Film Review: Kaina of the Great Snow Sea: Star Sage

Polygon Pictures is celebrating its 40th anniversary in style with the release of the feature film sequel to its sci-fi fantasy, Kaina of the Great Snow Sea. The film, Star Sage, marks a satisfying ending to the tale of Kaina, the boy who lived above the icy canopy of the world; Ririha, the princess of a city-state drowning in the snow sea far below; and their quest to save their respective communities—and maybe even the world. While the television series leans heavily toward fantasy—with monstrous insects, exotic snow sea horses, and a technologically-regressive society reminiscent of medieval Europe—the film takes a turn toward hard sci-fi as it addresses the question of how exactly our planet Earth transformed into Kaina’s frozen wasteland. This shift in genre may have been expected, given the track record of veteran mangaka Tsutomu Nihei, who penned the source material, but it is compelling nonetheless, making for a fresh final installment to the franchise.  

The story picks up shortly after the events of the final television episode, as Kaina finds himself once again in the icy heavens. In fact, the opening scene of the film recreates the stunning initial sequence of the series, but with one important distinction: this time, Kaina is not alone. Ririha is with him, and together they offer succor to the elderly population of Kaina’s Orbital Tree home, uniting them with Ririha’s people, the nation of Atland, and their hard-won Valghan allies. Their days are numbered, though, as water supplies are running low. But Ririha has a plan: they will seek out the mythical Great Spire Tree that they now know to be no mere legend. 

Ririha, Kaina, and contingents from both the Atlandian and Valghan navies set out to cross the Great Rift, charting snows never before crossed—or were they? A mysterious vessel appears on the horizon, and it is not alone: it is accompanied by a Builder, a colossal mecha of the kind once wielded by the crazed Admiral of the Valghans who sought to conquer every nation still clinging to life amid the roots of the spire trees. Kaina, Ririha, and the Atlandian and Valghan Generals Orinoga and Amélothée are about to face not just a hostile new force but also their own darker natures as a complex game of loyalties plays out amid the remnants of the technically-advanced civilization once thought lost beneath the snow.

It’s rare that a sequel movie achieves the balance that Star Sage manages so adroitly, between continuing (and in this case, concluding) an ongoing series and developing a coherent standalone story. What’s more, it works well as a film, steering clear of the bad habit, common among cinematic spin-offs, of appending three or four episodes and calling them a feature film. In addition to solid pacing, Star Sage keeps flashbacks to a minimum and avoids infodumps as it reestablishes the imaginative world-building of the franchise. The battles are scripted with the longer run-time in mind, facilitating a more immersive experience than what could be achieved in an episodic format. They also showcase Polygon Picture’s near-flawless CG artistry, which are words I don’t often use together in a sentence. Kaina the series won me over to CG anime with its rich backgrounds, expressive faces (the noses don’t disappear at any point, as they are wont to do with CG), and the smooth motion of its figure animation, and Star Sage continues to deliver.  

The film retains the charm of the series as well, making time to sprinkle delightful character moments amid the peril, such as Orinoga’s awkward flirting with Amélothée, Ririha and Amélothée’s growing friendship, and the knowing looks from the romantically entwined giant snow sea horses as they catch sight of Ririha and Kaina, stranded together Titanic-style in a sea of battle debris. Cue blushing Ririha and utterly clueless Kaina!

All in all, Star Sage is an excellent capstone to the series. Although there are no loose ends remaining to warrant a further installment in Kaina’s tale, perhaps the door is not completely closed to a prequel, exploring the origins of the age of the Great Snow Sea and expanding on Nihei’s highly original hard sci-fi take on the climate crisis. We can hope, at least. After all, at 40 years old, Polygon Pictures is just hitting its prime!

Kaina of the Great Snow Sea: Star Sage premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival on June 16, where producer Akitoshi Mori and Polygon Pictures dynamic CEO Shuzo Shiota led an audience of nearly 1000 in a lively toast to the studio and Kaina. I am very grateful to the Press Office of Annecy for the opportunity to have been there! 

It will screen at Anime Expo on July 2, and open to wide release in Japan on October 13.


Leave a Reply