Mecha Monday: The VF-1 Valkyrie

This post is surprisingly hard to write. It’s the first in my new series, Mecha Monday, wherein I give a little love to a sweet machine, factual or fictional, that’s caught my eye recently or in the past.

In my first draft, I started rabbiting on for ages, trying to dump my knowledge on this subject without seeming too geeky, but in the end, a lot of it was waffle. So this time, I’m cutting straight to the chase and telling you why the first subject of Mecha Monday is one of the sweetest fictional machines to ever grace our screens.

Please join me as I spread some love on the VF-1 Valkyrie.

Almost Real: The Design of the VF-1

This post actually started a couple of weeks ago when I spotted a framed lenticular print at a stall in Cairns Central. It was oen oof those prints that shoes you a different picture depending on what angle you look at it. Two of the pictures were of (I’m fairly sure) real life military equipment, a tank and an aircraft carrier – which was when I had to laugh when the third was of three VF-1 Valkyrie variable fighters flying in formation. The picture was painted in photo-realistic style, as if the artist were re-creating an actual moment.

And I would have laid odds on a lot of people seeing the picture and not noticing the incongruity.

Why? Because the VF-1 Valkyrie looks as though it could actually exist.

Yes, you lads at Japantor. I do want.
Yes, you lads at Japanator. I do want.

A lot of Japanese mecha designs around the time seemed to draw on the ideal of the samurai, especially the bright and gaudy Mobile Suit Gundam. Even though the mecha of Gundam at least gave nods to verisimilitude, I reckon a lot of robot designers shrugged their shoulders and gave in to the ludicrousness inherent in the very implausibility of the concept (think Mazinger Z, which became Tranzor Z in the US, or the combining robots of the shows GoLion and DaiRugger 13, each of which became a Voltron.)

The VF-1 was created for a 1982 Japanese animated show called The Super Dimenson Fortress Macross. It posited a late-noughties Earth upon which an alien spacecraft had crashed, and a humanity gradually benefiting from its advanced technology. It gave the show an excuse to keep its near future fantastic in some elements, yet parallel to the then-modern day in others.

Even in an epic space opera like Macross, which featured an armada of aliens that resembled fifty-foot-tall human beings, the VF-1’s designer, Shoji Kawamori, instead decided to present the Valkyrie with a straight face. He made it look not like a robot in disguise, but by taking inspiration from the F-14 Tomcat fighter-bomber, Kawamori styled the Valkyrie like a combat machine designed by a real-world military.

Heck, squint and you could mistake the VF-1 for a Tomcat. It’s only on closer inspection that the airframe looks a little weird; the fuselage separates slightly near the back, with the tail lifting away from the jet engines.

A VF-1A Valkyrie in Gerwalk mode. Image from the Macross Mecha Manual.

That’s because of another awesome thing about the VF-1: It’s a transformer.

No, not a Transformer transformer – though actually, yes, but – okay, I’ll come back to that later.

Anyway, the VF in VF-1 stands for Variable Fighter, and not just because it has swing wings like the Tomcat. The pilot flips a switch, and the jet engines swing down, the exhausts becoming feet; a pair of arms fold out from behind the machine, turning it into a hybrid of jet fighter and chicken. The show dubbed this odd mode “Gerwalk,” a term whose precise meaning I didn’t know until I checked Wikipedia while writing this (“Ground Effective Reinforcement of Winged Armament with Locomotive Knee-joint,” apparently – someone was really trying hard to get “walk” in there).

When the pilot flips another one, though, the fuselage folds in half, drawing the arms up onto a pair of shoulders; the legs straighten and bend forward at the knees and a head sits atop the fuselage. This was referred to as “Battroid” mode.

VF-1S Valkyrie in Battroid mode. Image from the Macross Mecha Manual.

Even as a giant robot, the VF-1 still looks both plausible and sleek. It doesn’t become some gaudy samurai like the hero mecha in Japan’s arguably most popular giant robot show, Mobile Suit Gundam. The fighter jet elements are still obvious; the wings become a pair of formal-wear tails at the machine’s back, while the cockpit, now covered in an armoured shield, is at the machine’s sternum. Even though the proportions are a little off, it’s still an awesome looking piece of fictional machinery.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. The design of the VF-1 has been re-used no less than three times.

Robotech

Originally, US licensor Harmony Gold intended to simply re-dub Macross into English until they discovered there weren’t enough episodes to satisfy American series requirements. Instead, they bought the rights to two more giant robot series by the same Japanese production studio, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada (do Japanese SF fans dig big titles or what?), and combined them into one continuity.

This caused a bit of a head-spin for me when the sequels to the original Macross made it across the water during the anime craze of the nineties. All the names were slightly different – in Robotech, for example, the spaceship Macross was renamed “SDF-1,” with “Macross” becoming the name of the island it crashed on – and they made reference to a radically divergent history. Where were the Robotech Masters? The Invid?

Also, Robotech re-christened the dry “variable fighter” as the cooler-sounding Veritech Fighter, although they dropped the “Valkyrie” altogether. (And changed “Gerwalk” to “Guardian.”)

Still, it’s Robotech we kids of the eighties have to thank for introducing us to the coolest transformer outside of the Transformers themselves.

Speaking of which…

The Transformers

You may not know this, but the original Transformers weren’t the Autobots and Decepticons us Eighties kids fell in love with. No, they were instead characterless transforming vehicles put out by an assortment of Japanese toy companies. Any existing fiction around them appears to have been inconsequential (so much so that the Japanese wound up re-importing The Transformers, accepting and in cases continuing the American re-interpretation). Toy maker Hasbro simply acquired the rights to distribute the toys in the US and built a whole new mythos around them.

