Review: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

This is Star Wars. Lucas’s franchise should be renamed to something else.


If any work of entertainment in our history deserves the title of ‘Star Wars’ then it is this anime, and not George Lucas’s franchise. This is more star wars than Star Wars ever was, is, or will be. This is star wars. Epic wars among the stars, grand vision with something to say, something to show, all the while consistent narratively, thematically and audially, never pandering to a clamouring fan base, this is 110 episodes of pure sci-fi operatic drama of the highest quality. This is star wars.

Preferably experienced after watching the prequel movie My Conquest Is The Sea Of Stars, the story of the LotGH OVA pits two systems of living against each other. Two charismatic men. Delving through politics, military, religion, philosophy and media, it is a detailed anime that rarely ever takes short cuts. This means that we see everything play out and are never expected to just fill in large gaps with our imagination. We don’t just see ships blowing each other up, we see the tacticians inside them planning their moves, we don’t just see armies invading planets; we see them deal with the aftermath of restructuring society. There are no short cuts in LotGH, only one long and very entertaining path.

LotGH is like the anime equivalent of Michael Mann’s Heat when it comes to the two protagonists of Reinhard Lohenngram and Yang Wen-li. They are not in each other’s faces with conflict; they are at a distance yet always on each other’s minds. Human civilisation as their chess board. They are not protagonist and antagonist. They are figureheads who are almost comrades in their strong resolves to end a terrible war. They are like magnets drawing fate towards them by their personalities alone; then they back it all up with action and propel humanity into a new century.

Yang Wen-li. The great irony of Yang is that he is the historian-wannabe who is destined to make history himself. The anime speaker for Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller’s voices. Those two great literary giants of scathing wit and nonchalance. One of Yang’s best quotes is the following: “People may need societies, but they don’t necessarily need ‘nations’” He is beyond patriotism or nationalism. He is a conscientious, self-deprecating, charming and laid back man with the humility to feel intense burden and guilt at his actions, even though he tries to take the path of least violence, he is part of a war machine and is directly responsible for millions of deaths. This fact is not lost on the man, and it makes him that much more of anime’s greatest characters.

Reinhard Lohenngram, the more romantic fairytale character, with flowing blonde hair, unparalleled achievement, aided by his unwavering childhood friend to rise through the military ranks of the empire with the sole purpose to rescue his sister from the clutches of the emperor, with the additional task of reforming and uniting the entire galaxy as a peripheral duty. Reinhard is not only the most powerful man in the universe, but he’s also probably the loneliest. He’s a pretty tragic figure that goes through more conflict than Yang, considering the autocratic environment he has to wade through, trying to hold onto his soul as the leader of such a system of living is what’s fascinating about his character.

There are dozens of memorable characters all fully fleshed out, even though they’re supporting members, the fact that this is 110 episodes long means they all get a chance to shine in the spotlight and develop just as well as the two main figureheads. Many names will be etched in your mind after you’ve finished the tale, names such as Kircheis, Reuenthal, Oberstein, Mittermeyer, Poplan, Bucock, Schenkopp.

LotGH might get flak for having the appearance of being a talky and dry anime but that could not be further from the truth. Because of such excellent characterisation, the emotion and drama of this saga is beyond anything in other anime. When characters pass away the sense of loss is palpable, in the same vein of how character deaths in live action cinema affects the viewer, such is the ambition of LotGH in reaching for greatness beyond the anime medium.

“Humans don’t fight for principles or philosophy. They fight for the person who embodies their principles and philosophy. They don’t fight for revolutions, they fight for the revolutionary.”

People fight for Reinhard and Yang. They are pyramids, and underneath them are a large cast of characters that are fascinating, fully developed and run the gamut of good to bad to walking the thin line between. One could argue that the empire has the most interesting group of characters, they get slightly more scenes, they have more skill and cunning, but then the republic is more relevant to the majority of viewers watching. They’re more relatable because of the environment they’re in which reflects modern day westernised society very well, warts and all.

