Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars: A space opera of the (trans)human heart

Crest of the Stars and its sequels (Banner of the Stars I – III) are some of my favourite anime of all time. Based on a series of novels (Seikai no Monshou and Seikai no Senki, by Hiroyuki Morioka), they succeed on so many levels. They tell a tale of conflict within the heart, against a backdrop that combines an epic clash of empires with an imaginative exploration of what humanity’s descendants may look like.

 

The Pros


At its heart, the Crest of the Stars franchise is driven by the relationship between its two lead characters. While Jinto was still a boy, his father surrendered their homeworld to the Abh, genetically engineered superhumans who came with overwhelming force. Now it’s time for the grown-up Jinto to journey to the Abh capital to receive the education befitting a member of the ruling class. He is an earnest young man who is nonetheless very much a rube when it comes to the wider galaxy, and our second lead makes quite an impression on him. Lafiel, princess of the Abh and military cadet, is sometimes prickly, sometimes haughty, sometimes endearingly naive about “Lander” (non-Abh) society, and always conscious of the weight of her duty. Once he gets over his initial awe of her, the two of them hit it off, their like and respect for each other clearly evident. There is an undercurrent of attraction from early on – but this blossoms over the course of several series, rather than immediately being shoehorned into the usual, “We have a hero! We have a heroine! Okay, we need to make them a couple by the halfway point!” In fact, this franchise contains one of the very few romances in fiction that I actually find interesting. And the franchise managed to make me care so much about its leads for me that some of their misfortunes, later on, felt like a strike to the gut.

 

I also love the universe in which the franchise takes place. “Classic” space operas usually revolve around humans who are exactly the same as they were in the twentieth century: no AIs, bioroids, or uplifts, either because the concepts hadn’t entered the lexicon of science fiction at the time, or because the author was deliberately aiming for a retro feel. The transhuman futures, on the other hand, (e.g. the works of Charles Stross), lack the coolness of galactic empires and battleship duels. And transhumans can be so utterly alien as to be unrelatable (see Childhood’s End, by Arthur C Clarke). Crest of the Stars and its sequels combine the best of both worlds. The Abh are biologically and culturally different to you or I, but they live and love and laugh as we do. Their culture and system of government feel believable, and they’re fleshed out with little details, such as the near-superstitious dread in which they’re held by some Landers. And while we do get our space battleships and galactic empires and easy FTL, these too have clever little twists. For instance, to work around the constraints of realism, space battles largely take place in hyperspace – and for once, ship classes aren’t patterned on those of the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries.

 

I like this franchise from a thematic standpoint, too. From Jinto’s story arc, about a young man yanked away from his roots and forced to find his own identity, to Banner of the Stars II’s exploration of duty and sacrifice, there is fodder to leave me thinking long after I’ve put down the last episode.

 

The Cons


Of course, all is not perfect. I am not so great a fan of the plots as I am of the characters and worldbuilding, pretty much because (IIRC) the first couple of series don’t follow the traditional “heroes have a problem, heroes work out how to solve the problem, heroes go home happy” plot structure. In particular, the plot of the original Crest of the Stars does not really hang together: it consists of several successive Jinto/Lafiel adventures with little to connect them. That said, the franchise has its moments: the original Crest, for instance, contains one of the tensest, most exciting space battles I’ve ever seen in fiction.

 

The production values also leave something to be desired. The English dub is horrible; if you watch this, I highly recommend the Japanese audio. The official translation is clunky at best. The original anime has lacklustre art quality and, in places, rather… odd… looking character designs (I remember seeing jokes to the effect that the creators must have run out of money after animating the space battles). That said, the artwork does improve markedly in the sequel series, culminating in the superb-looking Banner of the Stars III OVA.

 

The kind of anime I’d like to see more of

 

For all their rough edges, I love Crest of the Stars and its sequels. They bring together so many of the things I seek in fiction: exciting conflict; a world that blends old-favourite space opera tropes with a good dash of transhumanist imagination; and most of all, vivid and likeable characters who grew over the course of the story. When I look back at the franchise, I think how much I enjoyed it and how much I’d like to see a sequel. Then I remember how well the ending of Banner of the Stars III wrapped up the characters’ arcs, and I smile, and know I’d be happy regardless.

 

You can buy Crest of the Stars, Banner of the Stars I, and Banner of the Stars II from Amazon here.

 

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