#1 Intergalactic competition for the fate of mankind
As humanity acquired the technology to explore space, it would not be long until they met other civilizations doing the same thing. Unfortunately for us, we ended up meeting the violent Crog Imperium, which was pleased to have found a new people to conquer and enslave.
Humanity faced near-certain defeat at the hands of these experienced conquerors, until the rulers of mankind were approached by an enigmatic entity known as The Avatar. Humans were invited to a special event set to take place in 10 years time; a racing event between all the known species of the galaxy with a great price at the end. Human and Crogs could have their fight on the racetrack, but if Earth were to drop out, nothing would stop the Crogs from turning back around and resuming their siege of Earth.
A team consisting of Earth’s best pilot, gunner, mechanics, and manager has now been dispatched to win this event and guarantee that mankind will remain independent. Now those are some high stakes for a racing anime.
#2 The individual races
The titular Star-Race is an amazing event in which dozens of alien species take each other on to climb the brackets and secure their place in the finale. The races themselves are exciting to watch and very well animated.
Every ship is unique and has its own gimmicks, with each match having some special rules to shake things up. Reaching the finish line is always the overarching objective, but the teams might have to shoot down more targets than their enemy along the way or navigate an arena where contestants get to battle it out freely. An early episode sees the crew take on the home team of the local planet in a race with obstacles, which the judges manipulate and trigger deliberately to make sure their team wins. Cheeky aliens.
The races get more intense and dangerous as Ōban Star-Racers goes on, until only the fiercest and fastest teams remain. Teams that take the rules about not killing each others with a grain of salt.
#3 Diverse alien species
What truly impressed me in Ōban Star-Racers is just how fantastic of a job it does at establishing a fantastical sci-fi world. It’s crazy to see how much effort was put into fleshing out various species and lore, just for a racing anime intended for children and young teenagers.
Every alien the team encounters has something special to it and a design that feels both inspired and practical. Not everything is a bipedal, humanoid character with a different skin color. Some races are a mixture of biological and mechanical lifeforms, others are entirely animalistic with limited capabilities for communication. Some species use the most advanced tech available, and then there is Aikka who only has a giant beetle and his bow.
Ōban Star-Racers really captures the wonder and possibility of alien life. It’s criminal that this setting hasn’t been explored further; I’d totally play a strategy game or Stellaris mod set in this universe.
#4 Family issues
The Earth Team has to win and, to that end, they brought only the very best their planet had to offer. At least, that was the intent. By pure chance, a recent hire managed to sneak onboard as the team was picked up for the race. A recent hire that has a bit of beef with the team’s manager.
Don Wei is a fantastic manager who has led many a team to victory, but as a father, he is not as accomplished. After the death of his wife, he dropped his daughter Eva off at a boarding school and promptly forgot about her for the next few years. Now a teenager, Eva has escaped the school to meet her dad. When the two finally meet… he doesn’t even recognize her and hires her as a mechanic under a false name.
Their relationship is further complicated when Eva, now called Molly, has to fill in for the Earth pilot Rick Thunderbolt after he is gravely injured. Don Wei is fiercely against women piloting anything, even though he doesn’t have any other choice. It’s interesting to see this situation develop, as Eva is unsure when she should reveal her true identity, if ever. He is rude and dismissive of her as an employee and, generally, kind of a jerk. I mean what could be so important that it’s worth abandoning your only child over?
Still, there are glimmers of hope and a rare few moments where Don shows a milder side of himself. As viewers, we also get to see the reason behind Don’s behavior and why he has to treat his team the way he does. Not all of his behavior and actions can be excused, but Don gets to grow a lot throughout the events of the story and it gives you hope that, given time, he and Eva could be a family again.
#5 A French-Japanese cooperation
Visually, Ōban Star-Racers is unlike any anime out there. Its artstyle and approach to character-design doesn’t feel typically anime. In fact, it could be argued that it isn’t even an anime at all.
The show is the brain child of animation visionary Savin Yeatman-Eiffel who felt that western animation was too shy about telling emotion-driven stories. While his company Sav! The World Productions is based in Paris, Yeatman insisted on cooperating with Japanese artists, musicians, and anime producers. The result speaks for itself: Ōban Star-Racers is a beautiful show instantly-recognizable to any who have seen it. It has truly succeeded in marrying the very best qualities of both Japanese and Western animation, in a way that few other works achieve.