Home > Curiosities, Perspective > Review: Legend of the Galactic Heroes (Ep. 1-26)

Review: Legend of the Galactic Heroes (Ep. 1-26)

I started watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes after reading this warisboring article posted by a friend on FB.

So far I’ve watched the first movie (chronologically, the first one to be released), but the backbone of the LotGH universe is the 110-episode series (released between 1988-1997, but presently easy to find online). I’ve just completed the first 26, and I’m pausing to record some of my thoughts so far. (Spoiler: It’s really good.)

I wasn’t particularly impressed by the first movie, and I thought the series started off slowly. The two things I’ll mainly be commenting on are theme and depiction of action.

I’ll start with the second item, because in retrospect, it was interesting to realize how thoroughly my expectations about how war and destruction should be portrayed had been shaped by the genre of the modern blockbuster. War and destruction are always visually stunning (think epic landscapes, VFX), and nowadays to be a blockbuster is to be action-driven, at the risk of a film being critically panned as failing to engage, or even being indulgent.

A feature of the LotGH universe is that space battles feature tens of thousands of ships, and potentially millions of soldiers (e.g. the Battle of Astarte), engaged in long-range interchanges of fire with focused-beam weapons. Though the reported numbers are epic, the visuals of spaces battle aren’t as flashy as in Star Wars, or as close-in as Star Trek (not that there aren’t brutal melees). Watching an LotGH battle, at least in the first 26 episodes, mainly involves abstract visuals of fleet movements (literally moving blocks of color on a technician’s screen), commanders arguing on the bridge, beams of light flashing across long distances between the opposing fleets’ battle lines, and only the occasional close-up of a ship disintegrating or a bridge officer perishing.

In fact, most of the explosions we see are at long range, in the form of sporadic bright flashes on opposite sides of space. The usual soundtrack to epic space-battles is classical music.

Really, what struck me was a difference in the considerations behind depictions of death. Whether in superhero blockbusters or a fantasy series like Game of Thrones, the current conventional logic is that the greater the extent of death or injury, the more catastrophic the portrayal (or the more violent a portrayal that can be justified).

The portrayal of the deaths of thousands and millions in LotGH (at least in the first 26 episodes) goes against this logic. The visuals of entire fleets of thousands of people exploding in space appear as distant, muted, expanding spheres of light, like an unprecedentedly low-key fireworks display.

At first, my reaction was that the music and the portrayal were really due to the technical limitations of the period, or budget concerns, but as time wore on, I came to appreciate that even if these were real limitations, they were masterfully negotiated, because the depiction of death in massive battles in LotGH is really a deliberate challenge to the viewer to try and appreciate the gravity of the lives being expended, very much despite the way it’s portrayed.

The broader effect this achieves is that as we the viewers struggle to do so, we participate in resolving what might otherwise be an irresolvable thematic tension.

*

Part of the experience of watching a sci-fi military anime is learning about the universe (the state of technology, the political structures in place, etc.); but at least for the first 26 episodes, all – literally, all – the drama of LotGH is interpersonal.

This is a point worth commenting on as well, because by today’s standards it would probably have been a weakness. The lack of situational drama is really because we tend to know which side will win. We’re even primed, more often than not, to be able to predict which characters will die. There is even a lack of any kind of existential uncertainty as well, because through the narration and the viewpoint of some of the characters, we tend to know the overall score between the large warring factions as well.

But to return to the point that all the drama is interpersonal, a lot of the first arc deals with things like the main characters’ respective histories (i.e. youth and childhood), and how this shapes their motivations and interactions with other people, etc.; but even things like the outcomes of battles are usually simple projections of the human situation on a command bridge, e.g. is the commander able to usefully process feedback from his staff officers? The outcomes of battles are shown as reflecting directly on the character of the commanders and their advisors.

*

Whether or not the viewer thinks a particular character is a good commander is perpetually (almost monotonously) an issue, and by design our investment in several of the main characters is the direct result of our coming to view them as exceptional commanders, possessing exceptional qualities.

During the show’s ‘present’, the same main characters tend to be High Admirals (or thereabouts), and this is what leads to a problem of involvement: How do we really sympathize with the potential struggles of these characters, at the head of fleets of millions of men? On the one hand, we are invited to consider their histories and their friendships. On the other, I find we’re also very much invited to critically judge and feel involved in their battle plans.

The parallel problem (to the problem of involvement) is the tension I referred to earlier, between appreciating the gravity of massive-scale death, and how insignificant it looks from a distance, and how insignificant it sounds when recounted as percentage losses to the fleet. That battle manoeuvres are set against classical music and massive death is a fireworks show puts death and violence at an abstract distance for the viewer, yes, but the point is that reconciling the abstractness of battle plans and the lives of the men under their command is something that the main characters are also shown to struggle with. (Though this is certainly not as belaboured a point as, say, whether a commander is able to listen to feedback or not.)

The result is that the viewer has to participate in reconciling the two otherwise disparate realities, and in doing so takes on part of the burden of resolving the cognitive tension arising from having to simultaneously appreciate the moral struggles of the main characters, as well as their obligation to perform what are almost exclusively abstract functions: on a screen, the lines of battle for 10,000 ships are just lines, and the extent of expected losses – also, the very question of whether losses can be avoided outright – is a question of concentration of forces, about shape and density and weight.

*

The point of genius is that, at the climax of the arc (around ep. 23), the thematic conflict is the timeless paradox of whether violent means justify noble political ends. As it turns out, both the protagonists – by now, the respective leaders of the military forces of the warring empires – are confronted with this paradox, in their respective entanglements. In classes about ethics or political philosophy, this is often presented as a primarily moral paradox, with abstract calculation of utility on the one hand, and a consideration of moral duties and ‘bright lines’ on the other.

The drama at the end of the first arc manages to transcend this, I would argue because this is the same paradox that the viewer is confronted with from the very start of the series. The dramatic success is that, by this point, we’re able to not just appreciate the paradox, but we’re able to appreciate the characters’ powerlessness despite their thorough appreciation of the paradox – this is the real drama, the one that inspires pity for the tragic hero(es).

*

Some things change after episode 26. In episode 27, we get our first sustained look at fighter combat (we see only short glimpses before), through the eyes of the supporting characters. The visual presentation changes as well, with some panel composition and montage that forcibly evoked the mecha anime genre. We get more engine whines and explosions in the soundtrack. It looks like things are going in a different direction from here.

The theme music and visuals change after episode 26 as well. From episode 27, an epigraph appears after the title, the translation of which is:

‘In every age,
In every place,
The deeds of men
Remain the same.’

Indeed, the thematic development of the first act culminates in this, now a foreboding of future tragedy, rather than merely an evocation of the greatness of deeds, times, and men.

 

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  1. 19 August 2016 at 5:29 pm

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