Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Legend of the Galactic Heroes
In the 36th century, the whole galaxy is divided between two forms of government: the democratic Free Planets Alliance (13 billion people) and the autocratic monarchy of the Goldenbaum dynasty, the Empire (25 billion people), with the neutral planet-state Phezzan (2 billion people) situated in the middle. The Alliance and the Empire have been at war for 150 years, aiming to spread its political system on the other, but the things are changing: in the Alliance, Admiral Yang Wenli starts to climb through the ranks and gives it boost thanks to his almost undefeated military strategy; in the Empire, the poor Reinhard von Lohengram topples the corrupt Goldenbaum dynasty in order to give its citizens a better life. The two cannot beat each other, while a secret Earth cult wants to covertly rule the Universe once one side conquers the other.
After the Arab Spring and the ever actual conflict of what is the better system of government - democracy or autocracy - several critics remembered a classic unknown anime from the archives, "Legend of the Galactic Heroes", that pretty much said almost everything that can be said about that theme. It is one of those stories that make the viewers think about some ideas they never considered before: it is easy for analysts from democratic countries to dismiss autocratic ones as dictatorships when they are failures (Khmer Rouge or the Soviet Union, for example), but things get more complicated when some of those autocracies work and bring prosperity, which was the key aspect of the author Yoshiki Tanaka: a democracy can be free, but its citizens can still be poor and the politicians corrupt, while a monarchy can be autocratic, but a king may still be a kind ruler who makes the lives of his citizens prosper. This thought provoking essay is here presented in cosmic proportions, dividing one half of the galaxy into democracy and the other into autocracy, while even the narrative is colossal because it takes a difficult task of following over a 100 characters throughout it. The viewers may need some time to distinguish the two sides - the soldiers of the democratic Alliance wear berets on their heads while the soldiers of the Empire wear black uniforms and shoulder bids - while the story needs some 20-30 episodes until it gets going, but once it does, it is difficult to find a similar movie or an anime that went so far into the spheres of political contemplation.
There are space battles, but the action is irrelevant here. There are no aliens. No big emotions. No humor. No clear bad guys, either. It is pure, dry philosophy. Some viewers will not be able to 'connect' to that bare frequency, but those who will are going to be intrigued. Throughout its 110 episodes, numerous actions, battles and ploys mirror the human history: the religious Earth cult that secretly wants to topple the government and covertly rule the Universe bears remarkable similarity to the Yellow Turban Revolt; veteran Empire Admiral Merkatz defecting to the Free Planets Alliance reminds of dissident No Kum-Sok... The two main protagonists, Yang Wenli (defends democracy) and Reinhard von Lohengram (defends the monarchy) are truly remarkable: so different, almost as Yin-Yang, but equally unmatched in strategic planning, so they end up in a stalemate whenever they crash. Reinhard reminds of Cyrus the Great and Napoleon, rulers who also brought good things despite their invasions, while Yang Wenli reminds of George Washington, Hannibal and Saladin, with a little touch of Socratic philosophy. The contemplations about total war, human obsession with war and the inability of two opposite sides to live in peace are strong, but Yang Wenli is the main highlight here: he is truly one of the greatest anime characters ever created, one of those rare Admirals who are kind and considerate, a simple, humble, sympathetic person anyone can identify with. Some of the things he says are unbelievable: "Dictatorship itself isn't necessarily evil, it's just another form of government." In the original novel, he says: "There are few wars between good and evil. Most are against one good and another good." His colleague, Julian, picks up observations after him: "As a place for immense talent to act freely, an autocracy is better suited than a democracy." Sentences like that were probably never before uttered in a cinema from the democratic world before.
A few episodes should have been shortened - notice the empty walk between boring episodes 83-91 - some gimmicks and the dated presentation of the 36th century technology occasionally bother, some plot points are forgotten - i.e., Reinhard's sister plays a major role in the first season, only to be clumsily forgotten later on - a strange turn of events in episode 53 ruins a part of the goodwill towards the show's consistency, whereas the final, fourth season is disappointing, but the story surprises with a sustained awe (a space elevator; catapulting an ice meteor with the speed of light in order to use it as a weapon in destroying the 'Artemis necklace' defense system; siege of the Geiersburg planet; in episodes 51-52 the battle of Vermilion stands out by involving thousands of spaceships in a battlefront that encompasses light years (!) and makes even the battle or Stalingrad and Vukovar seem pale in comparison) and even inner-directing skills (in episode 63, where the inferior equipped religious zealots of the Earth cult frantically attack the imperial soldiers, who are storming their Himalayan temple, with such a suicidal fanaticism that they even make the Taliban seem tame; the imperial invasion of the neutral planet-state Phezzan, which is almost equivalent of an army invading Switzerland; virtuoso episode 56 showing that man's sphere of influence has expanded to 60 light years around Earth by year 2480, and 90 light years by 2580...). In episode 54, when Yang and Reinhard meet for the first time in person and talk about the types of government, is a jewel (Reinhard points out that the people democratically elected dictator Goldenbaum, while Yang replies: "The right to violate the rights of the people belongs only to the people.") while some plot twists come unexpected - at first you may wonder why one character takes up so much running time in the story, until he is later revealed to be pulling the strings in the background. Could you imagine what would it look like if "Blade Runner" or "War and Peace" were to be forgotten? But precisely that happened to this anime that should not have been forgotten. Just like novels from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, "Legend" stands there, unnoticed by the majority of the audience due to its unappealing volume (110 episodes) as well as a 'taboo' re-questioning of both democracy and autocracy, yet keeps its accumulated wisdom to only those selected few that decide to check it out. As long as the series may seem to you, you will spend longer thinking about it.