Oban Star Racers Review
This is an obscure gem of a show. A French animated series created by Savin Yeatman-Eiffel in 2006 and made by Sav! The World Productions. A race to determine the fate of the galaxy, if Earth looses they will be destroyed by an alien invasion, and at the heart of it all is a girl trying to put her family back together. At the beginning the series was fraught with difficulty as Savin couldn’t sell his idea without changing his vision for the show. That included companies wanting to change the main character to a boy because ‘that would sell better’ according to them. Because there’s no way people would buy anything with a lead female character and as everyone knows only shows with male leads become popular. After many years he managed to get it going and had a mix of traditional and cgi animation, with it becoming a French/Japanese co-production. The series is a fantastic 26 episode story dealing with loss, tragedy, and is surprisingly a lot of fun and a bit unpredictable.
It all starts when humanity expands into space where they meet the Crogs, a much more powerful race that nearly succeeds in conquering them. On the brink of loosing the war a mysterious figure known only as the Avatar appears. He initiates the Great Race of Oban which grants them a peace treaty for 25 years in order to prepare for the race. In 2082 that treaty is coming to an end the only way to stop the Crogs invading again is to win the Oban race. Our protagonist is Eva, daughter of Don Wei the greatest race manager on Earth. He shoved her off to boarding school when she was five and she spends ever birthday for the last ten years sitting by the phone hoping he’ll call. This year she’s had enough and finishes up her rocket sled to ride over the walls of the school to find her dad.
When she gets to his race pit and sees the loving father she remembered is now an angry jerk she looses her nerve. So she pretends to be a mechanic named Molly and gets a job working for him as she works up the courage to tell him the truth. She doesn’t get much of a chance as the president of Earth contacts Don Wei to get him to put together a racing team and join the Oban race. Eva, determined never to let her father get away from her again, tags along as the Avatar’s ship picks them up. When their Star-Racer explodes crossing the finishing line for their first race it’s up to Eva to pilot, much to Don Wei’s disapproval.
It’s tough for her as it takes a long while before Don Wei accepts her as a good pilot. The team are the underdogs for the race, barely scraping wins and their first victory is a humiliating one. Along with the races there is the mystery of what the Ultimate Prize really is as well as a dark force in the background manipulating events and performing Xanatos Gambits.
The races themselves are rather well done. At the beginning they’re fairly straight forward and “special rules” were added to keep things from getting repetitive. But like most racing or sports themed series there was very little tension in how the races would end up. The main characters have to win because we wouldn’t have a plot if they didn’t. That’s why the first six episodes are mainly character and world set-up, and also dealing with the fact that Eva isn’t a properly trained racing pilot. However that all changes in episode seven when the preliminaries are over and the pre-selections begin. A points system is introduced and so our heroes can lose without being kicked out of the race. They start loosing, badly as well, and there’s an uncertainty to almost every race after that since we never know if they can secure victory or be stamped down hard. More often than not it’s the latter.
The series is broken up into two sections, the Alwas Cycle and the Oban Cycle, each with 13 episodes. Alwas is the planet where the Earth team was sent to do qualify races and Oban is the big final with the winners of all the other qualifiers. It breaks things up so after 13 episodes of the same location and similar race tracks them moving to somewhere else entirely, with new rules and races, is a good idea.
Eva, or ‘Molly’ as she’s mainly called throughout the series, is brash, impulsive, and both hates her father but also wants to prove herself to him. Her mother was a racer but she died tragically during a race when Eva was very young. She was traumatised by this and repressed the memory till she started racing at Alwas. During the course of the series she learns exactly how her mother died and that tragedy hasn’t gone away for either her or her father, no matter how they act. While she sometimes gets close to telling Don Wei that she’s his daughter he always says something that gets her angry at him for how he’s treated her, even when it’s well-meaning.
That leads us to Don Wei, our resident douche canoe for the show. He acts like a misogynistic jerk for most of the show and that’s the view most of the characters get of him. In reality because of losing his wife he couldn’t raise Eva anymore and cut all ties to his previous life. We see him at his lowest point in a flashback and it’s not pretty. He doesn’t like female pilots because he doesn’t want to see tragedy strike him again and is especially harsh on Eva because of this. He hides the real reason why they’re in the race from the team and takes the burden upon himself because he doesn’t want them to know the cost of losing. He’s a well meaning jerk that sees the bigger picture.
Our last main character is Jordon, the gunner for the team. He’s a solider and a big xenophobic, though mainly against the Crogs and their allies. His grandfather was killed on the exploration mission that had first contact with the Crogs. He’s the butt-monkey of the series at first, being a bit clueless and always the good solider following order without question. He grows as the race goes on and we see him become a much better man.
All the characters on the show are well developed and three-dimensional, even the additional characters. Such as Rick, the original pilot for the Earth team, which due to his injures at the beginning he can never race again. This causes an existential crisis for him as he’s lost the one thing in life that gives him purpose. He eventually finds a new goal as he starts training and coaching Eva to be a better pilot.
The alien racers are very well written, with their own motivations and goals. Some of them at the beginning are a bit two-dimensional but once we get to the pre-selections we get some more nuanced characters. Not all of them are “evil” or “bad guys” and are pretty nice people even if it is a competition. Though I do wish we’d gotten a few less antagonist racers in the show. We got some variety on it though, which was nice.
The animation for the show is stunning. All of the Star-Racers and race segments are made in cgi by the French company and the rest is traditional animation done in Japan. The interaction between the two is the best I’ve ever seen in a series. It’s not a jarring shift to cgi, nor does having the regular animation interact with it seem horrible or out of place like it usually does.
Artstyle wise it can be a bit weird to see at first. There’s pupil-less eyes and everyone has no nose. It doesn’t look out of place that much because of all the aliens, but when we see our human characters it may appear odd for the first time. It’s a stylised look and I think it works for the series.
Each of the aliens has their own unique to them and the Star-Racers are extremely well designed in the same fashion. All of them stand out and are memorable for how different they are. A lot of thought and love went into making each individual one.
The music for the show is also very well done. Put together by Taku Iwasaki each track is excellently composed. It’s a stand-out form a lot of shows and well worth finding the OST for the series. It really does add to every scene and packs an extra emotional punch when needed. The opening and ending themes were composed by Anime legend, Yoko Kanno. She’s worked on such series as Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, several Macross series, and many more.
This series is a personal favourite of mine. It doesn’t back down or shy away from dealing with heavy problems. There are ongoing themes of dealing with tragedy and loss that permeate the show as the characters learn that you can’t run away or hide from such things. The show is never boring nor feels repetitive. All of the characters developed and there isn’t a wasted moment in the series. I highly recommend checking the series and if you can find it get the DVDs as they have unedited episodes unlike the broadcast TV ones.