Ōban Star-Racers: Vol 1. The Alwas Cycle Review
It’s 2082 and fifteen year-old ace mechanic Eva Wei spends her days trying to get through boarding school. She doesn’t have any friends and nobody takes her seriously when she speaks of her father Don as being the manager of the great Earth Team, on account that for the past ten years he hasn’t set foot in her life and she‘s a bit of a rebel. As it’s Eve’s birthday she finally decides to pay visit to her father in the big city, and by effortlessly constructing a rocket-seat she heads off to his camp. Seeking work as a mechanic she poses under the guise of “Molly” and eventually gets through to Don and pleads for a position on the team. He gives her a shot, working for the pit crew, but has absolutely no idea as to the girl’s real identity.
Meanwhile the president has set Don the task of assembling a team to compete in the great Ōban Star-Race which is held every 10,000 years. 25 years ago earth was saved from a terrible threat from the Crog empire, but their planet was saved by a mysterious god-like being who has once more shown his face. He informs Don of “The Avatar”’s arrival and subsequent invite, elaborating that declining isn’t an option. Should earth fail to enter than it could well mean the end of humanity as we know it. Under this heavy burden Don manages to put together his elite team. Heading things up is his star pupil Rick Thunderbolt, while the ship’s gunner is found in hot-heated seventeen year-old Jordan Wilde (oh, these names…). Koji and Stan are the chief mechanics, while young Molly gets to work by their side. As the rules are set the team prepare for their first race, while Molly tries to settle into her new surrounding and deal with the conflicted feelings towards her father.
However, something goes horribly wrong during the first race. Rick is badly injured when he and his opponent collide, resulting in the Earth Team pilot being hospitalized. As there is no clear winner of the race a rematch is optional, but with Rick out of commission Don fears that the team may have to head back home. But Molly sticks her neck out and tries to convince Don to let her pilot the “Whizzing Arrow”. Naturally he refuses, citing his dislike for female pilots, but Molly being quite the stubborn girl she is decides to take matters into her own hands. She manages to successfully pilot the racing pod and enter herself into a rematch with the intimidating Grooor. She wins, much to the surprise of Don and his team, yet still he doesn’t trust her in such an important role. He soon finds that he has little choice but allow her to continue in this capacity, at least until Rick is recovered. Soon Molly proves to be quite the prodigy, but can she continue to take the team to victory and win the ultimate prize?
Nine years spent in the making, Ōban Star-Racers was the brainchild of Paris based Savin Yeatman-Eiffel, who under his own production company Sav! The World Productions set to realise his creation for television with the help of Japanese animation team Hal Film Maker. It began life as a 2-minute pilot entitled Molly: Star-Racer in 2001, which was used to acquire financial backing. However, Sav! went through a turbulent time in trying to get the project off the ground; their ideas were ambitious to say the least, but perseverance won them the chance to partake in an once in a lifetime opportunity. If anything Ōban Star-Racers is an astonishing achievement purely in terms of will and determination and endless blood and sweat from its conception through to completion. An inspiration perhaps, that you should always hold on to your dreams, beliefs and values.
From the above synopsis it’s easy to tell that this is a series treading on all too familiar ground. The trick to Ōban Star-Racers’s success though is in how well balanced it is. As a series aimed primarily toward children it remains bright and breezy throughout, while throwing in subject matter relatable to both parent and child, not to mention adhering to the rule that each episode should be designed to feel as epic as possible, which sure enough ensures that there’s never a dull moment to be had. Each chapter usually entails of getting some exposition out of the way before it enters fifth gear to deliver its frantic set-pieces, and while some of its material may appear to be a little dark, it's never without humour and an overall sense of fun.
The series consists of 26 episodes, but it’s structured a little differently from many shows in that it’s evenly split into two parts. The first 13 episodes, as presented on this vol. 1 release, make up the “Alwas Cycle” arc, whilst the remainder comprises of the “Ōban Cycle” arc. This first set of episodes, then, deals with the Earth Team’s preparations and eventual entry into the pre-selection stages held on the planet of Alwas. With 96 teams from all over the galaxy entering the race for the grand prize we can be sure that Molly and her crew are always going to find new obstacles to overcome in relation to the various racing styles and ships on the field. This is where things become really alluring and allow Ōban Star-Racers to pull out its trump card. It’s quite unique in that there are very few pre-set rules other than a racer must not intentionally kill another. It goes without saying that the races can be extremely dangerous, and with each pilot being afforded the luxury of choosing his or her own attack methods, there’s always going to be a margin of error and high percentage of serious injury on either opponent’s part. This adds a significant amount of tension to the events as we then get (not so much by way of brutal violence) a definite gladiatorial aspect with these chariots of sorts hurtling at a rate of knots in their own unpredictable patterns around often booby-trapped and winding arenas. By their very episodic nature of course, we have a different challenger of the week, which keeps everything visually interesting and paves the way for certain characters to become allies or distant memories. Friends and foes come and go, but you can be sure that they’re never anything less than whacky. Furthermore, while it’s a tad predictable that Molly is bound to make it through to the next qualifier, the series doesn’t pander too much to its audience and it does throw in a few losses for the Earth Team now and then, which helps to build up valuable lessons and leave the viewer with a less secure feeling.
