ANIME REVIEW: CREST OF THE STARS
Genre: Space opera
Original year of broadcast: 1999
Director: Yasuchika Nagaoka
Writer: Hiroyuki Morioka (light novels) Aya Yoshinaga (series composition and principal scriptwriting)
Number of episodes: 13
Runtime per episode: 30 mins
STORY AND CHARACTERS
Sci fi series set in space aren’t exactly a rarity in anime, from loads of Gundam titles to more low-key space sci fi stuff like Infinite Ryvius. What’s in far shorter supply is a series that can be called a genuine space opera. The kind of series that isn’t just a cool space adventure, but digs deep into its universe and characters and is a lot more thematically dense than your average sci fi series. The only shows that could make a claim to this all have the title of Gundam attached to it, which instantly rules out a good chunk of the anime viewing audience.
Thus we are brought to today's show, which is a series that can certainly be considered an anomaly in terms of anime and perhaps, even a hidden gem. Though that doesn't mean it's without flaws. Animated by Studio Sunrise, the studio behind Gundam and based on the highly acclaimed, award winning light novel series by Hiroyuki Morioka. I am very pleased to announce that today I will finally be reviewing the cult hit series: Crest of the Stars!
Crest of the Stars doesn’t start off in exactly the most exciting of ways. We meet our two leads Jinto Lin Rock Hyde and Abriel Nei Debrusc Borl Paryun Lafiel, who for the most part is referred to as just Lafiel. Probably because saying her full name in very episode would have caused the voice actors to go on strike. Jinto is the son of the president of the Hyde system. A system that, when Jinto was very young, was conquered by the hyper intelligent and technologically advanced, expansionist alien race Abh. The Abh are a totalitarian monarchy led by the Abriel family of which Lafiel happens to be the heir. And it just so happens that Jinto, now in his late teens, has been sent by his family to attend a prestigious military boarding school on the Abh homewhorld - the same boarding school that Lafiel will also be attending.
Admittedly this doesn't make for the most engrossing of series openers and this rather pedestrian pace keeps up, up to episode four. From there on though, the pacing picks up, as events begin to spiral out of control and increasingly larger threats are introduced. Right up to a nail bitingly tense finale where everything is at stake. Like any good space opera, Crest of the Stars simply begins by carefully setting the stage and making you care for its heroes before it pulls out the big guns and gets you engrossed in its grand space adventure.
The show's core theme revolves around multiculturalism. The Abh are depicted as a very rigid race who place more emphasis on military might than the well-being of their own citizens, while humans are little more than a group of squabbling rabble. Neither society is depicted in a very positive light. The only exception to this are those who try to communicate with the other group and learn from each other's societies and cultural norms and traditions.
However, the real reason why I would tell anyone to watch this show, even if they’re not into sci fi, is the characters. Most of them seem a little stereotypical at first. However, before long, the show begins to really delve into who these people really are. Which is something that doesn't just go for the lead characters either. The series boasts a huge supporting cast and the show goes out of its way to depict most of them as not just pieces on a very large chessboard, but as individuals all looking for their place in this unfathomably large expanse of stars and civilizations.
Going back to the two leads though. While their names are rather silly, their personalities are anything but. Having lived under the oppressive rule of the Abh for most of his life, Jinto is understandably not very fond of them and likewise, Lafiel views humans as little more than a mindless mob. But because of circumstances these two are forced to work through their differences and biases, and as the two slowly grow closer together so does a mutual understanding for one another’s culture and customs. Whether you look at it on a microlevel of individuals or at a cosmic level (in this case literally) of societies, the message remains clear: get to know one another and you’ll be better off for it. Because ultimately societies are nothing more than collection of people and if you want to understand a society, start by getting to know the person standing next to you.
As should be obvious by this point, Crest of the Stars is very much a thinking man’s anime and as such very light on action spectacle. In fact, it isn’t until the final two episodes that we get anything akin to a genuine space battle.
However, that’s not to say the show isn’t very exciting to watch. As mentioned, after the rather uneventful premiere the show begins to mount tension at a very rapid pace. This, in turn, leads to later encounters in the series which are very tightly plotted, edge of your seat sequences that will have you reeling by the time they’re done.
Now as much as I love this series, it does have a good amount of very large flaws that hold it back from realizing it’s true potential as one of the greatest space operas of all time. The most problematic of this is its pacing. Combining an incredibly complex plot with intricate social commentary, while simultaneously building a fictional universe with a ridiculous amount of attention to detail is hard enough on its own. But to have to do all that in merely 13 episodes is simply impossible and indeed, this show fails to do all of that. For instance, in episode ten, we meet a human detective named Rei Entryua who makes a very memorable first impression that definitely made me interested in learning more about him. But because by that point they only have a couple of episodes left to cover a huge amount of plot, we never really do and ultimately, he ends up being little more than wasted potential.
Likewise, large chunks of the plot are either glossed over or just not properly explained. Simply because there is no time to go over all the intricate little details that together form the web of storylines and character interactions that make up the plot of this series.
The dialogues are also surprisingly weak for the most part. Unlike what you’d expect from a more intellectual series such as this, there’s a ridiculous number of scenes where characters are just standing around spouting exposition and regurgitating the plot to each other. The moments the quality of the dialogue does improve are the quieter character interactions between Jinto and Lafiel, which showcase a sense of understated pathos that the rest of the show is sorely lacking.
