Stratos 4 Vol. #1 (also w/box) (of 4) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Monday, July 26, 2004
Release Date: Tuesday, July 27, 2004



What They Say
Comets are on a collision course with Earth! Sounds like just another bad Hollywood movie right? WRONG! With impending comets threatening to destroy Earth, an elite interceptor force known as the 'Meteor Sweepers' are entrusted with the task of destroying these life threatening comets before they enter Earth's atmosphere.

Mikaze Honjo is a teen pilot and part of the 'Meteor Sweepers', she and her other squadron members are based at Shimoji Island in Okinawa. While active duty slows down, the team likes to spend their free time managing a local ramen shop, but just as Mikaze starts losing motivation in her work, she'll suddenly discover a new goal in life... saving the world!

The Review!
The Earth is in the path of an increasing number of objects in space, necessitating the creation of a new planet-wide force to deal with such threats.

Audio:
For our primary viewing session, we listened to this show in its original language of Japanese (while ensuring we checked out the Stacey Q parts as we went through it). The Japanese mix is a good sounding stereo mix that has a number of good moments of directionality due to ship sequences and some of the more action oriented scenes. The English 5.1 track sounds good but it's noticeably lower at times, particularly during the opening sequence, in comparison to the Japanese stereo mix. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and we had no problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.

Video:
Originally airing in 2003, Stratos 4 has a very vibrant looking full frame transfer. Mixing scenes between a near-tropical island, a command base and some satellites, the colors are fairly varied and well chosen. Backgrounds make out good with a very solid feel and no problems of macroblocking or color banding. Character animation itself looks great with some really vibrant pieces, often mixed into hair colors or eyes, while avoiding the usual issues of cross coloration and aliasing. The digital animation in the show manages to blend really well also with only a few areas that come across in a bad way very briefly, such as the solar cells opening up.

Packaging:
Using the same artwork as the Japanese release and even mimicking the sideways logo but with less background material under it, the cover art looks solid here with a shot of the four lead girls set against a lightly cloudy sky that has the Meteor Sweeper ships heading skyward. The character artwork is nice and clean with simple lines and good looking colors which are eye-catching against the white and blue from the skyline portion. The back cover is a basic layout with some light images done as a collage for the background mixed in with a lot of black while each episode gets one image from it along the side. The premise is given a few paragraphs of discussion while the discs features and extras are all nice and clearly listed. The technical and production information is pretty clear as well though I continue to wish Bandai would move to a grid format like their Japanese counterparts. The insert for the release mirrors the front cover without the logos or volume listing and opens to a two page spread that talks about the Meteor Sweeper interceptors. The back of the insert provides the full list production and voice actor credits. Included in the keepcase are two pencil boards that are full color on each side. These are really good looking boards; one side features the girls in their uniforms while the other has them either in their uniforms for the restaurant or in their sleepwear.

In addition to the regular edition release there is a limited edition release whose only real feature to it is the box itself. Since it's only $5 more than the regular edition it's priced right for what it is. The box is done in red with each of the main panels having a good shot of the four leads. One side features them in casual wear while walking through the water and the other panel has the four of them in the restaurant uniforms walking along the beach at sunset. The spine has a good look with the series logo done the same as the cover but with the cat along the bottom.

Menu:
The main menu is an amusing animated piece, sort of. The backdrop is a slightly cloudy sky that scrolls along while the stationary Meteor Sweeper craft sits in the center of the menu. The selections are in a box along the lower left and the logo in the upper right, all set to some of the action piece music from the show. The way the motion is set is just, well, strange in a way and it almost feels comical. The navigational layout is good, though I kept wanting to move the cursor to just play instead of starting episode one, and access times are nice and fast. Unlike other Bandai releases recently, this one did not start up with my player defaults but instead went for the English 5.1 mix with sign/song subtitles on.

Extras:
There's a fair bit of extras included in this first volume. The first is a vacation diary of the voice actors on Shimoji Island. The actresses make the demand that they want to go to the real island before they do their recording for research, so it's off to Okinawa they all go, which is a lot of fun with them having camcorders and just getting into everything. This is just a lot of fun for seeing the island and how well matched the anime is throughout the trip. If not for the typhoons, it looks like an interesting place to live. There's a rather amusing and interesting extra that details the military equipment in the show that's done by a Japanese military commentator who provides comparisons to real world craft and aspects of what's animated. With a number of actors outside of the standard anime casting pool being in this show, there's several pages worth of biographies on them that show their quite varied works. The opening and ending sequences are done up in their textless format and the final extra is an English language trailer that's quite different from some of the other trailers I've seen.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Whether for good or ill, Stratos 4 gained some higher level of notoriety prior to its release based on who the cast included for the English language version in that they were going for voice actors who weren't exactly standard among the pool of actors used. With it including some popular singers from the 80's, it followed the idea of any publicity is good publicity and there was certainly talk about it. While the actual content of the show didn't register much, sometimes you take what you can get.

