STRATOS 4 
(Anime Corner Staff Writer)
Pioneer Elite Plasma Display System PDP-5050SX
Denon AV Surround Receiver AVR-1801 with Dolby Digital/ DTS
Boston Acoustics Micro90T Die-Cast Surround Speakers including Subwoofer
Toshiba DVD SD-3755 Player with Dolby Digital/ DTS/ 3D Surround Sound.
SERIES [13 EPISODES] + OVA
C MECH DESIGN
B- SERIES GRADE
STUDIO: STUDIO FANTASIA
DIRECTOR: TAKESHI MORI
ANIMATOR: NORIYASU YAMAUCHI
DESIGNS: NORIYASU YAMAUCHI
SCRIPT: KATSUHIKO TAKAYAMA
MUSIC: MASAMICHI AMANO [with the WARSAW PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA]
THEME SONG: ‘1ST PRIORITY’ RITSUKO OKAZAKI [US Opening Theme]
DVD EXTRAS: CAST & CREW: ON LOCATION- SHIMOJI ISLAND/ JET DESIGNS FEATURETTES
| REVIEW (Warning:
Reaching stratospheric levels of excellence is a bit of a reach for the anime-challenged Stratos 4 production. Heading into science-fiction, ‘what if?’ territory featured regularly on the evening news alongside the looming bird flu just to get everyone hot and bothered, Stratos 4 is on the right track conceptually. Year after year scientists wonder when the big comet will hit. Utilizing super-computers and satellites, the Earth is constantly on the look out for incoming planetary debris of the sort that will jeopardize ‘life’ as we know it. Scientists have hypothesized for years the argument that should a space rock in the region of one kilometer hit the Earth, call the undertaker, end of story. Our only chance for survival: to knock the flying rock off its pre-destined trajectory for Earth through the use of missile or laser-guided explosives. Clearly, we would need more than a few years to prevent the impact from altering Earth’s balance. In Stratos 4, our heroic female crew can respond within minutes of notification thanks to an elite fleet of jets.
Stratos 4 comes to us via panty-loving Studio Fantasia, but this time they get a little more serious and tone things down. The studio is known for its fan service particularly with the panty-heavy Najica Dengeki. This time we are treated to a smaller percentage of those shots, nevertheless the fan service is well represented and quite a pleasure for otaku everywhere. The story centers on four young girls as part of the Meteor
Sweepers division based and living on Shimoji Island in Okinawa. Studio Fantasia went so far as to research the island so they could present the backdrop for the show in a proper perspective. Okinawa is the site of Japan’s only landing strip in the training and art of take-off and landing for large jet planes. The studio studied actual jets and recorded flight sound to present the material accurately. The four, petite beauties are comprised of the sometimes ambivalent Mikaze Honjo, the introverted Karin Kikuhara, the intensely passionate Ayamo Nakamura and the license-obsessed, but nurturing Shizuha Doi. The quartet is led by at times reluctant leader Mikaze, her enlistment based on a heritage hailing from a long line of family pilots. The series is far less ridiculous in its conception than say the Bruce Willis-Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer actioner Armageddon. Stratos 4 establishes a much more realistic approach in combating the potentially serious crisis of an incoming meteor on a collision course with Earth. The girls are tasked with destroying the incoming meteors after another unit called the Comet Blasters has broken up the larger incoming comet. Adding to the drama and conflict is an ongoing rivalry by the naturally jealous and envious Meteor Sweepers of the more glorified Comet Blasters. After all, the young Meteor Sweepers are looking to graduate eventually and become the elite of the force, which is of course making the ranks of the Comet Blasters. This is pure and simple stuff, but the series’ light-hearted and character-driven approach keeps things inviting and entertaining. Stratos 4 is appropriately named as the girls lift off with ground-based interceptors to tackle their respective meteoric missions and head toward the stratosphere to eradicate the debris from entering Earth’s atmosphere. No pressure for these youngsters whatsoever. So, the girls surge into the stratosphere in their two-seater fighter planes tackling the space junk in the zone of the atmosphere that is approximately 7 to 37 miles above the Earth’s surface. The girls are often pushed to the brink and edge of space in how far they are willing to go and some have a little something to prove. The challenge makes for good, pressure-filled entertainment at first but does get repetitive.
