Epic Scope, Forensic Detail: The Legend Begins

We Will Not See His Like Again
This entry is dedicated to the memory of Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

Judging by the few episodes I’ve seen (how’s this for rushing to conclusions?) Legend of the Galactic Heroes is epic in scope and subject – and title: in its English rendering, ‘Legend’, ‘Galactic’ and ‘Heroes’ all convey the scale of the show. This isn’t the debased ‘epic’ bandied around on imageboards. This is the real deal. It may be the first time I’ve encountered an anime which has seemed truly Virgilian – I’d say Homeric, but I think in its awareness of war’s victims, its solemn stateliness and its focus on empire(s) the Legend is much closer to the Aeneid than the Iliad.

One of the interesting things about epic is that, despite the massive size of their canvas, epic poets don’t usually lose the poetic eye for detail which we’re accustomed to in the lyric tradition of shorter poetry. Take, for example, this description of two extremely minor characters defending the Trojan camp in the tenth book of the Aeneid:

Pandarus and Bitias, sons of Alcanor of Mount Ida, had been brought up by the wood nymph Iaera in the grove of Jupiter and they were built like the pines and mountains of their fatherland. So sure were they of their weapons that they now flung open the gate that had been entrusted to them by their leader’s commands, and took it upon themselves to invite the enemy to come within the walls. . . . They were like a pair of tall oaks by a flowing river, on the banks of the Po or by the lovely Adige, holding their unshorn heads up to the sky with their high tops nodding in the breeze.

(trans. David West)

As you can see, I actually had to cut some of that, but what we have left serves my purpose. Pandarus and Bitias aren’t just ‘like oaks’. Virgil’s simile conveys oakiness, playing on their origins (brought up by a wood nymph), but also a sense of movement in the ‘high tops nodding in the breeze’ and a hint of the brash hubris that leads them to disregard orders and throw open the gates in the image of oaks ‘holding their unshorn heads up to the sky’. Furthermore, ‘unshorn’ hints at the possiblity that they may become ‘shorn’ oaks – and indeed their rashness in letting the enemy in doesn’t work out very well for Pandarus and Bitias.

That is, as they say, another story. You’re here to read about the Legend, not me meandering on the subject of Virgil’s truly epic win. But what I wanted to demonstrate is the power of detail, even within something as vast as a one-hundred-and-ten episode OVA. And, although detail works very differently in anime (for an epic poet, it’s a case of taking a simile and extending it – forever), the Legend contains subtle touches which are equally powerful.

The Phone Call

Consider the two scenes featuring Jessica Edwards in the second episode. The first one, in which she learns of her fiancé’s death, is a very fine scene all round – the use of the piano is downright brilliant (and the piano is used again in connection with loss in the fourth episode) – but I’d like to highlight one tiny and significant detail. When Jessica walks to the telephone, we’ve guessed that she’s going to try to find out whether her fiancé’s alive, and we expect her to dial a long number. But she dials 0 twice. Why is this so significant?

Well, this drives home just how used to war – built around war – the state she’s living in is. If you want the Official Military News Bureau, you just press 0 twice. It’s that central to the communications system. Just for contrast’s sake, I have to dial a button three times to get the emergency services. On Heinessen, it’s easier to get hold of the people who tell you that your loved one is dead than it is for me to get hold of a fire engine in real life. (As it turns out, you get Heinessen’s fire service by operating your personal fire hose, but that too is another story.)

As for the second scene? Very simply, Yang’s quiet observation that the graves we see don’t have ‘anyone’s remains in them’. We’re left to fill in the gap he leaves unfilled because it’s obvious (to him): the graves are empty because most people who die in this conflict die in the uncaring and utterly lonely vacuum of space. It hits you with the same force as Virgil’s matter-of-fact description of Andromache

pouring a libation to the ashes of her husband Hector, calling on his shade to come to the empty tomb, a mound of green grass on which she had consecrated two altars. There she used to go and weep.

Why are there two altars? Virgil doesn’t bother to say at this point – his audience already knows – but it’s because Andromache’s son is dead without a grave too.

