Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Crest of the Stars - The Complete Series
Seven years ago, the galactic Abh Empire claimed yet another territory, the small and lightly defended planet Martine. In exchange for giving up his home to foreign rule, Martine's president ensured his own family could become citizens of the empire - and today, his son Jinto Lin heads into space to fulfill that promise. But tensions between the space-faring Abhs and terrestrial terrans have always been high, and as Jinto begins his officer training, he will find himself caught up in a conflict beyond his imagination. Thrust from his home into an unfamiliar empire, Jinto will have to rely on one friend to survive - the Abh Lafiel, a proud young woman with a grand secret of her own.
First airing back in 1999, and based on a trilogy of acclaimed novels from three years earlier, Crest of the Stars belongs to a different era of anime space operas, and stands apart even from many of its contemporaries. There are no epic robot battles or clashes between destined heroes here; just sympathetic people trying to survive in an incredibly tumultuous time, played against a backdrop of encroaching pan-galactic war. A decent reference point would be Legend of the Galactic Heroes, which possesses a similar focus on tactics, similarly meditative pacing, and similarly excellent dialogue and characters. However, while Legend of the Galactic Heroes is an epic saga about politics that happens to star some compelling characters, Crest of the Stars emphatically puts its characters first, illustrating two brilliantly compelling youths as they work to navigate an infinitely complex greater world.
The show slams its cards on the table from the very first episode, which is entirely dedicated to illustrating the invasion and surrender of the planet Martine. This assault isn't depicted through brutal, desperate combat - Martine is utterly outgunned by their invaders, the Abh Empire, and this episode instead focuses on the confusion and isolation of Jinto Lin, the young son of Martine's former president. When Jinto's father surrenders the president in exchange for his own citizenship in the empire, he makes an enemy of all his former friends, leaving Jinto an orphan of the galactic empire.
The rest of the series jumps ahead seven years, and conveys the teenage Jinto's journey to the heart of the Abh Empire. Accompanying him on this journey is Lafiel, a young Abh woman serving as a trainee on an Abh warship, who Jinto soon learns is actually a granddaughter of the Empress herself. Like Jinto, Lafiel is isolated by her political position, unable to truly connect with people who all see her as genuine royalty. Jinto's ignorance of her status allows him to treat her as an equal, and over time, these two come to trust each other more completely than anyone else.
The growing bond between Jinto and Lafiel is the heart of Crest of the Stars, and also demonstrates most of its manifold artistic strengths. Jinto is curious, naive, earnest, morally oriented, and sensitive, trying his best to catch up with the social assumptions of an empire in which he is an outsider. Lafiel is forthright, proud, practical, romantic, and self-reflective, simultaneously embodying the inherent nobility of the Abh and a personal strength all her own. Each of them are incredibly rich characters, and their conversations demonstrate mutual curiosity and genuine chemistry. This isn't the kind of show where romance can be stirred up by one dramatic act or confession - Jinto and Lafiel spend entire episodes discussing their divergent feelings on love, duty, culture, and much else, and their resulting mutual affection feels more earned and powerful than the vast majority of anime romances.
It's not just Jinto and Lafiel's bond that makes this such a rewarding and intelligent production. Crest of the Stars' second episode offers an equally thoughtful illustration of Jinto's fraying bonds with his schoolmates, as their idle conversations dance around and attempt to normalize the realization that Jinto is actually royalty. Characters in this show don't just state their opinions - they are clever and funny and intellectually curious, with strong and multifaceted personalities that bounce off and reflect each other in myriad engaging ways. I can confidently say that in terms of dialogue and characterization, Crest of the Stars is absolutely one of the best-written anime you're likely to find.
All of this close, careful focus on characterization, and Crest's attendant focus on worldbuilding, means this story might not appeal to audiences looking for more immediately propulsive or action-packed sci fi adventures. But what Crest of the Stars lacks in consistent action highlights, it makes up for in its ability to elevate the wonder and mystery of concepts we often take for granted. The appearance of that invasion fleet over Martine is as beautiful as it is terrifying, lifted through Crest's diverse and evocative orchestral score. A sequence of Jinto simply marveling at the size and power of their Abh fleet ship stands as a third-episode highlight. By reigning its focus so tightly in to a handful of characters, and carefully illustrating all the elements that keep them in flight, Crest of the Stars is able to articulate the wonder and terror of interstellar travel with uncommon immediacy, and the powerlessness of being trapped behind enemy lines with painful acuity.
And when it comes time for action, Crest's methodical approach means it can pull off some of the most tactically grounded and emotionally impactful battles imaginable. The war that forms the backdrop of this whole saga opens with an unexpected ambush that resolves into one of the most intense bridge-focused battles I've seen, with every tactical feint and loss of resources clear in the frantic dialogue between the captain and her officers. Later arcs are a little less tightly written, but still maintain the show's tactical focus, emphasis on consequences, and terrific character work.
It's not all good news, unfortunately. Crest of the Stars' visual design definitely shows its age, and the show's animation is on the whole relatively limited. Though the action scenes don't really suffer from a lack of animated spectacle (given they're all about tactics over spectacle in the first place), I would have greatly appreciated more fluid character acting for the show's many intimate conversations. Additionally, both the narrative and dialogue embrace a methodical approach that can border on stiffness, and the show's generally slow pacing will definitely lose some audiences.
The show's packaging is also fairly disappointing. Packaged in a slipcase and standard plastic case, the show in only available in DVD and digital, and the flimsy internal CD case had actually broken before I even unwrapped it. There are no physical extras, and though there is a dub, it's an ancient dub that at this point feels stiff and unconvincing across the board, with lead performances that don't actually fit their characters. The one meaningful extra is the welcome inclusion of the “Passage of the Stars” OVA, a bonus episode detailing an old adventure of Lafiel's parents.
But packaging aside, Crest of the Stars executes on an incredibly high level as a sci fi adventure, and succeeds equally well as an intimate character drama. If you're looking for a more thoughtful sort of fantasy drama, Crest of the Stars falls somewhere between Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Spice and Wolf, bringing the strength of both those classics together into something novel and thrilling. Don't miss this richly illustrated and rightly renowned anime classic.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : C
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Ambitious and enchanting sci fi universe, one of the most compelling relationships in anime
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