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"Oban Star-Racers": Fun Adventure, Poor Racing

Racing has always been a tricky genre to animate. In video games it’s easy: all you have to do is get the racing part fast and furious and you’ve got a winner. Plot, characters, and backgrounds don’t really matter much in the end. But in animation, you need that stuff if the audience is to care about the outcome of the races. But, as Oban Star-Racers Volume 2 proves, if you focus too much on the world outside the vehicles, your main selling point becomes your biggest weakness.

Previously, the future of mankind had been hanging in the balance as the legendary Race on Oban, spanning the entire galaxy, got underway. To qualify, the Earth Team sent Don Wei, racing manager genius, and a team of crack professionals to the qualifying race on Alwas, but unexpected dangers put Molly, who is actually Wei’s daughter, Eva, at the forefront. The Earth team managed to make it to the finals on Oban, but so have the Crogs, mankind’s greatest enemy and one of the greatest evils in the universe. Luckily, so has an ally, Prince Aikka, an alien who has fallen for Molly, but his forced servitude to his planet’s conquerors, the Crogs, has put a heavy strain on their relationship. And then there are the races themselves. Instead of a straight race to the finish, the competitors must now gain the most points by racing through a series of checkpoint gates, and only the first three racers to finish will gain any points whatsoever. After an utterly disastrous start, the Earth Team is struggling simply to keep up with everyone. Do they have a chance at coming back and winning the Race on Oban? And what exactly is lurking deep beneath the surface of what the Avatar calls the “Origin Planet”?

One of Oban’s greatest strengths is the power of its plot. The new planet offers a new challenge, and the new competitors are varied enough not to seem like rehashes of the one-timers from the first season. More focus is given to the unseen evil hinted at during the first season, and everything having to do with this evil is executed to great effect, especially during the final few episodes on each disc. One of the standouts is the episode “Secret Like Sul,” in which Aikka teams up with two of the other competitors to take out Sul, a being of pure energy, but Sul ends up being taken out by the Big Bad of the series in the end. The twists and turns, starting with Aikka’s alliance and ending with Sul’s death, come from everywhere and really test the heroes with everything they’ve got. More is added when the final race ends and the Big Bad is released, forcing the Earth Team to turn into an action team, fighting against giant monsters of various shapes and size. In particular, the Earth Team’s fight against two monsters of light and darkness in the next-to-final episode is one of the best in the series, punctuated by the assistance of one of the other racers who hadn’t done much by that point.

But the true standout is the relationships between the characters, the foremost being Molly and Don Wei’s. It was practically beaten over our heads last season that Molly only wanted her father’s love back, but hated the fact that he didn’t even recognize her. Well, Don Wei learns surprisingly early on this season that Molly is Eva, and his steady development in trying to talk to his daughter provides one of the main conflicts, especially in Disc 1, as Molly doesn’t want to have anything to do with Don. After all, he didn’t recognize her when they first met and has been incredibly harsh to her all this time. The father-daughter conflict provides some humanity to the series and really drives the early episodes on, supported by the strained love triangle going on among Molly, Earth Team gunner Jordan, and Aikka. Despite wanting to be a good guy, Aikka spends most of the season as a bad guy, which even forces Molly to distrust him, and Aikka’s descent into darkness really deepens the character and provides a second great conflict that strengthens the second half of the set, especially after Sul is killed. Eventually it gets to the point where you just want Aikka to go with his guts and finally join the good guys permanently, and that journey helps the show out a lot, especially in the final few episodes when Aikka takes it upon himself to protect Molly no matter what.

The plot and character relationships had better be strong, as the racing sure isn’t. Last time, I complained that many of the races lacked a sense of danger, speed, and overall thrill, especially compared to IGPX, and this season they are even worse. Every race is a free-for-all where all the racers must pass various checkpoint gates on the way to the finish line, but very rarely do we get to actually see all the competitors at once. Aside from the main enemy racer of the day, everybody else involved in the race barely gets a few minutes on-screen, and certainly not with the main character. And with the way the Earth Team performs through most of the races, many of them end with Don Wei just saying that they’ve lost, rather than with a gritty race to the finish. The racing almost feels thrown in merely as a backdrop, which hurts the overall fun of the series, especially for someone like me who greatly enjoys a good race.

