Reviewby Carlo Santos,
DVD 4: Foundation IV
With the Great Mission complete and the Second Wave successfully defused, space has now gone from green to red around the space station Stellvia. The aftermath of the supernova outburst hasn't brought much peace for Shima "Shipon" Katase, however, as she narrowly escapes injury during a training session with the talented but scheming Ayaka Machida. It's not the first time that Ayaka's ambitions have led her to malice, as Shipon learns from her classmate Yayoi. Meanwhile, Christmas is drawing near, and Kouta's got something he wants to say to Shipon—or will he let his actions speak for him? Love is in the air (and space), and winter vacation couldn't come at a better time for Shima and Kouta. However, something isn't quite right at the distant space station of Ultima, and the kids may have to go back to school sooner than expected...
"It gets better later on." That's the rallying cry of anime apologists trying to stand up for their favorite series. Sometimes it's true, sometimes it isn't; it really depends on your definition of what makes a series get better. In the case of Stellvia, it's a shift from Shipon's individual growth to her relationships with the other students. Now that the Great Mission is over, the more shounen elements like spaceflight and Astroball take a back seat, giving everyone time to do what teenagers do best: get angsty, fall in love, or maybe even both. This is where Stellvia gets good, and if you're not a fan just yet, this could be the volume that clinches it.
While other space adventure shows try to sneak a feeble romantic plot in between all the galactic battles, Stellvia makes no such pretenses. The first major story arc is over, so why not be all-out cute? That's what happens in Episodes 12 and 13 when Shipon and Kouta fall in love, and while it's a commonly traveled path, rarely is it done with so much honesty. Even when Shipon and Yayoi handle the troubled case of Ayaka, they take a straightforward approach, with everyone saying exactly what's on their minds. This kind of directness is rare in a genre that's full of hidden motives and double-crosses, which is why the characters are so engrossing even when the pace slows down. However, there is a darker subplot going on, but the hints are so blatant (notice whenever the adults stand around looking serious) that they can be forgotten until the bad stuff actually shows up. In the meantime, enjoy the cuteness, because puppy love doesn't get much better than this—space-age or otherwise.
The end of the Great Mission has also brought us another bonus: the end of Shima Katase as an insecure crybaby. Even after Ayaka roughs her up on the training ground, Shipon keeps her composure and tries to understand why Ayaka did what she did, rather than wallowing in guilt or self-pity. Because of Shipon's heartfelt concern, we get to see Ayaka as a sympathetic character (although she spends a bit too much time lying in bed and looking miserable). The back story between Yayoi and Ayaka also gets a full explanation; add this to the budding romance with Kouta and you've got a full range of emotions being explored in these three episodes. Even without the space station, it's still a fine example of high school drama.
Nothing's ever perfect, though, and with Stellvia it's the animation that doesn't match up to the standards of the story. Watch the characters perform any complex movements and it's clear that smoothness and frame rate aren't very high on the priority list. Neither is creative camerawork, as there are lots of "talking head" and eye-level shots throughout. The CGI is still respectable, as shown by the Bianca training flights and new visual navigation system, but they're not even used in two of the disc's three episodes. On the other hand, the color scheme remains consistently bright, and the red-colored sky provides a new counterpoint to the students' orange and blue uniforms. The character designs also maintain their lively, youthful style, although they deserve better than the plain backgrounds that they're often set against. (The backgrounds do improve in Episode 13, where Shipon and Kouta briefly return to Earth and get to wander around a lush Pacific island.)
It's at this point in the series that some of the music tracks start to recycle considerably, and there are about two "action" themes that keep coming up during spaceflight. However, with personal drama taking up most of the episodes here, it's the restrained solo melodies that get the spotlight. Overall it's nothing spectacular, but even something like a single acoustic guitar during Yayoi's confrontation with Ayaka transforms the scene from being just a conversation into a truly touching moment. A new ending theme is also introduced, but it's not as catchy as the first ending song.
The English dub of Stellvia still has its ups and downs, but it's getting a better grasp of the character roles. Carrie Savage handles Shipon's innocence and growing confidence quite well—except for the pre-episode narrations. For some reason, Savage sounds terribly self-conscious during narrations, but she does fine when she's got other people to respond to. Side characters like Kouta, Ayaka and Yayoi also do a capable job of voicing everyday teenagers, especially in the pivotal dramatic scenes. The dubbed dialogue still has the occasional timing hiccup, but stays true to the translation; even the characters' joking formality of referring to Yayoi as "oujo-sama" becomes "milady" in English.
Few people would think of turning to a high-spirited sci-fi series for romance, but Volume 4 of Stellvia proves that it can hold its own against any other girl-meets-boy anime out there. Rather than going for wacky antics or sniveling melodrama, Stellvia plays it straight up and honest, bringing Shipon and Kouta together in a very "aww"-inducing way. This honest approach to storytelling also works for the darker side of the series when Ayaka succumbs to her own ambition and jealousy, and the resulting fallout makes us feel sympathy for both the victim and the aggressor. It's not just Shipon's show anymore—now she's learning where she stands with the other students aboard Stellvia. Our little meatball-headed space cadet is truly coming of age, and yes, this series is getting better.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Galactic high-school romance and drama at its best.
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