PKC

Here’s another nice, if unoriginal, touch: perhaps playing on Jessica’s appearance at sunset in the previous episode, the third episode puts the sun behind the PKC thugs, thus outlining them in blood(red). As with the telephone call scene, this whole sequence is handled brilliantly, from the way that the PKC are only gradually revealed (first just the noise of their steps, then their feet, then their skull-masks) to the cutting of the music which accompanies their arrival to be replaced by their humming of the national anthem. All this pomp is undermined later in the episode, when they’re driven away from Yang’s house, his quick thinking leaving them looking like buffoons. (One thinks of the thin line dividing farce and horror in the rise to power of certain famous leaders: you can see the Beer Hall Putsch reflected in the Reichstag Fire Decree, and vice versa.)

There is so much more to say about the Legend, a series so good that you can forget you’re watching low-quality VHS-ripped fansubs. I’ve focused on little elements, but there are broader ‘looks’ or aesthetics to be tracked too. On the largest scale, the opulence of the Empire and the austerity of the Alliance are a sharp contrast, but there are different kinds of austerity and opulence (contrast Yang’s house with the room where Truniht made his Periclean funeral oration). There’s the mechanical designs too, and the characters, the plot, the . . . yeah, I’d better stop now.

Blogiography

  • Iniksbane used the Legend as a starting point for some thoughts on anime adaptions of novels.
  • Here‘s Bateszi’s ‘Isn’t the Legend awesome?’ entry, complete with me being inspired in the comments.
  • You can read KT Kore’s 5/5 review of the Legend here.

And it’s KT Kore’s review where I found this ‘glorious spoiler-free trailer’. Turn up your speakers for the full impact of its bombastic classical music . . .

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25 responses to “Epic Scope, Forensic Detail: The Legend Begins

  1. It’s nice to know that somebody else still values the word “epic.” Legend of the Galactic Heroes is one of the few shows, if not the only one, that qualifies for epic status in my book.

  2. Watching LOTGH is my big project for summer, though, seeing as how it takes me two months just to watch a fifty episode series, maybe I should set aside a year to watch a 110-episode series.

  3. We need a new word to describe this kind of epic. It’s hard to describe, say, Gurren Lagann, as anything but epic, yet, when you see LotGH, everything else seems to pale in comparison. It’s just massive, and as you point out above, it’s like everything in the series is a considered point, completely anchored in a familiar reality.

  4. @ bakaraptor: Old-fashioned education left me unprepared for the use of ‘epic’ on the internet. I’ve managed to adapt, but I agree with you: the Legend is the only anime I’ve yet encountered which qualifies as ‘epic’ in the sense that my old Latin and Greek masters used it.

    @ Demian: If you only watch one episode a day, it’s less than a third of a year, but I can imagine this might be fatiguing. I’ve no idea if I’ll make it through in one continuous flow or if I’ll have to take breaks, but I know I’m determined to finish it (eventually).

    @ bateszi: I suppose TTGL and quite a few other anime are epic in the scale of what they show (Gunbuster comes to mind) without being epic in length or having the solemnity of epic. Gundam’s usually either too gritty or too silly to be epic in a Virgilian way like the Legend.

    As for the coherency of the reality, I wonder if the fact that it’s a novel adaption has anything to do with this?

  5. Legend of The Galactic Heroes is like that thing I chuckle to myself about late at night because I know I am watching something that few series can compare to but others will never get to know the joy of seeing it in their scrambling for whatever the next hot Kyoani, Bones, “Insert Popular Adaptation Here series is airing.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just such a narrow slice of the big pie. “Too old” is a term that I think needs to be abolished from our mindset. Can you imagine if Schindler’s List or Citizen Kane ever became “Too Old”.

    And I have to agree that the word “epic” has been degraded to the level of a buzz word along with “quality”, “win”, and “Trainwreck”. A lot of people don’t seem to understand what it means. It’s really quite simple.