Another major issue I have with this series once again has to do with how it was adapted. While the original novels are all connected to one another they are, for the most part, standalone stories, each with their own main conflict and villain. And because this series adapts all three of them, it leaves the series barely any kind of ongoing narrative or common element with the exception of its two leads. And because each of these three arcs is so complex, it takes a while for you as a viewer to fully grasp the seriousness of the situation and get invested in the events unfolding onscreen. But by that point the arc is almost already over and it’s time for the next arc to begin, so you can go through the same process all over again.
What’s perhaps most frustrating about of all is that the actual main narrative of the show doesn’t really get set into motion until almost the very end, leaving you without any kind of satisfactory conclusion. It can be considered a blessing in disguise that this series boasts such a strong lead duo, as they manage to pull the story through it's more tedious and tiresome plotelements.
Thankfully, Sunrise realized that this probably wasn’t the best way of adapting the series and corrected their mistake by only adapting one novel per season for its sequel series Banner of the Stars. But I’ll save my thoughts on that for when I’ll actually review it.
ANIMATION AND SOUND
The first thing that I feel deserves the highest of praise is the opening. Eschewing the generic character and action sequence montage, usually accompanied by a J-Pop or J-Rock song, this opening instead depicts the universe in which the show is set. It pans across various planets and stars, showing them in all their glory, while a hauntingly beautiful track plays over the imagery. It doesn’t show any of the characters nor any kind of action, yet it immediately sets the tone for what's to come. Cluing the viewer in to the fact that this show is a space adventure that’s massive in scope and epic in every sense of the word.
Because of its more intellectual tone and lack of spectacular action, the production crew for Crest of the Stars wasn’t given a very high budget to work with and it does show, as the animation is rather bland. That being said, I do really like the visual aesthetic of the show. As mentioned Crest of the Stars depicts a much more grounded take on interstellar travel and it looks the part. Ships are depicted as grey hulking masses that could do with a fresh coat of paint. Where the Abh vessel have a clear military streak to them, the human vessels are derelict and look like they could fall apart any minute. This, in turn, brilliantly brilliantly reflects their respective cultures.
Later on in the show, our two heroes visit both an Abh barony and a human colony and once again, we see just how vastly different their two societies are. The Abh barony sports clean architecture that's completely lacking in style, while the human colony is little more than a collection of crumbling apartment blocks and seedy neon-lit backstreets.
While they are few and far between, when the show does dabble in space battles they are a sight to behold. So much so, in fact, that I would not be surprised if half the show's budget was used up on just those few sequences alone. Also, the series has some gorgeous CG effects. Which is still rare nowadays but is especially mind-boggling when you realize this show is almost twenty years old and its CG still looks better than most things produced nowadays.
I personally watched this series in Japanese and despite not being set in Japan or even on earth the series does have this feel of a kind of distinctly non-western type of fiction that would lose some of its personality by being watched in English. Much more notable than either dub however is the fact that the series is partly spoken in the native Abh language. Which a nice little detail that helps to make this fictional universe feel like a living, breathing world that’s both alien and different yet also surprisingly similar to our own.
Crest of the Stars is not a perfect show and its myriad of issues continually undermine its very interesting story and themes. But it's a series that's completely unique and for those looking for a more cerebral and thought provoking sci fi series this one comes highly recommended. Especially since all of the issues I mentioned were resolved with the release of the sequel series Banner of the Stars. Admittedly, Crest isn't the powerhouse that Banner ended up being. But it's still a very solid space saga and if you have about six and a half hours to spare, than it definitely makes for a good lazy Sunday binge.
Unless you’re willing to pay obscene amounts of money for a used copy or have the major advantage of having a friend who owns the original sets like I did, then you are shit out of luck as Crest of the Stars was licensed by Bandai and after Bandai went bust, the boxsets went out of print. However, since Funimation has taken it upon themselves to save all the older Gundam series from obscurity maybe they’ll consider saving this other old Sunrise sci fi show as well? A man can dream.
Age recommendation: Some moments of graphic violence and its rather complex plotting and intricate exploration of societal concepts makes this one most suited to older teenagers and up.
Because this is such a unique show it’s very hard to come up with any show that’s anything like it. So, while neither of these are very good matches they’re the closest things I could come up with.
First of all: Mobile Suit Gundam – Iron Blooded Orphans. As I said, some Gundam series can make a definite claim of being a genuine space opera. This is one of them. Like Crest of the Stars it places heavy emphasis on social criticism and presents us with a more grounded take on space sci fi than we usually get in anime. Though admittedly, this show is quite a bit more gritty and violent and places much more emphasis on action. Still, if you’re looking for a show with an incredibly well thought out fictional universe and a fantastic story and characters, this is one I highly recommend.
Second recommendation goes to Space Battleship Yamato 2199. The author of the original light novels said he was partly inspired by the original Space Battleship Yamato series from the early 70s. This modern reboot improves on the original series in every way and makes for a very thought provoking and highly engrossing space epic.
Until next time…
Anime Review: Crest of the Stars
A review of the cult-hit sci fi space opera animated by Studio Sunrise and based on the light novels by Hiroyuki Morioka: CREST OF THE STARS
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