Movie: Sometimes, as a television series progresses, it gets bogged down in the mythos it has created, forcing the viewer to pay ever closer attention to the smaller details in order to keep up with the plot. This often doesn't sit well with those who are just trying to casually watch the show in question although it greatly benefits the guy wanting something more. Such was the case with Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars 4: Secret Revelations, the anime series so many people have been talking about of late. If you've read my reviews of Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3; you'll understand why I've enjoyed it as a cut above the pack since it weaves a multitude of clichés into a far more complex whole, never revealing too much information in order to keep the fan interested. Interestingly enough, there has been some significant replay value to the show, forcing me to re-watch the earlier volumes before reviewing later releases to keep some of the material straight. Here's a quick look at the introductory paragraph I wrote describing the basic scenario of the series for those unfamiliar with it:
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.
As the series progressed, it became apparent that the Earth was going to be under attack from a variety of alien invaders, all intent on gaining a technological advance over their rivals by discovering the secret of Shingu. The Earth is not yet a protectorate (in full) of the Galactic Federation so it must defend itself via a series of unlikely defenders, most of whom have been doing so as part of the family business for generations. Here's what the latest volume said on the back DVD cover, noting that some minor spoilers are present but nothing that would ruin the story for those willing to watch it closely:
"The final confrontation draws near!
The press conference revealing the government's space diplomacy negotiations has caught the world by surprise, but no one could be more shocked than Hajime when he discovers that his father is the government spokesman! When the secret government base where Kazuo is working at is attacked by an alien invader, Hajime discovers that the father that he always believed to be just an ordinary businessman is more involved with aliens than he ever imagined.
But Hajime's not the only one who is taken by surprise. The news of the negotiations and the attack upon the base has sent shockwaves through the Sanemori Clan. The once small fires of discontent within the Clan have flared into an all out quarrel. Jou and Baku are pushing Lady Momoe to appeal to the Galactic Federation for help, but she seems strangely unwilling to do so. With a new wave of invaders threatening their borders, they may not have much time left to reach a resolution before it's too late…
Meanwhile, advice from Setsuna during one of the recent battles has Harumi reconsidering her relationship with Kyoichi. Now, she must finally face him and tell him the truth behind what really happened 11 years ago..."
The episodes this time were 16) Chaotic Apology, 17) Inherited Sorrows, 18) Virtuous Fist, 19) Impatient Optimism, and 20) Helpers Meet. The episodes started out with a press conference that involved Hajime's father, surprising the lad more than a little bit. Past alliances are explored and personal involvements revealed as well as more alien attacks that are not as successfully defended, leaving the Earth less defended as the final volume approaches (in volume 5 that is). Muryou begins to more actively defend the planet; both in and out of sight of the others, but there are plenty of threads to tie up later too. Some behind the scenes wheeling and dealing by secondary players also begin to make waves as the attacks go beyond the Shinjuku prefecture. The story also kept grounded by offering up a lot of material at the middle school, giving it a different feel than if it had been strictly focused on the big picture plot devices.
I liked how the traditions and unstated matters played so heavily into the mix here. I noticed once more that the smaller scale elements seemed to mirror the larger matters so well but unless you pay attention, you might miss those defining moments. There were some nice battles too but the build up to the final volume seemed to be the major point in most of the episodes, including a near confrontation by Muryou by a student who is definitely more than he appears to be (after a judo match). I'm going to rate this one as Highly Recommended as it continues to impress me in regard to the writing, the quality of the show, and the way it balanced so many positive aspects in a manner typically overlooked by lesser works. It may not be the biggest budget series of recent months but it did manage to show that a good, clean show could offer up a lot of entertainment value over and over again.
Picture: Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars 4 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). Once again, I actually liked the English language dub better this time as most of the characters seemed to be well acted since only a couple of minor performances were distracting to the story itself. The original vocals were good but the dub seemed to have a lot more attention given it than I'm used to on a series so I'm just giving 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 better this time, especially when I used headphones but even via my player's speakers.
Extras: Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars 4 had some of the usual extras like trailers, production sketches, and a double sided DVD cover but it also had another cool 8 page booklet inside the DVD case that explained some of the settings and cultural notes from the series (including geographic data) in relation to the characters; this time focusing on some of the language and locations used in the futuristic series. 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 4: Secret Revelations continued the trend established early on in the series that I found so appealing. The trend was to use a well laid out plan, quality writing, and a talented voice cast to tell a futuristic story of a conflict between Earth and other planets over a secret weapon coveted by all in the hands of a few defenders of humanity. The technical aspects of the show were also well handled and the amount of episodes for the price impressed me once more at The Right Stuf's desire to give fans a solid value (five episodes per DVD is not, though it should be, the industry standard on anything beyond the first disc; especially with the extras included here). Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars 4: Secret Revelations leaves us with only one more volume to go but I'm going to be watching the series more than a few times after it's all over given the quality offered up.
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