Funeral Games

Axe-wielding men in dressy uniforms fighting amid neoclassical columns. Delicious.

Axe-wielding men in dressy uniforms fighting amid neoclassical columns. Delicious.

A month or so ago I finished Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It was very good. I’m going to stop myself from talking about how good it was. Perhaps Lelangir put it best when he wrote that ‘LoGH killed anime – I seriously doubt anything will be able to compare in the slightest.’ I’d provide a link, but that’s the whole of his post.

Yet I’m tempted to say that it’s not an anime.

For a start, it is full of text, obsessively titling every fresh character, planet and spaceship in two languages, as in the case of our friend Henrique here:

It’s also full of dialogue, which – since we watch it subtitled – means more text. This is compounded by the way that the narrator seems to be talking in most of the gaps left by the actual characters. Oh, I’ll grant he’s probably not really that ever-present, but that’s definitely how it feels.

‘Show, don’t tell’: for most other anime, this would be a problem. (The only other anime I’ve seen which gets away with an intrusive narrator is Hayate, which has two excuses: it’s Norio Wakamoto, and he’s there for comic effect.) The Legend (try as I might, I can’t resist shoving the definite article in front), however, trades more on giving you things to think about than on direct visual appeal. Because most scenes require your brain to be engaged, and because of the constant presence of text, it demands the kind of active attention one would normally direct at a novel.

(It is, of course, adapted from a series of novels, but I’m much more interested in effects than I am in causes.)

This impression is reinforced by the narrator’s refusal to stick to narrating action: he spends plenty of time explicating motives and making comments describing how such-and-such an action was viewed by later historians, even quoting books written by the characters later in life. His asides about the future interpretation of events keep us thinking (are these imaginary historians, penning imaginary monographs about imaginary events, correct?), and they also foster a sense of time continuing [to endlessly spin] on after the story ends, just as the fictional documentaries that Julian watches fill in the time before the story began.

The Legend‘s tendency to be visually self-effacing or understated also directs our attention to the text rather than the pictures. The most striking thing about most of the battle scenes, with their serried ranks of spaceships firing identical blue beams at each other, is the lack of pizazz. The spaceship engagements in Heroic Age are an instructive contrast, since they are on a similar scale. These are much, much more flashy, not primarily because of advances in animation but rather because of simple things like variation in the colour of laser beams, the presence of transforming ships and the radical difference between the designs of the two sides: futuristic spaceships, as used by Federations the genre over, are pitted against ethereal Space Elves and swarming space-termites.

This is not to say that the Legend‘s space battles look boring or ugly to me – they don’t. They’re just (I’m going to have to speak metaphorically) visually quieter. There are arresting action scenes, mainly the ones which depict combat between soldiers on a human scale, but the interest of most of the action is sustained by the rational and emotional commentary of the characters themselves.

All of which means that the Legend is simultaneously one of the best anime I have seen (it is to something like Code Geass, much as I like Code Geass, as the Parthenon is to your house, unless you live in the Parthenon – in which case, may I buy your house?) and not very like other anime.

I feel ambivalent about this: there’s a tendency to praise anime for having literary merit, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we ought to praise anime for having, so to speak, televisual merit. (Audiovisual crash, bang and wallop, perhaps.) Literature isn’t inherently superior to television, and it’s a shame if the latter has to pretend to be the former just to get into the right parties.

(True, television in excess and to the exclusion of other things can make you stupid, but then the Epsilons and Morloks of this world can live quite happy and virtuous lives. I, by contrast, am living proof that text to excess can easily make you a prig, and there’s nothing more insufferable than one of those.)

Adopting one medium’s vocabulary to describe another, frequently in the hope that some of the first medium’s prestige will rub off on the second (and on those who write about the second) is an old game: ut pictura poesis. Maybe that’s too cynical, though, as this adoption process may partly be an innocent by-product of the struggle to find ways to talk about new things. I hope there’s a not-too-cynical explanation, as (mis)using vocabulary is my stock-in-trade.

Whatever the root cause, the risk is that aesthetic verdicts begin to rest on anime’s ability to mimic other media. The end results are muddled thoughts and misleading recommendations:

FLCL is as close to a piece of literature as you’re ever going to get with an anime series.

The person who wrote that didn’t stop to consider that (for example) Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes is literature, but is still crap: besides being unimpressive poetry, it’s also self-insertion Chaucer fanfiction. (For the record, I’m not thinking that literature means ‘any written fiction’: the Siege fulfils all the criteria that sort literature from the average Mills & Boon, but it’s still bad.) Such a recommendation doesn’t make me want to watch FLCL, or wouldn’t make me want to watch it if I hadn’t already. What’s needed is something both more accurate and more likely to snag my interest, like this:

FLCL is as close to glue-sniffing as you’re ever going to get without the courage to try real-life solvents.

