The continuing search for coveted Mainstream Acceptance for anime is a long and hard uphill struggle, but still like Sisyphus we roll that boulder on. Another title that often comes up when looking for titles to justify "Anime As Art" is Legend of the Galactic Heroes, originally a novel series but with a memorable anime adaptation. Legend of the Galactic Heroes would seem at first glance to do everything right - it's an elaborate and detailed discourse on weighty matters of society and politics with a radical tint, and the original author Yoshiki Tanaka is a bona-fide scholar, a Doctor of Language and Literature who graduated from the prestigious Gakushuin University.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes is intimidating to approach. The very title is redolent of an assured grandeur, and it has the scale to match such loftiness. Building on the foundation of a fourteen-volume novel series published in the 1980s the anime version confirmed the maturation of the OVA format, successfully sustaining audiences who paid subscriptions for a full decade to follow its 110-episode space odyssey between 1988 and 1997 with more than fifty volumes of laserdiscs, VHS tapes, and Video CDs, with a sense of lineage as well as scale from being directed by Noboru Ishiguro who also helmed the original Macross. Along with multiple theatrical movies, spin-off OVAs that ran for a further 52 episodes, video games, manga and astonishingly even a stage musical the Legend of the Galactic Heroes has continued to be told right up to the present day with a new TV anime series in production which will be released next year. Truly Legend of the Galactic Heroes goes beyond a description as clinical as 'multimedia franchise' and has become... well... epic.
Getting such a huge and unwieldy series officially released in the West would be a years-long undertaking and an unlikely prospect even when the anime boom was at its height - other earlier attempts to release long series like Gintama and Monster have foundered and in the shrunken modern market it has been long written off as an impossibility. As enormous a phenomenon as it is in its homeland then, Legend of the Galactic Heroes for many years was paradoxically attended by a certain exotic mystery as a minor cult anime, a sensuous figure veiled enticingly by the Internet as one of the best anime you've never watched. The coverings were suddenly snatched away last July though by the shock announcement from Viz Media and Sentai Filmworks that they had licensed both the original novel series and the anime too. This genuinely surprised and blindsided the anime community and left it reeling with giddy glee, but a significant amount of time to settle down has now passed; a year later and Sentai have yet to release any substantive details about their own part in the project, but Viz through its Haikasoru imprint (through which it's released a number of anime-related prose SF from Battle Royale to All You Need is Kill) has started to bring out the books themselves, with Volume 1 "Dawn" out now and Volume 2 "Ambition" following on in July. Viz have announced that they are testing the waters with a release of the first three volumes of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes and whether they continue to bring over the rest of the series will depend on the performance of the initial trio. The weight of expectation thus lies heavy on this short volume - does Legend of the Galactic Heroes deserve its grand title?
Legend of the Galactic Heroes takes place over a thousand years in the future. Mankind has sailed out into the sea of stars and set its stamp on thousands of new worlds, but the progress in space was not matched by a progress in society, and the new utopias have come to be defiled by old evils. The Galactic Federation slumped into insularity and corruption, to be overwhelmed by the ruthless Adolf Hit-- er, Rudolph von Goldenbaum who concealed his savage plans for domination and dictatorship in the guise of galactic renewal. Suffering under the repressive hierarchy of the new Galactic Empire, refugees squirmed out from under the Fuh-- er, Emperor's boot-heel and fled across the nebulae to found the United-- er, Free Planets Alliance. However this new nation proved to be no safe haven - the Empire may be ruled by rapacious nobility enriching themselves through the subjection of their serfs, but the Free Planets Alliance is little better, and maybe even worse for its hypocrisy; outwardly a democratic republic but rotted from within by impotent mediocrities whose vision extends no further than the next opinion poll and cynical exploiters who manipulate them for their own self-aggrandisement. These two corrupt states are perhaps not so ideologically distant as they claim, but just as likes repel they harbour an existential hatred for each other and have warred for centuries - For Order! For Freedom! For Taxation!
