Carl Macek 1951-2010

Robotech producer Carl Macek, who died of a heart attack on Saturday, was a divisive figure in anime fandom. If it ever hurt him, it was because he rejected the premise that he was not part of it himself. To his own mind, he was as big an anime fan as anybody else, someone who had put his career on the line to bring Japanese cartoons to America. He was the anime business’s inconvenient truth, the man who shrugged with a smile and said that it was fine if you wanted to make your show that way, although you’d only sell 300 copies. But if you did it his way, you’d sell half a million, and then he could give you the money to do whatever you wanted. He was the man who looked at a crucial scene in My Neighbor Totoro, and noticed that a next-stop sign was in Japanese, and hence unreadable to the new target audience of American children…

Years of arguing at conventions had given him a facetious catch-all slogan: “All anime is dubbed”. He meant that all anime is put together as a compromise, between producers’ odd peccadilloes, and directors’ priorities, animators’ talents and accountants’ possibilities. To Carl, a finished cartoon was still raw creative material, ethnocentrically compromised, in need of refashioning and (his word) finessing to fit the available confines of domestic media. He worked with what he had, both in terms of the anime itself, and the needs of the market for which he repurposed it. On My Neighbor Totoro, he added a line to the script, because the Catbus needed to tell its passengers where it was going.

Art was never finished, only abandoned, and Carl’s conscience was clear about what he did with it afterward. In a recurring irony, his work would often turn people into anime fans, who would then decide they hated him. We spent a weekend in each other’s company when he came to London for an awful media event. He hung around on the Anime UK stand where we were shilling for Beast Warriors, and called me “a born salesman”, which, from him, was a high compliment indeed. The subject came up of a new anime company on the block, and he accurately predicted its demise to the nearest week, based not on the quality of releases, but on flaws in its relationships with distributors and licensors. He didn’t need to see the figures, he only needed to spend ten minutes with the company director. That’s what was so great about Carl, he was usually right. That’s what was so terrible about Carl, he was usually right.

It was impossible not to like Carl. Even if you didn’t like his work (and I was often scathing), you’d find he was just as critical about it himself. He had us in stitches with his account of the goings-on behind the scenes on Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs, encouraging me to start writing about anime as an industry in constant crisis, where art was not so much completed as salvaged from a vortex of chaos. It was in the weeks after meeting Carl that I wrote the first irreverent columns that would become Schoolgirl Milky Crisis.

His was a science of the possible, and the decisions he took over translating (or not translating) anime made him notorious in the anime world. But it made him successful in the film world, where he was even more at home. If you didn’t meet Carl, the chance is gone. But only three months before he died, he recorded a long interview with Anime News Network that perfectly captured his energy, his humour, and his indelible position in anime history. There is no better tribute to him.

In the first American dub of My Neighbor Totoro, he was the voice of the Catbus.

19 thoughts on “Carl Macek 1951-2010

  1. My own homage to Carl Macek can be found here.

    Yes, I looked up to him as a fan and then as a businessman. It was certainly easy to dislike the things he did when he changed anime, but that’s all kind of not important since he primed the pump for Akira, which primed the pump for…what? Eva? There has to be something really important in the early 90s.

    Anyway, I will lift a glass of Romulan Ale to Mr. Macek.

  2. From your description, he sounds like a man after my own heart. “All anime is dubbed”? That’s what I’ve been saying all of this time! If only other people could learn from his positive achievements instead of focusing on what they believe to be negatives.
    There does appear to be this notion in fandom that once a work reaches a certain point in development or release, it becomes “pure” and must not be altered in any way. I’ve no idea where that came from.
    I only discovered Robotech six months ago, but I’m glad that I did. (Even though The New Generation was awful.)

  3. I don’t pretend to know the details of the controversies surrounding Carl Macek. What I will do, however, is show my gratitude for anyone- anyone- who had a hand in bring the Robotech series to Western shores. I’ll never forget rushing to the TV as a child because of the awe I felt for such a show. That wouldn’t have been possible without Carl Macek (at least, not in the way I remember it). For that, I owe him a lot.

  4. Jonathan,

    While I never met the man personally, his work inspired my writing as it seems it did yours. I never understood the vitriol for his work (and him personally)…without him, it’s questionable whether anime would have ever become a cultural phenomenon in the West, at least as we know it today. Robotech literally did change the course of my life. The work I’ve done reviewing anime is in some ways a tribute to him and others like him who did a thankless task because they loved this artistic form. Prayers for his family and loved ones.

  5. I had of Macek’s passing on another site, to be fair my only exposition to Robotech was around late 90’s where it aired on the mornings of some cable channel. I wasn’t a fan of Mechs at the time except for Mechwarrior and thought this was a cash on the Battletech franchise (which was airing at the same time.)

    Looking at his credentials however, a lot of the anime I was first introduced to seem to be because of this man’s involvement, Akira, Cagliostro, Secret of Mamo, to a lesser extent Lensman (though I really was too young to remember any of it.) For all of these I am extremely grateful.

    Rest In Peace good sir.

  6. My first taste was Star Blazers, but like Star Blazers I do remember when Robotech was first shown and how different it was to western animation. The Captain Cook of anime , He will be sorely missed by those of us who have him to thank for introducing us to our hobby. My copy of the first Totoro dub means that much more to me. RIP Mr Macek, and thanks for everything.

  7. I’ve ordered the Robotech collection as I didn’t realise it’s so cheaply available, looking forward to watching it or at least the macross saga, I just love the way things were drawn back then, I know this sounds a bit wrong, but modern Anime series looks too clean by comparison, does that make sense?

  8. Funny how people are saying Macek should be respected for his contributions in the anime industry, and yet he went out of his way to minimize Studio Nue’s importance to ‘just a studio contracted for the Robotech project’ which is flat out disrespectful to the creators of Macross. And this is not just one incident, but everytime he is interviewed, he makes disparaging remarks towards the creators of Macross. Add to that, he didn’t put Kawamori, Miyatake, or the rest of the Studio Nue crew in the credits. I don’t know why he developed this kind of attitude, but it made a lot of ‘anime purists’ lose their respect for Macek.

  9. I never met the man, but his ANN interview – a kind of state of the anime nation talk – was a revelation. That man talked anime business sense and explained why the iceberg had been looming (and hit). As such it contained a lot of “inconvenient truths”.

  10. “Funny how people are saying Macek should be respected for his contributions in the anime industry”

    -Well I only found out about Macross because of Robotech. As I got older I sought out Macross – but this was because Robotech influenced my taste. And Macross 7 – for which I can only imagine is my punishment for sins in a past life….

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