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Categories: Perspective

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

4 June 2016 1 comment

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.


(In)definiteness in Singlish

12 April 2016 Leave a comment

While writing chapter 4, I ended up having to precisely specify the parameters of a search over a space, and ended up writing a section that wound up being Appendix B.

Having un-knotted that theoretical tangle, it remained to tie up the rest of the analysis, which I produced in a relatively short time. The past week of writing has flown by quite quickly.

Last night I wrote through the night and through breakfast.

The last stretch, through a haze of tiredness: moving all the excess material into an auxiliary file, then making a conclusion. I started on the acknowledgements, then the abstract. (Later I felt like I wasn’t sure who wrote the abstract.)

But I got everything submitted at 11:25 a.m – this was dutifully recorded at the EL department office. Early after all!


Then I slept.

In the evening I reviewed my writing again. I read the abstract and found it was actually pretty serviceable.

After dinner I read the rest of it.

Especially because chapters 5 and 6 were made quite quickly, and because I wrote the last bits without feeling entirely sure about whether I was awake in my body, I was slightly anxious about what I’d find; but aside from finding that page 33 was a bit of a mess (a misplaced parenthesis, some missing words) I’m quite willing to endorse what I found. 

So, I’m happy, and happy with it.

1. Leaving the office, I swung by the EL Honours Room, dropped by the library to trade in my tomes on grammar and semantics (oh, faithful companions) for The Dictionary of the Khazars and The City & The City. I took a walk to engin Macs for a packet of french fries, which I consumed on the walk back to UTown. I’d put on Punch Brothers to listen to, then realized that the song was ‘Familiarity‘, and that definiteness is familiarity.

2. While waiting for lunch with #04-107, I sat down somewhere to try to read, but I ended up nodding off in a chair somewhere else. I woke up for a glorious 麻辣鍋.

Categories: Events

Depth of Field

18 March 2016 Leave a comment

At the Steve Reich concert tonight, I realized that the concert hall is very often where I feel focused. Something about the experience of listening and appreciation makes me start to recognize what I want to see happen. I start to have some idea about how I might plan my days, what I might change, etc. These aren’t usually unrealistic changes, or things I feel might be Good in some way but that I somehow remain unsure of (this happens a lot with reading confident-sounding articles of a certain genre) .

This post inspired in part by a segment from Channel Criswell’s analysis of the cinematography of Spike Jonze’s Her.

Categories: Reflection

Stress and Work

4 March 2016 Leave a comment

One of the perversities of my nature is that I can draw the energy to focus on a difficult task from the tension of unresolved hostility with people around me. How it works is that, because the tension is frustratingly irresolvable at some point in time, the frustration drives me to focus on the work that is actually under my control. Conversely (and perversely), when everything is peachy with everybody, social interaction becomes so much more enjoyable and stimulating in comparison to work.

When did this happen? I have some idea; recently, I’ve come to realize how a few of my ideas about myself have grown quite far off the mark.

Categories: Reflection

On Performing Social Identity

2 February 2016 3 comments

In a moment of winded loopiness, after a hard run, I thought to myself: “Who is —?”

The next thought that came to mind: “Who are —’s friends?”

The idea that identity is performed, perhaps out of a library of mini-scripts, is one I find useful. We take our cues from our environment (the physical situation, the social situation), and select our scripts accordingly1.

Turning back the clock about five years, I think I had developed some idea about what my peer group was, who I wanted to be friends with, &c. Time, naturally, changes things, and people drift together or apart. I’ve seen and done quite a bit in five years, and I think the rate at which I’ve made acquaintances has only increased.

Which brings us back to the questions above. As much as identity is something we think about in our moments alone, with our selected mental audience, identity is equally something we play out in front of other people. In fact, for most (if not all) of us, we often re-create Other People as members of our mental audience.

It is true that not all of these Other People are friends, necessarily, and depending on your temperament or where you are in life, friends may be more or less important an audience than other possible groups.


For me the question reduces to (a) whose opinions I am prepared to regard seriously, and (b) who I interact with meaningfully or regularly. In the past year or two I’ve narrowed down (a), while (b) has narrowed itself down.

Common cultural references are a contributing factor, but I’d add that (1) this will be true for many people, (2) the choice of cultural references will powerfully influence your results, and that therefore, employing a range of references well is the meta-heuristic.

General intelligence (is there a non-general kind?) is also a contributing factor, but for both this factor and for common cultural references, it’s not a strictly applied rule. I guess this would be some basis for saying that the heuristic for determining membership is multi-dimensional, a result which I would be quite pleased with – the caveat being that I’m probably blind to the action of some factors as well.

Moving on from thinking about common factors to changes over time, recent trends indicate that more weight is given to philosophy and social orientation, than factors like intelligence or achievement in given areas. This sometimes leads me to judge harshly people who’ve suspended reflection on these things for more-or-less legitimate reasons like the stress of great demands on energy and time. Another reason I think I might be being harsh is that, I believe maintaining a particular philosophy or social orientation is a conscious act, one we’re not always able to perform.

Another thing that comes to mind: manipulation is not something I necessarily view negatively; I tend to judge the outlook or goals of the manipulator more than the act of manipulating. The impact on people still matters to me, however.

Social media and other forms of technologically facilitated communication are media I frequently use to perform identity. Here my instinct has been towards a kind of catholicism, though the caveat I applied above about blindness would also apply here. There is an instinct towards the outré, but it’s very selectively applied; there might even be the opposite tendency, to find things with unexpectedly broad acceptance.

That’s all I’ll set down for now.

1. And sometimes we don’t.

Categories: Reflection, Vagaries

Building Around Language, Ideology and Power

20 January 2016 Leave a comment

When did I start thinking about the nature of identity and the social world? The first answer that comes to mind is literature classes, which started in secondary school. These were things I didn’t have any difficulty seeing the importance of and the interest in, which I suppose I should count as fortune.

To have had the opportunity is something I also count as fortune. From what gets put about in the news etc., it would appear the trend is that fewer and fewer are allowed the same.

On my mind tonight were some of the things Singaporeans have made of which I’m fiercely proud, as well as a really quite good (if not exactly comforting; really the opposite) speech from K. Shanmugam. Perhaps some of his points about the really quite rare kind of society Singapore has become resonated a bit more against the background of the other things I was thinking about – but, actually, I’m generally quite appreciative of the marvels large and small that have been achieved here.

The meat of the discourse, however, was about the larger currents and more immediate management issues that exert considerable influence on the shape of that society. (Smallness again raises its head.) I was quite impressed with how he drew the link through discourse (‘how public discourse [was] conducted’), ideology, and the basic conditions constraining human agency (economic situation, social context, technology, etc.).

I’d definitely recommend reading it, say from about paragraph 10 to 42 (the before and after being the usual-serious-polite stuff). One of the things it made me think about was what I mentioned at the start of the post. What that course of thought suggested was that it would be a good thing for us – perhaps even a modestly marvellous thing – to make the genuine attempt to engage as many as possible in that reflection. I think literature is an exceptionally engaging, rich, and profitable medium for that project.

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