Still, none of this is the Legend‘s fault. Perhaps it’d be best to call it a great story rather than a great anime?

* * *

Playing back choice moments from the Legend in my head, I wonder just why Tanaka’s novels were adapted at all. I hope the anime eventually made lots of money, but I like to think that the original reason for its production is the same as OGT‘s clipped explanation for the creation of the aforementioned fictionl documentaries: ‘because they could’. It echoes Mallory’s justification for wanting to climb Everest ‘because it’s there’. There’s no obvious and practical reason for mountaineering, or for epic storytelling, and that’s part of what makes both activities glorious.

Further Reading

Finishing Legend of the Galactic Heroes demands a blog post. Here’re some others’ takes:

  • I think I’ve mentioned KT Kore’s review before, but it’s worth a second link, as it’s probably the best traditional, spoiler-free review of the series. (EDIT: link removed — sadly, that blog appears to have disappeared.)
  • A week or two after writing this I came across this solid, spoiler-free overview, which nails down some of the principal characters very well, at Subatomic Brainfreeze.
  • jpmeyer succinctly elucidates the show’s ideological contrasts and points up some of its wackier elements.
  • Demian examines the final season’s tragic figures.
  • Bateszi picks out a worthy set of highlights.
  • Baka-Raptor sums it all up in his inimitable style: this anime is nothing if not an epic in the heroic mode.

[I should probably apologise for connecting Legend of the Galactic Heroes with ZZ Gundam in this post. To do so is surely the zenith of poor taste, and I promise I won't do it again.]

29 responses to “Funeral Games

  1. Whoever said FLCL is the epitome of anime as literature needs to have their head examined. If anything FLCL is the epitome of anime as anime: the show would be impossible in any other medium. Which is to say that anime as art does rely equally on story and art. My personal favorite of Gankutsuou represents the perfect mixing of the two to me, even though ironically enough it’s another adaption of literature. But as a story nothing else I’ve seen has matched LOGH; it truly has killed anime for me. Beside its colossal shadow everything else is mere entertainment, and hopefully at best good entertainment.

  2. Bravo. Great post. I too cringe a bit whenever any subject generally not perceived as literary is compared to literature. Since I’m even a more discriminating book-reader than I am an anime consumer, I tend to scoff too soon at the comparison.

    LOGH was supposed to be my one big viewing project for 2008. I was derailed by exposure to more accessible shows like the * of the Stars franchise and Gundam.

    I don’t want to put off watching this any longer because to miss out on discourse of this quality is too much for me.

  3. The magic of Legend of the Galactic Heroes is that its so easy to understand yet so complex. I think Geass had a bit of touble here – some things have to be assumed, as if you’re finding information for your context essay.

    It exactly reads like a good book like VOTOMS does. Yes you have to switch your brain on, but even if you have it off, while you may miss some information, you get the jist of what happened very easily.

  4. I am offended by your anathema toward Code Geass. It is THE BEST THE BEST THE BEST THE BEST THE BEST anime ever! It has hot chicks! And a beautiful ending! And a lot of shit in between!

    /sarcasm

  5. Adopting one medium’s vocabulary to describe another, frequently in the hope that some of the first medium’s prestige will rub off on the second (and on those who write about the second) is an old game: ut pictura poesis

    That’s exactly what I was trying to do by describing Tytania as pornography.

  6. Have I ever mentioned how much I’d love to read the original ten Legend of Galactic Heroes novels? I have the sneaking suspicion that that’d work better, because I could port them around, and I also wouldn’t have the nasty problem of trying to read something else while watching LoGH. I think what killed me last time was that I was reading Steven Erikson novels, which I believe I described at the time as “any given chapter of a Malazan novel is roughly equivalent to about three episodes of LoGH, give or take a couple minutes, and without bilingual name placards.” To illustrate my point, the final chapter of Memories of Ice is seventy-seven pages long. That’s what I call a chapter.

    I do need to finish the series, though, and I’m tempted to kick it up again on THE TUESDAY OF RECKONING in a couple days, just because of the nature of LoGH and the nature of the aforementioned day. Sadly, however, I’d have to restart the third arc in order to properly digest it.

    I still must disagree with Lelangir, though–even in my relative infancy as a LoGH watcher, even with the quality of storytelling in LoGH at a ridiculously high level, it still shouldn’t “kill” anime, metaphorically or no. There’s far too many diverse kinds of anime for it to “kill” anime, and (according to this post, anyway) stating such seems to imply a rejection, or trivialization, of anime and its web of trappings, which does nasty things to my head as I try to wrestle with a fanbase who trivializes their own object of fanhood.

