Nov 1, 2016
MisterGibbon (All reviews)
Crest of the Stars is a show that starts off with such great artistic promise, and such effortless mastery of the art of storytelling, that it might seem downright insane of me (or anyone, for that matter) to ultimately award it a score of 1. The problem then, is that it presents a distorted picture of its own premise, and it isn't until close to the very end that it reveals itself to be something that's shockingly nasty and horrifying, and in a way that makes its artistic accomplishments come across in extremely horrible taste. And till then, it comes across as an especially charming and thoughtful show, carrying you along for a rather fascinating ride through its strange and curious world. But as I now intend to explain, it is this very "journey" that is a misdirection, and one carried out in unbelievably bad faith.

The show introduces a very intriguing concept - a race of genetically modified space-faring humans called the Abh, who are long-lived, youthful-looking and generally confine themselves to space colonies rather than live on terrestrial planets. These Abh have advanced far ahead of ordinary humans by utilising their genetic modification technology and the freedom of their space habitats to create a population of humans who are superbly adapted to even the most challenging conditions in space, and virtually never age until very late into their lifespans. Their society is also unbelievably permissive, where they can breed with just about anyone with the help of artificial wombs.

On the other hand, they are shown to be territorially aggressive, invading terrestrial planets where the regular humans (called Terrans in the show) live, and claiming them as territories of their Empire. They don't even want to live there (they seem to prefer their Space habitats), but they nevertheless exert their authority over the planets, going to the trouble of toppling the existing governments in place and appointing Terran puppet figureheads to rule on their behalf. This much is verifiable fact. This is also the premise around which the show revolves - just who are the Abh really, and why do they act this way? To demonstrate where they go with this premise (and ultimately get to WHY I'm denouncing this show in such strong terms), I'll need to give at least a general outline of the plot, but I'll try and describe only the broadest strokes, without giving away any spoilers:

In the beginning, the show focuses on the atmosphere of political upheaval caused by the Abh invasion and takeover of governance in a planet called Martine. Subsequently, we get to see the effects of this change on the fate of a young boy (our protagonist, Lin Jinto) caught in the middle of all this, an unwitting pawn in the game. Due to various events, he is thrust into a position of civil service, and is awaiting transfer to Abh country for further education and training. Here he meets our other lead, Lafiel Abriel - an Abh cadet assigned to escort him - and they develop a spontaneous but believable cameraderie and friendship. The stage then shifts to the inside of the Abh spaceship transporting them, where Jinto gets to meet the Abh in person for the first time, and through his interactions the audience gets to learn of their strange and curious ways. It's full of interesting little details that add a sense of charm to the whole thing.

Then, the ship they are travelling in is put in danger, and the focus shifts to the immediacy of the situation - how our leads are going to survive and reach their destination to carry out their duty. This setup makes for some genuinely gripping adventure, that carries this show into about three-quarters of its 13-episode length. The scenes are genuinely tense and suspenseful, and you really don't know what to expect next. And through all of this, you have gradually come to care for the two leads. They seemed really likeable to begin with, they are put through all sorts of danger, and then really come through for each other in ways that you can't help but be moved by. And so you find yourself caring about what happens to them when they finally reach their destination...

And it's here that the show delivers its killing blow: the trials and tribulations of our young heroes are ultimately relvealed to be nothing more than convenient plot devices to showcase the baseness and cruelty of the Terrans opposed to Abh rule. They are shown to be deeply envious of the eternally youthful and long-lived Abh race, and want to subject them to their own dominion and make them their slaves (I swear I'm not making this up). Any humans who are less than enthusiastic to the idea of Abh dominion are portrayed as grotesque caricatures of spite, envy, prejudice, greed, selfishness and cruelty, and even their visual portrayal looks obnoxiously cartoonish and ugly. And the Abhs, in contrast, are made to come off as larger-than-life beings who could do no wrong (unless of course they have half-human ancestry...), and they are accordingly animated to look stately and elegant, with their elf-like features, blue hair and proud but noble bearing. The show goes out of its way at every turn to illustrate how impeccable the Abh are in their character, and how even do-gooder humans are inwardly driven by rather unflattering motivations.

But as the show progresses, the Abh's own behaviour starts to seem increasingly strange, until somewhere along the line you realize with shock and horror that the Abh never had any real justification for their aggression to begin with: all the show's unexpected twists and turns were meant to turn your attention to the immediate danger facing the leads, and make you forget that it never actually provided any valid justification or redeeming context for the invasion shown in the beginning, and never had any plans of doing so. And consequently, all the seemingly nasty and unfounded things the Abh-haters said about them...were actually true. There is one scene in particular early on, where an old woman is overcome with an inexplicably hysteric reaction of sheer loathing and even dread, just at the mere sight of an Abh. In the context of the show's later developments, this reaction suddenly makes a frightening amount of sense. And in the face of this, the show continues to portray the Abh as humanity's only real hope - on one hand, it tries to pass off all their horrifying actions as extremely smart moves that are beyond the comprehension or appreciation of lowly mortals; and on the other, it tries to suggest that their enemies are actually driven only by bitter jealousy of the Abh's apparent "greatness" and superiority.

