Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Heroic Legend of Arslan
BD+DVD - Season One: Part One
The wealthy nation of Pars is renowned for its undefeated warrior-king and a system of slavery so entrenched that slaves outnumber citizens in some places. Arslan is the handsome and kind Crown Prince of Pars, treated unusually coldly by both his king father and queen mother. Due partly to treachery and partly to being outmaneuvered by tactics, Arslan's maiden battle against the invading crusaders from Lusitania turns into a debacle, with the king missing, the army defeated, and Arslan on the run with one loyal general by his side.
With the royal capital of Ecbatana threatened by invaders, Arslan must surround himself with a cadre of warriors and advisors while he hunts for a way to chase out the Lusitanians. Just as importantly, he must also hunt for what it means to rule should he regain his rightful place. Opposing him is the Silver-Masked General who orchestrated the invasion, a man who may well have his own claim to the Parsian throne.
Stories about members of royalty who are violently deposed and must struggle to regain their kingdom have peppered storytelling for centuries, and anime is no different. Over the years, fantasy titles like Record of Lodoss War, The Twelve Kingdoms, and Guin Saga have explored the concept in one form or another. Sometimes these stories are also cast as learning experiences for the deposed young noble (The Twelve Kingdoms is a particularly good example), and now a new attempt at adapting the fantasy novel series The Heroic Legend of Arslan joins that tradition. (The original was an unfinished OVA series released back in the '90s).
Although prince Arslan is a bit more worldly than other recent examples like Yona of the Dawn's princess Yona or Cross Ange's princess Ange, he is still naïve and soft-hearted almost to a fault. Though everything seems copacetic on the surface, the long-standing discontent of a key person in the court contributes to the prince's downfall. Like Yona, Arslan goes on the run under the protection of a fiercely loyal elite general and gradually assembles several highly capable companions, gathering an adventuring company around him that includes a domestically capable boy close to his own age and an array of bishonen. The one significant difference is that one (later two) of these warriors are female, but Arslan seems largely unaffected by his female companions, as if he is still oblivious to the prospect of sex.
Heroic Legend also differs from Yona in another major way. While Yona is more narrowly focused fantasy grounded in a Korean aesthetic and anime tropes surrounding reverse harems, Arslan is firmly rooted in the broader classic Western style of epic fantasy, in this case heavily influenced by disparate elements of Persian history and culture. There are lots of battles both big and small, a huge active cast, numerous perspectives to follow, and a sizable amount of world-building. The best way to describe the series compared to other anime is as a cross between Yona of the Dawn and Guin Saga. Like many classic epic fantasy tales, the series is in no hurry to move its story along. The pivotal event that defines the series doesn't happen until well into episode 2, and that's not the only place where the pacing feels languid. Yes, there's something to be said for covering all angles and taking the time to develop both setting and characters, but the series is perhaps a little too thorough in its efforts.
For all of that time and effort, the writing actually doesn't do a very good job defining Arslan. The rest of the cast gets developed with distinct personas and motivations, but Arslan? All too often he's just there, being uncharacteristically nice and down-to-earth for a future monarch – a point that the series beats the viewer over the head with through comments from nearly everyone he meets. The plot does effectively show how he's being boxed in by all of the expectations around him, and his distant relationship with both parents is weird enough that there have to be major story implications behind it, but I regularly ached for him to do something more than just look pretty. As a result, the series is often most interesting when focusing on anyone but Arslan himself. Both the title of the series and the narration regularly remind viewers that he is destined to be a great king, but it seems his greatness is still a long way off.
For the most part, this series is very pretty. Designs for key characters range from sharp to gorgeous, although secondary character designs stray more toward caricature (such as Grand Inquisitor Bodin). Though the anime plays largely to female audiences with characters like Arslan, Narsus, and even Daryun and Gieve, the sexy priestess Farangis is appealing to those who prefer women as well. Design quality drops off precipitously when it comes to background characters though, and slips in artistic quality are evident in moments throughout the series. (One scene where someone is supposed to be riding a horse across a slope instead looks like the horse is flying.) Great emphasis is placed on convincing portrayals of settings and beautifully decorated Persian-themed rooms, as well as crowd animation of troops. Though not perfect, CG animation has certainly improved in the last decade of anime production, which you can easily see by comparing this series to something like Utawarerumono. Animation quality in general remains high, with action and battle scenes being a little more active than normal despite using some standard TV anime shortcuts. The musical score for the series is almost purely orchestral, which allows for a mix of dramatic swells and more sedate traveling numbers. The opener is a hip hop-influenced rock number with a catchy beat and visuals, but the closer “Lapis Lazuli,” while beautifully sung by Eir Aoi, does not make much of an impression.
Most of the casting choices that Funimation made for its English dub are on-target. Ricco Fajardo and Rachel Robinson give fitting renditions of Daryun and Farangis respectively, and Mark Stoddard makes Bodin sound fittingly like an obnoxious fanatical blowhard. Jerry Jewel and Aaron Dismuke are less ideal fits as Gieve and Arslan, but neither is a problem either. The English script comes out as smooth as we've come to expect from Funimation. Included extras are also typical: English audio commentaries for episodes 2 and 13 (the first is by far the livelier one), a promotional video, commercial collections, and clean opener and closer.
The Heroic Legend of Arslan is an ambitious series, inviting plenty of discussion about slavery and religion and politics in general. While its first half has its flaws, if you are looking for an epic fantasy story largely free of romantic distractions, then you could definitely do a lot worse.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Gorgeous character and background design, involved storytelling, epic feel
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