Stratos 4: Flight 01 Review

First there was Agent Aika - a jolly fun little series about a woman whose mission it is to locate and retrieve valuable objects from beneath the sea, while facing plenty of danger along the way. A gloriously unashamed panty adventure, it was followed a few years later by Najica Blitz Tactics. This time the panties continued to flow like wine, amidst a tale of intrigue which followed the adventures of a secret agent. Now, Studio Fantasia returns with their latest, exclusively original series - 2003’s Stratos 4.

“Does this mean that we can expect to see plenty of panties” you say? Well a little yes, surprising though that the very thing that got the aforementioned shows talked about in the first place are for the most part absent. It doesn’t mean that there’s no fan service but it does mean that Studio Fantasia are likely trying to come up with something a little more serious. Is this a sign of the studio maturing with age or have they simply become bored at being known for panties? It’s hard to say for sure and we’ll cover certain aspects later on, but on the basis of this first volume it seems that we’re witnessing their most character driven work to date...with space suits instead of panties.


The story takes place on Earth, at a time when the planet is under threat from thousands, if not millions of asteroids. As the years have passed Earth has become a greater target and the only way to fight back is through a newly created defence force. In the far reaches of space onboard the first line of defence reside the members of the Comet Blasters; their mission is to destroy the large threats by using the latest in laser technology. Meanwhile back on Earth’s surface at Shimoji Island is the second line of defence, occupied by the Meteor Sweepers. Their job is to clean up any remaining debris that has managed to get through the system, by flying out specially designed aircraft.

Four young hopefuls, with dreams of becoming ace pilots sign up for the Meteor Sweeper’s defence academy: Mikaze, Shizuha, Ayamo and Karin must learn to work together as a team if they are to ever succeed in becoming the best of the best. With inner rivalry, an opposing male team, their home duties and devotion to Miss Ran and daily classes, you can be sure their journey won’t be easy.


Studio Fantasia knows what sells, but their productions have never been as shallow as they sound. It’s true that they don’t push any boundaries and many of their storylines are hardly groundbreaking but they know how to put on a spectacle. In a bid to make Stratos 4 a little different they’ve decided to put to use computer animation in order to add a little extra excitement. With shows like the upcoming space adventure, Divergence Eve, showing that computer animation can likely hinder such fun we see the medium being handled a whole lot more effectively. For the series’ action sequences this is brought into play and works well enough; with a superb example coming later on in the volume, but at times things suffer from being a little repetitive. The series does look very nice overall though; Character designs are attractive and simple. I can’t help but think that Karin is Lila (Najica) reincarnated, while Ayamo isn’t too far from Najica’s look. But then Agent Aika also had similar looking characters, so it’s not hugely surprising. So let’s get to the fan service side of things. In all likelihood Studio Fantasia have cut down excessively on this aspect to accommodate a female friendly storyline. Although not strictly a Shoujo designed for a young female demographic it can be enjoyed as one all the same. Discarding the panties and replacing them with tight fitting jump suits, the series caters for its male audience without alienating female viewers. In this respect Fantasia caters for both targets, if it is indeed meant to be a deliberate move.

Visuals aside, Fantasia’s main stumbling block here is its uneven characterisation. The series sets things up relatively quickly and gives us little to no insight into each character. It’s clear that by the end of episode one Mikaze is the lead focal point, and it’s her journey as much as anyone else’s that we’re meant to go along with. She starts out as a lazy girl, with no interest in becoming a pilot. Partly this is due to the fact that her father and mother were both ace and highly revered pilots, and she’s grown tired of all the fuss. It’s natural that Mikaze doesn’t wish for such a life but it’s one that she finds incredibly tough to escape from. We know her parents were well respected but they’re obviously out of the picture, with Mikaze living at the Kouchin, under the supervision of Miss Ran and Ran’s mother. As for Shizuha, Ayamo and Karin, well these are characters where very little is divulged. Shizuha and Ayamo are very level headed but they tend to bicker; they take their roles seriously and they will make damn certain that Mikaze doesn’t screw up their hopes. Perhaps the main problem with these two is that they’re too similar and could do with having more diversity between them. But it’s Karin who comes away as being the least interesting. Evidently she’s the youngest of the bunch, though seeing that ages aren’t revealed it’s uncertain as to how young. She’s a small girl with a phone obsession - sure not something shocking considering this is Japan we’re talking about here - but that’s all she does. She constantly types messages into her phone, providing nothing more than a little quirk which never seems to go anywhere. She’s softly spoken and is obviously helpful to the girls in some way, but her role has yet to be expanded. All we really know about these girls is that they’re good friends. When they’re not studying they’re helping out Miss Ran at the Kouchin Restaurant; where they put on their cute little Chinese-style dresses and make delivery runs on their scooters. We also learn that everyone in town thinks very highly of them, they’re almost celebrities and this is because they are the ones that the good people have to rely on for their safety. And that’s about it for character studies. While it seems that Fantasia are adamant at making the relationships here work considerably by bringing us plenty of moments to allow growth, very little does and it remains to be seen if things will pick up in future. Bare in mind that Stratos 4 is only a thirteen part series, with a follow up to come later.


