Now Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger knows what a 70-minute slice of a 26-volume manga series looks like.
"Instead of understanding everything, I'm happier without knowing something. By the number of tear drops, the kindness will be doubling."—from Kentaro Onizuka's script translation
Your experience watching The Five Star Stories is wholly dependent on what you want to get out of it. If you are a fan of the massive manga The Five Star Stories serialized in Newtype Magazine, wherein Mamoru Nagano tells a story so epic that it could never fully be translated into a medium like anime, you will probably love this OVA. The Five Star Stories DVD will bring some of Nagano's characters to life for you in a seventy-minute dose of adventure. But if you are like me, someone with absolutely no knowledge of the manga, someone who just wants to see a rousing and cohesive story…well, get ready for confusion. Let me put it this way: The twelve-page introductory booklet contains a two-page timeline—in 6-point, single-spaced font.
Facts of the Case
Take 400 characters, four galaxies with 1,700 systems apiece, one emperor, two cups of highly complex sociopolitical structure, and a pinch of massive robot, put them in a blender, and puree on high for 2 minutes. Pour 3/4 of a cup of the puree into a DVD-shaped mold, wait for it to set, and then watch it at normal speed.
Despite the complexity of Nagano's world, The Five Star Stories manages to tell a relatively cohesive story. "Relatively" is the key word when you understand the enormous context it is drawn from. The plot summary above doesn't tell you what is going on in The Five Star Stories, and that is mostly because I cannot tell you what is going on. There are two reasons. First, I have no idea what is a spoiler and what isn't, so I fear talking about it and ruining a five-month-long story arc of the manga. Second, and perhaps more compelling, I simply don't understand what I saw.
The basic story involves a beautiful young man, Ladios Sopp, who knows a scientist. That scientist creates fatimas, or female cyborgs, to control massive robots knows as mortar headds. One of the young fatimas, Lachesis, swears loyalty to Lord Sopp. An aristocratic pig plans to keep Lachesis for himself by hosting and manipulating her societal debut. For reasons I am not privy to, Sopp is reluctant to accept the love of Lachesis. At the last minute he accepts her, which sparks off a big robot battle.
In the main sideplot, her sister Clotho runs away and is immediately hunted down by Sopp, the pig's henchmen, and four white-robed robotic bodyguards with lightsabers. The lightsabers mow down limbs and headds (sorry, a little Five Star Stories pun there) while royal highnesses come out of the woodwork to intervene. That's about all I want to say about the plot.
One thing is abundantly clear: The main characters in The Five Star Stories have dual lives, roles, and/or identities. The housemaid is actually a highly trained assassin, the frumpy pilot is a king, the reigning despot is actually a robotic stooge, the demure girl is actually a thousand-year-old deity waiting to explode into a burst of gossamer tendrils, that sort of thing. So don't get too comfortable with the status quo, because a new one will be established presently. Yet the characters are quickly and carefully introduced, so virgin viewers can intuitively absorb the gist of what is happening. The Five Star Stories doesn't take the cheap shots that are the norm for some anime, where Character X who was dead the whole time shows up at the last minute to save everybody. That sort of parlor trick would have made The Five Star Stories immensely frustrating to watch. Instead, I was only mildly confused, and not frustrated because there is internal consistency even if the subtleties of the plot aren't clear.
The Five Star Stories is an interesting anime relic that deserves to be dusted off and examined. It was released in the late eighties (some sources say 1986, while the IMDb says 1989), which is about the time that anime became really big. At that time, there was no manga-anime-video game synergy. Newtype had a massive resource in The Five Star Stories, and they thought big. The Five Star Stories OVA was to be the launching point for a full media exploration of the manga series, including several additional OVAs, a television series, and maybe even more. In other words, this title is among the first large-scale, high-profile attempts to turn anime into big business.
Everything about The Five Star Stories reveals this ambition, for good and ill. Ambition works against The Five Star Stories: The end of the movie is an obvious setup for a large-scale anime series, but twenty years later it has yet to materialize. They thought so big that the writers and animators didn't bother to wrap up loose ends. There is no way to be a casual viewer of this anime—you're either out or in. But even if you're in, there is nowhere to go but the source manga.
The positive aspects of this ambition manifest in the production values. The Five Star Stories was to be a showpiece, and the artwork reflects it. The static segments are breathtakingly detailed; the stillwork practically hums with life. I wish I could say the same for the animated segments, but the animation is rudimentary. It is cool, but simply not kinetic. My favorite parts are when the bodyguards drop their cloaks and belt out massive handfuls of death. But the fan favorite is the mortar headd battle at the end. It is a great moment, but like most of The Five Star Stories, it suffers from anticlimax syndrome after too short a buildup. There just isn't enough time to get into the events. The robots are there, then they are blown up.
The DVD does its best to replicate this carnage in all its pristine glory. However, I can't laud the audiovisuals. Heavy cross-coloration mars many scenes, but the real problem is macro blocking, which is evident on even a casual inspection. Otherwise, the print seems to have been cleaned up well and the transfer is stable, with decent detail.
The audio has its own twists. It may have been a large-scale effort in its day, but The Five Star Stories was eclipsed almost immediately by Akira, a dark technological tale. As we know by now, Akira set the tone for anime's future. The Five Star Stories was a throwback as soon as it was crafted, and the source elements were practically ignored after The Five Star Stories was blown out of the water so thoroughly. The primary casualty of this disregard is the English audio track. In short, there is no reasonable means to create one because the source audio elements are gone. The existing Japanese track, which again cannot be remastered from source elements, is passable. There aren't many glaring audio flaws, but it lacks vigor and the dynamic range isn't very large. The track is clear, but it is also tepid.
DVD extras are limited to a dry staff bio and a trailer. The real star is the liner notes, which go into great detail about how confused you're about to be.
Annoyances aside, The Five Star Stories is a grand spectacle with an eccentric storytelling technique that makes it feel fresh. It has love, prophecy, intrigue, war, action, and violence all rolled into one seventy-minute story. Heroes, villains, and regular people collide in a shower of sparks. The story has infinite promise, and even though it was never realized in animated form, at least the promise is there. This OVA is one of the best examples of the "old style" of anime, although I think Orguss 02 accomplished most of what The Five Star Stories is trying to do with tighter focus. Unless you are adamant about having English dubs, if you're a Five Star Stories fan you'll want to add this one to your collection. Otherwise, I'd only recommend this to anime old-timers who want a dose of nostalgia.
This court will not sentence The Five Star Stories until it understands all of the facts. His honor does not have time to read through a fifteen-foot-high stack of papers, however, so the defendant is free to go.
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