But the races aren’t the only hurdle that Earth Team faces. So too must they learn to get along and actually work as a unit. The series doesn’t waste time in setting up the crux of the story, in which its characters are naturally the core ingredient. Molly of course represents the typical rebellious teen; a tearaway who can’t seem to settle due to a rocky past, which unavoidably connects her to her present situation in which she finds herself forced to work alongside her estranged father. She’s yet to find her feet and build up the courage needed to tell him who she is, while Don Wei treats her with very little respect, thus making it even more difficult for her to open up. Both have their reasons for treating each other awkwardly; Don doesn’t trust female pilots for instance, which we learn harks back to a personal tragedy, which I won’t spoil, but can say it’s clearly signposted early on. When the races go badly Don’s faith begins to wane, and it’s down to Molly and the crew to set things right again and ensure victory next time around. Aside from the key father/daughter dynamic, which doesn’t get resolved in this first volume, we also have an invested love angle in which Molly lightly explores her feelings for Prince Aikka: a rival whom she’s informed not to get close to, and as things move forward we soon learn of some of his own secrets and how he’s linked to some of the bigger and darker characters who show up later on. Additionally Molly has friends to keep her spirits high, such as her gunner Jordan - annoying only because of his off-key, ignorant outbursts in labelling aliens as scum, which seems to be a poor oversight on the writer’s part - and her mentor Rick; the latter eventually heading out on his own quest to investigate a mysterious crest which is somehow connected to “The Timeless One”. She also has a wise old sage in the form of Satis, who informs her that he’s an aid of The Avatar’s, and bestows his wisdom whenever she’s feeling a bit down. These characters, while effortlessly trying to win with honour, inevitability have their fair share of run-ins, which allows for some personal issues to seep through and inject a little more characterisation into the series, which otherwise portrays its male cast more often than not as buff, hot-headed individuals. It’s therefore nice that we actually have a female lead to act as a counter-balance to keep things afloat.
But still, “The Alwas Cycle” merely scratches the surface of its characters. It does reveal and dispense some truths, which is essential in order for some of these people to move on. For example the whole side story surrounding the rivalry between Molly and Spirit builds up to a suitable climax, so that certain individuals can displace some of their fears and get over emotional barriers. This proves to be a great move, because Ōban does tend to throw a lot of plot segments our way, giving us just enough but never becoming too convoluted. By clearing up some things a little earlier it saves itself from padding out events and becoming too predictable. In saying that it obviously saves the Molly and Don relationship troubles well into the final thirteen, but that’s not wholly surprising given the very nature of it. Otherwise we have plenty of mystery surrounding primary and secondary characters, which teases at just about the right level. At this stage plenty of ambiguities and plot concerns remain. Without having seen the “Ōban Cycle” I can’t be sure if they’ll reveal everything or not. For instance, the oddest thing about the race and reasons for it are all too vague. We don’t know just why earth has to accept their invite and partake in the challenge. The only knowledge we gain is that if they withdraw there will be potentially catastrophic repercussions. This seems somewhat contradictory, however, in light of the fact that the whole purpose of the race is to unite worlds and form a truce in achieving peace throughout the galaxy. Additionally we know little of “The Timeless One” or indeed the grand prize, beyond that it can supposedly grant anyone’s wish. If anything though this shows just how successful the series is in keeping us guessing and hanging on for more.
In terms of style the animation truly is marvellous, with the races themselves being the real highlights. The joint talents of French and Japanese animators come together in perfect harmony as we have a series with some well realised CG model design and traditional hand-drawn characters, while the environments serve as a mixture of both. It’s all very polished and well integrated; the races are brilliantly staged and are never repetitive, which again is refreshing because we usually see something new for each outing, rather than put up with recycled elements. The character designs are a little curious, looking like a cross between Be@rbrick and Lego, which I’m sure doesn’t sound like a very flattering observation. Designs are relatively simple; the characters have flat faces and no noses, but each have distinguishing marks, from Molly’s face tattoos, to Don Wei’s Humbug haircut and Rick’s Matrix-y glasses. They’re nicely drawn and appealing and at least they don’t have the entirely generic feeling of most anime series; moreover the scale in terms of additional background information lends itself to fully fleshing out the series’ universe, with some very nice alien designs and foreign architecture. Ōban and its aesthetics are also hugely complimented by an exciting, fully orchestral score from Taku Iwasaki, while Yoko Kanno, who needs no introduction, composes the series’ wonderful opening and closing themes: “A Chance to Shine” and “Waratteta” respectively.
