Legend of the Galactic Heroes is too long to write neatly tied-together essays on while you’re still watching the early episodes. In fact, so much happens in just the first fifteen that for the first time in my (admittedly short) blogging life, I could actually use some episode summaries – and there aren’t any, of course. I should write some, but it would be boring and I wouldn’t be very good at it. In lieu of that, I offer you some sweeping commentary which is generally spoiler-free since I hope that I might persuade others to give this classic a try, and because anything I write further into the series will probably be spoiler-laden.
I: Legendary Binary Stars
The remark which gets into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
An opposed pair of characters is nothing new for storytelling, just as binary stars are surprisingly common in the visible universe. Aeneas has his Turnus, Amuro has his Char, Lelouch has his Suzaku – for that matter, Kouchi has his Kazuki. Contrasts are a great way to make a point (they may also be how language is built, but time presses). But, leaving Kimikiss aside, Aeneas, Amuro and Lelouch are the heroes – big stars – while Turnus, Char and Suzaku are smaller celestial beings. This is not to say that the bigger star is always in the right, or even always more popular, but the story does focus on him or her. Legend of the Galactic Heroes stands out not simply because it has stars orbiting each other, but because it has two stars of almost equal mass, even if they they look very different.
Even better, the ninth and tenth episodes of the Legend, while good on their own, seem to be set up as a binary pair too. Each episode is a vignette in the life of one of our stars, laying groundwork and filling detail about their respective worlds. The subtle touches that I noted previously are still operating – so, for example, Yang can hail a generic, unmanned auto-taxi with a contactless credit card while Reinhard’s friend and aide Kircheis operates a tricked-out baroque laptop inside a chaffeured car (apply this contrast to their respective societies) – but we also have some broad brushstrokes added to our understanding. We learn about the political factions within the Empire and the Alliance, and the way that both nations function. We also learn more about our heroes’ histories; I must say I love the mournful irony of a man who wished to study history being forced to make it.
It’s a rare and rarefied pleasure to be presented with two episodes of anime which almost demand that you read each one through the lens of the other.
II: Legendary SF
The remark which doesn’t get into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
While the Legend has the politics and intricacy which you might associate with ‘hard’ science fiction, its technology is actually rather soft. Tanaka (the original novelist) evidently knows how to construct a world (he does, after all, have a doctorate in literature from a rather prestigious university) and he seems to have chosen to avoid focusing too closely on the technology. So the Legend has thus far been careful to avoid revealing hard facts and figures about, for example, the mechanics of its space travel: we can deduce that faster-than-light travel exists but – in the best traditions of space opera – the story simply says ‘they move fast, deal with it and listen to what I’m about to tell you about this battle’.
[While we're on the subject, allow me to recommend this 'Scale of Sci Fi Hardness'. Not only does it give a good approximation of the whole 'hard vs. soft' spectrum, but it's an anime (guess which) which is the hardest thing on the list at the moment.]
Hard sf can be quite convincing if you read it (or watch it) at the time it’s produced. The irony is, of course, that because it’s rooted firmly in Science(tm) it frequently ages faster than soft sf and winds up looking quite dated, quite quickly. Soft sf tends to be fairly future-proof by virtue of the very wildness of its premises, unless the creators tie it to some definite date (doing so in the title, as in Space: 1999, doesn’t help – while we’re on the subject, I’ll note that said show must be one of Otaku no Video‘s most obscure allusions). I’m beginning to think it’s unfair to pigeonhole the Legend as simple space opera (and not all space operas are especially soft sf: Firefly), but it has a strong streak of space opera in its makeup, perhaps especially in the way that it draws very overtly on present and past societies for inspiration. I’m reminded that Ishiguro also directed SDF Macross.
III: Legendary Spaceships
This plays out in Kato’s design work, which is (I suspect) aimed at achieving a certain ‘look’ rather than anything too realistic. (The closing episodes of Gurren-Lagann are a deliciously extreme example of this sort of decision: apparently, the action sequences happen on such a large scale that – light travelling at the speed it does – it would be impossible to actually see them.) We’re firmly in telegenic Space Is An Ocean territory, so spaceships have bridges with what appear to be panoramic windows, and rows of missile tubes mounted at the bow. Besides these tubes, there’s also something submarine-like in the general cast of the spaceships as long, thin containers for travelling in a hostile environment. (Although from reading The Ship I know that surface warships have been built with torpedo tubes in the past.)
In fact, as with the mechnics of the show’s faster-than-light travel, the spaceships have so far been kept at arm’s length. Spaceship design is one of the ways to quickly tell the viewers things they need to know about your factions: compare Zeon’s spindly, futuristic Musai-class light cruiser with the Federation’s Magellan-class battleship, which is a twentieth-century naval ship given a touch of the Escher treatment. In the Legend, however, the two sides’ warships resemble each other quite closely from the outside.
Where the Legend‘s two fleets differ is not so much in their external details but in the internal layout and decor of their ships – the places where the humans are. The Alliance has recognisably modern-day bridges to go with its modern-day uniforms, while the Empire has startlingly wide open spaces, neo-classical columns and circular daïses, so that its bridges are a cross between a throne room and Delphi’s famous Tholos.
IV: Legendary Relevance?
The twelfth episode of the Legend consists mostly of conversation. About the most visually exciting thing that happens is, if my memory serves me correctly, a brief helicopter ride. This episode was thrilling, however. After ruminating about this for a little while, I decided that the key factor might be that tricky word, relevance. The twelfth episode revolves around the Alliance’s decision to launch a massive offensive, a decision which is politically motivated and decided by a majority vote of the Alliance’s cabinet. It’s then revealed that the plan for the invasion was itself drawn up by an ambitious and eloquent staff officer, Fork, who has his eyes on promotion. Much of the military is unhappy with the plan, but they feel that there’s little they can do, beyond voicing their doubts in private planning meetings, because they are dutiful.
As someone who spends (possibly too much of) his time worrying about democracy, politics and the military, this kind of thing is where the Legend clubs me on the back of the head and drags me away to its lair. The study of honourable and dishonourable political campaigning in the tenth episode was similiarly fascinating. I didn’t originally have a question mark after ‘Relevance’, but thinking about this has lead me to decide that relevance is very much in the eye of the beholder. It must be: after all, while the intersection of political and military power is a perennial problem of crushing importance, the number of words written (even in jest) on loneliness, and the amount of anime devoted to profiting from it, suggest that said state of being is a bigger concern.
[Yes, I am trying to persuade you to watch it by hinting that it's the preserve of anime fans who have managed to grow up. Underhand, positively Machiavellian tactics, and probably useless now I've pointed it them to you, but in this case the ends justify the means.]