There is an effect in the arts, most notably in music, dubbed the "sophomore slump". It relates to the fact that the sequel to an acclaimed or beloved work often pales in comparison to its predecessor. If a movie is a smash hit, the sequel will be less of a hit. A band's first album is a milestone in its genre? Next album is half of one. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule and the term is fairly overstated. Yet the term has become so commonplace that it's much easier to think of the "slumps" than it is of the "rises". In the case of the Stars series, I found out that Crest of the Stars was much more of a beloved show than I had thought (outside of knowing the novels won a Seiun award back in the 90's). However, its sequel Banner doesn't seem to get the same amount of love. In Banner's defense, I don't think it's a case of "sophomore slump" as much as it is the expectations of the viewers coming into it.
The most notable thing that Banner does, for me, is that it "stops pretending". I mentioned in my Crest review about how one-sided the politics feel and how it tends to be biased towards the Abh. Banner drops this element - now its Abh focused for the duration of the show. It focuses more on the battles and how the characters (most notably Lafiel's division) feel about their placement in the war. Though dropping the politics may put some in a dour mood, I actually see this as an improvement for the show. If the show wanted to be like LoGH and show balance between the two sides, it did a poor job at it - its hard to see the conflict past "Abh good, humans bad" with such a warped perspective. It now has more time for action and the characters, which is something I liked about the show in the first place. Dropping the weaker elements and strengthening the more prevalent elements allows me to see the show for what it is instead of what its trying to compete with.
So what's happened in the 3 years since the last adventure? Lafiel's become a captain of the ship Basroil while Jinto has become a trusty supply officer (who, obviously, is enrolled by Lafiel for her crew). Some new characters are introduced as Lafiel's crew members, like the taciturn and serious Ekuryua, the drinking blue-collar spirit of Samson and the mature Wing Flyer Sobaash. Other characters are introduced as commanders of other ship divisions. Lafiel's commander, Atosuryua, is the sister of the Baron they killed 3 years prior. The Bibos twins, Nefei and Nereis, are known for their "Beautiful Insanity" when it comes to drawing up battle plans. Finally, a few characters return from Crest - the haughty commander Spoorh and the supreme commander Dusanyu. Rather than an adventure, the episodes focus on the buildup and battle defending the critical area of the Aptic Gate. We see how the Abh react, prepare and fight against a human fleet of 15 times their own size. Fans of more tactical thought will enjoy this season more as there are a lot more dangerous situations. Outnumbered battles and new enemy weapons keep the Abh on their toes and the battles often turn from one of equal footing to one of strategic survival.
That said, the best part of Banner of the Stars is not these battles but the characters. Banner of the Stars' theme is discussing a person's place and role in the universe and these introspective moments is when we see the characters as more than cartoons. Jinto channels his inner Shinji Ikari (Evangelion) and contemplates his loneliness in the empire (non-Abh race, lost his family completely) and if anyone would truly miss him if he were gone. Lafiel battles her strong will against the commands of others and learns of the important roles that a leader has vs. her usual solo nature. Outside these two, Samson is the best character in the show. He comes from the surface like Jinto, but is older and has experienced years of the Abh's space service. His remark that people much younger than him are passing him by while he retains the same position is a bittersweet message of the show. We don't get to see too much of his serious side, as he prefers drinking and joking, but the few moments of solemnness we get with him are some of the best in the show. Perhaps that's why I find it to be so special - it's rare but it's there and it makes an impact.
Although the show's change of direction is something I approve, it still ultimately has problems. I didn't mention it in the Crest review but both Crest and Banner suffer greatly from one thing - its dryness. A show about space battles with grandiose scores should be exciting, but I don't feel it too often due to the Abh race. The Abriels, Ekuryua, and even the Bibos twins deliver lines in a very flat way with no dynamics in range. They're not free of emotions, but it often feels like they're trying their best to not show any - they don't come off as charismatic nor remotely interesting. You'd think that the Bibos twins, with the name "Beautiful Insanity", would do something mind blowing but the only real insanity is the constant one-upping the brothers try to do with each other. Even they admit they play it quite safe for battle plans this time around. Some characters, such as Sporh, break free from this but in the wrong way, coming off as bratty and more in place for a rom-com than a space opera. Not all characters suffer from this (Samson, Atosuruya), but they're a minority in the cast of undesirable characteristics. I'm not asking for people goofing off or being comic relief - this is a war and lives are on the line, after all. Just a little more expression would go a long way with me. The anime, as said above, is based on a novel series. For books, you don't get to see the action - you have to imagine it. So if I can imagine the characters saying their lines much more expressively than I can see them in the adaptation, I'd rather read the book.
Other issues I find stem not from what the show does but what it doesn't do. An example is the earlier mentioned Bibos twins, who aren't particularly insane in their battle performance. The way I see it, Sporh is far more "insane" in her approach ("crush the weak" philosophy) than the Bibos twins. Another good example is Roi Atosuruya, Lafiel's commander. You would think that Atosuruya, being the brother of the Baron that Jinto and Lafiel killed, would have contempt towards them and use her position of power subtly to endanger their lives further (as well as be an early example of cracks in the Abh empire's perfect image). However, it is treated as water under the bridge. That's a surprisingly mature approach and Atosuruya has good reasons for why there's no real issue, but it passes on an opportunity for conflict/excitement. And when a series is a dry, slow-paced watch, that can go a long way to making it a worthwhile viewing. Ultimately, many of these issues can be brushed away by stating this is a beginning or prologue to events to come. This is based on the first book in a series of five, so changes can happen and what I've said could end up being irrelevant. That said, this review covers what is shown and known for the anime, so it's a bit unfair to say "the sequel fixes this" when this cour must be watched first.
This show, to me, is the equivalent of reading a textbook. Yes, it's factual and there are a lot of important details you need for your classes or major. However, it's not an exciting read and it's hard to maintain excitement or interest. Like I said before, this may not apply to everyone. Those that want a more technical and tactical show will enjoy this, maybe even more so than Crest of the Stars. This isn't a bad show by any stretch, but it's just not to my preference.
As I said before, this show is more action based and it shows in a slightly higher budget. There are more fight scenes and therefore more times to show off said action. There are a lot of camera tricks involved to simulate flight (Crest also did this, in fairness) and there's some ugly early CG used occasionally, but there's more fluidity and a bit higher production qualities. Those looking for what's new in the sound department will be disappointed - most of the tracks here were all previously used in Crest. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though - Crest of the Stars had a good orchestral soundtrack. The exception is the new ED "Pink" by YUAMU, which evokes a 90's alternative rock song. It's a good song, and shows great contrast with the slight roughness of the lead vocals and some nice chorus harmonies. It's better than Crest's ED, though I still like the chorus for Crest's ED a bit more (it's too infectious).
Overall, I give this show a 5.5. From a numerical standpoint, it may seem that I think this show is equal to Crest but that's not the case. I prefer Banner over Crest, but I find both to be similar in strengths and disappointments that they fall around the same level. If you like Crest of the Stars for its romanticized adventures, tread cautiously for Banner. You'll get more Jinto and Lafiel, but the romance and adventure aspects are both downplayed. Those looking for a more grounded show (as strange as that is to say for a space opera) will enjoy this, while those looking for something a bit more flashy should give a pass to this one. I'll admit, Banner of the Stars is for a niche audience and I am not part of that niche. Those that are will find this show to be a definitive favorite.
Do you like or dislike this anime? If you haven't watched it, are you encouraged to watch it or not? Leave a comment on my profile telling me what you think of the anime and/or my review.
Thanks for reading and have a blessed day!