  7. Like any grand saga LOGH is more like a pilgrimage than merely parking your ass in front of a screen. I am not sure that there is even a perfect way to describe what anime is let alone what is good and what is bad, it can be technically flawed, but in terms of what should be deemed great varies with people. Lastly there is the issue of ranking, but I digress, anime is such an amorphous thing that I disagree that one can simply discount LOGH for only having literary merit. Visually it was more subdued, but given the technology back then and the length of the work keep it consistent visually over the course of 110 eps was a challenge in itself.

    If humans did not do thing just because then our progress would have stagnated long ago, after all why use animation when you can hire real actors? Why invent a gun (early guns were just as dangerous to the user as it was to the intended target) when a sword will suffice for the business of combat? The issue is not why, but rather why not? After all many scientific discoveries were made in unintended ways.

    LOGH was the realization of a studio’s vision of the LOGH universe it was grand as it should have been and it was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s similar to the Lord of the Rings, sure the books are in many ways superior, but that does not make the spectacle that was created a lesser thing. I confess that my imagination is limited and even after reading the books the sight of Dwarrowdelf or Moria was still jaw dropping.

    LOGH is what anime could be an epic that is grandiose and has enough depth that one could very well drown in it. It’s specialness is derived large from it being atypical for a medium more populated with pulp series be it harem or mecha. It is the Beowulf to the more common action/adventure comparison are nigh impossible, the only way to match it is to create a modern myth that is on par, which hopefully will be Tytania given how Crest of the Stars is essentially done as an anime series.

    In short dudes with axes and power armor is cool, watching Reinhard during his attempts to “take responsibility” was hilarious and shoujo sparkly. May the memory of Walter von Schenkopp and Yang Wenli live forever.

  8. FLCL is not that trippy…at all. Perhaps it requires just a different frame of mind that some are incapable or unaware of, and leaves little space for introduction.

    LOGH is more than just turning books into anime. It’s a homage of the science fiction genre for the medium, which grew up largely out of science fiction traditions.

  9. FLCL is very awesome :D

    But more importantly, LoGH really did kill anime for me on many levels. I can only watch anime with animals now.

  10. Heh, much agreed as far as FLCL is concerned. I’m not saying it was bad, but calling it literature is definitely incorrect.

    I’m still at barely 10% at LoGH but I think I’m already in love, being a long term fan of science fiction and political themes. I sure hope Tytania will be able to follow in its wake.

  11. Funny that you say LoGH as one of the best anime you’ve seen, but that it’s unlike most any other anime out there. I’ve had the exact same reaction– the ease with which it usurped VOTOMS and Patlabor from the top of my favorites list is almost frightening, but it feels odd and wrong to even be comparing it to most other anime.

    For a little while I was describing the series as anime’s War And Peace, but maybe that’s too bombastic a comparison. I like the comparison to the Malazan books.

    Under the surface, LoGH is so refreshing, such an impulsive watch for such a niche audience, for the -exact same reasons- shows like The Wire and Babylon 5 and genre lit authors such as Erikson and Gene Wolfe all possess fiercely loyal niche fanbases: they all have faith in the intelligence of their viewers/readers. I can tell you that for a writer this is a cathartic realization, a sudden release of shackles.

    One, of many, things I love about LoGH is that it nails some level of political realism– something I’ve been pushing for in SF for awhile now. Hard SF introduced technological realism and New Wave brought psychological and philosophical realism to SF, both of which were needed. However, a lot of work in both movements render politics inconsequential or otherwise arbitrary, which I’ve never really bought. Politics will never be made empirical and scientific, maneuvering is eternal.

  12. The literary/televisual thing gets used incorrectly too often, IMO. People try to use “literary” as shorthand for like “better”, which is annoying.

    This happens a lot with The Wire, which gets called literary both because it really is somewhat literary, but also in a lazy way because it is one of the best TV shows evar.

    (I also like calling LoGH “The Wire in space” because of the shows’ emphasis on social institutions.)

    One thing that I noticed that’s interesting about the narration is that he can say things which sound totally natural because of the history-ness which would totally be a spoiler if you or I said it.

  13. @ Demian: I’m sure our mysterious writer (or not-so-mysterious, now Author’s outed him) wrote with the best of intentions, hoping to recommend FLCL to potential viewers, but yes, when you stop and think about it it’s an odd statement.

