The Five Star Stories by Kazuo Yamazaki (Review)

What we have here is merely a taste, and I, for one, am left wanting much more.
The Five Star Stories, Kazuo Yamazaki

Shortly after I started getting into animé back in high school, I purchased a copy of the Japanese version of NewType, Japan’s most well-known animé magazine. Even though I didn’t understand a shred of Japanese, I was fascinated by the artwork from a number of animé titles, including Macross II (which had just come out at the time). However, what I found most fascinating was a small insert for Mamoru Nagano’s The Five Star Stories.

Again, I didn’t understand anything other than the few bits of English here and there in the captions, which left me even more confused as to what, exactly, The Five Star Stories was. However, I was absolutely enthralled by the artwork. Compared to much of the animé I had see up to that point, Nagano’s artwork was surprisingly delicate, depicting nymph-like women with angular features and alien eyes, knights in outlandish armor, and gigantic mecha that looked like a cross between medieval knights, Japanese samurai, and Egyptian sculptures.

I kept that insert, and I’d find myself flipping through it from time to time, just trying to figure it out from the artwork alone. Whatever the case, I got the sense that this was something truly cosmic and epic. However, when I discovered the limitless animé resources on the Web and started doing research into The Five Star Stories (one of the first titles I researched on the Web), I quickly realized I truly had no idea just how epic Nagano’s work really was.

Set thousands of years in the future, and unfolding over millennia, The Five Star Stories takes place in the distant Joker System, a group of four solar systems. However, society has become so advanced that it’s folded back onto itself, and is now set in an essentially feudal system. Battles are fought by ​“mortar headds,” massive heavily-armed robots that are piloted by highly trained knights, or ​“headdliners.” However, mortar headds are too complex for humans to operate alone, so headdliners are aided by ​“fatimas,” bio-engineered computers that look like petite women.

Despite their advanced abilities, fatimas are identical to humans, and even have feelings. However, they’re often treated as property and subjected to ridicule and derision from other humans. Still, fatimas play a crucial role in the Joker system, and are prized above everything else by their headdliners.

And that’s all just scratching the surface of Nagano’s long-running manga, which is so incredibly complex that even its creator has lost track of all of the plots and subplots. Unfortunately, none of the complexity really comes across in The Five Star Stories, a 70-minute movie that came out in 1989 and serves as a prequel of sorts to some of the major stories in the manga. It only hints at much of the backstory, explaining very little about the Joker System, fatimas, etc., which makes for a rather disjointed viewing experience. Huge chunks of info are left out, most likely under the assumption that those watching the movie were already familiar with manga, and could fill in the gap.

However, here’s a quick breakdown. Duke Ballanche, the Joker System’s most famous ​“meight” (creator of fatimas), has just finished his most perfect creations, Clotho and Lachesis. However, before he can finish their creation, they’re snatched up by Grand Duke Juba, a pig of a man who hopes to use the fatimas to consolidate his power — or use them as his personal slaves.

Word of the fatimas has spread throughout the systems, and headdliners and other dignitaries all begin arriving on the planet of Addler, hoping to claim one of the fatimas as their own. Overseeing everything is the Emperor Amaterasu, the so-called ​“God of Light,” and his deadly Mirage Knights. Also arriving on Addler is Ladios Sopp, a young man hoping to get a fatima of his own and become a powerful headdliner.

Of course, not everyone is what they seem. Sopp has a past with Ballanche, and with Lachesis, whom he knew when she was a child, and who is betrothed to her. Further complicating things is the fact that Ballanche has not submitted Clotho and Lachesis to any sort of mind control, and so have given them free will and emotion, making them very prized (and feared) indeed.

To say anymore would really start to head into spoiler territory, and yet you’ll notice that I really haven’t said much about the plot at all. That’s due to it being rather spotty and disjointed. Character development takes place in quick bursts, revealing bits and pieces of information in one fell swoop, or not revealing key pieces of information at all. It’s obvious that there’s a much, much larger story taking place in the background, and newbies might find that just as frustrating as anything, as you’ll keep waiting to learn more only to be left hanging.

Animation-wise, The Five Star Stories is solid, though quite dated. I have a personal affinity for the hand-drawn stuff of yore, and The Five Star Stories is right along those lines. Granted, compared to the slick CGI-enhanced stuff of today, the animation might look rather clunky at times, but there’s a realness and heft to it that is often lacking from the plastic-looking animation you see these days.

As I mentioned before, the main attraction of The Five Star Stories has always been Nagano’s distinctive artwork. His character designs are very distinct, from the elvish-looking fatimas to Sopp, whose features are so delicate that he’s often mistaken for a woman. However, the mecha designs are where Nagano really shines. The Five Star Stories is much more about the drama and intrigue than the mecha, but we do get to see some mortar headds in action (although the final climactic battle feels very tacked on). Despite that, Nagano’s mecha designs are incredibly elaborate and unique, especially Amaterasu’s Knight of Gold.

Personally, I’d love to see a new The Five Star Stories animé get made, one that both used modern animation to bring Nagano’s artwork to life and invested much more time and detail into his elaborate storylines. Of course, it would be difficult to truly do Nagano’s series justice. But what we have here is merely a taste, and I, for one, am left wanting much more.