Stellvia (manga) vols. 1-2

Stellvia (manga) vols. 1-2
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Artist: Xebec/Ryo Aikitsuki
Format: Paperback
Price: $9.99

There’s exactly one truly funny moment in the entire Stellvia manga, and it comes in the omake section of the first volume. Our heroine Shima Katase, whose hairstyle bears more than a passing resemblance to another well-known dumpling-headed anime character, does a full-page parody of the famous Sailor Moon “I will punish you!” pose. The actual meat of Stellvia, on the other hand, is a fairly workmanlike Teens In Space yarn that, as our own Jason Carter noted in his review of the anime, may as well be the spiritual successor to – if not an outright clone of — the older Battle Athletes franchise. While Stellvia is less self-consciously cutesy than its predecessor, it’s not necessarily more serious – in fact, Stellvia‘s biggest flaw is that it has problems taking its own premise seriously.

The basic idea of Stellvia is simple enough: a giant world-destroying shockwave is traveling through space, and threatens to destroy all of humanity unless a huge, decades-spanning orchestrated space program can stop the wave dead in its tracks. Enter Shima Katase and her prep-student friends, who’ve come to Stellvia to learn how to pilot the spaceships that will fend off the shockwave. Technology has advanced greatly in Stellvia’s future, but this progress has evidently come at the cost of grooming. Seriously, this series contains some of the ugliest hairstyles I’ve ever seen in any anime or manga – and Japanese comic art is known for ugly, garish hairstyles!

Stellvia is yet another entry into the overcrowded “young teens decide the fate of humanity” genre, and is a proud bastion of all the genre entails. It’s got all the conventions: one or more improbably talented characters who advance in their training faster than any human being would realistically be able to, Big Speeches of Determination, a character that completely lacks confidence in herself — it’s all there. It also has all the problems germane to a TV series that’s been adapted into a 2-volume manga: there’s far, far more material than a story of this length can sufficiently cover, and the authors didn’t make the best decisions on what to include and what to cut. Two very minor characters have a dragging subplot that doesn’t get the development needed to have much emotional or narrative significance, and it seems to exist only to give the involved characters a raison d’etre in this manga.

What Stellvia most obviously lacks is sufficient exposition for the story. I can understand the idea of having teens training to be space pilots, but this manga makes no attempt at all to explain why teenagers – as opposed to, say, adults who’ve been training since they were teenagers – are the ones being put out on the front line to defend against this shockwave. If this program has been going on for decades upon decades, one would think that there would be some competent, well-trained, experienced adult pilots prepared for the task. But here, the adults don’t get to save the world. Neither do the students who actually have significant experience – the first-year prep students are the ones who get the spotlight. It’s a common trope in these stories, but you can only stretch suspension of disbelief so far. And yeah, I know it’s absurd to apply logic to a Teens in Space story.

Logical quibbles aside, the greatest fault of the Stellvia manga is that it never conquers its own sense of smallness. Although Stellvia’s mission is to save all humanity, the manga never convinces us that the great danger will truly affect anyone other than those directly involved. There’s a few different reasons for this. Virtually every panel in the entire manga is a closeup on some character’s face, and most of the scenes in space feel contained, even claustrophobic, so the audience never really gets a sense of the scale of this operation. Except for two short occasions, little to no direct reference is ever made to any kind of world outside of the space station the story takes place in, and even the world inside the space station is limited; by all appearances, no one other than the manga’s immediate cast attends Stellvia. But worst of all, Stellvia doesn’t take its own premise seriously. It keeps bringing up the shockwave and all the purpose behind this training, then it outright forgets these things to focus on schoolyard shenanigans and Shima’s amazing talent for flying and/or defying the laws of plausibility. Trouble is, the manga never really snaps out of this when it comes time to hunker down and get serious. It’s obvious within the first quarter of the story that the rather anticlimactic ending’s already a foregone conclusion, Bold Speech of Determination and all, so there’s never really any reason to get excited.

That covers just about every Teens in Space trope displayed, save for the “moral” of the story. Stellvia tries to wedge in a dual “we can all make a difference if we work together” and “the youth are the future” message at the very end. It’s the kind of message that sounds nice, but considering the story’s approach, it’s kind of hypocritical. Stellvia is the Shima Katase Show from beginning to end. She’s the big success of the story, and when she actually stops being the Worst Student Ever, all the hope and glory in this tale ride on her. The other characters are confined mostly to token roles, and play little to no significant consequence in the story. The message that this manga ends up putting across is closer to “it’s nice to pretend that teamwork matters, but in the end, only the elite or the impossibly talented are capable of making a difference. Let’s hold out for a hero.” There’s nothing wrong with inspirational messages, but they’re kind of off-putting when done this half-heartedly.

Despite all of the above complaints, Stellvia isn’t boring. It moves along at a brisk pace, it’s moderately interesting, it’s modestly amusing when it wants to be, and it’s a little too exuberant to be too hard on. It’s a tolerable enough read, but it hasn’t been put together terribly well. At best, it’s a passably interesting story for Stellvia completists that simply didn’t have the elbow room needed to satisfactorily develop its characters, plot, or world. At worst, it’s a heavily modified, compressed retelling of a TV series’ first story arc, starring one of the closest things to a Mary Sue you’re likely to see in a published manga. It’s a fluffy, inconsequential little thing that doesn’t pretend to be deep or important. Whether or not that really warrants a your time or money, however, is your decision to make.

Added:  Monday, March 13, 2006

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