    My personal feeling is that Gankutsuou is more an oddity than a perfect example of anime, but I’ll grant that it did look nice and it did have a good story, so you may be on to something there. I’d have to rewatch it.

    @ ghostlightning: It is a show that demands to be watched.

    Praise for being literary is an odd business. Frequently when I hear it I’m irked not only because it’s not thought-out, but more because of what I mentioned in the post: there’s plenty of bad literature. I don’t like hearing one medium exalted.

    @ Anonymous: Interesting comparison with Geass there, and it’s true that a lot of the background to Geass is buried away in the omake, supplementary material &c, presumably because the show itself is so fast-moving (and only has half as many episodes to work with too, I suppose).

    @ Michael: I’m sure LoGH has ‘hot chicks’. Somewhere. Probably offscreen.

    @ Baka-Raptor: But with almost the opposite purpose, surely? It’s not prestige that rubs off from the vocabulary of pornography, it’s infamy . . .

    @ OGT: Original novels: do want. I’ve herad nothing but good reports of them. Haven’t heard Erikson (because I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to living writers) but you’ve piqued my interest.

    Lelangir’s statement might or might not have been intended as hyperbole, I couldn’t speak for him. It can’t not be a metaphor, though. Speaking for myself, I suppose LoGH didn’t ‘kill’ anime, and it didn’t kill my enjoyment of other anime either – I’ve watched several other series since and enjoyed them fine.

    All that said . . . to play Devil’s Advocate, maybe most anime is trivial? The two phrases ‘a fan of anime’ and ‘a fan of opera’ certainly don’t seem to carry equal weight.

    @ Crusader: I suppose you’re right that keeping a consistent and reliable level of animation going for a series of LoGH‘s length is itself an achievement for the animators.

    I’m not entirely convinced by ‘not why, but why not?’ Material progress towards a more comfortable life for the human race hasn’t produced a noticeable improvement in our behaviour, so I’m not convinced that technological progress is necessarily a good thing.

    Tytania‘s been good so far, but I doubt it’ll measure up to its spiritual predecessor (and it’s probably unfair to compare them). The climate seems wrong, and it’s unlikely to be as long, for a start.

    And yes, Reinhard was lucky that Franz von Mariendorf wasn’t the kind of father who’d turn up the next morning on the offender’s doorstep with a shotgun.

    @ omo: I’m sure there are trippier anime, but I don’t watch much that’s trippy in the first place.

    I like the idea of LoGH as a homage, though for some reason the word ‘homage’ seems to carry some negative connotations. Possibly because nowadays we’re not so comfortable with the idea of stories shamelessly borrowing from each other.

    @ madeener: Heh. I wasn’t aware that there were that many anime which feature animals . . .

    @ nvjinx: Certainly I think we can say FLCL isn’t literary without saying that it’s bad (I certainly rate it highly). I’m glad to hear you like LoGH so far; I hope Tytania can follow it too, but as I said above I’m not optimistic.

    @ Mark A: It’s good to hear that I’m not the only person who’s felt that LoGH is somehow ‘unanimelike’.

    I’m absolutely with you on the political realism. LoGH might not always be a scalpel-sharp dissection of political philosophy, but it goes considerably further than anything else I’ve seen in anime, certainly. I love that line of Julian’s, ‘Politics always takes vengeance on those that belittle it.’ And as you say, it’s not a science but a messy business carried forward by eminently fallible humans – one of the things this show brings out well.

    @ jpmeyer: I’m unfamiliar with The Wire (I’m criminally ignorant when it comes to television) but I’m hearing it mentioned enough these days that I’ll probably have to hunt down some DVDs and investigate it.

    Interesting point about the narrator’s privelege. I wonder in particular if the famous habit LoGH has of dropping big spoilers in its next-episode previews isn’t just protected by the sense of ‘historian’s writing’ but actually contributes to it.

  14. @Animanichronism: Erikson is very good epic fantasy (emphasis on “epic”) that I haven’t been able to read lately because my brain is fried from six years of school, and also because, as an American, they had to play catch up with the Canadian and the British editions. I think the tenth book is being published next year? Erikson cranks the things out like one a year, and none of them are less than 500 pages long.

    As to “Devil’s Advocacy”, trivial most anime may be, but, also, most of everything is pretty trivial. Triviality, I think, is all in how you look at it–take, for instance, a fan of opera who thinks that the stories of the operas he likes are poorly written sentimental trash, but he likes the music, so he watches them anyway. And, then, opera itself contains a large body of work, ranging from the tragic to Gilbert and Sullivan. Are Gilbert and Sullivan trivial?