Cometh the hour and cometh the man; so into the midst of this interminable generations-long space-war which has claimed billions of lives and destroyed millions of ships have stepped two young navy commanders. In the Imperial Navy is Reinhard von Lohengramm - he has recently been elevated to the nobility but far from the rarefied atmosphere going to his head it has only exposed him to and filled him with disgust for the immorality of the Empire. In the Alliance Navy is Yang Wen-li - a quiet and unassuming academic and reluctant soldier who really only joined the military to pay off his student loans, but who thus has a self-awareness and insight that many of his glory-hound comrades lack. The two men are far apart in temperament - Reinhard burns with desire to overturn the Empire and Yang just wants to extricate himself from his commission for a quiet life with his books - but to achieve their respective goals each of them needs the same thing... victory. As circumstances conspire to abruptly thrust each man into the limelight, it becomes clear that they need victory over one another. The stage is thus set for a dramatic duel between these two brilliant young officers and their clashes may yet be the first cracks that break apart the ossified stalemate of this long and futile war, but amidst the courtly intrigues of the Empire and the inconstant coalitions of the Alliance, will either live long enough to see it?
This synopsis seems to match the title for high passion and wide scope... but the only grandeur here is the immense surge of pity I feel when seeing how Legend of the Galactic Heroes seems determined to bleach out any shade of emotion the story might have. There's no two ways about it... however splendid its vision, in terms of technical composition Legend of the Galactic Heroes is an awfully-written book. I can't say how much responsibility for this comes from dull writing from Yoshiki Tanaka or a flat translation from Daniel Huddleston, but however you apportion the blame it still comes down to a singularly uninspiring volume in my hand.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes stalls right on the start line by beginning with a protracted prologue of Future History detailing the back-story of the long war between the Empire and the Alliance. After a good seventeen pages of dates, percentages and population counts (even the book gets bored with it, finishing off a recounting of the Empire's first failed campaign against the Alliance with an "Et cetera. Et cetera") I'm less impressed by the detailed and dedicated world-building because a lot of it is sounding rather familiar. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is praised in other quarters for its allegorical reflection of our own trials and tribulations. Such an attitude is undeserved flattery. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is not allegory, because allegory requires metaphor. This is taking a school modern history textbook, Tipp-Exing out "Hitler" and writing "Rudolph" on top. There's even an incident called the Long March of 10,000 (Light Years), and in the story proper Yang is harassed by the Patriotic Knight Corps who wear "white hoods over their heads, with only their eyes exposed".
Entirely apart from the lack of imagination this shows, it just fits poorly with the far-future setting. The Germanic aesthetic of the Galactic Empire is plain as day, but would a concept of Germany even exist a thousand years and a thousand worlds into the future, and if it did, would time not have metamorphosed it into something quite different from the Fourth Reich it's depicted as? Yang reflects on the strategic brilliance of Hannibal, of Sun Tzu, of Napoleon - then strategy didn't advance one dot until Yang thought to weigh in on matters. That human culture freezes solid in the Twentieth Century isn't a problem unique to Legend of the Galactic Heroes, it's a common debilitation of sci-fi like when we have Klingons quoting Shakespeare as if the Federation didn't produce a single playwright of note in the 400 years between now and The Next Generation, but it's disappointing that a story that's supposedly as revolutionary as Legend of the Galactic Heroes is billed to be can't solve it. You'd have thought that with Tanaka's obsession with Future History he could at least invent a few Great Philosophers of the 28th century and just name-drop them to fill out the setting.
