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.