    What about someone who’s a fan of Sound Horizon, who for all intents and purposes is a modern-day operatic group who blends an eclectic mix of music, pairs it with extremely mind-melting metaphorical lyrics, and creates grand album-long epics? Is a group like that trivial because they’re Japanese?

    There’s far too many examples of anime (and nearly everything else) that has “value” for me to really be able to accept a large-scale trivialization of any particular media, genre, or media-genre. When people from the outside trivialize one of the above, that’s one thing, but it’s almost kind of frightening and disturbing when the very fanbase of something rejects that there can be any value in what they’re a fan of.

  15. Oh god, oh god

    Why do you know of all these bad OPs, Daniel?

  16. Well, I guess I really need to get back into my stalled viewing. I have a long way to go.

  17. Oh don’t be a Luddite, if it were not for technology there would be a lot less people and supposing you were ever born you’d be spending your time farming instead of in college, also LOGH would have never been made…

    Only you can change yourself for the better, besides with this individualism fad it also means that people have the option to be jerks. Liberty and Freedom cut b0th ways. Social changes are often the slowest, slavery was not abolished in a day you know.

  18. @ OGT: Over 500? Good grief. This is one reason I prefer my epics in verse: it’s more compact.

    Regarding anime’s triviality relative to opera, I’d approach it from the things that surround each medium, rather than from what’s produced within each one. The Royal Opera House receives millions of pounds of public money ever year, and charges quite astonishingly high prices for tickets. People dress formally to attend opera, and the papers review each big production in their ‘Culture’ sections. Gilbert and Sullivan, meanwhile, are the meat of amateur operatic societies all over the country.

    Maybe those anime fans who deny the existence of any value in any anime have merely internalised what the society around them is telling them, or something? I doubt it’s an entirely conscious and rational choice.

    @ Michael: Because I’m committed to watching anime based on unusual qualities (‘has robots’, ‘is part of Gundam franchise’) rather than on its reputation for quality, I wind up watching the odd odd thing.

    @ otou-san: I don’t like using the language of obligation, but yes, yes you should get back to it.

    @ Crusader: I’m not a Luddite, or at least I don’t favoure technological regress. At the same time, I don’t think I’d necessarily be less happy as a peasant farmer than I am as a university student, if I’d grown up expecting to be a farmer all my life. Technology’s dramatically changed my prospects from those I would have had in the twelfth century, but I’m not convinced it’s really improved them.

  19. @Animanachronism: I doubt it’s a conscious choice, too. And, yes, opera is perceived as more “cultured” whereas anime (or Gilbert and Sullivan) is not, but that’s all cultural perception, and cultural perception is annnoyingly inconsistent at times.

    On Erikson, not only are all the books over 500 pages, there are ten of them. Have fun!

  20. Well from what I have studied about the 12th Century it was not all that fun to be a peasant in Europe, not with the costs of crusades and all that jazz. Just because you are a peasant doesn’t mean that you will grow to nobles; just because you know less does not make you an idiot. If nothing else consider the benefits of modern chemical fertilizer rather than night soil. More over imagine life without a flushing toilet and toilet paper.

    All I can say that technology has given the common folk a lot more leisure time to be spent on things like anime, it certainly beats working from sun up to sun down and doing conscript labor for the local lord for zero pay. :P

  21. I almost want to avoid LOGH just to never have anything bad to say about it which will piss off everyone in the universe.

  22. @ OGT: Cultural perception’s surprisingly useful – for example, it’s how society treats them (separate shelves, pulping unsold copies, not studying them unless the academics involved are being wilfully perverse) that allows us to distinguish Mills & Boon novels from literature. I’ll agree that it’s inconsistent, though.

    @ Crusader: Never heard of the ‘12th century Renaissance‘? That aside – I doubt many peasants cared about the twelfth century Renaissance – I’ll agree that life for the vast majority of people was nastier (and shorter) and, speaking as someone who’s grown up with all the comforts of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, I’m sure I’d hate to live in the twelfth century myself. But twenty-first century people don’t seem to behave very differently, which suggests that it’s about as hard or easy to live a morally good life in either time. Again: technology hasn’t made us into nicer people.

    @ 21stcenturydigitalboy: Oh, the series has its detractors (they pop up on /a/ and /m/ from time to time, and they’re not always trolling).

  23. The scientific revolution and the introduction of the printing press led to the decline of religion which in turn led to the end of the inquisition. I say we have come a long way from burning people at the stake and persecuting people based on religion. It’s not like you have worry about heresy anymore in the UK.

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  25. Certainly it’s rarer for people to be persecuted for their religious beliefs, but it’s easy to find examples from the twentieth century of first-world countries in which institutions just as nasty as the Inquisition existed.

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