Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Banner of the Stars
DVD - The Complete Series
When the Abh Empire took command of his home planet, Jinto Linn was instantly transformed from the son of an elected president to the rightful heir of the Hyde Star System. Sent off into space to train for his new position in Abh nobility, Jinto couldn't possibly have predicted all the strange circumstances he'd encounter - or that he'd develop such a close bond with Lafiel, a genuine princess of the Abh Empire. Now, years after his first meeting with Lafiel, the two are reunited on the bridge of Lafiel's first patrol ship. As a massive war threatens to engulf all of human's celestial empires, Jinto and Lafiel's personal strength and faith in each other will be tested more harshly than ever before.
Crest of the Stars counts as one of the more unique and satisfying anime I've recently experienced, though the show itself is now two decades old. Centered on the young Jinto Linn, it followed him as his home planet was conquered by the space-faring Abh Empire, and he was unexpectedly turned into a genuine Abh noble. Thrust into a world of blue-haired Abh and inscrutable codes of conduct, Jinto finds a true friend in the young Abh recruit Lafiel… before he learns that Lafiel is in fact a princess of the Abh empire, and could theoretically inherit the empire's throne. But though they come from very different backgrounds, Jinto and Lafiel ultimately find they also share much in common, growing close over a series of adventures as they wind their way towards the heart of the Abh Empire.
That season, set on the brink of a massive war between the Abh Empire and the United Mankind, served as a neat balance of science fiction drama and slow-burning romance. Though it was set within an epic and convincingly realized fantasy universe, Crest of the Stars' greatest strength was its acuity of internal voice, and convincing, relationship-building conversations. Jinto and Lafiel's conversations possessed much the same appeal as those of Spice and Wolf's Lawrence and Horo, or Oregairu's Hachiman and Yukino - conversations that ramble and evolve with the sturdiness of strong characterization and the energy of genuine chemistry, presenting two characters who are each individually vibrant, but far stronger together.
As we open Banner of the Stars, Jinto and Lafiel's period of training at the Abh capital has passed, and we find them already preparing for war with the United Mankind. Early episodes quickly establish Lafiel as the captain of the new ship Basroil, Jinto as her reliable supply officer, and an array of new faces filling out the rest of her bridge team. At the same time, we're also introduced to the various admirals of all the Abh Empire's active sub-fleets, all leading towards an epic confrontation between almost inconceivably vast armies. In Banner of the Stars' first season, the grand space opera that was promised in Crest is realized in full.
Though you might think this new conflict's vast scale would preclude the character and dialogue-centric approach that made this franchise's first season shine, Banner's first season is actually even more of an indulgent talk fest than its predecessor. As it turns out, this newly expanded cast, and all of the new admirals and chiefs of staff we're introduced to, largely serve as an excuse for writer Hiroyuki Morioka to indulge in his love of rambling conversations. From the fatigued backbiting of admiral-siblings Nefee and Nereis, to the perpetual deadpan of fleet commander Dusanyu, to the playful yet terrifying Admiral Spoor, Banner of the Stars' first season is absolutely brimming with distinctive new conversationalists.
As with Crest of the Stars, Banner's appeal certainly isn't for everyone. If you don't like dialogue and the establishment of character purely for its own sake, you will likely find this show excruciating to get through, a perpetual process of wondering where the story's actually going with all this. Though this season does eventually rise to a thrilling climax, most of these extended dialogues are simply their own reward: circuitous, dryly humorous, and distinctive verbal duels. If that sounds compelling to you, this season is a genuine feast - and in the end, these wandering tracks all culminate in a battle of galactic proportions, where the stakes are simultaneously clear and gripping on a ship, squadron, fleet, and pan-fleet scale.
Banner of the Stars' second season turns from war to governance, as Lafiel and Jinto are tasked with serving as ambassadors to a prison planet on the brink of civil war. Though the plotting of this season is still compelling, and its characters still relatively vibrant, season two sadly fails to take much advantage of the great conversational dynamics of its preceding season. Most of the admirals we met previously are only tangentially related to this conflict, and far worse, the course of the season's drama means Jinto and Lafiel get very few scenes together. Additionally, season two bears the perhaps unfair burden of being this clearly continuing franchise's anime stopping point, offering basically no closure for the show's ambitious narrative. Cutting off a continuing story at an inopportune moment is a common consequence of anime production, but it stings more than usual in Banner's case, as a story so frequently preoccupied with Jinto and Lafiel's future.
In aesthetic terms, Banner of the Stars is a relatively humble production. There are some occasional flourishes of fluidly animated space combat, but most of its episodes are composed largely of lengthy panning stills, and scenes that linger over unmoving faces or mechanical apparatus as characters conduct their winding dialogues. The underlying art design is quite distinctive, and characters have attractive designs and expressive faces, but there is very little fluid movement or character acting - most impressive cuts are reserved for mechanical animation in battle, and often reused when necessary. Additionally, the show at times undercuts some of its character drama with some aggressively fanservice-oriented shots, which feel terribly at odds with the overall tone of the production.
Banner of the Stars' soundtrack is fitting and effective, but not terribly distinctive; lots of the orchestral swells you expect from a space opera, but no melodies that will really stick in your head (beyond that iconic opening song). As in Crest of the Stars, the included dub is far too dated in its style and craftsmanship to really be recommendable - even the lead roles feel unconvincing and ill-fitted to their characters, while lesser roles run from passable to actively distracting.
Funimation's Banner of the Stars release is as spartan as they come, matching their Crest of the Stars release. The show comes in a standard slipcase with no physical extras, spread across four DVD discs. On-disc extras include some show trailers, as well as the two OVAs that collectively make up Banner of the Stars III. Unlike Crest of the Stars' OVA, Banner's bonus episodes actually continue the show's overarching narrative, making them very welcome inclusions in this collection.
For all my critiques of these seasons' visual design, those issues ultimately don't do much to diminish Banner of the Stars' core appeal. The Crest of the Stars franchise is a story that lives and dies by its script; it could work just as easily as a stage play as it does as an anime, seeing as it's already constructed as a series of tense negotiations, playful dialogues, and romantic discussions. My variable phrasing probably can't obscure the fact that all that means “a whole bunch of talking,” and frankly, I'd be failing in my duties if I implied otherwise. Banner of the Stars is the rare romance/drama that feels totally designed for people who absolutely adore character writing and winding, personality-rich conversations. If that describes you, this show is a rare and wonderful gift.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C-
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Overflowing with distinctive characters who have interesting things to say, Jinto and Lafiel's relationship remains compelling as they grow into capable military officers
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