krpalmer: (anime)
[personal profile] krpalmer
In my first term at university, the big anime club I was one tiny part of there put out a newsletter talking up various titles, whether well-known among fandom at large or just the favourites of the writers. One of the articles in it promoted a series called "Legend of the Galactic Heroes," an apparent favourite of some of the club executive, and the description of space opera involving a clash of personalities with a soundtrack of classical music caught my attention, even if I had no idea how I would ever get to see it. Several terms later, approaching the end of my time at university, the club started showing the series, and as I began watching it at last I found myself quite interested in it. I knew it was a very long series, though, and I would only get to see a part of it... and then, technology I could at best dream of when I first joined the anime club gave me a chance to see the whole series for myself. It still took a while, and probably placed my karmic balance in deficit in the process, but it was an impressive experience. In a way, "Legend of the Galactic Heroes" may embody the appeal of "story" in anime to me, an appeal that first grew when I could do little more than try to remember "Robotech's" composite story while hearing the first whispers that there really were other animated series a whole lot like it. It's lengthy and complex, developing and changing along the way, and the main characters on both sides of the battle can't be summed up and dismissed as just "good" or "evil."

"Legend of the Galactic Heroes" is set far enough in the future that the calendar is counting up from a new starting point (there's more than one, actually, depending on what side you're on). Mankind travels between the stars in the familiar realm of a galaxy devoid of other intelligent life, but the galaxy is also split in two between a Galactic Empire in which everyone seems to have a German name and the Free Planets Alliance, founded by people fleeing the Empire, but which seems much more culturally mixed. This in itself catches my attention and tempts me to compare the anime favourably to some written science fiction itself. I can't help but notice all the SF novels in which hereditary feudal rule returns, just because, and for some reason the casual presentation of it always nags at me a little; having people fight for democracy appeals to me. (With a different anime series, "Crest of the Stars," that I've also seen compared to this one, and yet which just didn't appeal to me as much when I saw it for myself, I'm now wondering if it did seem a little too casual itself about presenting its own space Empire as something to get used to without effort.)

That doesn't mean the Alliance has an easy time of it, though: most of its politicians are corrupt and its military isn't always noble. Still more important, there's a new star rising in the Empire. Reinhard von Lohengramm, although barely in his twenties, is an Admiral in the Imperial fleet. (This does leave me wondering if this particular anime is all that different from the ones others complain about for always having teenage protagonists.) Although he serves the Empire, he has grand plans to depose its ineffectual dynasty and aristocrats and bring about a new era of enlightened despotism. At heart, though, he seems most driven by the old humiliation of his beloved elder sister having been all but sold to the Imperial court years before. Reinhard's main opponent on the Alliance's side is Yang Wenli, who enlisted to get a subsidized education and who would rather be a historian, but who also happens to be very good at fleet strategy. (Yang's status as a slacker, though, may be indicated by the fact that he's only an Admiral in his early thirties.) Both commanders are surrounded and assisted by large casts, many members of which get the exposure to develop into full and interesting characters themselves.

Space warfare ensues, with vast fleets of ships drawn up in formation and blazing away at each other. Most of these ships blow up in spectacular explosions when hit, but if you're a main character your ship is merely badly damaged and you get your chance for a meaningful death scene. (This is a feature in other anime as well.) Wryness aside, the characters are far from invulnerable: both sides suffer some very significant losses over the course of the series, and those who are left have to deal with things as best they can. Assorted internal revolts, genuinely nasty manipulators, and religious terrorist secret societies further enliven the story.

"Legend of the Galactic Heroes" looks to me to have been made in the late 1980s, but in fact its production was stretched out further. It was actually an "OVA" series, animation made for sale on video, which makes me wonder if the "Boy, they sure don't make them like this any more!" comments do invite a sort of "It may have been atypical in its 'own' time, too" rejoinder. (Nor do I suspect that using it as a stick against those who might focus on modern series, whether heavy with "fanservice" or just animated using computers, will be especially good at broadening its audience.) In any case, at a hundred and ten half-hour episodes, it's never been licensed for an official North American release; I saw the series by downloading digitized "fansubs" from peer-to-peer file sharing. At times, I do wonder if that was just too easy: back at university, I think I would have had to join the anime club executive, endear myself to the people there, and get them to make videotape copies of earlier "fansubs" for me to understand the whole series without just learning Japanese and spending lots of money importing laserdiscs... At other times, I just wonder if the effort that was going into watching it kept me from following up on more recent series that also gained notoriety as "fansubs," series that got licensed in the end and which I could have then bought for myself. On the other hand, I might have wound up like those who complain about the presentation of the official DVDs.

To be sure, whenever I wonder about people playing "Legend of the Galactic Heroes" up to put most other anime down, I can still draw on my written SF background to postulate potential stances for looking down on it as well. There is something a little odd about the look of a series set in the distant future where the civilians in the Empire wear clothing reminiscent of the late eighteenth century AD and the politicians in the Alliance wear late twentieth century AD suits and ties; I have the feeling that the series could be criticised for a certain general lack of both "world building" and buzzword-compliant SF concepts like nanotechnology and cyberspace and genetic engineering and the general technological singularity. ("Crest of the Stars" did, I'll admit, put more time and effort into its "world building.") Sure, there are human tales being told, but this is supposed to be science fiction!

In any case, the experience was a good one, and I'd rather just enjoy it than try to use it to compliment myself on my good taste. As always, of course, I don't seem to lack for ideas for what anime to watch next... although right now, I could find it interesting to go back to the story just left once again.

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