Robotech, Macross and The Protoculture of Dreams

In this issue, we will take you on a trip through Japan during the mid eighties to explore how a once Super Dimensional Fortress Macross became Robotech.

With Sony about to produce a Robotech flick, time has come for us close the doors and discuss the role of Carl Macek and Harmony Gold USA in the history of Anime.

I have an attempt to murder to confess. Two, actually. One occurred a few years ago when I was around twenty-five years old in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I drove all the way from my office near Plaza de Mayo to my parents home with a bagged body in the truck of my car. I never meant to murder — few men do. At least their first time. My second attempt is, by all means, premeditated and fully conscious. But more on that later.

When I turned on the curb there was no doubt in my mind: I meant to dispose of the body. I wanted to erase any and all evidence of my victim’s existence.

“Leave her over there,” my mother said, “I will take care of that tomorrow.” So I did, then left.

When I turned on the curb there was no doubt in my mind: I meant to dispose of the body. I wanted to erase any and all evidence of my victim’s existence.

Today, almost ten years later, my mother pointed me to a patch of dirt in her humble little garden. “That’s where I buried her,” she said. My jaw dropped. There it was, my victim, growing tall and strong, its thick branches full of leaves, shining like small mirrors against the sun.

When I brought that plant to her in the middle of the night almost ten years ago, its condition was more than agonizing. It was minutes away from being manure. It stank to death.

Fortunately, my mother nursed my victim back to health, keeping me from turning into a plant murderer, and the plant itself from becoming manure, all while teaching me a very important lesson.

Where I saw rotten roots, she saw a beautiful tree that now grows taller than any building or house in the neighborhood, up past the ropes full of wet clothes waiting to dry out, reaching high into the skies and piercing holes on its way through the clouds.

She saw it the same way one little editor saw Harry Potter instead of the story of a kid with a magic wand back when there was no market for children’s books. She saw it the same way Pat Powers, owner of Celebrity Productions saw that Walt Disney’s mouse could bring smiles to the faces of hundreds of families when the big movie houses of the time only saw a rat wearing pants.

To see what’s not there is the treasure some entrepreneurs spend a lifetime seeking and never find, and it is the reason why, for the second time in my life, I will attempt to murder. This time, consciously aware of the consequences of my actions, for what I will try to kill is the misconception about the birth of the Robotech saga by using the best weapons in a writer’s toolbox — metaphors and stories.

For this, I will take you to a raining Japan in the early eighties. It is midnight and young Carl Macek of Harmony Gold has been commissioned to suggest a TV series to dub into the English language for American distribution. He is a talented upcoming producer who already had hands in the distribution of the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s successful (and controversial) Shaka Zulu miniseries to western audiences, but right now, Macek finds himself way over his head.

[…] young Carl Macek of Harmony Gold has been commissioned to suggest a TV series to dub into the English language for American distribution.

You see, back then Anime was virtually unknown outside Japan. You could travel to any point on the planet and people there wouldn’t know Japanese teens watched cartoons of their own. Everybody would assume kids everywhere watched American products being translated to other languages. What’s even more criminal, nobody had the slightest idea that there was a whole toy industry booming over in Japan thanks to Anime.

Somehow, Macek had caught wind of all this and was willing to bet his position at Harmony Gold that it could be good business for the company to secure the distribution rights of one of these strange but delightful attractive foreign cartoons.

There was a catch though; the weekday schedule for the American broadcast audiences required sixty-five episodes per run when most Anime series lasted for around forty. To make matters worse, the one Carl Macek was there to evaluate was only thirty-six episodes long.

Any other producer would have walked away right there and then. After all, there were plenty of miniseries being produced abroad with fairly popular actors that could have been easily bought and, if needed, translated for the American viewers.

But Carl Macek believed different. He saw the tree were others saw only rotten roots. In his mind, Anime was a far more lucrative venture than signing yet another miniseries. If done right, he could not only secure the rights for distribution for the Anime series, but an entire line of toys and even films.

It took quite a fight, but he managed to delay the company’s decision and fly to Japan, where he got off a plane not knowing the language, or anyone who could guide him, and with only enough money in his pocket for a couple of days. You might be thinking desperation was on the man’s face when he stepped off that plane, but you would be thinking wrong. He had the stare of those men going west during the Gold Rush. The stare of opportunity. Of the new.

There were no smartphones that could provide instant access to satellites back then. Instead, there were folding maps the size of a welcome mat one had to fight to fit into a pocket. No electronic dictionaries or translators either, but mere pocket books one had to thumb in the middle of busy streets.

But Carl Macek believed different. He saw the tree were others saw only rotten roots. In his mind, Anime was a far more lucrative venture than signing yet another TV miniseries.

If the necessity to call back home arose, one had to either ask to be allowed to use the phone (something extremely rare to be granted being a foreigner in the Japan of the eighties) or find loose change to go fishing for a pay phone that worked.

Food stands didn’t have photos for “gaijins” to point to their preference and say “Ah! That’s the one I want” either; one had to read, search into the small pocket dictionary, translate, then make the pick the way one walks on thin ice — with extreme care. As advanced as Japan might have been in the eighties, it would be a long time until technology made it into the foreign-friendly nation that it is today.