    The Iliad=Epic
    Kamina/=Epic
    U.C Gundam=Epic
    Simon’s story in Gurren-Lagann= close but no cigar
    Der Ring des Nibelungen=Epic
    Clannad /= Epic
    Romance Of The Three Kingdoms=Epic
    “Epic Fai”l Or “Epic Win” /= Epic

    I think that will do, but nobody is listening *cries*

  6. Yeah, there’s definitely a frisson of pleasure to be had from knowing that you’re watchng something so much bigger than the otakusphere’s latest idol. At the same time, hopefully by writing about the Legend I can encourage people to watch it – I’m only watching it, after all, because others have written about it.

    As for banishing ‘too old’, I heartily agree with you! The only anime that really gets ‘too old’ is anime without enough substance to stand the test of time (KimiAru, for example, can be fun but I doubt it’ll be being discussed in a year’s time).

    As for ‘epic’ . . . I can understand that language evolves by words changing their meaning, and I don’t want to go around telling people what their words do or don’t mean. But at the same time, I’m determined to keep the remnants of the old-style meaning alive if I possibly can.

    I do wonder, though, if some of the force of the newer meaning for ‘epic’, when people say ‘epic win’ and ‘epic fail’, doesn’t come from playing off the older meaning. As though there’s an ironic awareness that Kyou’s thighs, as attractive as they may or may not be, can never really be truly ‘epic’.

  7. Yay! Another convert to LoGH. Although, I do have to say that I totally missed the “00” detail. But I do have to say, that it is one of the most epic shows I’ve seen.

    Although, I have to say that anime for the most part is epic. Generally the characters are larger than life, do things that are amazing, make decisions that alter the face of worlds. It’s one of the reasons why the word gets bandied around so often. Because it’s rare to see a slice of life show (in the literary sense of the word) about normal people trying to figure out their place in the world.

    In fact, I might go as far to say, that there are varying degrees of epic. Because things could be epic in scope, but not necessarily epic in character. Or they could be epic in character but not necessarily in scope. Granted, something like the Illiad and the Aenid are epic in character and in scope (although arguably not as epic as LoGH in scope.)

    Hrm… this needs some more thought.

  8. “As though there’s an ironic awareness that Kyou’s thighs, as attractive as they may or may not be, can never really be truly ‘epic’.”

    Blasphemy!

  9. @Kaioshin: I’m fine with Clannad not being epic, but I disagree that TTGL isn’t…unless you’re talking specifically about Kamina. TTGL really -did- give me that feeling of watching something huge.

  10. @ Cameron, Shiri: Certainly a lot of anime is larger-than-life, and a lot of it involves fantasy and/or science fiction stories with a large scope (animation being suited to that kind of narrative). And this may go some way towards explaining the love of the word ‘epic’ among anime fans too: the sense of scale it conveys. What I’m seeking to convey when I talk of ‘old-style epic’, however, is a combination of epic scope and epic length-of-experience. Here’s how I think it works, though I could be wrong:

    The epics I was raised on were poems which it would take days to recite. To be truly (‘old-style’) epic something has to take your time. It has to give you a feeling of ‘Oh my gosh, I just spent four months of my life reading The Faerie Queene‘ when you’ve finished it. Length, relative to other works in the same medium, is a sine qua non, a necessary requirement for (‘old-style’) epic. For an anime TV series, something that takes at least a few days to marathon. Probably 75 or more episodes. For feature-length films, probably only trilogies of long films.

    But you can have something long which isn’t epic. There are very long poems which aren’t epic. In anime, we have Naruto, One Piece and Bleach. So it needs to be combine length with epic scope: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. And the Universal Century taken as a whole, although possibly not just one of the individual series within it. Hell, SEED and Destiny more or less form an epic together, it’s just a bad one.

    Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann has epic scope – truly vast scope – but not epic length. You can watch it in a day. It doesn’t leave you with a feeling of having invested a significant part of your life.

    That, at least, is how I see it. Or a rather reduced version; I think there are definitely different types of old-style epic, and possibly a third element found in most truly epic things which I can’t quite put my finger on but which I might call ‘humanity’.

    And, as always, this just me describing how I use epic, rather than prescribing a particular use for the word which everyone has to conform to.

    @ Westlo: I know! And on Good Friday, too!