An important device for furthering this illusion is the show's own narrator, who speaks in Abh-language with an air of lofty detachment. At various points throughout the show, he plays the role of providing historical context to whatever is being depicted on-screen. But as the show progresses, he starts inserting one sneaky insinuation after another into his narration; until by the end, he is quite explicitly showering unconditional praise on everything Abh, and utter contempt for all Terran institutions. The show also executes another crafty sleight-of-hand to maintain the audience's sympathy towards its protagonist - through the course of the 13 episodes, it subtly shifts from portraying Jinto as an unwilling hostage of the Abh system, to a regular Earthling helping a stranded Abh out of ordinary decency, to an outright Abh sympathiser who implicitly approves of all the atrocities they would commit in the name of a "wronged" people, to a full-fledged member of a nobility that is subjugating his own home planet. And in the end, the show would have you believe that it was Jinto who was wronged by the anti-Abh faction.

And then there's the Abh themselves - initially portrayed as romantic star-faring gypsies dragged into a war they didn't want ("Kin of the Stars" is what the show poetically calls them), they are subsequently shown to be brave, chivalrous and decisive when pushed into battle...until somewhere along the line you realize that all the Abh you get to see are in fact soldiers in some or the other capacity, and their entire society is in fact organised along militaristic lines. The show has an enigmatic and bombastic prologue scene depicting the Abh fiercely engaged in what appears to be an epic and heroic battle for their lives - but all they were actually doing was destroying the defences of an unwary and ill-equipped planet that barely even knew of the Abh's existence. Quite the heroes, these guys...

Now let's just say that none of this really matters to you, and all you want to know is if this is an enjoyable show on the simple level of an adventure story, or perhaps a romance. Whatever the angle with which you may initially have approached the show - be it sci-fi, politics, drama, romance, or whatever else - in the end you'll find that your hand closes in on empty air. Why do I say this? Because when you get to the last couple of episodes, all the show's initial promise of thematic exploration and character development is crudely cast aside, because it's time to push their ultimate aganda. You can see this for yourself - the plot regresses into something jaw-droppingly preposterous (that is, until the conclusion, when the intent becomes sickeningly clear), and the characters are reduced to being zombie mouthpieces for the author's ideology. The transformation is quite shocking and hard to miss, and it's at this point that you're suddenly snapped awake, and suddenly become aware of the underlying immorality of the whole thing.

On a technical level, the show is extremely accomplished at evoking just the right kind of mood and ambience. The visuals are low-key and present an air of nocturnal tranquility, both in the surface worlds and in space (though in the later episodes it goes for the opposite effect). The music is equally serene, and has a distantly operatic feel. But that's precisely what makes the experience so jarring when you get to those last few episodes - the disconnect between the horror that's being shown on screen, and the way the show expects you to feel about it, induces a feeling of disorientation and nausea even at a basic sensory level. It's not an experience I'd recommend, to say the least.

As for the characters - Jinto initially comes across as an innocent and unwilling pawn in a game that he had no control over, but in the end you get to see his fawning admiration and sycophancy towards the Abh, to the point that he counts himself as one of them, and overlooks the fact that they are in fact invaders and unlawful rulers of his homeworld (I can only guess he will end up fathering another patricidal Abh in his own turn...) Likewise, Lafiel also initially comes off in a similarly sympathetic light as someone who is grateful to someone who saw her for the individual she was rather than for her status in Abh society, but by the end you see another side to her - a blindly self-righteous aristocrat who notes how her people were wronged in the past, but thinks nothing of the atrocities and injustices that her own people are committing on innocent populations. Ultimately, her purpose in the show is revealed to be that of a Starship Troopers-variety "Paragon Soldier", existing only as a mannequin model to exemplify all that is supposedly "noble" about the Abh. The Terrans are grotesquely ugly both in appearance and character like I mentioned earlier, but it's the Abh who will creep you out big-time when they finally reveal their true colours - only to get passed off as noble heroes by the show. Even creepier is the hornet symbolism of their emblems, which captures their shockingly blind hive-mentality, as well as their impulsive vengefulness and ferocity, rather too uncannily.

So there you have it - Crest of the Stars started out as a grandly ambitious and extremely promising Space Opera show that seemed to challenge even Legend of the Galactic Heroes in its scope and emotional impact. Instead, it turned out to be something so nasty it beggars belief, and leaves you feeling sickened and horrified. The world of this show is a quietly creepy theatre of cruelty, populated by ugly and horrible people on both sides, where fairness and decency never stood a chance because the stakes were rigged all along. If, like me, you feel nostalgic for 90's-era animation, or have a soft corner for shows with a tranquil and reflective atmosphere (and this show has it in spades), this show may seem like the best thing the anime medium has had to offer - at least initially. But in the end, you're left feeling thoroughly cheated at an entertainment level - and not to mention utterly appalled at the horror you had to witness.