Movie: Space travel is one of the givens in many anime series with some focusing on travels across the universe while others showing humanity still starting out. One of my favorite new series in this regard has been Planetes, a show where the focus is not on the splashy heroics of space pilots fighting alien invaders or opposing factions but on a group of blue collar shlubs that clean up the debris left by all the satellites, space stations, and other signs of humanity in space. Well, in a similar vein of thought, I picked up Stratos 4: Return To Base the other day and found it to address many of the same concerns as this new favorite of mine so I thought I'd share it with you. The DVD was a collection of two OVA (original video animation) shows designed to revisit the cast of a group of gals whose job it was to help protect Earth from falling meteorites. Stationed on Earth (on a small island called Shimoji Island in the South Pacific), the four gals act as a second line of defense to protect the Earth from those chunks of comets and such that are too big to burn up upon reentry into our atmosphere. I never saw the original series but I think I got a pretty good idea of the four volume set (also released by Bandai) by watching this one. Here's what the company said on the rear DVD cover:
"The four gorgeous girls, the elite interceptor force known as the "Meteor Sweepers," return to base on beautiful Shimoji Island to relax and celebrate their latest success. Annette and Chizuru fly in to visit while their orbital station is taken offline for repairs. Their brief time off soon turns to tragedy when an accident in space sends Orbital Station 7 hurtling on an uncontrollable crash course to Earth! The visiting girls are quickly launched back up to the station to help: however, the station's lifeboat leaves without them. It's now up to Mikaze, Shizuha, Ayamo and Karin to save the planet! But, will they be able to save their friends during the process!"
Okay, if you liked the initial series, you'll probably enjoy this one too. There was a bit of nudity and the show lasted about an hour (too short for my tastes) but it seemed to spend a fair amount of time reestablishing the characters as if to serve as a showcase for those like me who haven't seen the other material. The larger story about the falling space station was handled well enough; with just enough drama and action to keep some of you happy but what interested me was the manner in which the gals worked together outside of their primary job (they worked in a restaurant when off duty). Granted, there were a lot of unanswered questions for me since a lot was based on what took place before but it still had enough to make me wish I saw those earlier volumes.
The two and a half episodes here (one included as a short extra) were Code X-1: Return to Base, Code X-2: Dispersion, and Stratos 4.1 Mini Special: Code XXX Dutch Roll. The two main episodes dealt with the space station and the mini episode was more of a fluff bit put together to serve almost as a web edition (it looked more hastily put together). I'd be lying if I said I could follow all the characters and the subtleties of their interactions as they went through the show but it left me with the belief that more was going on beneath the surface (something fans might appreciate more than a newbie). In all though, I was left hanging a bit so I gave the DVD a rating of Rent It with the advice that fans should check it out for themselves. I know I prefer to see such OVA's as part of the larger whole rather than as separate entities but your mileage will vary according to your own tastes.
Picture: Stratos 4: Return To Base was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was made in by director Takeshi Mori for Studio Fantasia to be distributed by Emotion (and domestically by Bandai). It looked very well done with a solid set of colors, decent composition of shots, and a feel of immediacy during the crisis parts of the show. The combination of newer CGI techniques and more traditional anime drawing worked well in most cases with a few limited scenes looking somewhat out of place (I like some of the CGI work here but it didn't blend well at all with the older style when applied together). There were no compression artifacts or video noise to speak of here, although some light shimmers were observed during a single, short-lived scene midway through the show.
Sound: The audio tracks offered up a couple of typical choices for the viewer; the original 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo track in Japanese, a similar track in dubbed English, or a newly enhanced 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English track (each with some decent, optional subtitles in English for the words and/or the signs). I preferred the original for the vocals since it seemed to fit better but the dubbed voices in English weren't bad either. My preferred track though was the 5.1 version since the separation was much better as was the music. The original wasn't bad in this regard but it sounded slightly off in a few scenes (almost to the point I thought someone messed with my cables) and the enhancements in the action sequences made the new track more involving with more depth.
Extras: The best extra this time was easily the mini episode; Stratos 4.1 Mini Special: Code XXX Dutch Roll. It was the kind of extra most fans like with more action by the cast and I only wish it lasted longer. Short of adding in some lengthy interviews of the two vocal acting casts and directors, this is among my favorite extra. There was also a double sided DVD cover (the other side having the cast in swimsuits) and some trailers.
Final Thoughts: Stratos 4: Return To Base was not the best release I've watched from Bandai in recent months but I had to keep in mind that it was essentially an extra bit of fruit from a tree I hadn't visited before. The original show must've been pretty popular to get this one made and as such, fans will probably enjoy it more than I did. It wasn't bad but it did presuppose a working knowledge of the cast of characters I had precious little time to see under duress so this limited the appeal to me. In other words, fans will probably love it and those of you having missed it previously will want to check out the original show first. Still, I liked the concept as it was similar to that of the aforementioned Planetes and even if not done as well as this new show, it earned some merit in my eyes. If I see the set of four volumes on sale for a good price, I'll certainly consider buying it based on what took place here.
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