Here we have a curious artifact, a fragmentary adaptation of Mamoru Nagano's long-running manga epic that cries out to be remade with today's technology and storytelling sensibilities. Even when it's not great entertainment, it's a fascinating slice of late-1980s anime sensibilities. It's also among that perpetually mutating list of anime titles that showed up for English viewers in the 2000s, then dropped out of print to become a collector's item. In this case, a remake might well do more justice to the source than a reissue.
Space age love song
I have in front of me the liner notes included with ADV's 2005 edition of this film. It includes a timeline that spans two double-column pages of microscopic type, two pages of terminology (which aren't even in alphabetical order, mind you), three pages of dramatis personae, and a full plot synopsis. I spent twenty straight minutes eyeing all this before ever slotting the disc into my PC. It's akin to opening a novel and finding maps and genealogies in the endpapers: a sign the story is more interested in being complex than in being interesting. If a story doesn't captivate on its own immediate merit, footnotes won't help.
Five Star Stories is set in a universe with some of the flavor of Frank Herbert's Dune: despite being millennia into the future, with giant-robot technology a standard-issue thing, the galaxy's political systems are feudal and monarchical. The giant robots ("mortar headds" [sic]) of the setting are piloted by a combination of human pilot-knights ("headdliners" [sic again]) and android intermediaries ("fatimas"). But the meat of the story involves Ladios Sopp, a "meister" or engineer for mortar hedds, slightly below a headdliner in the social pecking order. He crash-lands on a planet that's home to an old friend, Dr. Chrome Ballanche, creator of fatimas. Ballanche is preparing to unveil a new line of fatimas to an enthusiastic audience of headdliners and high-ranking muckety-mucks, all sponsored by the sinister Grand Duke Juba.
Two of Ballanche's fatimas, Lachesis and Clotho, were essentially beloved childhood friends to Sopp. (There was indeed a third named Atropos — check your Greek mythology reference books — but she met a bad end.) The doctor's own time is short, and he's decided that rather than subject his creations to the usual regimen of fatima mind control, where they take whatever headdliner they're paired with, he's allowed them to choose freely for themselves. He also wants Sopp to help guide that process, the better to free them of Juba's clutches. It's Lachesis that Sopp feels most strongly for — even if Sopp isn't sure he can return those feelings — and when Clotho chooses another master (and enrages Juba, who wants her for himself), that sets into motion a battle for the hearts of all involved.
All of the above, and a lot more I've elided for brevity, has been crammed into a production that runs barely above an hour. In theory it all forms a single logical story unit, as it follows the arc laid down in the first couple of volumes of Nagano's manga. But without the liner notes, or at least two separate viewings, it's hard to follow all the threads and understand how they braid together and to what end.
The partial artifact
Most of the appeal of the project is in the various aesthetics it puts on display: the mecha design (of an enjoyably ungainly 1980s flavor) and combat scenes; the androgynous hero (the fact that Sopp is male sets us up for all sorts of bad jokes); the courtly politics; the future-is-the-past flavor of the setting. This last I have a particular weakness for; I'm always amused by stories set thousands of years in the future that seem to believe because we still have princes and emperors, we'll also still have beer cans with pull tabs.
Here and there throughout the story are themes worth exploring, like the inherent right to freedom and agency even for beings like the fatimas. I won't go so far as to say the show doesn't explore them at all; major cogs in the plot, like Lachesis giving Clotho the opportunity to escape and find better things for herself, are geared around such things. But there's only so much time and opportunity to look into what they mean before the busywork of the plot sweeps everything else aside. The net effect is less a story making the best of its ingredients, and more of a pastiche that favors atmosphere and flavor rather than substance. And a perpetual downside of cherishing something like Five Star Stories as an artifact of its period is how painfully you're reminded of that fact all throughout. (I love Nobuteru Yuki's design work generally, but this incarnation of it has dated very badly).
Whether the same applies to the original Five Star Stories, I couldn't say, as the manga is as difficult to find in its English version (legitimately, anyway) as the anime adaptation is. But the crammed-then-abbreviated feeling of this adaptation tells me a lot was left on the floor. A new adaptation not as hidebound by its form factor would help us know better what was intended, even for what was likely the first of any number of episodes.
I'm currently in the middle of watching the new anime adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's manga Dororo. It is faithful to the source in the right ways — it keeps the setting, the characters, the themes, the action, but doesn't try to slavishly adhere to Tezuka's designs or reproduce also the clunky storytelling of the original. It's a model for how something dated, and in a way that inspires as much nose-wrinkling as nostalgia, can be refreshed. The Five Star Stories we got makes for a fascinating time capsule of anime aesthetics in the late 1980s, but everything outside of that begs for another chance to get it right.