Banner of the Stars

I respect films like Cloud Atlas and Donnie Darko for what they try to do, even when they sometimes fail. I respect Banner of the Stars. I do not love it. The hardest shows for me to sit through -- and to review -- are those that are both wonderful and frustrating at the same time. A great concept, unique styles, intriguing characters can all be great...but if not put together with the proper finesse, those special elements can also become annoying and cloying. That's Banner of the Stars for me in a nutshell.

Banner of the Stars begins three years after the events of Crest of the Stars. We rejoin Lafiel and Jin, now slightly older and wiser. She captains a small battle cruiser, the Basroil, for the Abh; he's the supply officer and member of the bridge crew. The opening salvos of an intergalactic conflict that occurred in Crest have turned into a full-on war, and Lafiel's crew is a part of Operation Phantom Flame. The goal is to eventually take and hold the Aptic Gate, a crucial area of space that could decisively turn the tide in favor of the Abh or the United Mankind. A battle of millions is destined to take place...

Yet despite all of that, there's plenty of time to wait around for the enemy hordes. The crew of the Basroil get to know each other over meals. An unexpected invitation from a fellow commander sends Jin and Lafiel for a loop. They bicker over a cat. Another crew member tries to get close to Jin. While slightly mad admirals make plans for interstellar warfare, there's kind of a whole lot of nothin'.

And that's really part of the point and pleasure of Banner of the Stars. It's not a wall-to-wall action show with a battle every episode, though the battles that come are done well. It has a sort of "Lower Decks" feel. Lafiel and Jin may be Abh royalty, but they are still novices in comparison to the admirals of the fleet, and there's no attempt to make them into savants with incredible skills. They are an extremely tiny part of an extremely large conflict. I loved this perspective, and much of what works about Banner of the Stars flows from this. There are many convincing moments. Some new characters such as chief engineer Samson Tirusec are welcome additions to this world. Ultimately, Banner of the Stars most succeeds when it doesn't follow the cookie-cutter mold of typical sci-fi anime.

While I love that Banner of the Stars has a very different focus on a universe-shaping conflict, many things about it just irritated the heck out of me. Are we really going to keep having discussions about whether a cat belongs on a battleship? Does a show that breaks so many anime conventions have to add in a stupid plotline where Jin literally falls into another crew member, Ekuryua, creating the least likely love triangle in anime history? We even get short bits of fan service in this season, happening almost exclusively in a filler episode the author of the novels admits he created for the anime.

There's also a bothersome habit for the show to give us a lot more information than our main characters have. We watch lots of conversations among senior Abh making war plans, but they are almost all dull, and none of them have any direct effect on the leads. Do they give us a larger perspective on the conflict? Perhaps, but it's unnecessary. That's really the problem, since the show often comes to a dead stop when the crew of the Basroil isn't front and center. And if you're a fan of the budding romance between Lafiel and Jin, you will find yourself disappointed.

On a more positive note, Banner of the Stars looks a bit better than its predecessor. Musically, it's almost identical, but I loved the soundtrack of the original, so it wasn't an issue for me. There are still many cost-cutting techniques on display, but the ending stops messing around with battles as triangles on computer screens and gives us warships exploding in combat. There isn't quite the sense of scale that should exist for a battle between forces as massive as these, but it's OK. It's still on a budget, but the last three episodes do put you in the middle of a ginormous war.

Banner of the Stars didn't kill my interest in the series; I still have plans to watch Banner of the Stars II and perhaps on to the OVAs from there. That said, it's clear that the deep focus on Jin and Lafiel that made Crest of the Stars so special is gone, and there's a lot of clutter taking its place. Fans of massive space conflict may well enjoy it, as well as those who can appreciate the unique things that make this series stand out. But as a follow-up to the wholly enjoyable Crest of the Stars, it's lacking.

Banner of the Stars -- sci-fi violence, brief nudity -- B