Some final comments on Macross Frontier part 1: ‘Canon’, creators and the fan community

Would the real Lynn Minmay please step forward?

Would the real Lynn Minmay please step forward?

Partake in the enjoyment of a franchise with works that span several different types of media, and you will inevitably encounter what I call the ‘canon obsession’. As one of the most well known Macross bloggers on the internet observed:

We also are, rightly or wrongly, continuity fanboys. We like our coherence, consistently, and symmetry. This is why Kawamori’s cavalier attitude towards canon is a curse upon our houses. We like looking back, remembering love for a single narrative continuity.

The “cavalier attitude” that ghostlightning refers to is what some derise as the ‘anything goes’ approach, which is how many fans interpret the various statements by series creator Kawamori Shouji, dating back to the 1980s, that all shows the shows and films produced in the Macross franchise are in-universe fictional takes based on events and individuals in the ‘real’ Macross history. The author’s notes for the Frontier novels, along with Kawamori’s endorsement of several manga iterations of Frontier, suggest that this approach extends to the other products that have his approval. That is to say, the TV show, the films, the manga and the novels all have the same level of validity in Macross ‘canon’. Which is also to say, given the many differences and inconsistencies across all these versions of the story, that there is no coherent and consistent ‘canon’ that fans can count on as being factual history. We will never know exactly what Hikaru, Minmay and Misa were like. We will never know if Michel actually died or not, nor if Alto really disappeared and never came back…

At least, that’s what some fans are concerned about. To those taking a quick look at the Macross fandom today, there might appear to be one question that everyone is concerned with: what was the real outcome of the main love triangle? Did Alto and Sheryl really get together? Or did real Ranka actually have a chance sometime after those real events in the history of the Macross universe? Using various interpretations of Kawamori’s ‘they’re all fictional’ comments, along with their own interpretations of what happened in one iteration or another, fans continue to argue for their own ship.

Which is mostly all fine and dandy in my book…well, the shipping part at least. I can largely ignore that and happily keep exploring the universe on my own. However, I have seen far too many people twist and interpret Kawamori’s words to fit their own theories about particular works. Given that I am one of the people who make his words available for the perusal of those in the West, the fact that my work has been used to perpetuate misperceptions and untruths about Kawamori and the people he works with gravely concerns me. Hence, I would just like to offer some research and comments on ‘canon’ and ‘canon’ in Macross that will hopefully help straighten the foundation of the debate. Pardon the long introduction, but so begins the first of three posts on Macross ‘canon’.

Contextualising the debate: what exactly do we mean by ‘canon’?

The use of the term ‘canon’ is arguably one of the roots of the debate, for not only is there no consensus on what it means, but people use it in several different but related ways. Its use in the field of literature is somewhat different to that which is used in popular culture: a literary canon is a collection of works that is considered an authoritative representation of a particular type of work. Here are some examples of such canons: American, black (American), black (feminist), Australian, English, Western, Hispanic, Spanish, classical Japanese…the list could go on. To go into a few of these in a little more detail, works by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Shakespeare are obvious additions to the English literary canon, with The Pillow Book, The Tale of Genji and many of the poetry anthologies having a place in the classical Japanese one. And obviously, each of these canons can be broken down even further – poetry anthologies such as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu can arguably be considered one such sub-division, given that they are often called a representative body of a particular form of poetry in a particular period.

Arguably the Grand Daddy of them all...

Arguably the grand daddy of them all…

The use of the term ‘canon’ in popular culture is slightly broader. One use draws on the idea of the literary canon, in that those works that belong to a particular fictional canon are the ones considered to be part of an official, authoritative list from which all the particulars about events, character personalities, places, vehicles, systems etc etc in the fictional universe can be drawn. A work that belongs to that list, no matter who it is authored by, is considered a canon work: examples include all the official Marvel comics on Spiderman, the DC comics on Batman, and all the officially endorsed titles in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. A second use – arguably the one most of interest to fan communities – is the idea that there is one canon, one version of all the particulars that should be considered true across all of those works. As one might expect, with the expanded universes having contributions by numerous writers and creators, the decision as to which developments belong to any particular canon can be rather controversial.