One of the notable elements of depth in Stratos 4 is the use of symbolism in crossing barriers. Not only is it a metaphor for the girls’ ambitions as they reach for the stars, but there are specific moments that work.
Director Takeshi Mori told Newtype USA, “I want to show that all sorts of things can be boundaries.” From the dividing line of Earth and space by the stratosphere, to the obvious division and rivalry between Comet Blasters and Meteor Sweepers, Stratos 4 is a coming-of-age tale for the teen set. There is a moment early in the series when Mikaze has to make a conscious choice to cross a painted line on the airfield tarmac, symbolizing her next step toward maturity and enter the next phase of her life’s many challenges. It is a bittersweet moment thoughtfully illustrated by its creators in a close-up shot. You can relate to her stress and you know the shadow of her family’s legacy persists in her mind. Life is filled with tough decisions and these girls embody those struggles. The series is peppered with the theme of breaking new ground where the girls need to rise to the occasion and accept their inevitable destiny of becoming young adults. The invisible layer that is the stratosphere itself is a great symbol of where the girls are in their own life transitions, moving somewhere between child and adult. It’s a tribute to the creators for walking the awkward line of those growing years with genuine sensitivity and not making it feel contrived.
When the girls aren’t working in their skilled positions as space cadets protecting the planet, they are helping out at a tiny ramen restaurant on the island enjoying small-town island life. Other minor characters populate their world and are quirky and likeable enough like Sako who continues to pine for his true love and build the experimental Stratos Zero in the hangar bay. There is also the girls’ mischievous, fat feline getting into a snafu or scuffle from time to time. Even with developments in the fourth volume following Karin’s mysterious abduction to Orbital Station 7 and the attacking alien virus that has paralyzed the Comet Blasters leaving our fearless quartet to answer the call as saviors, the series is never quite as thrilling as you might like it to be. It’s harmful and likeable enough anime as a nice series for a rainy day.
The animation is simple, yet delightfully charming and exceptional drawn for a small-budgeted series like this. The girls’ hair color mixed with afternoon and evening panoramas on Shimoji Island make for a very satisfying series to watch. The mixture of 2D animation with 3D CG jet animation is quite effective and not overdone with a mix close to seamless. There is no over reliance on computer animation and the cellular style shines because of it. It really is the cellular anime that will have you restfully enjoying this series and its quirky, colorful characters. The music is a solid offering from Masamichi Amano with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. The show blasts off with a lovely, light and frothy opening theme tune called 1st Priority by Ritsuko Okazaki teamed with Megumi Hinata and dubbed Melocure.
Stratos 4 is slightly too restive in its approach and the characters fail to develop beyond a certain point. The story concept is good but in the end doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s commendable that this studio team took the time to paint the details and enjoy quieter sequences between characters by exploring some interaction between the girls and boys at the base. In the right frame of mind the series is a pleasure to enjoy like a soft breeze on a spring day. The series offers a great depiction of life surrounding these characters without excessive action and on that level it is a success. Stratos 4 is a cute, good, solid series without playing into the hands of gratuitous fan service for no reason at all, but is definitely geared to the young teen set. The series concludes with the OVA sequel [2 episodes] dubbed Return To Base, which offers more of the same and combined with the 13 episodes is more than enough time spent with these folks on Shimoji Island. It does lack some of the necessary story complexity for those that like a little more meat on their anime bones and character development is slight. The lack of varied thrills keeps this from becoming an unmitigated success, but its sheer focus and singularity of vision ensures it is far from a flight disaster. Once the show takes off it coasts on autopilot for a pleasant flight with a complimentary pack of peanuts and a soda. When the stewardess bends over to serve you that drink with a touch of cleavage, it’s the fan service that keeps you smiling. So relax and enjoy the flight, you are now free to move about the cabin...