ve been, right before it’s popped by the doll prettying herself up for a date. I suppose it was impossible to have the Hayase doll come with her own command deck while the Minmay doll is shown flying in a military vehicle—although I have a suspicion those parts would’ve only been available with Rick/Hikaru. Regardless, it’s an interesting moment in Macross’ history when it comes to the depiction of its women, and shows that at least Harmony Gold was trying to market Robotech to an audience other than boys.
SDF Macross is ultimately a product of its time, albeit one than can still be appreciated today. It has stunning action sequences and creative character design, and definitely stood out against other mecha titles in the early 1980s. However, it’s treatment of women like Minmay and Hayase is dubious at best, and outright disrespectful at worst. Plenty of side characters such as the bridge bunnies and Hayase’s friend Claudia are also noteworthy. Claudia herself is unique for her romance with Roy Fokker, making them one of the first interracial couples on animated TV. Hayase and Minmay, on the other hand, reflect a future where women still hadn’t been given the same treatment as men, and are regularly infantilized and seen as shiny prizes. Inevitably, other entries of the Macross franchise would address this treatment of women in series like Macross 7 and Macross Frontier. But as for SDF Macross, it’s a self-encapsulated snowglobe of a world where gender still divides people and their capacity to find self-fulfillment in lukewarm, juvenile romantic pursuits.