This lecturing tone carries on to the story proper, too. The writing style is very... dry. Clinical even. Space battles, such a centrepiece of this grand space opera, are recited more as after-action reports than gripping collisions of powers and personalities. One example that jumps out at me is a rare anecdote that's slipped into a paragraph, evidently an attempt to make the battle a bit more than just tit-for-tat torpedo barrages, saying that a ship has its waste treatment plant damaged so sewage is dumped onto the decks. This could have been a compellingly atrocious situation, as in zero gravity wallops of congealed sludge career through zero gravity to slam hapless crew to ignoble ends, the crew slip through hails of ordure spun into hurricanes by the ship's 3D-manoeuvres in a grim parody of the storm-slick decks of the days of sail, and they struggle to seal up systems to avoid the double ignominy of drowning in waste and being electrocuted by it. Instead though the book just remarks "this would surely make for a delightful war story if they ever returned home safely", but doesn't imagine what such a story might be.
The writing is so passionless that the book even forgets to have a climax. One of the reasons Reinhard despises the Empire, this smouldering cauldron of bitterness and resentment brewing up a poisonous concoction of wrath and rancour, is his utter disgust that his sister Annerose was adopted as a courtesan by the Emperor. By the end of the book he has extricated Annerose from the pawing shrivelled fingers of that dirty old man - this moment of liberation, of exhilaration, of rapture, of achievement, of fulfilment... has Annerose boxed away in a country house in one paragraph, while Reinhard's yearned-for reunion consists of a single line that she "will never have hard times again". Annerose herself doesn't even speak. Not only that she doesn't even appear, she's only ever referred to in the third person. We are not meeting Annerose and Reinhard at their heartfelt and desperate re-pledging of their ardent sibling union, some reporter is noting it in the margin of a textbook from a distant remove.
Like more plain reportage, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is also one of the most interminably bureaucratic novels that I've read. There are multiple pauses for actual bullet-pointed lists of commanders and ministers like I'm reading the minutes of a board meeting. When the Alliance assembles a massive armada to invade the Empire list of ships, vehicles, aeroplanes, battalions and manpower becomes so exhaustive, and exhausting, that it needs to define the force as exactingly as "0.23% of the Alliance's full population". Nought-point-two-three. Tanaka's certainly good with a calculator, I'll give him that. His talents are wasted in Language & Literature and I fear he missed his true calling as an accountant.
This numbers game is another serious failing of Legend of the Galactic Heroes - battles in this setting are truly massive with tens of thousands of ships and millions of men getting snuffed out in an artless adjectiveless sentence, and yet ironically the bigger they are the more hollow they seem. Tanaka seems to have gotten it into his head that if he just tabs a few more zeroes onto the end of a number he can make it even more epicererering than it was the last time, but as you zoom out an image it becomes fuzzy and unfocused and so it is the case here when there's a wide gap between the battles and their effects. One and half million Alliance soldiers are killed in the first battle - that's more than the number of deaths suffered by Britain and the entire Empire in ten years of the First and Second World Wars combined, annihilated in a single day. How many gravestones? How many memorials? How many bereavements? Yet this global calamity merits little more recognition than a single rally with a rabble-rousing politician and a single voice of dissent from a woman with a dead fiancé. And this is one of the smaller engagements! Tanaka and his thin prose just cannot grapple with the implications of such scale and it just seems like the puffed-up inflation of a balloon from a limp wrinkle of rubber.
When reading this book what came to mind was another sci-fi classic, Ender's Game. While it's a very different book to Legend of Galactic Heroes one element that I found resonant was author Orson Scott Card writing a foreword to Ender's Game where he remarked about receiving copious fan-mail from readers who saw the beleaguered Ender as a role-model. For social outcasts at high school Ender was their Mary Sue, a reassurance that they were misunderstood geniuses who were nobly weathering the jealous resentment of the inarticulate jocks, and not friendless dweebs who were the butt of every joke. I'm getting a similar vibe from Legend of the Galactic Heroes. There's an outright ageist streak running through this book - young are all fresh and vibrant with quick wits, piercing intelligence, and the clarity and insight to see through the thick musty suffocating hangings of corruption and decadence; the old are universally hidebound and staid with senile vacuity, stultifying thickness and the towering snobbery and teetering arrogance that blinds them to the threats around them. Reinhard acquires an admiralty office and turns it into a students' union of young officers who all share his vision. Yoshiki Tanaka had just turned thirty when the first volume of Legend of the Galactic Heroes was originally published back in 1982... maybe he was feeling self-conscious of no longer being a youthful twentysomething, or nursing a grievance over not getting tenure over the senior professors. Also, I can't help but notice that Yang Wen-li is 29 years old too. Funny, that.