One of the most interesting things that develop as the episodes go on is the amount of inner rivalry, not only between the girls but with the other standby unit. This is led by male characters that also have their own troubles, but as a comparison to the girls they are largely undeveloped. They’re also fairly standard and stereotypical figures, ranging from the geek to the uber cool. There’s Tsubasa and Sora who are not dissimilar to Shizuha and Ayamo for temperament, though Tsubasa’s determination to succeed is made far clearer. Then there’s Iwasaki and Fujitani - the two elder looking professionals who like to stay calm and collected. We learn little about them aside from the fact that Fujitani has a thing for Miss Ran. But the main driving force is showing them as being serious rivals for the girls to go up against, so it’s in all likelihood that this will be further developed, possibly with the addition of a couple of love interests.

That leaves us with several other characters that can easily be considered as secondary or even tertiary. Sako is the ground base mechanic; he’s also where the bulk of the series’ comic relief lies. Miss Kisaragi is the girls’ teacher and Admiral is a cat - who curiously we see plenty of action from his point of view. Characterisation here is very thin, with nothing more than hints being dropped, which is at least a good enough sign that things will get interesting later on.


Episodes

Code: 101 - Initial Point
Earth is under threat from meteorites and it’s up to the Comet Blasters and Meteor Sweepers to take care of them. Mikaze - a young girl whose parent’s were once famed pilots has joined the pilots training centre to live the dream of making it into space. Joining her is Shizuha, Ayamo and Karin. Together they must train hard and make the academy proud as they work toward making the world a safer place.

Code: 102 - Fox One
The girls have begun their studies but Mikaze is still showing little interest in her studies, and her friends are beginning to show concern. Soon an alert comes through and First Defence is called into action, but shortly into their run they make a calculated mistake. Second Defence are quickly alerted to pick up the remaining debris. Can the girls clear up the skies or will the pressure prove to be too much for them?

Code: 103 - Decision Height
Mikaze’s attitude has suddenly changed for the better, and now she’s training harder than ever to help out the defence programme. After a little R&R the girls must go into some intense training, but Mikaze’s mind is on other matters. Mikaze and Karin fly out on a mission but soon get caught in a tornado. As everyone back at base begins to worry the girls must land safely on a nearby island.

Code: 104 - Tally Ho!
Mikaze and company are having a good time in flight training and it’s begun to encourage a little friendly rivalry in the process. Meanwhile their teacher and some fellow pilots seriously doubt their learning abilities. However Mikaze is chosen as the top of her class and will lead the next defence unit, much to the annoyance of Tsubasa, who then challenges her abilities. Mikaze is thrilled but her mind begins to wander, and as she tries to push herself further upon the next mission she disobeys a direct order from Ayamo.


The DVD

beez Entertainment brings us the first volume in a standard white amaray case. It’s too bad the case isn’t clear because we have a very nice reversible sleeve. Unlike most reversible sleeves however this ones carries the exact same image but with a slight tweak, the front showing the four girls in their academy uniforms whilst the reverse uses the exact same image and poses but with the girls wearing their Chinese dresses. It’s a very cool idea.

