Airborne Onnagata: Viewing Macross Frontier’s protagonist through a genderqueer lens

By: Corrine Courtland March 1, 20230 Comments
Alto in Kabuki costume

Major Spoilers for Macross Frontier and its films, including The Labyrinth of Time.

2008’s Macross Frontier is well regarded by Macross fans for returning to the core concepts of the franchise while moving the needle forward at the same time. Set against the backdrop of the titular space colonization fleet’s struggle against an insectoid race known as the Vajra and the political machinations surrounding them, Frontier squarely focuses on the search for identity amongst the members of its central love triangle. Ranka Lee is an up-and-coming idol who questions herself at every turn. Sheryl Nome is a certified superstar with time against her. The final member of this triangle is Alto Saotome, an actor-turned-student-turned-fighter-pilot who struggles to parse all the different elements of himself.  

In the years following the heyday of the series and its accompanying films, Ranka and Sheryl have been praised for their charisma and growth. Alto, not so much. He’s often derided as an overly hostile, angsty teenager: I’ve heard him described as “an abrasive, one-note character”  more than once. While he definitely does have his moments, I don’t think his sometimes brusque personality is always without reason. 

Alto in a dark room of candles

After an initial viewing of Macross Frontier, most viewers would comment on a handful of topics. Not limited to, but including: the series’ back-to-basics approach reminiscent of the original 1982 Macross, its tendency to adhere a bit too closely to then-current trends, and unending talk of how awful Alto is. However, on a recent rewatch, a new thought clicked with me: what if Alto was fighting with some intense dysphoria? 

It’s a feeling that I’ve become very familiar with as a genderfluid person who has been figuring things out for a good while now. With these struggles in mind, Alto rang true to me as an incredibly relatable and compelling character. As I continued my viewing of the series, so many little things stuck out to me that strengthened my theory and the themes of the series, things that I believe many of us deeply relate to in our own searches for the identity that best reflects ourselves. 

close-up of a paper airplane

As the audience gets their first look at Alto, they find him in the process of making a paper plane in the middle of a meeting of the Flight Acrobatics Club. The rest of the club is in the middle of a rehearsal for a stunt flight they’ve been asked to perform for Sheryl Nome’s next stop on her galaxy-wide tour. Frustrated by Alto’s visible disinterest in the rehearsal, club president Michael twists a knife in his back by referring to him as “Alto-hime.” Given his appearance—very effeminate; his soft features punctuated by his neatly tied ponytail— and background, this upsets him instantly. Like a reflex. 

From the viewer’s perspective, Alto seems comfortable with his day-to-day appearance, but the mention of “hime” touches on incredibly tender feelings. Before becoming a piloting student, Alto was well-known across the fleet as a Kabuki actor hailing from the prestigious Saotome acting family. From a young age, Alto was trained to be an Onnagata—a male actor who performs the female roles in Kabuki plays. Their training hones them to be grace incarnate, to move as lightly as a feather. 

When not training, Alto spent time making paper airplanes with his late mother. This inspired a desire to move as lightly as a feather not on the stage, but through the sky. After the passing of his mother, his relationship with his already toxic father quickly deteriorated. Everything came to a head when he decided to put Kabuki behind him and go to school for piloting. Naturally, the mention of “hime” is incredibly complicated for Alto. It reminds him of all the baggage he left behind at home and of the fact that he was assigned a role at birth. Only now has he been able to explore who he wants to be in any deep capacity. 

young Alto with a paper airplane

When Alto first encounters Ranka Lee, she remarks on his beautiful, feminine appearance. Initially, Alto’s self-defense reflex kicks in; however he realizes that she’s just complimenting him. This interaction greatly contrasts with his first time meeting Sheryl Nome. Before meeting her face to face, Alto sees giant billboards advertising her galaxy-wide tour. He grits his teeth at the displays, which could read as Sheyrl’s image triggering an intense rush of dysphoria for him. That while he can fly in the sky, light as a feather, he could never be someone like her. 

The clash continues further before her live show. Alto has the same amount of stage experience as Sheryl does, if not more, and her dismissal of him hits hard. Similarly to the billboards, it could be read as if he’s thinking “I’m being put in my place by a ‘real’ woman”. It’s a feeling Alto would not be alone in, as transfemme individuals can often feel like they’re not “woman enough.” I’ve had those moments where I’m presenting feminine and get hit by questions like “do I look okay?” or “am I passing?” swirling around my mind. The feeling that you have to put yourself up to those “real” woman standards is crushing. 

Soon after the concert, the Vajra launch their initial attack on the Frontier fleet and its aftermath leads to Alto joining the private military company, SMS. He finds himself internally juggling the roles assigned to him in life even more. External forces continue to weigh on him as well. Within SMS he meets Ozma Lee, Ranka’s macho older brother: a man who is incredibly confident in his masculinity for better or worse. Alto’s own older brother also comes out of the woodwork to bring him back to the Saotome fold. His brother isn’t afraid to use underhanded tactics either, constantly pointing to their father’s health—and especially throws the idea at Alto that acting is in his blood. It’s a curse, an inescapable role assigned at birth.

