Stratos 4 Vol. #1 (of 3) (Mania.com)

By:Dani Moure
Review Date: Friday, May 20, 2005
Release Date: Monday, May 16, 2005



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, and 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 another three squadron members are based at Shimoji island in Okinawa.

The Review!
Another new series begins courtesy of Beez, and coming from the creators of Najica it was always going to be interesting...

Audio:
I watched the first two episodes in Japanese and the other two in English. Both stereo tracks are nice and clear, and I noticed no dropouts or distortions during playback. The stereo track is pretty standard fare for a TV series.

I enjoyed the Japanese cast for the series quite a lot, especially the four main girls. They gelled together really well and Yumi Kakazu as Mikaze was particularly good in her portrayal of the different emotions she was going through.

The English dub on the other hand is a strange beast that works surprisingly well. For whatever reason, Bandai decided to employ the vocal talents of 80s singers Stacey Q and Tiffany. I’ve no idea why they chose Stratos 4 to get some singers for voices, but so far it works. At least for Stacey Q, who apparently voices Karin. I’ve no idea when Tiffany shows up or who she plays (and couldn’t find any information on it), but she’s supposedly in there somewhere. Anyway, the dub itself was really enjoyable, especially again with the performances of the main girls, so I look forward to seeing more of it.

Video:
Presented in its original full frame aspect ratio, this is a really nice looking transfer. Colours are vibrant throughout, and I didn’t see any artifacting or aliasing, which is always a big plus in newer shows. It looks very good and the nice transfer is a huge bonus. The openings and endings are left in their original Japanese kanji forms, but unfortunately there’s no English translation present anywhere on this disc, which is a bit frustrating to say the least, and the only place that Beez lose a few marks (the English credits usually roll after the last episode).

The English subtitles are white, in a clearly readable font, and are relatively error free.

Packaging:
Packaged in a white keepcase, this is a really nice package. The front cover features a nice image of all four girls in uniform with some aircraft blasting off behind them. The show’s logo is down the side, and the disc is clearly numbered in the top right corner with the various logos gracing the bottom of the cover. The back cover presents the usual screenshots and summaries, as well as episode titles and a clear listing of extra features. Beez also have a nice, clear technical information box at the bottom of the back cover.

Also of note is that the cover is reversible. The cover is the same image as the normal side, except the girls are wearing different outfits (the ones they wear at the restaurants), and the screenshots on the back are different. An insert is also present, with another nice image of the girls in spacesuits on one side, and release details for volumes 2 and 3 on the back.

Menu:
The main menu has an image of Mikaze off to the left, with the show logo at the top and selections down the side. There’s a border running round the outskirts, with clips from the show in the background as music also plays. The sub-menus also feature clips playing in the background, with different music and different images of the girls scattered around. Access times are really fast and this overall looks like a slick production.

Extras:
While we get the standard textless opening and ending on this disc, the main extra is the 20-plus minute “Making Of” featurette. It goes behind the scenes at Studio Fantasia and is a really good look at what went in to making the show. It’s also very funny in places, especially near the start when one of the people says they want to make it serious and the others start discussing the need for panties! This is definitely the sort of extra I’d like to see more of. There are also a series of trailers for other Beez series.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Right from the moment you see this disc, you’d be hard-pressed not to notice the huge leaps and bounds Beez have taken since their first releases a couple of years ago, as their work on Stratos 4 just smells of quality. And it gets one up on the US release as well, as Beez are releasing the series on three discs instead of four.

The series was interesting for me as it comes from the renowned Studio Fantasia, the creators of another show I reviewed, Najica Blitz Tactics. But while that was a panty fest, Stratos 4 is far more subtle with its fan-service (though there are more than a few gratuitous “in your face” moments). Having seen the first episode of this series some time ago (long before I ever got to see Najica myself), I was intrigued to see where it would go as I remembered thinking it was OK from back then. While it’s not amazing, it starts as a solid show that could go some interesting places as it develops.

The Earth is in danger of being hit by a huge cluster of meteors, and to counter the mass destruction and severe weather conditions that would accompany any impacts, the UN gathers nations to form the Cosmic Emergency Management Agency. The agency is made up of two arms, the Cosmic Blasters who attack the meteors from orbit in space, and the Meteor Sweepers who confront them from the ground. The story revolves around a group of four girls who are in teams of two in the Meteor Sweepers.

