"Five Star Stories": One Short Epic
Accompany me if you will on a journey back in time to 1977, when the entirety of the Star Wars saga was contained in a single two-hour film. It featured many tantalizing references to unseen places, people, and events, causing viewers to speculate feverishly about just who this Anakin guy was and what the Clone Wars were. At the time that was all just window dressing, the story stood fine on its own. However, now that you know the entire saga is in fact twelve hours long, imagine it all reduced to a single hour of Episode III or IV that references all that comes before and after it. If you think that sounds confusing, then we think alike. This is the exact situation with Five Star Stories, a fascinating, mammoth space opera that suffers only slightly from an awkwardly crammed seventy minute running time.
Before you question the sanity of the producers, I should note that the film was conceived as a promotional device for the lengthy manga series of the same name, hoping to inspire viewers to go buy the many volumes to fill out the story. The modern viewer has no such resource to fall back on, unless you live around the corner from Tokyo’s large used book district [Or in New York, which has a Book Off. Lucky New Yorkers. -Ed]. Thankfully the film limits its scope to a single year of the centuries-long saga, but it’s still packed with many confusing references to the massive prologue and epilogue. Never mind, it’s very entertaining all the same. Part Star Wars, part Lord of the Rings, and part Gundam; Five Star Stories is a tale of love and war that is epic in every dimension. And yes, that includes melodrama. Where would the above franchises be without it?
Now you’ll want to follow this next part very closely and take notes, lest you become as lost as I was. Our story is set in the distant future in the Joker Galaxy, home to several competing kingdoms. They wage war with giant Gundam-like warrior robots called mortar headds, which are controlled by pairs of human pilots called headdliners and nearly human female androids called fatimas. The highly anticipated debut of famed creator Chrome Ballanche’s new fatimas Clotho and Lachesis is fast approaching on the desert planet Addler, and many are arriving from across the galaxy for the event. One such individual is renowned mortar headd mechanic Ladios Sopp, who crashes his ship and hitches a ride into town with headdliner Voards Viewlard. Old friend Ballanche asks Sopp to watch over his beloved fatimas, as they have been seized by the unscrupulous local ruler Duke Juba prior to the debut ceremony. The ailing Ballanche fears that these unique fatimas will fail to find new masters, and be left at the mercy of Juba. The perverse Duke quickly takes a liking to the sexually ambiguous Sopp and allows him to stay in the castle. At older sister Lachesis’s urging, Clotho makes a daring escape from Juba’s castle, with Sopp and Viewlard in pursuit. Sopp and King Colus of planet Juno (yes, apparantly there’s a king) find her just in time to rescue her from a gang of street punks. Clotho instantly accepts Colus as her master, much to the dissatisfaction of Juba. As the big day looms all eyes turn to Lachesis, and Juba is determined to take her by force if necessary.
Although it is a common enough topic in manga, I believe Five Star Stories is the first sci-fi anime I’ve seen address homosexuality. At first I thought it was just a design choice, but Sopp is clearly effeminate and his sexual proclivities are questioned several times. Not only does the sleazy Juba admire him, but surprisingly the heroic and macho Viewlard tries to get very friendly in one scene, albeit in a state of severe intoxication.
This franchise has an endless list of characters, and a large number of them are thrown at the viewer in the film. Some show up only for a moment, do something that seems to be very meaningful, then disappear again. Thankfully the thorough DVD booklet describes each one so you can sort of guess at their motivation. Sopp is definitely not your typical anime hero. Brave yes, but more delicate and contemplative than hotheaded and impulsive. Viewlard is a more familiar character, gregarious and gruff with a touch of Han Solo. Both characters reveal a big surprise at the end of the film (no, they don’t pick out curtains). The shocking revelation that they aren’t quite what they seem is unfortunately diminished by the fact that we barely knew who they were in the first place. No other cast members get enough speaking time for the audience to get to know them beyond simple expressions of nobility, villainy, sorrow, etc. It’s a shame, because there are so many colorful characters one longs to learn more about. Especially the mysterious Mirage Knights, who seem like an offshoot of the Jedi order, albeit a violent one.
Because there is such a huge story to tell, the film is heavy on exposition and action takes a backseat. There are a couple of exciting moments, however. Star Wars fans will delight in what seems to be an homage to the famous cantina scene, in which Colus, clad in Jedi-like robes, draws his lightsaber and slices off the gun toting hand of a thug dressed like Han Solo. And although it is far too brief, the sight of Sopp’s massive gold mortar headd in action is most impressive.
This is a superb transfer, very clean and vibrant. You’d never guess the source was nearly twenty years old. The animation is excellent for an 80s production and the art design fantastic. The mortar headds in particular are simply stunning: the elegant baroque counterpart to the functional Gundams. The score is reminiscent of classic 40s Hollywood romances, melodramatic to a fault but pretty and distinctive.
For extras there’s a Japanese trailer, brief text staff profiles, and nothing else. Come on! Somebody please explain this convoluted yarn. Give us a commentary, documentary, interview, anything. At least the nice booklet provides lots of detail on the story and characters; otherwise I’d be in way over my head. Also an anime this beautiful really requires an art gallery. To be fair, the very attractive packaging is impressive.
If you’ve been left jonesing for epic sagas with the conclusion of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, Five Star Stories may be just what the doctor ordered. It’s an unfortunately brief high, but well worth the trip. As for me, well, I’m getting the shakes real bad man. You got any back issues you wanna sell?