LotGH’s epicness lies in its relation to reality, in that we can actually believe various situations portrayed in the story can happen; that a group of men and women can band together to fight for equality no matter what the odds.

LotGH investigates and ponders the virtues and shortcomings of these two systems of living with so much depth, so much impartially, it’s a joy. You’re not meant to root for one system because the show doesn’t paint with broad strokes. Whether you prefer one side or the other, both will be populated by characters you like, so not only are you split on an ideological level but also at a basic entertainment level. In fact you’re not really meant to root for any side, you’re an observer to history being made and repeated. Life is cycles.

When characters talk in LotGH, they talk to each other and not the viewer. For the most part, this isn’t a show stained by one of the main staples of the anime medium, that number one device used by lazy writers to convey information to the viewer: walking talking expositions. This is an anime that is prime material for such characters, who may as well directly stare at the ‘camera’ and waffle on about what they’re doing for the sole purpose of cluing us in. Not so in LotGH, as characters only address each other with information that is relevant to them, not us.

We figure out what’s going on through character actions, not asinine summaries from them. If they bring up something that they already know amongst themselves, then they discuss it in a relatively coherent fashion and not typically clichéd manner. In short the viewer is never treated like a child, we have to actually concentrate when watching this story because the characters aren’t going to wait up for us or spell everything out with easy words.

Characters will admittedly often sum up their situations in LotGH, so we can get our bearings, but it’s done naturally as you’d expect for people in a war situation demanding situation reports, it’s never shoe-horned in. Characters reflect upon experiences a lot, about what they’ve done, what they’re doing and what they will do in the future, so a lot of information is conveyed but the most important fact is that they’re talking to each other and not the viewer. You will rarely ever question the intelligence of characters, you will rarely exclaim “you’re so stupid!” because most of the characters featured in the story are highly intelligent and are already two steps ahead of you. There is no greater viewing experience than watching intelligent people battling each other with everything they’ve got.

Another important aspect regarding exposition is that this show has a narrator who is the replacement for expositional characters. The narrator transitions us from one setting to another very concisely and is an integral part of the anime. If it weren’t for this grandfatherly voice we’d be bombarded by the terrible expositional conversations anime is famed for, but thankfully we’re spared that fate.

Although there is a small irony in the fact that in the last season, comprised of 24 episodes, when the animation is at its best, these tropes of anime that have been disparaged in this review begin to surface. With expositional dialogue and unrestrained character body behaviour beginning to rear its unwanted head. Though it’s not enough to detract, it’s still noticeable considering all of the quality and restraint shown previously. Maybe it’s yet another example of how limitations such as low budget can make creativity flourish through determination, whereas abundancy, such as improved animation in the latter half of this OVA, encourages complacency.

So LotGH is not perfect. The animation and art are dated, the plot riddled with small holes that would make an obsessive nitpicker sweat. Some scenarios are diluted or presented in a very simple and convenient fashion that betray the ambition and scope of the series. Religion is painted with a broad stroke and not explored much. Some military tactics and operations are unrealistically achieved with very little complications when so much thought was put into them beforehand.

LotGH simply makes up for all that with pure passion, overriding aesthetics with storytelling and plot holes with historical research. The concept behind the art is solid, the ideas of what the animation attempts to show you are inspired. The plot holes do not negate the story, they can be forgiven for two reasons, the first is that the show is already so full of research and detail that when the viewer spots a periphery hole its almost glaring, and secondly because at the end of the day this is an anime for teens and needs to sacrifice some procedural details for the sake of entertainment given to you at a decent pace.

Not every little detail needs to be presented to you, because this is entertainment, not a documentary. Except when every detail actually is covered and it is a documentary, but more about that later.

If we have to choose between sacrificing plot details/art quality or character details, I would like to think most of us would choose to preserve character. Characters drive the story. An entertaining story with flat characters is not going anywhere. We need to emphasise and connect with depictions of human beings to be fully entertained. LotGH’s intelligent characters populate it with so much personality and resolve, so much consistency, there are no clichéd twists and turns from out of nowhere, there are no characters dying and magically coming back to life.

