This week, a show about murder, gore, and the "other"; a show about ... more murder and gore, and one about luck.
Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 23rd 2005
In a world where Earth's sky has turned green from a supernova explosion, high-schooler Shima Katase is headed to the Stellvia Space Academy to see what space looks like from the outside. Stellvia and the other space stations around Earth form an orbital school system, but they also serve as the main line of defense against a future second supernova wave. Right now, however, Shima's main concern is surviving school—academic subjects like programming are easy, but her shaky piloting skills have earned her the onomatopoeic nickname "Shipon." If she could just get over her nerves, she could even qualify for the Astroball team in the inter-school sports festival. Shipon will need a much bigger boost of confidence, though, once she finds herself in a high-stakes sports game.
There seems to be a rule that if you're going to do space epics, you can't do cute. Young heroes foray into the stars and make heartbreaking sacrifices all the time, but if you so much as crack a goofy smile or betray any sweatdrop-laced embarrassment—that's it, you're fired, go back to Earth, no saving the universe today. Stellvia proudly breaks this rule, charging into the wild black yonder with big eyes, lapses into chibi style, and a klutzy teenage girl at its center. Add in the rounded character designs and constant bursts of comedy, and it even manages to out-cute the anime that it's based on.
The anime that it's based on, however, turns out to be the better story. The manga blusters through Shipon's adventures at a one-chapter-per-episode pace, guaranteeing a fast-paced storyline, but also erasing the nuances of the show. To those who are getting into Stellvia for the first time, this manga volume will feel like a fun but ultimately shallow romp through interplanetary high school. It picks up in the second half, energized by the Astroball story arc, but the sudden shift to a sports theme also emphasizes the overclocked plot even further. Some individual scenes are fun—even entire chapters can be fun, like the last two in the book—but put it all together and the flow deteriorates; everything comes out conspicuously rushed.
The rapid story pace makes its effects felt everywhere, especially in the way characters develop (or don't develop). Shipon's insecurity, which provided a grounding point in the early anime episodes, is reduced to a handful of teary outbursts for comic effect—stick her in a spacecraft and watch the waterworks go. Her friendship with outgoing classmate Arisa also goes ignored; with so much going on, there's only room to focus on the main character. However, manga-ka Ryo Akitsuki makes sure to introduce everybody—even the boys whose names no one can remember—and uses them effectively in ensemble comedy. The broadly drawn personalities provide a constant flow of silliness as side characters interact with the main players and each other.
Reinforcing this lighthearted attitude is the cheerful, anime-influenced artwork. Akitsuki keeps his character designs very close to the original series, but turns up the cuteness with more rounded cheeks and comically exaggerated faces. This whimsical style, along with plenty of character-driven scenes, brings out the human and humorous aspects of Stellvia. Spacecraft and other gadgetry get relegated to the occasional action sequence; in the end, it's the pilot inside that counts. Unfortunately, it's also a convenient way for Akitsuki to hide behind his weaknesses. Spaceflight scenes often become unclear when there isn't enough room in the panel—in fact, entire pages get annoyingly crowded when there are too many spaceships, too many characters or too many lines of dialogue. Once again, the curse of rushed pacing rears its ugly head. The character designs may be instantly appealing, but that's no excuse for poor visual flow.
DrMaster's translated dialogue sticks to direct, casual language, making sure that it moves just as rapidly as the story. Minor quibbles aside—"confeito" or "confetto"? "Sea serpent constellation" or "HYDRA"?—the biggest problem in this translation is actually with the sound effects. Leaving the Japanese effects in place and providing a small translation nearby is the best compromise in terms of artwork and readability, but it becomes a nightmare when large blocks of text show up. In an attempt to protect any text that appears outside a speech balloon, ridiculously tiny lines of English dialogue are crammed up against long Japanese sentences. Good for learning the language, perhaps—but not so good for reading comics. Print quality affects readability as well: although the binding and paper stock are sturdy, the pages are a shade duller than the industry standard, and some of the images come out slightly pixelated due to scanning issues.
With style-over-substance visuals, a compulsive urge to get all the characters into the book, and a lively but rushed storyline, the Stellvia manga has a clear target audience: people who have already seen the anime. To newcomers, it might be a fun diversion from more serious space adventures, but it moves too fast to develop any real attachment to the series. Instead, it requires that readers already feel attached to the characters from the anime, and that's a lazy way to start a manga. Think of it as supplementary material—and if you want the real Stellvia, you'll have to watch the show.
Overall : C+
Story : C-
Art : B
+ A breezy, energetic dose of sci-fi cuteness.
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