Stellvia Vol. 1: Foundation 1
The fans of Stellvia have been waiting impatiently for this DVD. Earlier this month, Matt was lucky enough to win a screener copy at Nan Desu Kan, thus giving me an opportunity to discover the fun and visual voyage that is Stellvia.
First, let's deal with technical details. The main menu is very basic, giving viewing options of play-all and play by episode. Extras are also spartan; we get a clean opening, DVD credits, and Geneon Previews. Of the three trailers, only one was new (R.o.D. the TV; Sakura Wars and MAO-Chan being the others). I would have preferred more meat on the first DVD of a multi-disc series, but we do get four episodes instead of the woefully near standard three episodes per DVD.
Stellvia opens with a brief history. In 2167, a star went supernova, showering the Earth with an electromagnetic wave that nearly made humanity -- and the Earth itself -- extinct. Now, the night sky is green, the aftermath of said cosmic event. Jumping to 2356: both the world and human beings have recovered. It is even advanced in some respects because global devastation drove humanity to work alongside each other to protect Earth and its inhabitants. Space stations/space academies called Foundations have been erected around the planet's orbit to create the Great Wall, layers of anti-gravity and electromagnetic fields, in preparation for the Second Wave from a distant supernova star due to hit sometime around Christmas. Mechas called Biancas, piloted by Space Academy trained pilots shall help to keep the wall intact under the Second Wave.
Enter Shima Katase, a fifteen-year-old computer genius who wants to see the universe beyond the green veil and cosmic pollution. Today is her send-off by way of anti-gravity shuttle to Space Academy Stellvia, located on Foundation II. Shima bears an uncanny resemblance to Fushigi Yuugi's Miaka, i.e. small buns on the sides of her head. Furthermore, she has Miaka's clumsiness. It does not help that Shima's mother made Evangelion's Misato jump to mind; her competition with Shima as a fašade to cover her true feelings. Happily, Shima has a rather normal father and little brother. We never see or hear of her family once she boards the shuttle to Foundation II.
I must pause to say that the anti-gravity shuttle's design impressed me -- a lot -- due to its realism. I subscribe to Popular Science magazine, so I've seen many futuristic aircraft and spacecraft designs. The atmosphere of the shuttle as a mobile entertainment center, where seats are spread out and video screens abound, falls entirely within the predictions of field experts. Even more, using gravity as an eco-friendly propellant is also a realistic idea. I also enjoyed how paper-like sheets are used as handy computer screens, easily attached to your laptop and or folded away in your pocket.
Back on the shuttle, Shima meets Arisa, her soon-to-be best friend, roommate and classmate at Stellvia. Arisa Glennorth is an energetic, spiky red-haired girl (think Washu from the Tenchi universe) who nearly misses the flight due to sleeping in. It becomes clear that Arisa is the friendly girl, and Shima is the shy computer nerd who would not obtain half of her upcoming friends at Stellvia without Arisa. Like most good to excellent anime, the characters of Stellvia are stereotypes with an original twist to make them seem refreshing (including to jaded viewers). Soon Shima, Arisa and other freshmen characters who acquire names in later episodes, arrive at Foundation II and are welcomed prospective students. You see, you need a year of training to become a full-fledged student. Learning to be a mecha pilot is that hard.
The graphics are excellent, precisely what I expect now from Geneon releases. A great job was done in blending CG and cel animation; it's nearly seamless to a critic like me. Colors are bright and clear, making Foundation II and Stellvia itself feel realistic. Little things, like adding a karaoke room and the older characters' unabashed amusement at the freshmen's first space flight in the mechas, made the location feel like a real place and not some invented space station built purely for its mission.
I wasn't keen on the title song while it looped on the DVD's main menu screen, but upon watching the opening to the first episode, "A Brilliant Road to Tomorrow" grew on me, especially the scaling pitch of the vocalist. It made Stellvia feel more like a traditional Sci-Fi show and less like an anime. The ending song, "Beautiful Night Sky", done by the same vocalist, is less appealing to my ear, but it was still enjoyable.
All of Volume One's episodes work as an introduction to Stellvia's world and Shima's own debut to life at Stellvia. Shima's main problem in this DVD is that -- while she's a superb computer programmer -- she sucks as a mecha pilot and is precisely why she's here. If she fails as a pilot, Shima will be expelled (and the series will end rather abruptly). But, with a little help from her friends, Shima can overcome this minor setback.
Stellvia is full of comedic moments that sneak up on you. Yayoi, the required cute genius girl in spectacles is introduced as being saved by Arisa... from the infinite cuteness of a puppy. Shima can't stand to wear the form-fitting spacesuit (think Evangelion's EVA suits), so she wraps a towel around her body (so do a few others students, male and female).
I did not think I would enjoy Stellvia as much as I did. I really can not wait for Foundation II (Vol.2) to come out in December, with Foundation III-VIII following bimonthly throughout 2005. It left me with the same empty feeling I felt after watching Last Exile, so take that as my highest recommendation. I may need to buy the art box after all.