Reviewby Mikhail Koulikov, Nov 4th 2003
Five Star Stories
Manga volume 1
Right now, the market for English translations of manga is probably the hottest it's ever been. At any average Barnes & Noble or Borders, the amount of space dedicated to “graphic novels” – with a majority of those being manga and manhwa titles – is easily in the dozens of feet, and big industry players like Marvel and Del Rey can't help but begin to notice the trend and try to capitalize on it. And yet, one of the most unique manga titles available right now is virtually unknown, at best approaching the status of a legend, but more often, simply ignored.
Born in 1960, Mamoru Nagano was very much a part of the first generation of Japanese children that grew up immersed in anime and manga. He made his debut in the anime industry as character designer for the 1983 TV series Heavy Metal L-Gaim, and in 1986, set out on his own with Five Star Stories. The title was very successful, with the first ten volumes selling a total of over five million copies, but for various reasons, was never made available in English. Until, that is, FSS's publisher Toyspress, Inc., in a highly unusual step, decided to enter the US manga market on its own, without going through any of the existing English-language manga publishers. The first volume of FSS was released in October 2002 in a unique large format at a suggested retail price of $9.98.
So the question then becomes, just what is Five Star Stories? As the title suggests, the storyline revolves around the various political, military, and social interactions within a galaxy of five stars and six inhabitable planets. More so than most other manga, it draws on two Western traditions, that of the “future history” and of the realist novel of the 19th century. The “future history” genre, seen in the science fiction writings of authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Cordwainer Smith, establishes a timeline of human development for thousands of years from a given start point; stories illustrate both the everyday and the truly enormous events over a span of thousands of years. A timeline is usually present somewhere, and similarly here, each volume includes a timeline that covers easily ten thousand “subjective” years, as experienced by one of the main characters. The connection to the realist novel – War and Peace and the writings of Victor Hugo, for example, is evident in Nagano's desire to show all the many and various sides of a galaxy at war. Although the single-paragraph preface to each volume describes it as “the tale of the god of light…and his wife…,” the emphasis, really, is on the worlds surrounding them.
Accordingly, this first volume starts off rather modestly, a full twenty-two of its sixty-three pages are devoted to a single encounter between two giant robots, in the FSS inventive terminology, “mortar headds.” The average height of an MH, as they are referred to, is 15-18 meters; they are piloted by a human “headdliner”, themselves assisted by androids called “fatimas.” The remainder of the volume centers on a debut ceremony, wherein a fatima is to choose the headdliner master she will remain with for life, and the thoroughly unexpected way in which one particular ceremony is resolved.
Already in this description the primary characteristic of FSS is evident. Nagano absolutely packs his story with details; the sense is always that, however hard he tries, he is able to give us but a glimpse of the complex and complicated world that exists in his mind – and maybe in his notes. An extensive appendix includes descriptions of characters, mecha, various aspects of the setting, as well as a two-page essay by the author that really serves to show that he has very little idea of just where the story is heading, but is fully intent on enjoying himself while at it. References of various degree of obscurity abound: planets and towns named for World War II battles, characters referred to in terms of various religious figures from Noah to Mammon to Amaterasu. The whole is breathtaking and overwhelming at the same time – a reality similar to, but other than the one that is.
John Wisnom's translation, although by no means literal, actually does a great job of complementing the fanciful storyline. For once, characters' lines come through as natural – formal when the situation calls for it, at other times, as appropriate, slang. Especially because so many of the terms used are invented, there are occasional spelling inconsistencies, but they are so minor and infrequent as to not affect the overall pace in any significant way.
Overall, FSS is manga that will not appeal to the “typical” American manga reader. At the same time, along with perhaps Legend of Galactic Heroes – and not much else – it is the one Japanese property that offers the highest cross-over potential into traditional Western science fiction fandom. Whether or not the ten dollars you spend will turn out to be a valid investment or simply money wasted will depend entirely on your tolerance for sweeping, dramatic storylines, things hinted at far more than actually revealed, and a commitment to a series that will not be complete for years. But in any case, FSS's uniqueness, especially given the cookie-cutter quality of so much of the manga out there, cannot be denied.
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Unique, elaborate, and engaging
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