Said races also suffer from some idiotic decisions by Molly, who regularly passes up a chance for points in order to go help one of her competitors (mainly Aikka) when they are injured. Now, this is an admirable trait, but most of the time the best course of action would be to finish the race (as usually Molly leaves right before the finish line) and then go help out, but no such luck here. This boneheaded generosity of hers reaches a breaking point during the final two episodes. After the final race, Molly decides to ditch the ending ceremony, which the Avatar (the one who created the Race on Oban) says over and over again cannot be delayed at all, in order to see if her friends are okay after a disastrous crash earlier in the race. Never mind that the Avatar probably already knew everybody’s condition beforehand (as he disqualified racers if they killed the other competitors), but Molly’s inability to think of anything else besides the safety of her friends, while admirable, forces her to make such an idiotic decision that pretty much everybody watching can see the consequences coming a mile away. And sure enough, Molly ditching the ceremony results in the apocalypse, whereas if she had stayed, asked the Avatar if he knows the condition of the others, and finished the ceremony, then peace would prevail. Obviously, we wouldn’t get the final two episodes, as well as the pleasantly surprising ending, but the decision that leads to it is just too damn stupid.

I also disliked a general lack of development of the other racers. Most of the screen time is focused on the Earth Team, Aikka, and the Crogs, leaving the others with scraps. There’s a Napoleon-like pirate who mainly seems to be included for laughs, what with his giant tongue and goofy-looking henchmen, but he fails to be a factor in the series at all after his early attempt at sabotaging the Earth Team. There’s also a pair of deadly female twins that seem pretty powerful, but only get the smallest of development until a reason for racing is shoehorned in near the end of the series in order to give them some kind of depth. But the most annoyingly vague characters are O and Sul. O is a weird alien with a ton of superpowers, but outside from a flashback with the Avatar, not much info is given before his part in the plot is over. Since it doesn’t speak English, we never get to see what its real feelings are nor its main motivations. Plus, it’s such a non-factor in the races that one forgets the thing’s even in the competition until the very end. Sul, however, is the more heinous crime here. I don’t really mind a super-racer coming in and dominating, but Sul is more than that. It’s made clear that he is a being that controls time, space, and destiny, which would seem to give him Avatar-like abilities. Yet the only amount of development we see is the five-minute talk he has with Molly, and that’s it. We don’t know where he came from, why he entered the race, or even how he got these powers to begin with. When you introduce a character with powers like Sul’s, you have to give them development, but in the end it seems like he’s merely a plot device to dominate the early rounds.

ImageAs for the visuals, they’re a mixed bag. The frame rate is still quite solid, offering fluid animation with great consistency, and the CG is top notch. As if the improved racers themselves aren’t cool enough, the various locales are gigantic and look much better in CG than as painted backgrounds. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same problem as the actual races: blandness. Alwas had a rather boring track made of ruins, but at least it had a bright blue sky and bright green grasses to give a visual punch. Here, we get a variety of tans, reds, and browns everywhere, making Oban one of the most boring planets I’ve ever seen, despite each track being located in a vastly different locale. I mean, even the race in the ice feels bland, and usually episodes taking place in an arctic wasteland offer a unique change and a visual punch. Oban is also almost completely devoid of life, which adds to the races’ lonely feeling.

Once again Ocean Group does a solid job dubbing the series, with Chiara Zanni (Molly), Sam Vincent (Jordan), and Kirby Morrow (Aikka) continuing their great performances from the first season. Vincent especially steals the show, as his acting as the clumsy Jordan fits the character to a T, but that’s to be expected considering his proficiency with clumsy or nervous characters. Most of the new characters have wonderful voices as well, though veteran anime watchers may find many of them overly familiar, especially if you’ve watched InuYasha‘s dub a couple of thousand times. The music continues to impress—Yoko Kanno’s opening and ending themes continue to make me wish we had gotten a soundtrack to the series—even though certain tracks seem almost eerily similar to music from The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest. Once again, though, there is a lack of language options, as we still don’t get either a French or a Japanese track, even though the extras focus on the Japanese/French dubs.

ImageSpeaking of the extras, we get a decent smattering in this set. The main feature is the 40-minute featurette “The Making of Oban Star-Racers (Part 2)” which mostly covers the audio and visual creation of the series. It’s quite interesting to see how the music came together and just how much of the show was created in CG, but the featurette suffers by jumping around from point to point. The first half is dedicated almost solely to the audio side of things, from the voice acting to the music to the theme songs, but the second half jumps around from the CG studios to convention tours to the sound design to the US production and so on. Not only that, we don’t get even a peek at the US voice cast, despite interviews with the French and Japanese casts. Also on here are more promo profiles for the series, production art, the original presentation at Europe’s largest anime convention, MIPCOM, and the full 90-second version of the opening theme. Again, though, Shout Factory has left off the original pilot, which is the most baffling exclusion I can think of, especially given its cult popularity.

Overall, if you enjoy a good galaxy-wide adventure story, Oban Star-Racers is right up your alley. But if you’re looking for F-Zero-style racing, look elsewhere.

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