There Must Be Something… (‘Legend of The Galactic Heroes’ Review)

Legend of Galactic Heroes Key Image


(….just kidding).

LotGH was a mammoth of a project. Adapted from Yoshiki Tanaka’s 10-volume novel series, the anime spans 110-episode mainline OVA series, with a bunch of prequels, side stories, and movies on the side. It’s somewhat of a cult classic in either Japan and overseas these days , with the lack of official English license (until very recently) and daunting age + episode count being significant entry barriers. It’s only last year that I took the plunge and watched the main series myself, which… only took me a whole year or so to finish (*slow watcher). It’s definitely worth it though, and the show deserves  most of its lofty reputation in certain fandom corners, where it’s often spoken about with the kind of hushed reverential tone typically reserved for the most divine of art work.

LotGH Ship Quote

The show really likes to remind its audience how BIG the whole business is. It takes place far away in the future with the usual space colonization set-up, spanning a few centuries’ worth of historical backstory and thousand lightyears of interstellar travel (*although as can be understandably expected, its depiction of future technology is hardly prophetic).  There are stretches where it introduces a dozen new characters in every episode. Death toll in routine skirmish frequently reaches seven figures. There’s an omnipresent narrator, whose foreboding voice constantly indicates that every corresponding scene is a Historically Important Event with Grave and Far-Reaching Consequences.

Most of the time, it works.

That’s mostly down to two essential things, the first being its surprising accessibility. You’d get all the exposition and contextual information you’ll ever need from the omnipresent  narrator,  and while the size of cast will certainly be pretty intimidating initially, character names are shown repeatedly as they make their first few entrances. Thus, it shouldn’t take too long to get properly acquainted with all the major players and plot threads. Holding it all together is the editing and composition team, which has done a great job in keeping the whole thing consistently focused and engrossing. I’ve taken frequent breaks while watching this (long ones between the seasons, too), but it’s always easy to jump back in and get up to speed quickly.

The other thing is the show’s most important  asset: its characters.

LotGH Character Screen

Now, while LotGH is an epic narrative, it has very few instant hooks that often define popular blockbuster franchise. There’s distinct lack of cool fantasy and sci-fi element, little attention paid to the likes of battleship design and weaponry, and battle scenes are characterized by stoic men in military suits yelling out orders and agonizing over tactics rather than bombastic explosion and exciting choreography. What it does have though, is a humongous cast comprising excellent range of personalities, ideals, and dynamics.

In its depiction of grueling war between the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance, LotGh succeed in nailing a very difficult task in this particular genre: portraying the two main warring factions in equally nuanced and balanced light.  This is very far from your typical plucky-ragtag-band-of-heroes-versus-the-big-bad-empire kind of story, as the main conflict is much more a byproduct of ideological clash (as well as cleaning up the mess caused by other people and warmongers) rather than the simple binary of Good vs. Evil or Right vs. Wrong. The presentation of both sides’ viewpoints is remarkably meticulous, balancing the amount of honorable and talented people (as well as scumbags and incompetent twats) in each side. Some of our protagonists even show respect and admiration for their counterparts on the other side, but in depicting political complications as an often insurmountable barrier for a peaceful co-existence, the show reflects our real world history to great extent.

Long conversation scenes tend to dominate the proceeding of LotGH, which may sounds like a bad thing, but these well-constructed verbal interplay are frequently the highlights of the show. The main spotlight may be centered around the narrative twin towers, the fiercely determined strategist Reinhard von Lohengramm and deceptively laid-back tactician Yang Wenli, but there’s more than enough space for other characters to play their respective roles and undergo significant development through many purposeful conversational moments. Through scenes of strategic meetings, political debate, and heated arguments, the show effectively establish their function and individual mindset within the main conflict, while through the more lighthearted and personal moments, we get to see a lot of of these guys as more complete human beings than mere military pawns or ideological mouthpieces.

Make no mistake, LotGh does have its share of mustache twirling villains and cannon fodder types, but the most worthy and/or interesting characters eventually get the bulk of center stage, and by end time no less than two dozen characters have left their profound mark on me.

Konev Snark

As I’ve alluded above, visual spectacle aren’t really the reason for watching this show, unless you’re easily stimulated by the repetitive sight of laser-firing battleships, military men waving and pointing around, or dots and triangles representing the battlefield state. Animation and character models do get better over time, and the show makes effective use of numerous close-up and medium shots that fit very well with its heavy focus on character drama. The classical soundtrack also considerably props up the show, with movements by the likes of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mahler lending the much-needed operatic ballast to accompany the action and drama. It’s  a boon, whether you’re  newbies or long-time fans of the genre.

The OPs and EDs deserve a special mention; there are four (one for each season) consistently themed pairs, with the OPs highlighting the Empire’s side of characters to the tune of pop ballad with hyper-romantic English lyrics (with proper grammar, no less), and the EDs showcasing the Alliance side with signature Japanese wistful folk that immediately recall to mind similarly nostalgic ED tunes from SDF Macross and Mobile Suit Gundam. These become increasingly impactful the longer you’re into the series, and also give a good feel on the show and its general tone (the later ones are pretty spoiler-y, though).

LotGH Destroyer Ship

As is natural with a series this long, LotGh has its share of missteps. The early portion of the first season probably represent its weakest stretch, with some of the goofiest moments in the show (there’s an episode dedicated to a planet of toga wearers, where a bizarre re-enactment of Julius Caesar’s downfall takes place) and a lot of characters that don’t end up mattering in the long run.  It ends with a bang though, paving way for the terrific second and third season. The fourth/final season lose some steam near the end unfortunately, and it also suffers from having to rely on rather contrived conflict and an infinitely less nuanced religious faction.

The recurring issues in most war narrative, jingoism and machismo, are also present here. To the show’s  credit, it’s clearly aware of that and does its best to mitigate the issue. They can come off as clumsy and jarring (e.g. sporadic shots of dying grunts, one of them memorably trying to shove his intestines back in), but there are genuine attempts to provide sobering context to the staggering death toll statistic—which, including off-screen deaths, has to be the highest body count I’ve ever seen from any anime. LotGH could still seem guilty of overtly lionizing its prime characters and their acts of war heroism, but it’s also balanced by self-acknowledgement at how irredeemable some of these (otherwise morally sound) characters are as they yearn for the thrills and glory of conquest. And then there’s the entire characterization of Yang Wenli,  a reluctant leader who constantly carries in himself the weight and guilt from his military actions.

A potential elephant in the room is how much of a sausage fest the show is, with the female characters being vastly outnumbered and relatively marginalized in terms of narrative impact (although I do like the three major ones; Hilda, Frederica, and Jessica). There’s a few other niggling issues (such as the rather repetitive resolution to most of the tactical battles, or the show’s tendency to hammer certain dramatic points more often than necessary), but these are fairly minor.

Yang & Reinhard Galactic Heroes

Is LotGH a flawless treasure that would appeal to everyone? Definitely not. It’s a significant investment after all, and if you don’t have the slightest interest in long form character-driven war drama, you’re not really missing out. Otherwise, you’re in a for treat: warts and all, Noboru Ishiguro and his team has done justice to Tanaka’s novel, creating an epic  work with rock solid thematic and emotional underpinning. It’s grand, powerful, and embodies the term ‘space opera’ better than anything I’ve seen from the medium, on top of providing refreshingly thoughtful and multi-layered take on war, political systems, and nature of men.

Alternatively, you may want to wait out for the upcoming anime remake next year. I’ll certainly be there, once again on the journey into the space between…

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