Anyone even remotely familiar with the Macross franchise has heard the phrase “the Macross formula.” This expression was born out of fans’ desire to sell people on the series by distilling it down to its most essential ingredients: transformable planes, pop music and a love triangle. While we can debate whether or not this basic blueprint adequately encapsulates what Macross fundamentally is, there is no denying that each of the three elements are front and center in every iteration of Macross. Anecdotally speaking, the element of the formula that gets the least attention—or perhaps gets taken for granted as the easiest to pull off—is the love triangle. However, I think that incorporating a love triangle into your story, making it interesting and, maybe most importantly, not allowing the triangle to damage the integrity or likability of your characters is an extremely difficult narrative feat to pull off. Frontier is the Macross iteration that manages this feat most successfully.
Now, people who have seen both the Frontier TV series and the movies might stop me here. “Hold on,” they might say, “Kawamori is cheating with this triangle. Its conclusion is entirely different in the Frontier films than it is in the TV series. The reason you feel good about Frontier’s triangle is that you get two versions of its resolution.” There is a big discussion I could launch into here about Macross canon, but readers would be better served to just listen to Gwyn Campbell relay what Kawamori has said about it. It is pretty goddman incredible, ballsy as hell and completely sidesteps arguments about canonicity in the most meta way possible. Naturally, not everyone is going to find this concept satisfying. To these people I say (a) pfffffffft and (b) none of my arguments for why Frontier’s love triangle works so well hinge on the way that it resolves or even that it resolves. What is so good about the triangle is present in both versions of the story.
Let’s talk about old Macross for a second. Super Dimensional Fortress Macross was supposed to be shorter than it was. The show was supposed to end with the dramatic conclusion to the war with the Zentradi, yet it had proven to be so popular that Ishiguro, Kawamori et. al. were given a handful of “extra” episodes to work with after the climax of SDF’s war story. These episodes were meant to provide more insight into the characters and, ultimately, resolve the love triangle that had developed between Misa, Minmay and Hikaru. Some fans believe these episodes to be the series’ weakest since the only thing left for the show to do was to bring the triangle to its conclusion. That element of the formula wasn’t strong enough to carry the plot on its own, they feel. Though I don’t share this opinion, I can see where these folks are coming from, and Frontier ensures that this is never a problem by tightly integrating the triangle into other aspects of its story.
Frontier’s love triangle doesn’t exist for its own sake. As my good friend and podcast colleague, Shadon, puts it, “It’s there to benefit all the characters as far as driving their own development.” Yes, there is a lot of well-earned dramatic tension fans derive from “Will he Sheryl or will he Ranka?” This is by design, and it is tremendously effective in Macross Frontier. But, it works so well because we come to care about these three (or two?) characters, and the triangle gives us a unique lens to observe who they are and who they become. Through her relationship with Sheryl and her love for Alto, Ranka is able to take a step of faith and pursue a career in singing. Later, after seeing Sheryl in Alto’s arms, Ranka’s soul is crushed, and she believes she has lost her reason for signing. Yet, it is because this reason is taken from her that Ranka is able to realize her own agency and discover her own reason for singing. Also, since her vocals are effectively weaponized by the Frontier’s government, Ranka emerging as a songstress and later “losing her voice” are key points in Frontier’s war story. This is just one example of how the show’s love triangle, while providing romantic tension, remains tethered to the larger narrative of Macross Frontier.
Upon viewing Frontier a second time, I was struck by the relationship between Ranka and Sheryl. This is where it all could have gone so wrong for the show, and I don’t think Kawamori and co. get enough credit for not allowing Sheryl and Ranka to become Sheryl vs. Ranka. Though the two do have a mentor/trainee relationship, their love for Alto could have transformed that into an ugly, catty war of escalation. It could have so easily have gone into derivative and insulting territory a la “Two ladies allow a man to tear their friendship apart!” Frontier forgoes picking such low-hanging dramatic fruit, though, and decides to write a relationship with a bit more nuance. Despite the fact that each songstress knows full well that she is competing against the other on the stage and in the heart of Alto, there remains a strong mutual respect between the two young women. Sheryl never neglects her role in Ranka’s life as a teacher and never attempts to sabotage her young protégé, in spite of the reality that as Ranka’s fame increases, her own decreases. Similarly, Ranka does not stoop to rubbing her own rising stardom in the face of the declining Sheryl. She never lashes out or loses admiration for her longtime idol, which would be a very easy thing to do for a young person in love. “Alto wouldn’t want some obasan like you!” wouldn’t seem at all out of place in this medium. Thankfully, the creators seem to respect their characters.
I’m making these two ladies sound like saints: they’re not. They’re flawed. They fail. They have dark moments and make bad decisions. However, they never allow their professional and personal competition to ruin their friendship. The final scene of the TV series encapsulates this: Ranka tells Sheryl that she will not lose to her in either song or love. Sheryl returns nonverbal affirmation, but she has a lovely smile on her face. Ranka is smiling too. Love and friendship can thrive even in the midst of rivalry between friends. It is one of the triumphs of Macross Frontier that it manages to walk this line and also make it believable. Neither Ranka’s earnestness nor Sheryl’s benevolence feel insincere or false. Two characters take the moral high road and their relationship still manages to feel utterly true, fully human.