One girl in particular, Mikaze Honjyo, is in a bit of a daze. Her parents and sister were famous members of the Comet Blasters, the most elite pilots, and she’s only really there to follow in their footsteps. She is constantly flunking class and getting pink cards as punishment, meaning she has to run laps around the base. Her group is always on standby when comets approach, but are usually ranked behind a couple of guys, Sora and Tsubasa. Over the course of these episodes though, as Mikaze experiences going up on her first mission and tackling the comets, she discovers a newfound drive to succeed at what she does, but it’s not as smooth a ride as she may have hoped.

What I liked about these opening episodes was their depictions of the four girls, and how different they are. In particular, Mikaze makes an interesting journey purely in these first four episodes, and the fire in her eyes (quite literally, in one scene) is plain to see. It’s the new sense of drive she gets that cause her to go a bit too far of course, leading to the way the disc ends (on a nasty cliffhanger of sorts), but it’s great to see something of a change in her outlook over the course of just a few episodes.

At first I was really expecting her to just stay in her hump for the whole of the disc, only to come out of it near the end and make some giant leap against all odds and expectations to save the day near the end of the series, so in that sense I was pleasantly surprised that by the end of the second episode she was already well on her way to getting out of the slump. Her reasons for doing so weren’t really clear at first though the purpose of the underwater light and her stutter in space provided clarity when it became apparent how much she seemed to want to see the vastness of space.

As for the other girls, well Ayamo is quite feisty really. She gives Mikaze a bit of a hard time throughout the disc, when she’s failing and even when she’s showing signs of improvement. But it generally seems like she’s doing it as a friend rather than being harsh just for the sake of it, as she wants I see Mikaze succeed. Karin is definitely the more ditzy one of the group, often not quite seeming with it and just going with the flow, usually in a more passive role. Though she came off as a bit of an anime cliché, I did like that aspect of her personality. Finally in the main group is Shizuha, who tends to be the more rounded of all the characters, providing a nice balance and a voice of reason a lot of the time.

With a well-balanced group of girls, you need some rivals. Naturally there are a couple of guys who are generally on standby to fill that void nicely. Sora takes a more friendly approach to the competition between students vying for places, whereas Tsubasa takes it way too seriously and the nasty aspect of his character really comes out when he is selected behind Mikaze and the girls. He looks like he may turn out to be a good guy in the end, but for now he’s definitely not the nicest person. It probably doesn’t help at all that Mikaze is just as stubborn and competitive as him.

As for the story itself, well, it’s nothing particularly original and that’s perhaps what lets the series down a little. While you don’t see too many series about ground and air groups working to destroy comets before they hit the planet, it’s pretty bog-standard in how there’s a few different groups vying for prestige, as well as juggling lives outside of their “job” of sorts. Not to mention that, as well-balanced as they are, the girls do tend to fit the usual stereotypes, even if the creators do try to put a bit of a twist on it.

But that’s not meant to be a huge downer on the series, because I did enjoy it despite its flaws. Not to mention that it has some decent production values (at least in these opening episodes), with some nice fluidity to the animation at times, and the usual vibrant “digital” look shows tend to have nowadays.

In Summary:
With a great presentation from Beez, the opening volume of Stratos 4 proves to be enjoyable if not entirely inspiring. While its story isn’t outstanding, I found the characters quite enjoyable, and by the end of the disc I found myself quite looking forward to seeing more. It may be a bit light and fluffy, but I’d still give it a recommendation at this stage unless you’re looking for heavy action or drama.

Features
Japanese Language (2.0),English Language (2.0),English Subtitles,French Subtitles,Dutch Subtitles,Making Of Featurette,Textless Opening and Ending

Review Equipment
Philips 28" Pure Flat Widescreen TV, Pioneer DV-464 code free DVD player, JVC gold-plated RGB SCART cable, standard stereo sound.



Mania Grade: B
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: A-
Packaging Rating: A
Menus Rating: B+
Extras Rating: A-
Age Rating: 12 & Up
Region: 2 - Europe
Released By: Beez
MSRP: £19.99
Running time: 100
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Stratos 4