Reviewby Jonathan Mays, May 23rd 2003
Banner of the Stars
DVD 2: Basroil Unleashed!
It's unfortunate that the domestic anime market is so strongly skewed towards the action/adventure genre. Anime has much to offer to a Western audience longing for representatives of the less prolific genres. Thankfully, Bandai took a risk with a Sunrise title called Crest of the Stars, introducing space opera to Region 1 viewers. The title performed well enough to compel Bandai to license the sequel series, Banner of the Stars, which is a worthy successor to the thirteen-episode Crest series. In short, it's more of the same. But Morioka fans would want it no other way.
Three years following the conclusion of Crest of the Stars, creator Hiroyuki Morioka returns viewers to his conflicted galaxy, the Abh and United Mankind now fully engaged in combat. While the first Banner of the Stars volume is little more than recap, as the viewer sees the events predicted at the end of Crest realized, this second volume marks some of the first forward progress in nearly five episodes.
Lafiel and Jinto enjoy a formal dinner in memory of their fleet commander's brother--whom they killed in the first series--and the Basroil enters a series of battles before pulling back into the staging phase that consumes most of the series. The dinner episode is by far the most engaging, as it embodies the friendly tension that is one of Morioka's greatest literary talents. But all five included episodes contain varying degrees of quiet insight and strategic action, maintaining the successful tradition of the Crest series.
The core of the Crest/Banner saga lies in its characters. Despite the magnitude of Banner's intergalactic setting, Morioka has no interest in arguing big ideas; there is no comment on society, no criticism of technology or culture. The only true "comment" is on the lives of several individuals. It matters not that Morioka constructed his world from the Italian Renaissance and Ottoman Empire (as he revealed at Anime Expo 2002) because this isn't the kind of show to watch with a history book at your side. The elaborate society is only a backdrop for the characters, as Morioka spends much of the story with their growth and their interactions.
And as a character-driven show, Banner is fantastic. The dialogue is meaningful; indeed, one of this volume's most enjoyable moments is a quiet conversation between Samson and the Head Flyer. Clever, subtle verbal exchanges abound, particularly on the Basroil bridge when Samson's sarcasm and Ekuryua's diffidence provide for constant humor. The wide emotional range of the Japanese voice actors complements the dialogue wonderfully. Alas, questionable rewrites and a sense of detachment detract from the performance of their English counterparts.
Of course, the real draw of Banner requires an even narrower focus. The relationship that develops between a displaced young Jinto and the younger Abh princess Lafiel is the reason to watch Crest/Banner. As the boy who is accepted as an Abh because his father betrayed his homeland and surrendered to the invading blue-haired space dwellers, Jinto bears a formidable burden. Likewise, Lafiel struggles to balance her royal entitlement as an Abriel with the freedom to learn through experience, the conflict of responsibility and aspiration. To observe how they try, how they fail, how they cope with lifestyles they cannot control is at once magnificent and disheartening.
Beneath the brilliant character development lurks a series of troubling issues. Reckless disregard for the concept of pacing plagues the Crest of the Stars saga, a trend continued in this volume. Inevitably there is downtime in a series, but if you've just seen Excel Saga, you'll feel that Banner progresses with unbearable lethargy. The source material--Morioka's novel series--is probably the culprit, but after a few episodes, I imagine you'll be willing to sacrifice pace for the enjoyable story. It's comforting that the producer felt no need to alter the series to progress more rapidly. The result is a story told with exceptional clarity, even if there is some baggage in the form of slow development.
To my disappointment, the numerous space battles of Banner--while larger and more visually impressive--lack the emotional weight of the poignant Battle of Gosroth from the previous series. Epic space conflict has been done before, and it's been done better. Fortunately, war scenes are not the focus of the series, but the amount of time and animation devoted to them makes each a little more difficult to dismiss.
The other animated scenes witness a slight improvement over the Crest series, especially in their consistency. Ironically, one of the most significant visual changes drives me absolutely nuts: Sunrise replaced the CG-created star fields with traditionally animated ones. Normally, this would signal a drastic improvement over inferior computer graphics, but the new stars look like snow! It's not mentioned on the box or the included Newsletter of the Stars, but apparently most of the action in Banner of the Stars takes place in the middle of a galactic blizzard.
Snowstorm aside, Banner does feature one marked improvement over the original series. Typically, a creator becomes further separated from an anime series as the show develops; direct supervision yields to passive consultation, and eventually full control falls upon the production team. But in Banner of the Stars, Morioka has actually become more involved with the anime since its premiere. In fact, the third episode of this volume contains a plot Morioka designed solely for the anime, a worthwhile effort that substitutes potential "filler" for story development. The creator's presence is evident, and Banner benefits from his guidance.
Don't confuse Banner of the Stars for the paragon of animation, excitement, or even originality. It is imperfect. But unlike so many creators, Hiroyuki Morioka has a compelling story to tell through his characters, an accomplishment that single-handedly elevates the series to an elite plane. Perhaps the imperfections are simply a touch of humanity, each injecting a small piece of life into the sterility of Banner's space. But whatever the source, Banner of the Stars feels very real. I hope you'll indulge yourself in its pleasures.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : A
+ Captivating story remains well-crafted
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