A/V

Stratos 4 is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Aside from a spot of pixelation during rapid exchanges (most notably in the opening credits) and banding things look nice. There’s a lot of variation in setting that ranges from the attractive backdrop of Shimoji Island to outer space; with colours also ranging in vibrancy which the transfer handles well. A solid effort from beez and one which should hopefully continue.

Audio presentation consists of Japanese 2.0 and English 2.0. There’s a fair amount of directional action here, particularly during the space sequences, plane flights and some incidental musical intervention. To sound repetitive, dialogue is clear so no complaints there. All in all very complimentary to its picture quality.

Extras

Making Of (21:55)
We go behind the scenes in 2002 where Studio Fantasia president, Tomohisa Iizuka begins by mentioning the studio’s policy to show girls’ underwear, while the show producer has yet to turn up. Quickly the producer, Kiyoshi Sugiyama arrives and the fun starts. What’s great is how stressed out it is that there will be no panties on display, it’s almost a shock to “aeroplane and panties expert“, Noriyasu Yamauchi. Director, Takeshi Mori starts off by saying how he doesn’t want so much fan service, telling them they have to restrain themselves, that they must go against what the public already thinks they’ll do. Once the first drafts are handed we can see girls with panties, which bring in some funny comments. Screenwriter, Katsuhiko Takayama is quick to point out this fact, before Yamauchi starts to fend off questions as to why he’s drawing girls with visible panties. Still Yamauchi is having a hard time in accepting that this show must have no panties and argues that they can at least show 100th of what they usually do; to which the director tries to explain that too much anime of late has been vulgar and that they need to stray from that. As a result of these decisions panties were allowed to creep in but rarely - a fleeting shot would be acceptable but by large a lot of it would stay suggestive. The girls must be cute and sexy, each girl’s panties may be shown once, and they must stay aware of public perceptions. With that down the show can begin. Onto the aeroplane designs next and Sugiyama brings in some ideas, including a 300,000 yen model plane! What follows is an amusing discussion about several planes and which ones would work best. Story ideas are next and not a lot is mentioned past the fact that this should be about girls with goals; the conversation reverts back to plane talk and how the animation will be handled, with space being in 3D and Earth being traditional 2D. When they get to discussing setting, Yamauchi suggests Shimoji Island, to which everyone laughs as they’ve never heard of the place but it exists in Okinawa. So we leave the studio and head out to the island. No sooner do they arrive when they get lost, but they eventually get back on track and extensively look around the place. Once that’s done it’s back to Tokyo where they discuss all the pros about the island. When we see the actual film footage next to the animated episodes it’s incredible how much detail has been captured, one of those things that is easily lost on the viewer had they not seen comparisons such as this. After this the music is discussed as we head on over to Gong Studio. Hitoshi Yago talks to the guys before flying off to Poland to meet composer, Masamichi Amano, which is played out very comically. Upon meeting they act out some kind of espionage scene, where Amano is then presented his favourite sweets in exchange for the music. After the laughs we go behind the recording at the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, and then hear about the sound effects which are to be used. The topic of space comes up. To use or not to use sound in space? They go with the former and we then join them once more at Gong Studio. They walk in on Yota Tsuruoka (master of anime sound effects) who is doing an interesting impression of an aeroplane before getting down to the serious business. By the time the staff have seen the completed footage there is applause aplenty.

This is a brilliant behind the scenes look; if only all distributors included extras like this. Aside from portions of the discussion not being translated there is nothing else to say. A real treat, not only for fans of the show but of anime in general. A very funny and interesting look at the makings of a series.

Clean Open and Close
Both the opening and closing sequences are placed together here. As can be expected they have no overlapping credits, so the animation can be enjoyed in all its glory.

Trailers
Here you’ll find trailers for upcoming beez titles: Mobile Suit Gundam Seed, s-CRY-ed, Witch Hunter Robin, Wolf’s Rain and .hack//SIGN.


Overall

With four episodes down and our central figure padded out well enough, the writers need to take things further; as important as each character seemingly is they haven’t been given meatier roles. Hopefully things will pick up considerably. While the action is solid enough and the very light moments of humour work it is clearly other areas that need greater attention. It’s all perfectly light so far and is very undemanding viewing, so time will tell how well things progress. Good job beez on a nice presentation and great extras. Here’s looking forward to more.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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