Centuries after the galactic war between mankind and the alien Zentraedi humanity now travels the stars in huge spaceships searching for a new planet to call home. The new Macross-class ship, Macross Frontier, houses a vast artificial utopian environment loosely modeled on San Francisco with blue skies and familiar architecture, super-technology and cuddly, Pokemon-like alien wildlife. A sort of Cold War-like rivalry exists between Frontier and another Macross-class starship: Galaxy. In a gesture of peace Galaxy's top pop star: pink-haired Sheryl Nome (voiced by Aya Endo) performs to a crowd of thousands aboard Frontier. But the concert is interrupted by a sudden attack from a new alien threat: the giant insectoid Vajra. In the midst of all the chaos, pretty-boy kabuki actor (!) Alto Saotome (Yuichi Nakamura) grabs control of a new hi-tech robot jet-fighter to save the day. Not only does he manage to save Sheryl's life but also that of green-haired elfin alien nymphet Ranka Lee (Megumi Nakajima). Ranka's older foster brother, Captain Ozma (Katsuyuki Konishi) inducts an eager Alto into the SDF. Meanwhile Ranka's remarkable singing ability sets her on the path to pop stardom though her romantic dreams are crushed when Alto starts tentatively dating Sheryl. However, authorities suspect Sheryl of being a spy for Galaxy. It also looks like the target of all the Vajra attacks is actually Ranka.
Macross Frontier marks a comeback for the sprawling robot action space opera musical franchise that has been a staple of Japanese anime on film and television since the original Superdimensional Fortress Macross (1982). Aside from firing the imagination of generations of transformable robot and J-pop music fans, the original series sired a controversial American adaptation called Robotech along with a dazzling feature film: Superdimensional Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984) that saw the directorial debut of Shoji Kawamori, the animator that designed the anime's iconic robot jet-fighters. Although the poorly-received Macross II: Lovers Again (1992) was made without most of the original creative team save gifted character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto, Kawamori returned to remain a staple of the franchise contributing the outstanding, innovative Macross Plus (1995), the silly but fun Macross 7 (1995) that spawned a spin-off feature and two straight to video films, underwhelming CGI-fest Macross Zero (2004) and Macross Frontier. Originally a television series the story reached the big screen in the form of two, jazzed-up feature length anime the first of which is The False Songstress.
Like many a long-running SF franchise (Star Trek, Star Wars) Macross stands guilty of recycling familiar tropes. Yet more often than not the creative team does so with genuine invention. For seasoned Macross fans it is hard not to smile as Macross Frontier: The False Songstress trots out all the familiar ingredients: the cocky but insecure young space pilot, the wide-eyed ingenue struggling to navigate the perils of show-business, the love triangle, the J-pop song imbued with life-saving cosmic properties. On a visual level the film is truly spectacular. Sheryl's stage-shows are a triumph of trippy imagery and whiplash editing while the robot vs. kaiju space battles are edge of your seat exciting despite largely book-ending the narrative. As with the groundbreaking Macross Plus, Kawamori conjures a richly detailed, fully immersive environment via the fluid combination of traditional hand-drawn animation with computer graphics. Where Macross Frontier sadly falters is in the key areas of plot and characterization.
Earlier Macross sagas managed to function on dual levels, imbuing deceptively simple stories with layers of intriguing subtext, cultural satire, romance and adventure. By comparison the plot of Macross Frontier: The False Songstress is frustratingly amorphous, both too slight and too vague to engage on an emotional level beyond its dazzling visuals. For example the Vajra have no clear motives for doing what they do. The film gives us no understanding of what they are. They are just there. Much is made of Alto's background as an androgynous kabuki actor that abandoned the stage after a crisis of identity. Yet this ultimately proves mere throwaway backstory that has no impact on the plot. The characters veer from vapid in the case of sappy ingenue Ranka to annoyingly obtuse as the film fails to shed any light on supporting players from fellow robot pilots Michael (Hiroshi Kamiya) and Luca (Jun Fukuyama), blade-wielding cyborg spy Brera (Soichiro Hoshi) and Sheryl's sexy but sinister-seeming mentor Grace (Kikuko Inoue) who has a notable aversion to clothes. Only Sheryl exhibits anything like an interesting character arc as she develops beyond the flighty diva she initially seems to be to reveal layers of complexity, heroism and compassion.
On a more positive note Yoko Kanno once again contributes an outstanding score to a Macross movie. While not as innovative as her multifaceted soundtrack to Macross Plus, the score contains some infectious J-pop numbers that are quite lovely. For all the flaws inherent in the characters and disappointingly antiseptic quality of Risa Ebata's chara designs, at least voice actresses Aya Endo and Megumi Nakajima sing beautifully. At times Sheryl and especially Ranka seem like a step back from the quietly forceful heroines of previous entries, routinely put in their place by a 'sensible' male. Fortunately they both come into their own to play crucial roles at the finale. To anyone but a Macross fan the climax will seem ludicrous but remember, this is the SF anime franchise where a pop song can save the universe. The story continues in Macross Frontier: The Wings of Goodbye (2011).