The enemy advances!
Professional integrity compels me to state up front that this review will be grossly inadequate. Let me explain why: Banner of the Stars II is the third of three science fiction anime series based on novels by Hiroyuki Morioka, and Banner of the Stars II: Return is the third and final volume of this latest title. Coming into a series at this point—a series featuring a highly linear, complicated storyline, mind you—is sort of like beginning the Star Wars saga in the middle of the final space battle in Return of the Jedi. You're aware that events of vast significance are occurring, but you're not sure exactly what that significance is.
After dutifully watching the three episodes on this disc as well as reading the reviews of Volumes 1 and 2 by my fellow Judges Nelson and Pinsky (reviews that I heartily recommend to the reader as being vastly superior to my own), I am forced to admit defeat: I have no idea what is going on. I like what I see, but like Donny in The Big Lebowski, I have no frame of reference. Judge Nelson compared Volume 1 to "trying to learn the history of WWII by only starting at the German defeat on the Eastern front." Volume 3, then, is my invasion of Berlin. Unconditional surrender must inevitably follow.
I won't insult fans of the series by attempting a synopsis of its sprawling, epic storyline. Suffice it to say that it Banner of the Stars II, along with its predecessors, Crest of the Stars and Banner of the Stars, is a space opera on a galactic scale, involving the machinations of vast interstellar empires. Against this sweeping backdrop, the story of our heroes, Jinto (a young human man) and Lafiel (an elf-like princess), unfolds.
Paradoxically enough, the fact that I cannot make sense of this series speaks to its quality—it's not that the story is incoherent, but that it is driven by character and politics and explorations of the fictional universe that Morioka has created, rather than repetitive, generic space battles and overly familiar giant-robot, alien invader storylines. This is sophisticated storytelling, and from what I can glean from this tiny sliver of the larger story, Banner of the Stars is a series distinguished by an original, intelligent voice. The volume ends on a somewhat inconclusive note, leaving the door open for a promised fourth series. Based on what I've seen here, I'm looking forward to it.
Bandai's presentation of Banner of the Stars II: Return is fairly generic (the usual art gallery and text-based production notes appear), with a significant exception: a 25-minute bonus episode relating part of the back story of Lafiel's parents. According to notes by Morioka, he originally did not want this story to be animated, doubting that this dialogue-heavy, intimate two-person tale could be properly translated to the screen; the novelist was, however, pleased with the final product. And while it stands outside the current storyline and exists more as background than anything else, it's a terrific episode that, perhaps due to its standalone nature, I enjoyed more than the main feature. The playful banter between the newlywed couple is charming, the story is haunting and poetic, and more than anything else on the disc this "extra" episode got me interested in seeing the entire saga from the beginning.
Visually, the series is attractive but very much in the standard space opera vein—it's the story rather than the artwork that separates this title from the herd of science fiction anime. The widescreen transfer adds to the epic feel and looks great, capturing the vivid colors well with no defects that I could see. Audio is okay, with a Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack that does the job; the English dub is not great, but the way the subtitles are handled on this disc is so awful—scenes in which the Abh language is spoken provide burned-in Japanese subtitles, and if English subtitles are turned on they simply lay over the Japanese subtitles, creating a confusing mess—and the translation itself so dubious, that for a non-Japanese speaker, the English dub may be the best option.
In the wake of this small glimpse of the larger picture, I'm left baffled—but impressed. There is enough action here to satisfy fans of huge space battles, and the dense, complex story has this reviewer intrigued and eager to see more. With the addition of the bonus episode, this disc is a must for any fan of the series; and while I wouldn't recommend this particular volume to a newcomer, anyone interested in a solid, novelistic anime told on a grand scale should give Banner of the Stars a try.
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