There is a real emotional current running throughout the main characters’ arcs, a strong bond of friendship, love and camaraderie that is tested to the limits, and it results in very powerful episodes thanks to dozens of episodes worth of character development.

As much as the imperfections mentioned earlier in the review are apparent in the show, they are mostly in the earlier half, but at some point, after the first season comprising of 26 episodes, the wrinkles are smoothed out and the occasional moustache-twirling bad guy or belief-stretching plot-point are erased, until that last season where the wrinkles begin to appear again, leaving us mostly with a viewing experience packed with quality storytelling, tension, intrigue and sustained drama. You will rarely ever question the intelligence of characters, groan at their actions; blink in disbelief at their motives. LotGH stands out from the crowd for its pitch-perfect characterisation and consistent narrative.

Regarding the art and animation, if you have a problem with sparse architecture, rooms with a handful of chairs and windows, cityscapes with generic skyscrapers and not much else of note; crowd scenes that look like something a high school kid produced with pocket-money budget, then you might have a problem with LotGH. You’d have a problem period, because these flaws are due to budgetary constraints not ineptitude on the art department’s behalf. If that irritates you then you’re not a reasonable person. You will be placated to know that the art and animation increase slightly over the course of the 9 year production.

A quirk of the budgetary restraints to the animation results in a restrained ‘performance’ by the characters which is much welcomed. Another undesired trope of the anime medium is blatant facial reactions to various types of news, and some of them are naturally still used in this anime, but for the most part the characters in LotGH don’t overreact as much as other typical anime shows. When a character gives a damning speech for example, his face is static which serves to make him look even more menacing than if the animators went overboard with their tools and made his eyes bulge, irises smaller and veins pop out his head.

You just have to accept you’re not going to see pioneering animation and that when a bunch of soldiers go to battle in a spaceship early in the series, there’s a reason it looks like five people brawling in a nondescript metallic tube. This is not to say the entire OVA is like this however, as there are still many instances of bold imagery, thousands of ships in symmetry looking like stars is a regular motif, and the space fortresses in particular have a brilliant design with reflective liquid-metal surfaces.

The ship designs; save for Reinhard’s and a few other empire ships; aren’t cool-looking. They’re not sleek pointy colourful mecha; they’re ugly blocky rectangles with many holes that fire lasers into your face. The design is pretty blatant: war isn’t the only thing ugly, the tools employed are also. Millions and millions of humans die in skirmishes, let alone giant battles. The cost is so high it’s hard to imagine, but the OVA does a good job of reminding you with visceral scenes of terror and misery.

Space battles consist of pre-20th century naval-inspired conflicts, with large fleets manoeuvring into strategic spots and moving in for the kill. Attacks are planned carefully and carried out methodically, with the occasional WW2 aerial-inspired dogfights with smaller jets taking off the cruisers. It’s totally unlike nearly every other space-set anime.

This war anime not once glorifies or makes the idea of war ‘cool’ at all. For all the talk of the Gundam franchise putting a more serious face on war in the medium of animation, it still had a kid piloting a mecha day in day out with funky soundtrack accompanying the action scenes. Not to discredit Gundam at all, as its always laid a huge burden on its kid protagonists, but in LotGH there is no subtle or overt undercurrent to the action, it is what it is: millions of people dying over and over again, mostly to the impartially beautiful and tragic classical score that the viewer can take one way or the other. That is to say, beautiful or tragic.

Chopin, Mozart, Dvorak, Wagner, Mahler, Bach, Bruckner, Brahms, LotGH rarely uses the same piece twice, which is why the LotGH soundtrack box set is massive. 23 CDs total, a behemoth of classical music, an amazing gateway for newbies to the genre, or a greatest hits for veterans. The OVA’s soundtrack is timeless, much like its story. There are re-used themes and motifs, but every episode will feature a few compositions not used already. The classical nature of the music heightens the story to epic proportions, the premise is monumental and so should its soundtrack be also.

