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The Unusual Story Behind the '80s Hit Cartoon Robotech

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Tue, Nov 5, 2013 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge Robotech toys at the Harmony Gold office. - LIZ OHANESIAN
  • Liz Ohanesian
  • Robotech toys at the Harmony Gold office.

Sometimes at night, when we're hanging out with friends, we'll start talking TV. Retro TV. We'll rehash pieces of plot that are now only vague memories. "Did I remember that right?" we ask as we chat in living rooms or bars. For those of a certain age, likely over 30, we might flash back to an animated, sci-fi drama that caught our attention in the middle of the 1980s. Robotech was quite unlike what we knew of the cartoon world, filled with action and romance and music. We were smitten. Decades later, we drop reference after reference until someone darkens the mood. Robotech was a show where people -- good people, the ones we call heroes -- died.

The trauma of fiction sticks with you, even when you're an adult, even when you haven't seen the show in years. Death wasn't part of our TV cartoons. Even Acme dynamite couldn't kill the characters we loved. Robotech, though, was a far cry from Looney Tunes.

"It's almost like Game of Thrones now," says Tommy Yune, the Creative Director for Robotech at Harmony Gold USA. The comparison to the HBO hit is warranted. For the elementary school kids of the 1980s, death in Robotech hit like the Red Wedding, swiftly and unexpectedly.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF HARMONY GOLD
  • Courtesy of Harmony Gold

Robotech was a lot of things. It was a soap opera that appealed to kids. It was a space odyssey set in a future that was almost the present. It was three separate Japanese cartoon series combined for an audience that didn't recognize the term anime. It's a show whose influence is still felt 28 years after it first aired in the U.S.

See also: What Brought 61,000 People to L.A.'s Anime Expo This Year?

click to enlarge Carl Macek in 1985, seen with Leonard Araujo as they work on Robotech. - COURTESY OF HARMONY GOLD
  • Courtesy of Harmony Gold
  • Carl Macek in 1985, seen with Leonard Araujo as they work on Robotech.

Today, Harmony Gold is releasing Robotech: The Complete Set. It's a massive collection. Twenty discs feature 85 episodes, plus sequels The Sentinels, Shadow Chronicles and Love Live Alive. The latter appears both as an English-language dub and it's original Japanese. There are also hours of behind-the-scenes footage, including a short documentary that dates back to the 1980s. The new box set isn't just about the show, but the story behind Robotech.

Harmony Gold's Sunset Boulevard headquarters appear ordinary from the outside. These days, the nondescript office building is best known for a large theater on its ground floor. It's home to a lot of private screenings, as well as the occasional film festival. Head upstairs, though, and the legacy of Robotech spills out into the hallways. There are posters and a plaster statue of a very large robot. There are offices filled with collectible toys, rare box sets and other ephemera. Then there are the vaults -- multiple, closely guarded rooms filled with the footage that made this phenomenon possible.

There are tapes of the show in a variety of formats that are ready for broadcast. Master recordings of the music used in the show. Tucked into a corner one of the archival rooms are the origins of Robotech, a collection of 16 mm reels that came from Japan.

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