Stratos 4 Complete Collection (of 1) (Mania.com)

By:J.J. Matthews
Review Date: Monday, February 12, 2007
Release Date: Tuesday, March 14, 2006



What They Say
Comets are on a collision course with Earth?! WRONG! With impending comets threatening to destroy Earth, the "Meteor Sweepers" have been entrusted with the task of destroying these comets before they enter Earth's atmosphere. Mikaze Honjo and her 3 friends are a young pilots for the "Meteor Sweepers" based in Okinawa. But just as Mikaze starts losing motivation in her work, she'll suddenly discover a new goal in life...

The Review!
Audio:
For our main viewing sessions, we listened to the Japanese track, which was quite good. The audio is generally clean, with no significant distortion or glitches. Volume levels were also good throughout, with a good use of cue sounds that lend to the feel of the on-screen action. The surround sound was also used quite well in this series, with plenty of flight scenes that were given a little boost in ambiance and directionality as they crossed the soundstage.

Video:
The transfer for this collection is done in its original 4:3 format. The video is clear and uses a really nice color palette that adds to the generally upbeat feeling of the show. There are some minor issues with aliasing (particularly on lettering) and a few places where the CG execution is a bit off or not blended well into the rest of a scene, but overall, but overall the video quality is quite good.

Packaging:
Containing the four volumes in standard cases, the box for this set is really rather striking due to a bright red background that contrasts well with the shots of the four girls used on either side. Artwork on the spine is a bit bland, with the logo flanked by a silhouette of one of the aircraft used in the show and a cute shot of the series' cat mascot.

The four volumes are the same cases as the individual releases, and the insert page in each volume unfolds to provide a mini-poster with different shots of the four girls. In two of the four volumes in the boxset I received, there were also some cute mini-pencilboards. These had the same cover-art as the volume cover on one side, and then the image was recreated on the reverse side, but with the girls in skimpier outfits.

Menu:
The menus are clean, with all the of the menu-options displayed in a way that made it easy to navigate to the options you want without fumbling for which arrow button would get you there. Background images for the menus were a bit dull and mainly static, although there was a bit of animation to the first volume.

Extras:
For such an under-the-radar series, this set contains a surprisingly nice batch of extras, most carried over the Japanese release. It's clear that the creators of the series were really gung-ho on this project, and they went the extra mile to add a little something extra. In addition to the usual clean opening and ending animation and some textual bios for the English language cast and crew, there are several segments that follow the Japanese voice actresses on a trip they took to tour the real-life island that served as the setting for the series. The girls are adorable, and it was particularly interesting to see the island in a bit of a disheveled state, as the cast visited shortly after a typhoon had passed through the region.

Another fun extra is another multi-part segment featuring an aviation "expert" discussing the real-life aircraft that were used as inspiration for the show's science fiction counterparts. Again, it's interesting to get a feel for all of the research that went into the creation of it. And on a less intellectual note, there are also several music videos provided featuring the each of the voice actresses along with clips from the series. A preview for the OVA series is also provided that gives you a good feel for what's included in that - although I personally would have liked to have seen this "complete" collection contain the OVA itself.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Stratos 4's original release slipped pretty far under my radar, so going into this collection, I had no idea what to expect, except for a general feeling from the cover art that the show would probably be fairly light on plot and heavy on fan-service. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while the series does have a fair amount of fan-service, it also has a storyline with some nice thought behind it that injects a nice dash of "slice-of-life" realism into what could have been a standard cookie-cutter plot.

The series opens typically enough, with a group of four girls in training with the "Cosmic Emergency Management Agency", an organization formed to protect the Earth from an increasing number of large meteors that are coming dangerously close to the planet. The agency is made up of two primary divisions. The "comet blasters" are the front-line, operating from space stations in orbit and blasting most meteors early on. Usually, they can take care of the problem well before there's any risk to the planet, but occasionally a large enough piece gets through to cause serious damage if it hits. In such cases, Earth-based "meteor sweepers" take over, scrambling to take out the remaining pieces. It's an important job, but definitely not as flashy as the more high profile comet-blaster gig, and this disparity results in an interesting thread of tension that runs through the series - creating conflict between the two divisions and also with the public. Comet blasters are treated as glorious heroes on their rare visits to Earth, but meteor sweepers are mostly taken for granted - except when something manages to get past them, in which case they take the blame for the resulting destruction.

Against this backdrop, we're introduced to our four trainee pilots who are serving as meteor sweepers in hopes of learning enough to pass the exam to become comet blasters. The girls fit into some well-worn archetypes, but they're likeable enough: Shizuha, a studious and ambitious girl with her fingers in lots of different pies, Ayamo, a fiery, aggressive dynamo, and Karin, the quiet type who seems a bit disconnected from reality at times. The main character of the series, though, is the fourth girl - Mikaze. She's the youngest daughter of a family famous for being extremely skilled, elite pilots. Unfortunately, Mikaze doesn't have the same drive as the rest of her family and seems to be attending the school by default, getting in on the strength of her family name. She puts very little effort into her schoolwork and doesn't seem to have any interest in becoming a pilot at all, barely scraping by with the nagging of her three friends.

