Why Alcatraz? A brief study in Macross technology.

“Star-crossed souls slow dancing, retreating and advancing, across the sky until the end of time.”

-DeVotchKa, “Till the End of Time.”

Future human technology in anime (additionally in other media fiction) is often better aligned with the whimsy of the imaginary than current technology. We desperately to believe that such things as flying cars in skyways, traveling by plastic tubes, or food materializers could exist and thanks to the wonderful world of animation, they can. Thanks to the wonderful world of imagination, along with intelligent-sounding faux-scientific terms, they can also appear to be legitimate road for humanity to travel.

When Ranka Lee headlines the Macross Frontier version of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, she does it at a venue that appears oddly familiar. Frontier Alcatraz Island is identical to current Alcatraz Island. With all of the fanciful notions we have of our own ability to advance technologically, one would think that The Frontier would have some sort of fold-space prison, akin to the Phantom Zone in Superman II. Instead, Frontier Alcatraz suggests that we, when allowed more time to develop, will continue to trod well-worn paths.

The Macross franchise’s technology as a whole is more grounded in how humanity could actually progress. Yes, there are massive spaceships, transforming robot fighter planes, and transforming robot spaceships; however, from the microcosm of the Valkyrie fighter to the Macross itself, technology in Macross is comfortably relatable.

The original Super Dimension Fortress Macross begins with the human restoration of an alien vessel that had fallen to Earth: the titular Macross. Upon the Macross’s initial launch, nothing seems to go as planned. The gravity systems migrate from the ship, the cannon fires unbidden by the Macross crew, and the hardly-understood Fold System plants them nowhere near where they had told it to. In short, none of the alien technology, which is advanced and presumed superior by the human crew, works smoothly.

The most innovative technology in SDF Macross hails from the alien Zentradi, not from humanity, the exception being the Valkyrie fighter plane design. Half giant robot, but more importantly half fighter plane, it’s easier to see the transition from current military designs to the Valkyrie.

The heart of the Macross.
The heart of the Macross.

Additionally, there is the city of people displaced by the initial fight who end up reconstructing their entire city in the belly of the Macross. The city appears exactly as it did on Earth, complete with an artificially-created sky. It’s a city that will be wrenched apart (with fairly catastrophic damage each time) every time the ship undergoes a transformation, but it provides the people aboard with a familiar and comfortable technology and habitat; the Macross equivalent of adding red, flower-patterned curtains to your outdoor tree-house.

Fast-forward to Eden of Macross Plus, which looks nearly identical to San Francisco, California complete with suspension bridge. New Edwards Air Force Base is the Macross version of Edwards Air Force Base, also in California. The future technology is limited to the valkyries and the holographic billboards for virtual idol, Sharon Apple. Nothing is fanciful aside from the odd fauna seen in the later episodes of the OVA. Again, a simple line can be drawn from real life technology to SDF Macross to Macross Plus.

The audience is also introduced to Sharon Apple herself: a virtual, holographic construction that resembles an emotional laser light-show on steroids. Sharon may intoxicate audiences with technology; however, it’s revealed that she isn’t the complete virtual idol as advertised. She needs the human emotion of her “manager,” Myung, to achieve maximum success and suggestive sway. When the finalized program of her emotions (without Myung) goes haywire upon release, it’s Myung’s own emotions that both complicate and solve the problem. Our own technology not only can’t surpass the human imagination, it is also is unable to correctly duplicate or interpret the mystery of the human heart.

Venturing further, one arrives at Macross Frontier, which again duplicates San Francisco –– Ranka scooting up and down the hills of The Frontier may as well be Stephanie Tanner from Full House on her bicycle –– as well as provides us with a few more technological advances. The Frontier itself is made up of a series of pods that have been formed to look like Earth (resembling colonies in Gundam). Once again, technology is primarily being used to recreate a prior habitat. As it was in the original Macross, we trawl the skies more because we must rather than because we want to.

Similarly, the technology that deviates most from what I know, as a viewer, and what has been developed in previous iterations of Macross comes from the alien Vajra. The flashiest advances that humanity has developed are all related once more to entertainment. The theatrics of Sharon Apple have evolved into idol singers putting on an entire stage show by interacting and singing with projections of themselves in performances that explode with electricity and light. If we will then have the capability to captivate with such technological prowess, then why Alcatraz?

Macross suggests that our hearts lie not in advancing technology out of curiosity, scientific achievement, or broad reaching ambition, but out of comfort and the desire to entertain ourselves. That, instead of concerning ourselves with dimensional prisons or food materializer machines, we will develop entertainment and art first and foremost. Macross becomes a place where one can be working at a Chinese food restaurant and become the Super-Dimensional Cinderella the next day, complete with a debut concert with enough electricity to seemingly power a planet.

When we need a functional plane, we will build a Valkyrie. When we need a place to live, we will reconstruct our old cities. When we need a prison, we will build Alcatraz.

But when we need to entertain? That’s when we’ll create something truly magical. No wonder I love this franchise so.


  1. Without denying your ideas on how technology evolved in the franchise, the very romantic, and quite unromantic explanation for this is that Kawamori himself is batshit in-love with San Francisco.

    Surely Frontier City involves Shibuya, and Sydney too… but San Francisco is his love (he made it clear during a anime con there in the early ’90s when he came with Kanno).

    If you look at Frontier City, it has the Golden Gate, the streetcar, the hilly terrain, the shops, and of course… Alcatraz.

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