Robotech completely changed how I watched television and film.
I was in middle school and like all the boys my age I would come home and watch the afternoon cartoons and shows. They included GI Joe, He-Man, Galaxy Rangers, Voltron, and Thundercats. They were incredibly good – particularly Voltron and Galaxy Rangers – but as I got a little bit older, they began to ring kind of hollow. By this point I was really into science fiction and fantasy books and the stories seemed richer than what I was seeing on the screen. The TV stories were pretty simple and the characters were never really in any danger. The good guys ALWAYS won in those shows and I began to grow disenchanted with them.
One day, a new show called Robotech entered into the line-up. I wasn’t unfamiliar with anime but this was pre-internet so it wasn’t readily available. A few friends had some VCR tapes which I had seen in passing but hadn’t paid attention. So, I watched an episode and was impressed with the exotic artwork. Then I saw a fighter jet get hit by an alien missile. In my jaded mind, I was prepared to see the pilot parachute out of the burning aircraft just like GI Joe – except that wasn’t what happened. The pilot, on fire, flew out of the aircraft and fell to his death. The alien ship then conducted a strafing run over troops and they jackknifed into the ground as alien bullets ripped through them.
I was shocked, I was hooked, and I never watched GI Joe or He-Man ever again.
Robotech has an interesting reputation among anime purists. It is reviled in some corners as a bastardized amalgamation of three separate and superior Japanese cartoons thrown together and redubbed for an American audience. It wasn’t an unfair assessment because back then, it was common for edgy Japanese cartoons to be censored and reedited to remove more ‘adult’ content for sensitive American children. Purists absolutely didn’t appreciate it. However, Robotech’s popularity endures to this day because it served as a gateway drug into different and edgier fare, even with the reediting and redubs, than what anybody had seen before from cartoons.
It certainly did for me. In an age where storylines were sanitized and episodic, Robotech was a serialized story where every episode built on the previous ones and raised the stakes for the heroes. It wasn’t afraid to throw some complex concepts at kids – war, destruction; hate, fear, and what it did to people were recurring themes. Sure, the good guys did win in the end but unlike American cartoons, there was a body count associated with the victory.
The best part of Robotech was the idea that bad things happened to good people. I know that’s a strange statement but the fact that heroes could and often did die raise the stakes in a way GI Joe could never manage. Battles were lost, friends were killed, widows grieved, the war was horrible – but it was riveting because finally I was able to watch something which matched the complexity and moral ambiguity of the books I was reading. Ultimately the lesson I took away from Robotech was it was impossible to appreciate courage in any medium without real danger of failure and death.
It is a lesson which I think many TV shows and movies should learn – if you want to make an epic worth watching, you have to be prepared to kill everyone in it. Otherwise, we are just watching people parachute out of burning aircraft in the nick of time over and over again.