Early on, the series seems set to evolve into your basic underdog story. On their first real meteor-sweeping assignment, Mikaze-the-slacker gets a taste for space-flight and goes from having no ambitions to being a bit obsessed with getting into space as soon as possible. She kicks into gear with her studies, but ends up endangering herself and her friends in her eagerness to succeed, and the series generally seems geared to focus on Mikaze's fumbles and recoveries in her quest to become the best pilot ever. This storyline is only the beginning, however, and when Mikaze is called to face an inquiry board after one of her stunts goes too far, we start to see that there is more going on with CEMA than they would have everyone believe. A greater threat is brewing than the basic natural disaster that a meteor hit would cause, and events are in motion to bring the Earth to a crisis point.

This growing threat builds only slowly for most of the series, with little indications scattered throughout the episodes - Mikaze's inquiry board goes in unexpected directions, one of the girls starts behaving oddly, clues start to build up that a meteor the girls shot down wasn't what it seemed, and glimpses into life on board the comet blaster station show us that even stranger things are happening up in space. These elements are mostly in the background, though, and the majority of the episodes focus on more day-to-day activities on the base, taking on more of an ensemble "slice-of-life" comedy feeling instead of the "underdog-makes-good" approach they originally seemed to be going for. Some fairly standard comedy episode tropes show up here - a school festival has the girls' parents visiting the base, the girls take a trip to a hot springs, and in one pure comic-relief episode, the series' mascot cat takes center stage for his own little adventure.

The nice thing about these mid-series episodes is that they provide some time for the show to go beyond the four girls and flesh out the rest of the cast. Although the girls remain at the center of the action, Stratos 4 does a great job with giving the secondary characters plenty of depth for the amount of screen-time devoted to them. The base is populated by a diverse cast of characters, and each of them has his/her own contribution, with several having their own mini-subplots play out over time, often with us just getting the barest glimpse of a larger drama. The base's chief mechanic pursues his dream of building his own spacecraft, the girls' teacher overcomes a past disgrace to become a pilot again, the commander of the base shares a cup of tea with the owner of the restaurant where the girl's live, and it's obvious that the two are old friends, if not involved romantically. By the end of the series, these characters and several others have all become interesting in their own right, and the effort put into developing these characters makes the series feel much more real and unique than if they had kept the focus solely on the four girls. And by the time the story comes back to the meteor mystery in the last few episodes, the final sequences ring much more true because we've gotten a better feel for all of the players.

Although it only takes center stage for the last three or so episodes, the meteor-related climax works out fairly well. The crisis that has been building out in space comes to a head, shutting down comet blaster operations right when a seriously large asteroid is headed for the planet. While the Earth-based meteor sweepers handle incoming meteors, Mikaze and her friends must sneak aboard the space station and save the day. There isn't a whole lot of time devoted to providing detailed answers regarding why the crisis occurred, and the climax may feel a bit rushed to some because of that. I felt, though, that there were enough hints dropped throughout the process that there wasn't a need for any in-depth explanations. There wasn't any big splashy finale, but it didn't feel lacking, either, and I was completely satisfied with how they wrapped things up.


In Summary:
For a show that could be summed up as "teenage girls in form-fitting uniforms save the world", with all of the clichés that that description implies, Stratos 4 actually has quite a lot going for it. The series does make use of some standard plot devices, but it also goes beyond the clichés to weave in some excellent world-building and slice-of-life elements. The primary "save the world" arc develops a bit slowly at times, but it builds to a nicely realized science fiction adventure. Overall, I enjoyed this series much more than I expected to, and it's worth a look if you're in the market for some lighter sci-fi.

Features
Japanese Language,English Language,English Subtitles,Voice Actor Vacation - Island Day 1-3,Mechanical File Lecture,YAK-28MST Design,Staff/Cast comments,SAC-0 Plane Design,Rainbow Kind of Feeling Music Video,Four Character Music Videos,Textless Opening,Textless Ending

Review Equipment
Marantz DV4300 Progressive scan DVD player via HD component connection, Marantz VP-12S3 DVI/Component HD DLP Projector, 110" 16:9 Stewart FireHawk Fixed Wall Mount Screen, Marantz SR9300 7.1 A/V Receiver 140 watts/discrete channel (7), DTS/DTS-ES/DTS Neo: 6, DD, D-PLII THX Certified 7.1 speaker system



Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: A-
Packaging Rating: A
Menus Rating: B+
Extras Rating: B+
Age Rating: 13 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Bandai Entertainment
MSRP: 39.98
Running time: 225
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Stratos 4