There are several ways in which creators and fans alike have addressed this puzzle. The most straightforward approach is simply to further divide the body of canon works. For example, fans are now referring to the most recent Batman films as “Christopher Nolan’s Batman”. All of the characters in his iteration are different from those in other iterations, be they comic, film, TV or other (are there other media in which Batman has appeared?). Generally, the words I associate with Nolan’s Batman are “real”, “dark” and “human”, as opposed to the “camp” of the TV series with Adam West, or the “kooky” Tim Burton version. Within each of these subdivisions then, there can be a solid continuity, depending on how much care the creators wish to take with it.

Another approach, and the one that appears to be preferred by fans of franchises that started their lives on celluloid (or the modern equivalent), is to assign different levels of canonicity to each particular work. Star Trek and Star Wars are the two most famous franchises that follow this approach. Until at least 2004, the official Star Trek website actually stated that “Almost without exception, it is the live-action series and the movies that are considered canon.” (The exceptions apparently include two novels penned by Jeri Taylor, as well as some details that appear in other parts of the franchise.) On the other hand, Leland Chee, the full time maintainer of the Holocron, the database of all things that happened ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far far away’, categorizes all works in the Star Wars universe according to varying levels of canon. Whilst ‘secondary canon’ can add details to the franchise, such as introducing beloved characters like Boba Fett, they often contain other flaws such as having Princess Leia singing a carol… Most fans, I’d say, appreciate it when those little ‘details’ that would ruin their image of a series are decidedly disincorporated.

However, no matter which approach creators take, one thing that gets to fans is when creators exercise too tight a control over their franchises. JKR’s famous wizarding world is one of the more popular recent additions to a group that includes Buffy’s Sunnydale in the way of fans loving and hating the creators of their beloved fandoms, but what happens with the Star Wars canon (see the same article above) is arguably the king of this group. Chee may be employed full-time to maintain the Holocron, but GWL still retains relatively tight control over certain key aspects of his creation. On several occasions, he has roused the ire of many Star Wars aficionados, with the most famous incident now immortalised by the phrase “Han shot first.” Personally, whilst I accept that that Lucas can control ‘important additions‘ to the universe he created, I will always blame him for the devastation of the Solo family.

But that’s not the only thing that gets to fans. As the semi-recurrent furore over Kawamori Shouji’s take on Macross ‘canon’ shows, some fans also hate it when creators do not establish a detailed, fixed canon. I’ll go into this in a bit more detail in my third post, but from my perspective, the main reason behind this discontent is that it allows some fans to deny an outcome that most people (on both sides, might I add) accept, and keep pushing what others call ‘fanon’. The ire this causes for many is obvious – in the case of the triangle, shippers of the winning ship get incredibly tired of being regaled with interpretations of scenes and dialogue that they simply cannot agree with, for reasons involving both logic and literary techniques like contrast and symbolism.

...come on, just get over it already!

…come on, just get over it already!

The ire for the rest of us is a little less obvious…speaking for myself, I’m thoroughly sick of the debate on the triangle and how absolutely everything points to how so-and-so is perfect for so-and-so. I’d much rather discuss Kawamori’s philosophy and why it makes so much more sense than other approaches to canon. To do that, however, we first need to look at the idea of ‘canon’ in Japan.

If it exists, that is…

TBC…in part 2

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

9 Responses to Some final comments on Macross Frontier part 1: ‘Canon’, creators and the fan community

  1. It does exist. Gundam maintains a pretty consistent one with its “Universal Century.” Gundam worked around this by making alternative continuities. Each one would be or attempt to be consistent with itself.

    On the other hand you have Matsumoto Leiji. You’ll do good to look up http://kritikderanimationskraft.wordpress.com for the most exhaustive Leijiverse blogging.

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    • karice says:

      Sure. But then, of course, the next question becomes: is it the same concept as in the West? or, alternatively, is the concept treated in a similar way between East and West? Or perhaps even between different works produced in the same culture…

      The impression I’m getting from Matsumoto’s work, however, is that the Leijiverse has captured proportionally more Western than Japanese interest…

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  2. Matts says:

    I recently read sketchley’s translation from the new release of the Macross Chronicles and Kawamori’s introduction. He says pretty much exactly the same thing as he did in 1998 on how he views ‘canon’. And I’m fine with it. I like it, in fact. I can understand people who are upset that Macross is like historical fiction, but being both a history nerd and a dedicated reader of historical fiction, I might have it easier. I think Kawamori is a person who likes interesting ideas and exploring those, interesting people and working with them. Sticking to a fixed story would limit his possibilities, by letting these walls drop he can make movies to existing TV series and characters to go further, develop them more, maybe add to what he was unable to present to the audience during the run of the series. It’s a rare approach and one of the reasons I think the franchise has more possibilities than others. Or maybe it’s just how he rolls, some like it fixed, like JKR, some would rather work without limitations, or too many of them.

