I wish more anime were directed like these two productions.
I recently watched both the Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn OVAs and the two Macross Frontier films. Both are excellent but, as fitting for these two franchises, in rather different ways. I generally do not expect the same things out of Gundam that I do out of Macross; however, by the time I’d finished watching these franchise installments I realized that both Gundam Unicorn and the Frontier films lean into a similar sort of cinematographic model. That is, both are grand spectacles in the truest sense, visually.
It has been a while since I last saw a blockbuster film (in theaters or at how), but I feel comfortable saying that the kind of thing I’m talking about here is not the same as the critically spurned direction of big budget Hollywood crowd-pleasers. This is not a matter of simply putting big explosions up on the screen. It is about imparting a sense of vastness to the viewer, and of depth. I might even say that, fundamentally, this is about sacrificing immersion for an attempt at creating awe. You see things in Gundam Unicorn and the Frontier films that you will never see anywhere else—at least, not in this way.
This is fascinating because while I’d consider neither Kazuhiro Furuhashi or Shoji Kawamori as auteur directors, there is a distinct quality to the cinematographic patterns in these two creations that sets them apartment from anime generally and other things like them specifically. Some examples:
Gundam Unicorn, Episode 1
Marida rotates around in the cockpit in the middle of the fight and the position of the sun behind her changes. This beauty of this moment, despite the fact that the shot composition itself is rather staid, is depressingly impossible to convey via still images—in motion, it’s both exhilarating and terrifying. But the ultimate effect is a visceral one. The sheer functionality of this shot becomes sublime in its verisimilitude.
Macross Frontier: The False Songstress
Visual direction that self-consciously apes the conventions of the theatre is a weakness of mine. This is completely different from the prior example, but the end effect is similar—the moment is effective simply because of the drama of the image. These are not scenes being lent additional thematic weight via the cinematography, but because they lean into the inherent external beauty of such shots, the eye is engaged as deeply as the mind is.
Gundam Unicorn, Episode 4
Audrey’s conversation with the old man is beautifully directed and lit (the shift from the earthy colors to the harsh brightness of the agents is excellent). Most of the shot framing here, with a few exceptions, is intricate without being particularly deep—and that’s okay. The focus on more intimate shots, the constantly changing angles, and the pretty constructions of the layouts means that there’s an almost hypnotically immersive effect, as if Unicorn wants to draw you into its world by every possible physical position. It’s a pleasure to look at—even if you turned the sound off and the subtitles off, you’d still be able to enjoy the scene.
Macross Frontier: The Wings of Goodbye
These two shots are more to the larger point I want to make. Although one is clearly coded as unhappy and the other as nearly exuberant, the sense of scale is palpable in both even if that scale is used to different ends. But these shots are only two examples of numerous other such images throughout both The Wings of Goodbye and The False Songstress that grant the feeling of vastness to the world the Frontier’s battle with the Vajra. That vastness may be the point that overturns the entire premise of this post.
Again, the idea I’m getting at here is that while both Gundam Unicorn and the Frontier films are visually impressive, neither of them use cinematography that I would consider as particularly “artsy,” at least not in the sense that I’d use the word for things like Revolutionary Girl Utena or Monogatari, where the visuals play important parts in the actual telling of the story. That’s storytelling via visuals; this is something more akin to storytelling through visuals. Certainly, Unicorn and the Frontier films benefit from the beauty of their visuals, but the images we see on screen do not add deeper meaning to the goings on of the story.
Perhaps this is ultimately a self-reflective exercise in breaking down my own preconceptions about what “good cinematography” ought to be. When I think of anime with good cinematography, things like the aforementioned shows, Hyouka, Kyousougiga, and Zankyou no Terror come to mind. I would not put Unicorn or the Frontier films in the same category as those shows (despite the fact that you could make note of similar techniques in all of them—long shots, foreground elements, camera angles, etc.). And yet, the visual component of each of them is undeniably impressive.
I suppose the best metaphor for understanding this dynamic actually already resides within one of the productions: Sheryl and Ranka’s setpiece performances. Visually stunning, conceptually creative, and generally compelling to watch, they are spectacle for the sake of spectacle, entertainment in excess. There is no deeper narrative meaning to these scenes or their visuals, they are purely there to be enjoyed. At this goal, they succeed marvelously.
A similar case can be made regarding the visuals of Gundam Unicorn and the Frontier films as a whole, I feel. Lack of narrative-visual resonance aside, these productions just look good. At times, they are even awe-inspiring on cinematographic terms alone.
It is also interesting to consider the different settings in which these vast visual feasts play out. Gundam Unicorn, as often seems to be the franchise preference (at least according to the installments I’ve seen), is centered, both locationally and emotionally, around the earth. In contrast, the Frontier films occur more or less in the midst of deep space—and of this we are constantly reminded.
And yet, the respective worlds of the two shows achieve this same sense of scale; this holds true whether we are seeing deep space battles, atmospheric reentry, idol performances, or simple conversations. One of the things I adore most about space operas is that they typically focus on relatively small groups of people involved in conflicts much bigger than them (Gundam is particularly good at this, while Macross is more superficial in its treatment of this idea). In Unicorn and the Frontier films, this idea is conveyed in a rather different way—because of how the visuals are handled, it’s less the conflicts that seem big and more the universes of the stories and the situations with in them. Some examples:
Gundam Unicorn, Episode 5
This is the Macross episode of Unicorn, complete with a robot catch. And these particular images (and the sequence from which they’re excerpted) is incredible. You can see, no, you can feel how gigantic the Unicorn is compared to Audrey, and because that feeling is made clear the moment itself benefits from the conflation of the intimacy of the Banagher’s Newtype instincts drawing him to Audrey, the clear growing intensity of their relationship, and the impersonal bigness of a giant robot cradling a tiny human in its hands. There is an overlaying, broadening effect. This is not a particularly beautiful composition; however, the largeness of it all grants a sense of gravity and significance visually. Spectacle becomes the nature of the moment, working hand in hand with the emotional impact.
Macross Frontier: The False Songstress
The treatment of the Frontier is implausibly huge, and for a reason—the film’s assistant director, Yasuhito Kikuchi, said in an interview that they made a conscious decision to treat the interior of the ship as 10x bigger than it actually was during battle sequences. I’ve already mentioned the idol performances once, but the boat on which Sheryl performs “射手座☆午後九時 Don’t be late” is just another example of the absurd grandeur of these exhibitions. And the battle that later descends upon the stage is likewise almost hilariously huge in scale—it is spectacle at its finest, combining sound and sight into a veritable storm.
And herein lies the sticking point—if the name of the game is spectacle, and spectacle is thus used to impart to the audience a sense of just how big and huge the space-worlds of Unicorn and the Frontier films are, must we then admit that there is a kind of spectacle auteurism at work here? This kind of grandiosity doesn’t just random appear in orbit; it must be worked for and making it happen is undeniably a talent.
Maybe the answer doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s just enough to say that I love both of these productions and that I adore what they strive for and achieve. I have seen nothing like them elsewhere—even Lord of the Rings has got nothing on the way these productions feel, perhaps because the ineffable monstrosity that is space lends itself particularly to the sensation. If space’s great expanse of nothingness dotted by tiny blips of existence can be adequately (a matter of degree, as perfection on this front is impossible) conveyed, then perhaps anything that occurs within it must, at least somewhat, adopt the inherent scale of the universe.
Something to ponder, and yes, Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn and the Macross Frontier films land delightfully far up the scale. Spectacle on all levels makes this possible.