And I think that’s where I’m going to cut things short. There’s very little else to say, with a distinct feeling that the best is yet to come. Onto the discs then, and here’s what you’ll find:
1) A Fresh Start
2) Hostilities Break Out
3) Grave Like Grooor
4) In Like Flint
5) Cruel Like Ceres
6) Playful Like Para-Dice
7) Treacherous Like Toros
8) Agile Like Aikka
9) Surprising Like Super-Racer
10) Resistant Like Rush
11) Silent Like Spirit
12) The Will to Win
13) Make Way!
The screenshots make this transfer look a lot more impressive than it actually is. Sadly, for a series this recent, the authoring leaves little to be desired. Not only is aliasing rampant, but compression artefacts are quite predominant as well. None so is more evident than during the races, where the sheer speed and constant panning shots give way to unsightly pixilation and combing. It’s a real shame as otherwise I imagine the series to look very nice indeed. We’re given an anamorphic 1.78:1 presentation, which exhibits a very strong and lively colour balance, while detail is equally pleasing. There is a spot of banding, but what CG animation doesn’t have it these days. This is a series I’d love to see make the jump to Hi Def.
On the flip side we have an absolutely staggering English 5.1 Surround track. I’ve not heard a series sound this good since 2nd Gig. The dialogue is fronted nicely, with strong audible levels that don’t get drowned out by any atmospherics, whilst the ambient effects themselves are wonderfully captured and well steered across the rear speakers. Environmental effects like rain and sea are fully immersive and make you feel really caught up in the show’s little world. The race events are equally well staged. Things get very aggressive here, with roaring thrusters and sweeping movements, while a thumping bass accompanies Taku Iwasaki’ superb orchestral pieces, which considerably ups the excitement. I should also note that these episodes contain the original Japanese opening and closing songs, despite the disc offering only an English dub. This is certainly welcome though, as Yoko Kanno’s music is very uplifting. The English dub itself is equally very pleasing. The characters have well-suited voice actors. No need to go into specifics, suffice it to say that it’s a lot more bearable than most dubbed animation from Japan.
Sadly, there are no subtitles for this release.
Disc 1 has Star-Racer Profiles. This comprises of narrated character rundowns for Molly & Jordan, Para-Dice, Grooor, Ceres and Flint. Concept Art consists of twenty nicely sketched black & white pieces.
Disc 2 has the biggest bonus feature with Making of. Part 1: The Start of Production (28.18). This details the genesis of the project and the preparation leading up to the series animation production in 2004, which subsequently lasted 2 years. Paris based Savin Yeatman-Eiffel talks about setting up Sav! The World Productions and creating Ōban Star-Racers, with a clear goal of getting the series co-animated in Japan. He doesn’t go into specifics, but mentions sourcing enough funds to be able to head out to Japan with his friends and fellow designers. And the journey to even get it produced was a tough one, with the creator having to turn down several big partners who were not willing to allow him total control over his project. This little production diary mainly sets up the office environment, in which the French team had to adapt, while also explaining the initial hurdle that both the Japanese and French had to overcome: the language barriers, along with trying to build up a mutual respect. It’s the first time that a western animation studio had gone to Japan with every already planned, leaving it down to the animators to work from. But we learn that both teams bonded very quickly and began relaying ideas successfully. We get interviews from Team Sav! And Hal Film Maker about working hand in hand on 2D animation, while the feature also takes us across the pond to where the 3D animation was produced in Paris. Here the French designers had to create new types of effects for the series, such as smoke and laser trails, and in fact at one stage were highly complimented by Japanese team GONZO. This is a nice little introduction for a series so obviously imbued with passion.
The narrated character profiles continue, this time with Toros, Super-Racer, Rush, Spirit and Prince Aikka. The disc is rounded off with a trailer for the series and a sneak peek at volume 2.
It’s a shame that we don’t have the original Molly: Star-Racer pilot on the disc, though if anybody is curious in seeing it then they only need do a search on Youtube.
Ōban Star-Racers isn’t as entirely original as the producers and distrubutors would have you believe. It instantly draws parallels between other more recent anime hits from Japan such as Last Exile and Angelic Layer, both in terms of subject matter and visual execution, and these are but two strong examples in a very illustrious field in which computer technology continues to evolve. However, for all the promotional hype surrounding the show it is indeed entirely justified, and the animation across the board is lovely indeed. Ōban Star-Racers may not have the most intriguing storyline, (as yet) and it does follow cliché to a considerable extent, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the most downright entertaining series of the last couple of years. Here’s looking forward to volume 2.
8 out of 10
6 out of 10
10 out of 10
6 out of 10