    By the way, from the discussions going on at MW, it seems like BigWest wants to establish a firm timeline or tries to, even if it doesn’t make sense, while as the Kawamori introduction states, he personally does not.

    It’s interesting that you bring up the DC Universe and Batman. It’s one of those long running series that had so many different retellings, reboots that in my view, each has their own ‘canon’. Burton’s movies are not connected to Nolan’s. Nolan’s movies are not connected to Arkham games. And then there’s The New 52… (^_^)

    And I’m glad you decided to address this issue, misuse of translations has been bothering me for a while now.

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    • karice says:

      I will have to remember to reference that comment. That sketchley has finally released that translation was one of the reasons I decided that it was time to release these posts, which I’ve working on for a couple of months!

      I love the idea, to be honest, because it’s deliciously postmodern, and also because of something that will be discussed in an upcoming post – though I think I’ve mentioned it before. What has always struck me as amusing, given that he absolutely hates the idea, is that one of the people who stridently disagrees with it is pretty much a historian…

      Ah huh, that matches what I’d been told in a private conversation. Now I can reference MW instead!

      It’s interesting that you bring up the DC Universe and Batman. It’s one of those long running series that had so many different retellings, reboots that in my view, each has their own ‘canon’. Burton’s movies are not connected to Nolan’s. Nolan’s movies are not connected to Arkham games. And then there’s The New 52… (^_^)

      Which was precisely my point (^^)

      Fingers crossed then that I don’t make it any more confusing! I found out something quite interesting about Gundam that could potentially be quite an irritant!

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      • Matts says:

        Going back a bit to Batman and Macross for a small comparision. I do think that Ranka, as you and Gubaba pointed out on AS a long time ago, is essentialy the same character in the movies. I personally think that she makes better choices because she is friends with Alto from the get-go and feels more comfortable around him, she doesn’t need to please him and get his approval, which seemed to hold her back a lot, especially after my recent rewatch of the series.

        In Batman, there is the character of Harley Quinn. She was created for the animated series and got into the comics, became popular. She is a unique sidekick and villain of her own right too. All the stories up until now had kept her consistent. Arkham City upped her crazy by a 1000, but she still feels like Harley to me. However, if you read Mad Love, some of her adventures with Ivy, maybe watch a few videos of her in the Arkham games and then move on to read the current Suicide Squad, you’ll find that not only did she get a new history with the Joker, but that she is now a different character. I don’t think Macross ever had a problem with keeping characters in character, whatever the retelling. All they did was change situations and have them react accordingly. Harley on the other hand was changed completely. For better or worse is up to anyone’s own preferences.

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      • karice says:

        I’m sorry to say that I’ve never followed Batman to the extent of knowing who Harley Quinn is, but I really appreciate you saying all this, because that’s how I truly feel: that all the characters are of the same essence in each version of the story. It’s not just about Kawamori’s stance that ‘each version of a story is a representation of a history we’ll never know’, which would mean that each version reveals true facets of the individual(s) who actually existed, albeit to varying extents. I feel that all good creators develop characters such that they will eventually write themselves. That is to say, if you throw a particular situation at them (within grounds logical to their circumstances), then they will react in a particular way based on already established personalities and experiences. We interpret their choices and actions as indicating something about what they are like, but it’s important to recognise that these are merely interpretations. If the character then makes a choice that we think is inconsistent with what has been shown to us thus far, then there are two basic possibilities. One is that the creators don’t know what they are doing; the other is that we previously chose a wrong interpretation. I personally choose to assume that the creators know what they are doing, meaning that I was the one who made the wrong interpretation…unless something really does not make any sense whatsoever. And I’ve never come across that.

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  3. Pingback: Macross History – a shout out to Kawamori Shouji and postmodernism « HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

  4. Pingback: Some final comments on Macross Frontier part 2: As Good As It Gets | HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

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