Thinking back to cartoons from the 1980s puts you in grave danger of breaking down under the pull of nostalgia and weeping while your boss watches in alarm. We were impressionable creatures as kids. Though we might be uncomfortable to admit it now, how many of us found role models in heroes like Optimus Prime, Lion-O or (God help us) Braveheart the Lion?
I've noticed that when people get together and start gabbing about the cartoons that guided them to the televisions on early Saturday mornings, they have a tendency to claim that cartoons back then were so much better than the crap that's on the air now. I contest that claim, though I probably take my life into my own hands by doing so. Regardless, I was asked elsewhere to assemble a feature relating to '80s cartoons, and it kind of put things into perspective for me. For instance, I've been watching Captain N: The Game Master recently and…wow, it was shameless. No wonder my mother hated me watching it.
While sifting through the pile of shows available at the time, an old truth made itself known once again: In every era and in every medium, you have bad offerings, you have mediocre offerings, and then you have one or two gems that were put together by a team that might've given half a damn about the quality of the final product. The shining star in the pantheon of '80s cartoons was undoubtedly Robotech, a futuristic mech-based anime with a surprisingly good--though controversial--localisation.
Until the introduction of Robotech, it had been standard practise to make anime as kid-friendly as possible. This was often done through obvious censorship such as the removal of character deaths, lewd jokes or through the blurring of some character's bare bum. More disturbing was the dumbing-down of morals and themes until the affected anime didn't deliver much beyond "Hey, don't hit your sister."
Robotech, on the other hand, broke the mould by working on the assumption that perhaps young viewers could appreciate a deep, ongoing storyline. In fact, production / distribution company Harmony Gold USA added depth to the Robotech series by splicing three unrelated anime series together, including Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Calvary Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada. The result was…surprisingly clear and competent, especially compared to later anime that used the same trick. The finale for the first season of Sailor Moon, for instance, threw several episodes into one big showdown, making for a confused jumble rather than an epic battle--and that was using material from one show, never mind three.
Robotech's "assembled" story had the opposite effect. It unwrapped a battle-torn universe where wars didn't just end because the good guys happened to foil the villain's plot in half an hour. In fact, the war lasted for generations, tuning kids into a very sad fact about life, death and war: Sometimes this shit just drags on forever. In truth, splicing three anime series together was necessary for syndication purposes (for which Harmony Gold needed considerably more episodes than what was available with the original Japanese source material), but thanks to careful handling, Robotech is a rare example of what can be achieved with competent editing.
Of course, it also depends on whom you ask. Nowhere are purists more rampant than in the anime fandom, especially since the rise of the Internet has clued us into long lists of what was changed or cut for American audiences. One side argues that the original anime should not have been altered because it ruins the message the original creators of the series were trying to convey at the time. The other side argues that the amalgamation America received was actually better than the separated Japanese series. In the middle are lots of fans who simply enjoyed Robotech for what it was at the time, and feel a little dazed after eating the forbidden fruit and learning the truth about the series. Why should you stop loving something just because its parentage is a little questionable?
Fortunately there's no arguing that Robotech's introduction was pretty badass. I'll also relent that although the quality of '80s cartoons were questionable, cartoons today definitely underestimate the power of a catchy theme song when it's allowed to run its course for a full minute--or longer. Robotech's introduction was a full minute and thirty seconds long, which is standard for anime. It was also unique for the time because it was instrumental, whereas most cartoons were preceded by a jingle thick with lyrics.
So enjoy your flying robot nostalgia. Robotech deserves to be looked back upon fondly.