Going into Stratos 4, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The premise is actually fairly interesting and appeals to the space junkie that I was growing up. The world is pretty similar to how it is now except that people have faced the reality of a close encounter with a very large object in space. Taking the active route, a new force is created to deal with the threat of meteors and comets that come into the solar system that are on a collision course with the Earth. In space, a team of Comet Blasters across several space stations deals with the tracking down and elimination of the comets as they get within a certain range. The teams use advanced sleeker versions of the existing space shuttles and use an interesting explosive technique with their rockets to destroy as much of it as possible in the first attack.

Generally this happens and everything is fine afterwards. But every now and then there's an issue where it breaks apart in such a way that chunks of it, dangerous sized chunks, will enter the planets atmosphere. When this happens, the assignment shifts to the ground based Meteor Blaster groups. Their high velocity low orbit aircraft shoot up into the atmosphere and use the same kind of missile attack on these chunks to ensure nothing causes any ground damage on the planet. Presumably there are numerous bases like this around the globe as we focus on just one base down on Shimoji Island, a place close to Okinawa.

At the bases, there are teams of experienced pilots that are on standby for when this happens. As soon as a comet is within range, they're out on the runway waiting to see if the thing shatters in the wrong way so that they need to do some final cleanup. The bases also serve as a training point for those who want to go into these service and they're picked at a young age. Training to become a Meteor Sweeper is critical to becoming a Comet Blaster or simply serving out on the satellites at all. And with the number of people who want to work and live in space, there must be some fierce competition to get there.

Which of course is why our lead character, Mikaze, is something of an unmotivated person and doesn't really care about the entire program. She's the daughter of two very prominent and well regarded pilots so she's managed to end up in the program due to their insistence and name value. While on the island, she lives with the mother/daughter team that operates one of the only restaurants in the area and also works there in her off time both in doing deliveries and doing things within the restaurant. Her academic work is mediocre at best and her skills just don't seem to be up to par to what's needed. Her friends, a trio of girls who are generally assigned with her to the exercises and other events, try to get her to study and to get her to classes on time but she continues to just be unmotivated. Her presence in the academy even sets some of the other men against her since they believe she's there solely because of name whereas they've had to work hard to get there.

Of course, she doesn't last like this for all that long as events occur that give her the motivation she needs to get into gear and actually be competitive. It's interesting to watch Mikaze evolve just within these first four episodes and how her motivation drives her to doing things in both the right and wrong way and to emphasize just how bad things can go when done wrong. While her change does occur somewhat quickly, I liked how it didn't all go smoothly for her and her attempts at changing only brought out more problems between her and everyone else. It doesn't turn all rosy now that she shifts from unmotivated to over motivated.

Stratos 4 works with some premises that I like seeing, though I would have found it more interesting if they didn't go with the whole young girl/cadet aspect, but that's all that seems to sell these days. The show mixes in both the space and ground based material well enough and keeps its eye on the ball in terms of dealing with the characters and their training as well as interactions between them. When they started the bit about the four girls helping out at the restaurant I figured it'd go badly but they manage it rather well and avoid making it a completely comical piece and instead lets some rather quiet and thought provoking moments come from what they do during their time there.

I will say that even though I would have preferred an older cast and some more complexities to things, I really do like the four lead girls here and the way they all work together. While they're not all as distinct as they should be yet, I rather like their designs and what we know of them so far. I also like that since this is being done in the real world that their spacesuits aren't all flash. They're more skintight than you'd expect in a real world situation, but if I'm going to be watching a show with women like this, then I'll take my fanservice like this. It's nicely tempered without being over the top. The small things like that, the way they ride the aircraft like sleds and the realism of the island nature are all good selling points with me that let me get beyond some of the initially mediocre parts and look to see if there's something really neat here.

In Summary:
Stratos 4 seems to be a mix of a coming of age show and a school-like drama that?s set to a science fiction background. With only thirteen episodes, I don't expect as much of the show to be fleshed out as I would like but I do expect the next round or two of episodes will do a lot to expand on the characters and give them more of a personality beyond some of the cookie cutter pieces that some of them are now. The premise and the character material we do get here is a good amount of meat with which to start the show and combined with some great looking animation and some top-gun style aerial sequences, I'm now looking forward to seeing more of this show.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language,English 5.1 Language,English 2.0 Language,English Subtitles,Voice Actress Vacation Featurette,TSR.2.MS Design,Voice Cast Filmography,Textless Opening,Textless Ending

Review Equipment
Panasonic PT50LC13 50" LCD RP HDTV, Panasonic RP-82 Progressive Scan codefree DVD player, Sony STR-DE835 DD/DTS receiver, Monster component cable and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: A-
Packaging Rating: B+
Menus Rating: B-
Extras Rating: B+
Age Rating: 13 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Bandai Entertainment
MSRP: 29.98/34.98
Running time: 100
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Stratos 4