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.
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.]