Ranka meeting Alto

These confrontations, along with the intensifying Vajra conflict, quickly send Alto down some worrying directions in regards to the value of life—his own, seemingly very much included. His nerves are on fire and he’s lost as to where to go next. But thanks to the positive forces in his life—Ranka, Sheryl, his friends—Alto is able to center himself by the end of the series. He doesn’t quite have a locked down direction for what he wants further in life, but he’s now in an open sky free to make those choices. A comfortable and understanding environment to figure out what he wants for himself. A declaration that you don’t always have to make a binary decision. When I first came out to a good friend of mine, they told me “don’t worry about making one choice or another, gender is an always changing feeling.” 

The Macross Frontier television series has a fair amount of subtext if the viewer wants to dig a little; but its film reinterpretations, The False Songstress & The Wings of Farewell, more directly confront these ideas. The first film of this pair, The False Songstress, has moments that get to the center of Alto’s struggle.

While Alto’s first getting accustomed to working for SMS and Ranka is deep in commercial work to raise her profile, she invites him out to see something. Saying nothing, the two soon arrive at a Family Mart. Alto is understandably confused at her silence until the store’s PA system plays a new promotional jingle. One of Ranka’s jingles, in fact. Now that she’s starting to make it, it’s a small but poignant moment she wanted to share with one of her dearest friends.

Alto seeing Sheryl in his reflection

As they hop on the tram afterwards, Alto shares with her that he’s struggling to know who he is and what role he’s meant to play—a struggle that easily encompasses the subtext around his gender. He soon starts drifting into his own dark galaxy, but Ranka breaks through it all with a big hug. To her, it doesn’t matter how Alto identifies, Alto is Alto. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Alto’s internal conflict could also be applied to one’s personal gender struggles. 

Sheryl, however, still demonstrates that struggle for Alto. Though the two come to a mutual understanding and fondness for each other, the dysphoria is still there for him. During the Vajra’s initial attack, Sheryl loses one of her earrings, the only thing she has to remember her family by. Alto eventually finds it and is later compelled to put it on. The earrings and the intense feelings he carries for Sheryl cause him to see her as his reflection in the mirror. It’s so overwhelming that he almost falls to the floor. 

Alto’s experiences with the earring reminded me of a very specific moment in my own journey. It was shortly after I had started exploring my identity. Following a few eyeliner mishaps, I was finally getting my mind around how to use makeup. At the same time, I was getting a better feeling for my style. Similarly to Alto throwing on that earring, there was an evening where I was overwhelmed by the sight of myself in the mirror. I started crying, not out of feelings of dysphoria, but out of euphoria. It felt right like few things in my life have ever felt.

Sheryl embraces Alto, who's dressed as a goth lolita

By the second film, The Wings of Farewell, the situation on the Frontier fleet has become increasingly dire. In talking with Ozma, Alto comes to the realization that he doesn’t have to be just one thing. While he’s always been a bit gruff and doesn’t always speak the most tactfully, Ozma passionately tells Alto that he, himself, is many things: he’s a kid, he’s an adult, he’s a man. His words strike a chord with Alto. Alto willingly presents feminine in a cute lolita dress to help break Sheryl out of prison—something he would have never done in the series. An episode comes to mind in which Alto is recognized by a director for his stage work, but vehemently refuses to take the place of a female extra, only agreeing to take part when he can serve as the male lead’s stunt double. This act of adopting feminine presentation to save someone he holds dear is an incredible step up for him, towards fully embracing all of who he is. 

That full embrace comes at the end of the film, where Alto soars in his Valkyrie alongside the Vajra queen in hopes that they can communicate and end the conflict. However, it’s not just your standard fancy flying; as Michael points out for the audience, he’s doing Kabuki. It’s meshing all who he is into one act:fully cementing that Alto the Actor, Alto the Pilot, Alto the Man, and Alto the Woman are all the same person. This specific point is further punctuated by his spectral appearance in the short film, The Labyrinth of Time, where he appears in full Kabuki attire, soaring through the sky above Ranka and Sheryl. 

Ranka, Sheryl, and Alto fighting together

Looking at Alto through this queer lens greatly strengthens the core of Macross Frontier in my eyes. When the viewer keeps in mind Alto’s possible struggle with his identity, it makes them take a closer look at the rest of the cast. They may notice that Ranka initially had codependent tendencies toward Alto, but she’s eventually able to move past them and have some faith in herself. Or they might notice Sheryl’s fight to reclaim her sense of self after having the rug pulled out from under her. It circles all back around to Macross Frontier’s core theme of identity. 

Alto’s quest for identity ultimately enhanced the series for me this time around by making me consider these other angles. I’ve felt those struggles, be they internal or external, as have many others. You are who you are, and well, it’s not gonna be a clean package like in an anime. However, contrary to that idea, the occasional messiness of Macross Frontier as a show is endearing. It’s almost a mirror for the messy, multifaceted people who watch it. People, like the cast of Frontier, who are trying to be true to themselves. Whether they’re a man, a woman, or completely off the binary. 

Poster of Alto in a kabuki performance

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