Star Ocean is one of those longstanding RPG game series that I know next to nothing about. I’m aware that it’s been around a while, and that it just got a new iteration this past year. So, when I was requested through Patreon to write about the 2001 anime Star Ocean EX, I had to come at it as a total novice. I didn’t know where it fit into the franchise, if it was a prequel, sequel, alternate universe, or whatever. However, because of when it came out, I find Star Ocean EX to be a historical artifact of sorts, a slice of anime and Japanese pop culture history at the time. Thus far, I’ve only watched five episodes, so my view of the show isn’t complete, but I still have some thoughts I want to share.
Overview and Basic Thoughts
Star Ocean EX is the story of Claude C. Kenny (the blond above), a young space officer and son of his ship’s captain. Self-conscious about the possibility of being viewed as being there only because of nepotism, Claude constantly tries to prove that he’s his own man. While investigating some ruins, he’s transported to another world where magic, rather than science, rules the day.
While the show looks pretty dire in terms of animation in budget, I can get behind the story. Its basic premise of a boy from a futuristic world ending up on a more fantasy-style planet has instant appeal in terms of setting the stage for interesting contrasts. The initial conflict between Claude and his father is also understandable on both sides. Claude wants to leave no doubts, especially from himself, that he’s his own man. His father is stoic and stern, but cares for his son deeply. I do wonder whether I would have picked up on both characters’ feelings had I watched this 15 years ago, or if I would have found both aggravating.
An Anime of Older Tropes
The character designs are straight out of the late 1990s/early 2000s aesthetics, but even if you ignore that element the characters’ personalities also shout “turn of the 21st century,” similar to many of the original characters in Super Robot Wars such as Ryune. While fathers being distant (both figuratively and literally) is a tradition in Japanese pop culture media like anime and games, there’s something about Claude in particular that rings especially true in a post-Evangelion period. While it’s clear that his relationship with his father is nothing like Shinji and Gendou’s combines aura of dysfunction, the chip Claude carries on his shoulder, as well as his dad’s inability to communicate his love and concern for Claude speak to that in a rough way.
With the other two important characters Claude meets early on, I get a similar vibe of “archetypes from a past era.” Celina Jules is a seductive-looking treasure hunter who visually seems like a mix of Belldandy and Urd from Oh My Goddess! Rena Lanford (the other character in the first screenshot) is a young blue-haired healer who exists somewhere in the vein of Azmaria from Chrono Crusade (manga: 1998-2004), and Index from A Certain Magical Index (light novel: 2004-2010). Those characters aren’t that far off time-wise from Rena and Star Ocean EX, but her particular brand of gentle demeanor crossed with spunk fades away with every passing year.
The Frontier of Digital
The other aspect of Star Ocean EX that really caught my attention was its animation style. The series came out right when full digital animation in Japan was becoming a thing, and it shows. It’s often really rough, with characters behaving like cardboard cutouts sliding about a little too smoothly. There’s also a feeling of clunkiness in terms of getting used to digital tools, which often means that the art itself looks unrefined. That all being said, I can forgive many of these gaffes, because being smack dab in the middle of a transitional period isn’t easy. A lot of what has defined anime aesthetic in days past is how creators make the most out of low budgets, and seeing the staff try to make the most of what they have is rather intriguing. For example, when Celina uses her fire spells, they apply a digital blur effect that’s meant to be the haze created by the heat of flames, but it sort of just ends up making things hard to see.
The old reputation of anime and manga based on video games is that it’s a pantheon of terribleness, but Star Ocean EX holds up fairly well. It’s not exactly a lost gem, but it is a product of its time, and at the very least a fun show to observe in that respect in addition to its actual narrative.
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