This week's list takes a look at seven priests with less than holy personalities.
Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 10th 2004
DVD 1: Foundation I
In 2167, a supernova explosion engulfed the Earth with a wave of electromagnetic energy, turning the sky green and causing countless disasters. After recovering from that first wave, humanity started putting up defenses to protect itself, and by the year 2356, a network of six Foundations (orbiting space stations) now guards the Earth from a second supernova wave that is expected to arrive later that year. Each Foundation houses a high school for promising young space cadets, and eager 15-year-old Shima Katase has just been accepted to Stellvia, the 2nd Foundation. Making friends, going to class, learning to pilot light spacecraft -- it's all part of the high school experience, hundreds of miles above Earth aboard space station Stellvia.
In the future, only teenagers will be able to save the world! ...At least that's what countless space and sci-fi anime shows would have you believe. In most of these cases, the main character is a young man of superheroic integrity and a burning desire to protect the ones he loves. But what if he were replaced by a scatterbrained high school girl whose only desire is to see space from the outside? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Shima Katase--possibly the most unlikely teenager to ever save the world. Of course, the series doesn't point that out right away, but there's no doubt as to where it's headed.
Stellvia takes Studio Xebec back to the kids-in-space formula that made Martian Successor Nadesico a major hit for the company. This time, however, it wanders even further from the galactic war scenario and feels more like a slice-of-life high school tale with spaceflight on the side. The show starts out humbly with Shima going into space and learning the ropes around the space station; this simple storyline of character growth is endearing but not particularly gripping. Paced so that each episode contains one major event, Stellvia wins over its viewers by virtue of an interesting cast of characters rather than a thrilling, unpredictable storyline. The conventional sci-fi trappings won't win any prizes for inventiveness, but what makes it unique is the character drama that lies within, as opposed to the pure politics and warfare that are a staple of most other futuristic anime.
The enjoyment of Stellvia's early episodes depends a lot on one's affinity for Shima. There's usually a love or hate reaction to the "cute but clumsy" character type (see Sailor Moon), and although Shima falls into that category, her earnest and soft-spoken attitude is an unexpected turn from the usual squealing stereotype. The counterpoint to Shima is her best friend Arisa, who is as loud and squealing as they come. The two of them play off each other well, making for a buddy combo that has more in common with a shoujo series than an epic space opera. A large accompanying cast of classmates and sempai also ensures that most everyone will have a favorite character, although it might take a few more episodes to learn all their names. At the core it all, however, is Shima's growth as a character--corny as it may be, there's something sweet about the moment she first gets the hang of piloting a spacecraft.
One thing that really sets Stellvia apart from the average space anime is that the characters look decidedly cute rather than realistic. Their large eyes and child-like proportions contribute to the show's shoujo vibe, and the orange or blue outfits-- combining vague traces of Japanese school uniforms with futuristic flight suits--add brightness to the usually monochromatic world of space travel. The general design and color scheme of the show, in fact, creates a unique vision of the future that ensures it'll never be confused with Gundam, Macross, Nadesico, or any other spacefaring title. The only shortcoming in design is the plainness of the backgrounds. Rather than establishing a unique habitat aboard Stellvia to match the character designs and outfits, the rooms and corridors look like a generic space station.
The CGI work on Stellvia is quite extensive, which is no surprise considering the number of spaceflight scenes. For a series made in 2003, the blending between 2-D and CGI animation is disappointing, although things look more respectable when it's a scene involving only spacecraft. The space stations and vehicles are rendered with plenty of detail, and they would look great in a strictly computer-generated world, but as soon as they land in a cel-animated hangar, the sense of disbelief crumbles. As long as they're flying, though, there's an exhilaration that only computer graphics can bring to an action sequence.
Despite the clever futuristic designs, the animation in Stellvia drags the visual style down a few notches. As mentioned before, the flight scenes look fine in motion, but the same can't be said for the 2-D work. The character animation, while not glaringly choppy, is just the bare minimum needed to make things look convincing. The storyboarding relies too much on plain, straight-on camera angles, with no signs of creativity in the way the scenes are directed. The trash chute scene in Episode 4 is the most glaring offender, with the exact same wad of trash being thrown down three times in a row. Perhaps the animators are making a statement about "recycling"?
The English dub of Stellvia, while passable, has its priorities in the wrong places: the secondary characters, such as teachers, sound very competent, but the central characters of Shima and Arisa suffer from amateurish voice acting. Their voices match the Japanese dub very well, but the tone and delivery make them sound like grade-schoolers rather than teenagers. The subtitles have a surprising number of flaws too, with words appearing for lines of dialogue that have been inexplicably cut silent, and some typos that even fansubbers should be able to catch ("compeito" for "confetto" and "trash shoot" instead of "trash chute", for example). The music fares better, however, with a couple of peppy theme songs bookending each episode and a score that makes the most of a small session band and some synthesizers. There aren't any epic, symphonic lines of melody here, but the touching piano solos and other, mellower tracks reinforce the character-based nature of the series.
The key element that sets Stellvia apart from other lookalike anime shows is that it takes a story set in space and focuses the spotlight on insecure, ordinary youths rather than unapproachable heroes. The technical elements of the animation may be weak, but the visual style presents a future that's more colorful than the usual chrome-and-gray of other sci-fi shows. There's a great coming-of-age story waiting to break out here, suggesting that in the future, teenagers may not be all that different from how they are today.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ A unique vision of the future, with an endearing cast of characters
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