As for the voice acting, featuring such luminaries as Norio Wakamoto, Kaneto Shiozawa, and Toshio Furukawa, it is a classic cast, accompanied by a classic soundtrack. The OVA excels in audio, even if the visuals don’t.

There is so much depth that the OVA even has a character watch a documentary about the history of humanity. We observe with him a typical documentary format programme, complete with host, his academic credits displayed beside his name; documentary clips and interviews to supplant his monologue of humanity’s actions since the latter half of the 21st century.

Rather than be a gimmick, it’s actually a validation of many of the show’s quirks, stylistic choices and script decisions made. It provides more context to the story, shedding light on the backdrop of the saga, and the fact that we don’t even see this, the first of a few documentary-based episodes, until well over 30 episodes into the OVA is a testament to the fact that the writers of the OVA respect us, the viewer.

The documentary’s content is so full of depth, imagination and epic scope it’s practically an anime in its own right. Indicative of LotGH, that there are so many story arcs or episodes that other anime would stretch into 25 episode series, but they’re merely window-dressing in this OVA. Not only is the documentary episode one of the best of the OVA for its rich depiction of a future history, but because of how it changes the dynamic of the entire show, bombarding us with new facts and revelations of how these two systems of living came to be. As such, it is placed where it is with very good reason.

LotGH isn’t all serious politicking and battling, it’s carried by humour all throughout. A type of humour seriously lacking in most anime; that is to say a type of humour that doesn’t rely on slapstick, the breaking of physics, and lurid sex as a topic. The characters in LotGH are cynicists and realists; their humour is a defiant protest at their situation, the futility of war and all it entails. LotGH’s humour is largely through dialogue, not sight gags. Vonnegut, Kafka, Heller, these novelists voices are heard in the mouths of many characters, from main protagonists to random fighter pilots, these men are all fed up of dying for no good reason and blow off steam with witty wordplay.

The entire anime is an in-depth exploration of two systems, approached from every direction imaginable, every context; every situation; the ramifications of military, politics, religion and media, of dynasty, lineage and class. It doesn’t lean heavily on one side or the other; both have their pros and cons when looked at objectively. What’s worse, the story ponders: a corrupt democracy or a reformed autocracy? There is of course an idealistic current running through the more relatable characters, those who dream of a universe with peace and equality, of ridding society of corruption and terror. How to go about it of course is up for debate, usually with fleets and bombs.

LotGH is a 6 year saga charting the 3 thousand year battle of humanity with itself, repeating history’s mistakes and endeavours. When a character mentions something that happened six years ago, you actually remember the recalled event, because that’s how long the story is. You feel immersed in it, an invisible comrade; a third wheel standing to the side and reminiscing along with the characters. It’s inexplicable but the OVA gets better the more you watch. Every twenty or so episodes the quality rises and the storytelling becomes even more addictive.

There isn’t a single bad episode in the whole 110 episode run. Not only that, but you never know what to expect either, unlike the vast majority of other anime which have a clear narrative of beats: protagonist starts on A, must get to B, must end up at C. With LotGH the plot is so rich, the world so vast, the characters so many, you can never predict what people are going to do next, where they’ll end up or what will happen. LotGH’s depth is unparalleled.

The saga goes through year after year and you feel the weight with each season, you watch the characters grow together or drift apart, you see setups one episode then pay-offs dozens of episodes later, you see friendships, rivalries, enemies, comrades, battles, love, marriage, birth and death, you see it all. Nothing is left out, absolutely nothing. Other series are just as long, other series have better animation, but no other series is as far-reaching in depth and consistently intelligent and accomplished.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a legend of the anime medium. The greatest anime production in its history.

Originally posted at myanimelist.net.

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One thought on “Review: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

  1. Pingback: Anime blog: Ghost in the Shell Arising… | coolcalmdemented

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