  11. This post evoked a burning need to watch this – and not only is anything compared positively to the Aeneid good by default in my book. I’m also amazed it could be find at all on the web, considering age and size. I jumped in my chair at the trailer – of the very simple reason that song has been used by one of my favourite symphonic metal bands. Seems the original was by Dvorak.

    I supply a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZN1xw-HlI8
    Do not look closer into their lyrics or stories, though. They’ll make you cry, and not out of their pathos or anything of that kind.

    Anyway – an inspiring fanboy post!

  12. It’s a good day when I encounter something worthy of being compared to Virgil, too! This has a small but vocal fanbase, and it’s probably mentioned on /m/ about once a week – like the Crest/Banner of the Stars series, it’s considered honourary /m/aterial even if it doesn’t have humanoid mecha. I’m glad to hear I’ve inspired at least one person to give the Legend a shot.

    Dvorak, eh? I knew I’d heard the tune somewhere, so it must have been on the radio. I’m pretty sure I spotted Beethoven’s 5th at the close of one the episodes, too. Rhapsody sound ok, though I know practically nothing about modern music. They can obviously at least recognise a good tune, if they’re using Dvorak.

  13. Fair enough; can’t argue with definitions. I guess that means the onl anime epic I can think of is DB-DBZ-DBGT then.

    Is there a literary term you’d call shorter works with epic scope like TTGL, then? (Naruto, One Piece and Bleach are easier: endless shounen series!)

  14. In the old-style use of the term I’m arguing for, I suppose the DB-DBZ-DBGT saga would qualify. I’m only going by what I’ve read, mind, but from that reading I’m aware that it lasts a long time, has a big cast and chronicles large-scale events, which ought to qualify.

    I don’t know if there’s a suitable literary term for something like TTGL, although I’ve heard ‘bildungsroman‘ proposed because the show describes the growth of Simon to manhood (and GARhood). It’s always a bit dodgy (mis)applying these things to anime (which is part of the fun). ‘Mock epic’ doesn’t quite fit (maybe that would be Kerero Gunso). ‘Epic scope but not epic length’ says it but isn’t a neat phrase or term. Hmmm.

  15. This show really shows what one can really do with 100+ episodes. The one thing I love is how it somehow makes normally boring mundane scenes awesome.

    It’s a wonderful piece of Anime; pity it’ll be overlooked due to it’s length, aged animation, genre, and possibly character design (Reinhard puts some people off…).

  16. Making the mundane seem awesome is about the long and short of it. I just finished the twelfth episode, and realised that I watched people have conversations for 25 minutes, and was gripped the whole time.

    I can see how Reinhard puts some people off. I wonder if that unsettling look he has is actually part of the designer’s intentions, to go with his slightly inhuman mindset (Yang is the more human of the two heroes, at least so far).

    But hopefully by writing about the show I and other bloggers can win a few converts . . . if it wasn’t such a hard show to write about because there’s so much going on.

  17. Pingback: Parsing the Epic – An Analysis « In Search of Number Nine

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  20. Another show I would consider as epic would be the Five Star Stories. By that I mean the manga (the OVA is only a small part of the whole thing), and unfortunately I don’t think it is translated. I would also like the see the novels from the Legend of Galactic Heroes translated one day.

  21. Five Star Stories – that’s the one partly inspired by L-Gaim, isn’t it? I’ve acquired some scanlations (I think) of the first three volumes, but I don’t think the translation project was ever finished, so I’ve never started (I don’t like reading unfinished stories).

    And yeah, the LoGH novels could do with translations. Gaia Gear too . . .

  22. (The music in the video is the beginning of the Finale from Dvorak’s ninth symphony followed by Ravel’s Bolero, absolutely no Beethoven in there.)

    I’m putting the Legend on my to-watch list. I’ve been looking for old “legendary” anime that’s relevant to my interests, and this surely is.

    Thanks for a good blog
    Aulos

  23. No Beethoven in the video, no, but I’m sure one of the episodes in the series proper featured some. Glad to hear that your interest has been piqued – good luck watching it!

  24. Since you’ve touched on the literary quality of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes, I thought I would mention that there is a petition to get the novels published in English at http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/publishLoGH/

  25. Pingback: We End Up Watching More Anime, Here’s How « We Remember Love

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