Tanaka seems to become aware of his absurdly didactic imbalances towards the end of the book - as it builds up towards the final battle we are belatedly introduced to a young idiot called Rear-Admiral Fork who incompetently leads the Alliance military, but even then a deliberate point is made that Fork 'thinks old' and is specifically described as looking prematurely aged. Similarly from the other direction more sympathetically-drawn older figures like Marshal Stiolet are only indulged because they are willing to discount their own hard-won experience and stand aside in deference to Yang's fresh youthful genius.
Those who Tanaka has designated are going to be wrong in each scenario are almost comically inept, and this mutates beyond the most grotesque caricature and into outright self-parody when an antagonist embodies so much of the Spoiled Aristocratic Brat character trope who's so used to getting his own way that he literally has a fit and passes out if someone objects to his plans. This is incredible, truly incredible - I almost admire Tanaka for the sheer bare-faced brazen cheek of it. Even in actual communist screeds I haven't seen an elite so molly-coddled and cosseted - it's quite an achievement!
Characters are no more than strawmen who are propped up to be knocked down by a point. A rabble-rousing war-mongering politician Chairman Trunicht is interrupted during a speech by a widow who calls him out as a hypocrite sending others out to die while he stays safe. Fair point, all well and good, but a moment's question reduces Trunicht to an incoherent spluttering ruin - a man who as head of the Defence Committee has probably been asked this same question many times before and a man who the text tells us is tipped to be the next president and so should have a bit more nous. He could have rejoindered with a democratic principle of civilian government, and it's strange that didn't occur to the man who will soon be leading it. One quote that is often posted by fans of Legend of the Galactic Heroes to demonstrate this story's even-handed moral sophistication and contemplative depth is Yang opining in a later volume that "there are few wars between good and evil; most are between one good and another good". Fine words, but I see precious little evidence of them being demonstrated here.
No-one in this book holds an actual conversation. People do not speak to each other, they essay at each other. Take this dialogue, quoted below:
"Commodore Yang, you showed contempt for a sacred memorial service. When everyone in attendance answered the defence committee chairman's passionate speech by vowing to bring down the empire did not you, and you alone, by remaining seated assume an attitude of ridicule toward the determination of the entire nation? We condemn your arrogance! If you have anything to say for yourself, come out here and say it to us. I should mention that calling for security is useless."
Bear in mind that this is being yelled through a megaphone while an angry mob is bunging rocks through Yang's windows. "I should mention", good grief. Would that all of our ranting demagogues so eloquently deploy preterite modal verbs.
I originally approached The Legend of the Galactic Heroes with not a little trepidation. I haven't watched the anime which made this story famous amongst Western fans, but I was consciously in the shadow of its towering reputation and not sure where to turn in the darkness around me. After feeling around for a while though, I am singularly underwhelmed. Perhaps the anime is better - perhaps the visualisation of action and expression breathes flesh onto the bleached bones of this dry skeleton of Tanaka's plain, unimaginative manuscript. I can see why Legend of the Galactic Heroes has its appeal – for all its faults, it does reach higher and further than the typical anime harem romance - and I will probably then stick around for the eventual western release of the anime version to see if it can add some vitality and colour, but this unimpressive book is a dull chore to read; I could forgive not being entertained if I felt that I was learning from the experience, but what social messages it tries to convey are undermined by the sub-propagandist depiction of the venial imbecility of the Bad Examples. After decades of waiting and wonder Legend of the Galactic Heroes is finally upon us... and I'm struggling to see what all the fuss is about.