"Promise me you won't run away and die before we get to you…"—Lafiel
Talk about a case of walking in late: Banner of the Stars II is the third series based on the space opera novels of Hiroyuki Morioka, and here we are jumping in with episode 5. You would think that this is a recipe for complete confusion. But it is a sign that this series is surprisingly well-written that it did not take me long to figure out what was going on. Fortunately, you have me to fill you in before you embark on this epic yourself.
The story begins in "Crest to the Stars," in which we meet Jinto, a young human whose planet is conquered by the ruthless Abh Empire. Conscripted into the Abh military, Jinto, now an honorary noble by virtue of his father's deal to surrender their home planet, meets the beautiful princess Lafiel, granddaughter of the empress. They become friends, and their adventures together continue in "Banner of the Stars," as the Abh Empire extends its reach into human space.
In Banner of the Stars II, Lafiel has been elevated to the position of territorial ambassador, with Jinto as her deputy, and the two are assigned to keep the peace in regions recently annexed from the humans. When the prison planet Lobnas II flares into open revolt, the local authorities beg for help from their new masters. But against traitorous guards, indifferent superiors, and a hopeless tactical situation, can Lafiel and Jinto keep the uprising from turning into a complete debacle? And, more importantly, do I even care?
The answer at least to the second question is yes. I approached Banner of the Stars II with considerable apprehension. So many recent anime shows have been cookie-cutter products, attempts to imitate Evangelion or Gundam in an effort to dupe viewers and sell toys. But Hiroyuki Morioka's epic is refreshingly intelligent and sophisticated. We get a real sense that Abh culture is more than merely posturing and speeches, and the story is driven more by political intrigue than mindless battles. Indeed, we get the hint that the Empire actually runs like a real government, winning its battles more through negotiation and trade than combat. But the Abh are also temperamental and more than willing to exact brutal revenge when things do not go their way.
All this places our hero, Jinto, in difficult circumstances. An outsider among the Abh, even with his royal rank, he also finds himself a pawn caught between factions among the rebels on the surface of Lobnas. The angry prisoners want possession of the planet's women, so they can breed and create their own colony; the treacherous guards who have allied with the prisoners only want control of the planet's lucrative drug trade. And Lafiel is forced to supervise the evacuation of the innocents—and later a risky ground invasion—from orbit, where she can do nothing directly to help her friend. Worse, her hands are tied by the limits of her diplomatic position. Worse still, a human attack fleet is on its way, and there is no telling which side they will take in the conflict—other than shooting at any Abh they find.
Sound complicated? Banner of the Stars II benefits from solid writing that makes all its plot points comprehensible and its characters more interesting than the usual space opera clichés. The animation may be a bit limited due to television budget constraints, but the stirring martial music by Katsuhisa Hattori holds the drama together. Unfortunately, Bandai's Japanese audio track on this DVD is rather muted and does not show off the score to full advantage. The English track is better. Extra features are thin as well: a few production sketches and an essay by Hiroyuki Morioka.
Obviously, I do not recommend beginning your adventure halfway through the third series in this space epic, as I have. But "Crest of the Stars" is available as a complete and reasonably priced set, and previous volumes of Banner of the Stars are also available. In his essay, Hiroyuki Morioka promises Banner of the Stars III soon. I'm certainly looking forward to it. Smartly written, surprisingly fresh, and grand in scope, Banner of the Stars II finally gives us the first anime world in a long time really worth exploring.
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