Carl Macek walked those crowded streets, alone. He deciphered those Martian hieroglyphics, spoke the language of the natives with signs and twisted words without help, and ran crazy mad from the hotel to the train station, until he found himself siting in the same room with no other than Noburo Ishiguro.

Noburo was the hand that helped Astro Boy fly like a kite across the future, fighting crime and injustice. He was also among the ones who sent the Space Cruiser Yamato to Mars so it could retrieve the device that was said would protect billions from the impeding invaders and their mortal radiation. He was also there to slide a key under Lupin the Third’s jail cell, so he could escape and rob banks and invaluable art masterpieces while outsmarting inspector Zenigata. Noburo was all that, and he was also one of the top men working in a new series titled Battle City Megaload for Studio Nue, which would eventually get renamed Super Dimensional Fortress Macross.

While what the Anime Studio Nue was working on was fairly new, it had seen a quiet success in Japan among adults, of all things! Mainly because of the themes its story touched — a complex love triangle in the middle of a space war, stirring away the escence of Macross from the usual comedy-for-kids most viewers at the time were used to watching.

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Besides Noburu’s talented team, the development of a possible line of toys that could be tied in with the series also weighed into Macek’s decision to go after Macross. But the Studio had only produced thirty-six episodes out of the sixty-five needed for American syndication, and sponsoring more episodes was out of the question — they would have to be hand drawn, which would take months if not years to produce.

What Carl Macek did next, though extensively debated, even to this day, was without a doubt born out of love for fiction. Instead of walking away he suggested Harmony Gold buy two more Anime series besides Macross, so they could be used to fill the rest of the slots needed for American syndication.

Can you believe that? The man was commissioned to Japan to find one miniseries and he phones back home, weeks later, telling them they shouldn’t buy just one, but three! What producer would do something of the kind these days?

What Carl Macek did next, though extensively debated, even to this day, was without a doubt born out of love for fiction.

Where others would see a brick wall, Macek saw the seed of an empire that would extend for over thirty-five years spanning an entire line of toys, films, TV and home video sequels, novelizations, comics and live concerts! There is even a real Valkire plane, straight from the TV series, touring the shopping malls of Japan! The damn thing transforms from a combat airplane into a two-legged robot, imitating the same mechanism Noburo and his team dreamed on paper! Thirty-five years of culture created because a man dared to love fiction instead of using it as mere business.

My God, thirty-five years, that’s almost as old as I am!

But for all this to happen, Macek had to first rewrite part of Super Dimension Fortress Macross. He adapted all thirty-six episodes to a whooping eighty-five by stitching together the two other Anime suggested to Harmony Gold, not as a butcher like many suggested over the years, but as an experienced First World War surgeon operating in the battlefield tent of a small hotel room in Japan, creating thus a storyline that connected all three unrelated series together surprisingly well.

That is how Super Dimension Fotress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada flew through Carl Macek’s open window in a rainy Tokyo’s summer night, got into his typewriter and became what millions would know as “Robotech”.

Yes! That typewriter resting over a plastic hotel room chair with the light summer rain coming in through the window became the Jordan River in which Icharu Hichiko was baptised as Rick Hunter! It was the moses in which the infamous Protoculture was given its mysterious and controversial meaning and also the door to a global market for the Japanese Anime industry.

Sins were committed along the way, though; entire scenes swept under the rug for their adult content, central plots moved back and forth, flashbacks made of sliced chunks of stills, names and nationalities changed, transformed, so the story could have continuity. All true. But what is also true is that, for some dammed reason, it all worked fantastically well! As an epic Space Opera, Robotech was great fun to watch, even to this day! Dragon Ball Z, Ranma 1/2, Evangelion and many others would sprout years later out of the seed that Carl Macek and Harmony Gold helped plant. The tree it became, growing taller than they ever could have imagined, branches crossing the oceans all the way to the Americas where, to this day, a new generation of animators dream influenced by the Japanese masters of the eighties.

We have only but started to taste the sweetness of Robotech’s fruits. Hopefully, my attempt to murder any misconception about Carl Macek, Harmony Gold and the Robotech saga has been successful. You would be amazed to know, if you don’t already, that before passing out, Macek went on to leave Harmony Gold and fund Streamline, responsible for bringing Robot Carnival, Doomed Megalopolis, Wicked City, Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro, Laputa Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and, most notably, Akira to western countries.

Good grief, to see all these seeds waiting to grow tall in someone’s imagination yard! A space opera over here, cops protecting Empire City from Big Boss’ crooks over there, perhaps a lost castle in the clouds that way, floating above towns and villages, untouched for centuries as Miyazaki’s Laputa was, a handful of vampire-demons coming straight from the entrails of Wicked City, crawling in the dark corners of the reality and Kiki, flying up, up into the morning sky over her mama’s broom to deliver a cake to an ungrateful teenager birthday girl.

How could anyone have resisted that! How could they have just walked by without seeing what Macek did! What would I give to have been in that room when he loaded a sheet of yellow paper on that typewriter and punched in the words “Rick Hunter” for posterity. Or next to him on the street, holding the umbrella as he phoned home to announce “everyone, Robotech is born!”

This article appeared in Medium, Oct 27, 2017.