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.
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.
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.
- 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 . . .