Movie: When I start a new series that I have heard nothing about, I tend to think as positively as possible since I've been burned more than a couple of times in the last couple of years. Let's face it; anime tends to rely very heavily on the same creative forces in Japan (same companies, same producers, directors, and the like) so it often falls into the trap that many critics of the genre have fussed about, the primary one that it all looks the same. I can generally refute such talk as the ramblings of those who don't know any better or that have usually not actually watched a few episodes from a series but in larger terms, they often have a point. This is why I've learned to rely on reviews from trusted sources, which are sadly limited these days with so many websites acting as shills for the production companies rather than offering up some critical analysis of the shows in question. That was why I was pleasantly surprised when I started watching my first release from Right Stuf, Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars: Altered Perceptions 1 last week.
The show is set in the year 2070 although there aren't a whole lot of visible signs of technological progress at first glance. The location is in the small Japanese coastal town of Shinjuku with most of the activities taking place at the local middle school, Misumaru Middle School. For the most part, there doesn't seem to be a lot going on until one day a large alien spacecraft pops out of the sky and hovers over Tokyo, stopping most communications in the region. No one knows what to make of it until it is attacked, and destroyed, by a large creature that similarly came from nowhere. People were generally pretty accepting of the news, perhaps other events had transpired between now and that time that will be covered in later episodes. In any case, the lead character, Hajime Murata, seems to be an industrious lad who goes out of his way to help others and stay out of trouble. His family had transferred to the area recently and he seems to have the same everyday troubles as the rest of the class. Things start getting a bit strange though when a new transfer student, Muryou Subaru, comes to town. He's polite, attractive to the local gals, and seems to be the nicest person you would want to meet so he and Hajime hit it off splendidly. One exception to the rule about liking him is the vice president of the student council, Kyoichi Moniguchi, a guy with a chip on his shoulder that otherwise seems quite respected by his peers.
Kyoichi and Muryou end up on the roof of the school one day after a challenge is issued and Hajime discovers that both of them have some kind of supernatural powers. The two boys end up in a kind of draw, much to Kyoichi's surprise, although it was clear that Muryou dominated the battle with a practices ease of a grand master martial artist. Events of the series start unraveling rapidly after that as the quiet nature of the town is now seen as a ruse by young Hajime and the town elders begin discussing what needs to be done about this and other issues, primarily the increasingly frequent appearance of large hovering aliens along their own coastline that get into battles with large skeletal mech-robots. The story slowly unfolds to allow the viewer a chance to see the plot elements not all at once but in small doses so as to keep you off your toes.
Without running too much of the story, we find out that there is a galactic federation unknown about to most of the people of Earth. This collection of planets has a lot of rules that they must abide by and will hold the other members to, even members that have forgotten they are affiliated with the group. The main antagonist force of the initial episodes is one such planet and they seek a powerful weapon to end a millennia long civil war on their planet but that isn't going to be allowed on the protectorate of Earth (at least not initially). Other threats appeared as the story progressed but the majority of the first set of five (yes, FIVE) episodes was setting up the characters and some of the ground rules by which the Universe worked. Fans of other anime series will like the little nods tossed in for other shows and characters as well as the manner in which the series seemed to be heading. I'm going to rate this one as Highly Recommended for the way in which it gave just enough room for growth but also allowed the viewer in on the basic scheme of the series soon enough to maintain a high level of interest. What could've been another super powered high school student clone show was allowed to break free early on and go off into less traveled territory, albeit territory that has had some visitors over the years.
Picture: Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars 1 was presented in the same 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in for broadcast on Japanese television. It had little grain, no video noise, and I saw no compression artifacts despite it having five full episodes and some decent extras. The anime style used here was slightly muted rather than the kiddy colors used on so many comedy and fanciful shows, with a decent amount of movement taking place in both the foreground and background, albeit less than a full fledged movie would display. In short, it looked good.
Sound: The audio was presented with the standard choice of 2.0 Dolby Digital in either the original Japanese or a dubbed English track with optional subtitles in English (either full subtitles or an onscreen text version). I actually liked the English language dub better this time as most of the characters seemed to be well acted and few of the over the top performances some people get away with that draw attention away from the show and more towards themselves. The original vocals were not at all bad but the dub seemed to have a lot more attention given it than I'm used to on a series so I figured I'd give credit where it was due. The music and special audio effects were similar in each version though with a slightly deeper bass in the dub but the overall separation between the channels seemed almost nonexistent except in action sequences.
Extras: Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars 1 had some of the usual extras like trailers, production sketches, and a double sided DVD cover but it also had a cool 12 page booklet inside the DVD case that explained some of the settings and cultural notes from the series in relation to the characters. Such extras are rare these days but always appreciated as they add a lot of value that can't be downloaded from a pirate website. There were also a number of character biographies on the DVD and some production sketches on the disc that varied from those in the booklet.
Final Thoughts: Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars 1 was one of those shows that had the opportunity to become yet another generic show fueling the fire of anime critics who have long sought to dismiss the genre as somehow less worthy of praise than live action material yet it didn't fall into that trap, relying instead on decent writing and setting up the future plot elements for fans to enjoy. There were some minor nuisances with regard to stereotypical characters but they were few and far between as the calm-headed Muryou Subaru and the slightly nebbish Hajime Murata (who seemed too willing to accept some of the fantastic things going on as normal for my tastes) led the ensemble cast through some general school oriented silliness as well as the deeper themes that only just started getting openly handled by the end of the first volume of the show. I'm looking forward to the later volumes (if they are even half as good as this one, I'll be advocating them all over the place) and I have to admit that The Right Stuf company sure had the right stuff with this one.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article or regular column Anime Talk