A fan’s rendering of Jetfire. From DeviantArt.

Perhaps the one exception, though, was the Autobot Jetfire. Though the VF-1 wasn’t an intelligent robot, it still had a fictional history of its own before being ported over into The Transformers for the toy line’s third year of production.

I have to give Hasbro props for deciding to use the “Super VF-1S” version of the Valkyrie, an augmented space combat version of the original fighter that sported a massive set of boosters and extra armour plates on the arms and legs

Understandably – though, perhaps, sadly – the Transformers cartoon show didn’t borrow the direct design of the VF-1 for Jetfire. Instead, they re-jigged it so that it fit more with The Transformers’ overall style and didn’t dilute the continuity. That caused me another head-spin when I first saw Jetfire – why were he and his toy so drastically different?

But then there was the third property to borrow from Macross, one not as well known as The Transformers or Robotech, but one that that has gained its own fame among gamers:

BattleTech

Yeah, it reads a lot like Robotech, doesn’t it?

BattleTech is a giant robot franchise created by US war game company, FASA (sadly now an imprint owned by Microsoft Game Studios). When FASA published the second edition of its war game rules in the late eighties, it featured a roster of some sixteen different “BattleMechs” – giant, human-piloted war machines that fought for control of planets in a far future interstellar feudal empire known as the Inner Sphere.

Much as Hasbro did with The Transformers, FASA borrowed each of those first sixteen designs from an existing Japanese property, none more so than Macross. Three of the heavier BattleMechs, the Archer, the Warhammer and the Rifleman were re-names of Macross’ ground-bound Battroids and the alien Officer’s Battle Pod became the Marauder.

A Wasp BattleMech miniature amidst scale wargaming scenery. The unit in the background is a Mad Cat.

But the folks at FASA must have loved the knickers off the Valkyrie, which became four BattleMechs: The narrow-headed VF-1A variant became the Wasp; the chinned VF-1J became the Stinger; the basis for Jetfire, the Super VF-1S, became the Phoenix Hawk; and finally, the VF-1A with heavy armour plates became the Crusader.

Like many storied passionate romances, though, it wasn’t to last.

By the mid-nineties, BattleTech’s pantheon of BattleMechs had spread to hundreds of designs all crated by FASA, when suddenly the original sixteen disappeared from the franchise’s lineup. FASA gave no explanation, leading fans to speculate that Robotech license owners Harmony Gold had taken action against FASA.

Yet later missives from FASA executives revealed the a much less fraught, more calucalted truth: After FASA took legal action against the makers of the Exo Squad toy line and cartoon for plagiarising its designs, the company sat down with its own borrowed designs, did one of those weighing-up-the-pros-and-cons-of-the-relationship exercises and decided to eliminate risk of being sued themselves by removing those BattleMechs it didn’t have full creative rights to from its line-up.

It’s ironic that the real legal battles undertaken by Harmony Gold haven’t been with the companies that borrowed the robot designs after Robotech, but instead with their original creators.

Robotech vs. Macross

Remember those Macross sequels I mentioned earlier? Well, companies like AnimEigo, US Renditons and Manga Entertainment started bringing them out from Japan in during the nineties, and though it took me a bit of time to wrap my noggin around the fact that they were a different continuity from Robotech, I lapped them up, first the visually spectacular but rather sappy Macross II and then the even more stunning and character-driven Macross Plus.

Then right after releasing the third and penultimate part of Macross Plus, the release dates for the final episode came and went without product or even comment. It was another nine months of waiting on the huge motherfucking cliffhanger at the end of episode three, as two variable fighter pilots race toward Earth to confront a mad AI in control of Earth’s defence system (and finally explain why these former best friends hate each other so much) before distributor Manga Entertainment finally released part four.

VF-25F Messiah
The somewhat less realistic but HOLY CRAP HOW MUCH MORE AWESOME VF-25F Messiah from Macross Frontier. Will Western audiences ever get to see it without pirating it or buying direct from Japan?

And after that, though Big West and Studio Nue, the owners of Macross in Japan, have created at least two more Macross sequels series and a prequel, there’s no sign of these ever being released for Western audiences.

This, as it turns out, is the real passion play; Harmony Gold still holds the sub-license rights to Macross in the West and are still developing Robotech products from it.

(Like these VF-1 plushies.)

Whether it’s a matter of Harmony Gold sitting on the Macross license, Big West and Studio Nue being obstinate about their overall control of Macross or something else entirely, we can only speculate. In the meantime, though, we’re missing out on experiencing some awesome giant robot animation – especially when it comes to the VF-1’s successors.

Take Us To Valhalla

But I believe that all the love for both Macross and Robotech at the heart of these rights ownership struggles would be anywhere near as strong were it not for Shoji Kawamori creating such a unique, sleek and awesome design of transforming giant robot. The VF-1 Valkyrie is Macross, much as the VF-1 Veritech Fighter is Robotech.

If the oft-rumoured live-action Robotech movie ever gets out of development hell, they’d better get the VF-1 right…

Are you keen?

What’s your favourite giant robot that turns into a plane?

Which universe do you dig most – Macross, Robotech, The Transformers or BattleTech? What makes it better than the others?

Which as-yet-unreleased-in-the-West anime series would you like to see exported from Japan?

Links

Macross Home Page (Japan)

Wikipedia entry on the VF-1 Valkyrie

The F-14 Tomcat Association

Robotech

Transformers on the Hasbro web site

BattleTech

Images sourced from Japanator, the Macross Mecha Manual, DeviantArt, 4370SpacemanSpiff’s Photobucket library and We Remember Love.