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Buried Treasure
Heroic Legend of Arslan (Part 1)

by Justin Sevakis,

The Heroic Legend of Arslan (Part 1)

I've never been big on the fantasy genre. I find Tolkien retreads and the like to be terribly trite, and have no interest in the typical story arc of an "epic" -- which is typically defined as a young man coming of age by rising to a great, dangerous challenge. Basically, if there are swords and dragons and elves, and it takes place somewhere in undefined antiquity, I tune out almost immediately.

These are all reasons why I love The Heroic Legend of Arslan; because it's a Western style fantasy, with armor and swords and a touch of sorcery, but without approaching a single obligation of its genre. It's ostensibly a boy's coming-of-age by rising to a great, dangerous challenge, but instead of the grand emotions of an opera we are treated to deep characterization, a fascinating supporting cast and an emphasis on political intrigue. And what's more, it's freaking beautiful.

Arslan is Prince of the kingdom of Pars, a small country described as the jewel of the Great Intercontinental Road. The land is under attack by the Rucitanians -- religious zealots who claim Pars as a place that must be cleansed of its sacrilegious roots. The downfall seems almost destined; the King of Pars is a vicious warmonger whose sense of strength is much more powerful than his wisdom or leadership. One of his most trusted advisors, Kharlan, is a hired double-agent of Rucitania, and is eager to turn traitor. After getting the one competent general out of the way -- Lord Darün -- he proceeds to turn men at his command against the country, and Pars is defeated utterly. Then, something odd happens... A man who doesn't seem to be a Rucitanian storms the castle and captures King Andragoras. He wears a silver mask, and takes the King swearing revenge.

Darün, having been relieved of his command right before the defeat, goes to support the young Prince, who's only fourteen and is witnessing his first real battle. Their kingdom in ruins and the life of its king in doubt, the two travel about looking for allies. Arslan is determined to take back his country, and feels strongly about his father's limitations. (They have quarreled in the past, about such things as slavery, which Arslan finds unacceptable.) The two happen upon unlikely friends one after another; a bitter drunk general-turned-artist by the name of Narcasse, a beautiful priestess named Pharangis, and a wandering mistrel/playboy called Guibu. It's hard to say why so many followers join at first; it seems luck, but slowly it becomes apparent that the boy himself is a born leader; the charismatic and noble figurehead his father never was.

But Arslan has no army. And a team of five scarcely has a chance against the gigantic invading army of Rucitania. The boy prince will clearly need all the help he can get. There's also the matter of Silvermask, and what he could possibly want with the King.

Arslan is based on Persian and Iranian folklore, borrowing names and themes from history and art, but the story is ultimately an original one. I wonder, given that the first Arslan books were released by Dr. Yoshiki Tanaka (Legend of Galactic Heroes, Legend of the Dragon Kings) in 1986, if the story was one of the many inspired initially by the NHK documentary series Silk Road; in particular, an episode that aired in 1985 that told of a Persian boy prince, a teenaged warrior that died in battle and whose tomb was eventually discovered; the body dressed in an exquisite gold leaf, finely woven into a robe and a tall crown. Whether the documentary itself played a role is almost besides the point -- the story is clearly a Silk Road story (the Great Intercontinental Road is clearly what Marco Polo described as the Silk Road), and much of the story takes cues from the ancient Persian poetry collection known as the Shahnama. For history buffs, it's interesting to discover the roots of Arslan lie in these texts, which reflect a time in history where the established religion (Zorostrianism) was under attack by countries preaching a different doctrine. Regardless of its origins, the movie incarnation of the story takes on the same reverence for antiquity and the sense of awe at what must have been a very beautiful and bloody time in history as the popular series.

The original 1991 movie of Heroic Legend of Arslan is one of the most stunning achievements of anime production. Produced by Kadokawa Shoten with animation by Animate Film, Arslan features character designs by Sachiko Kamimura (City Hunter), who brings the mostly male cast a feminine beauty matching the jewelry and finery of the age. Animation direction is by none other than Production IG star Kazuchika Kise (Ghost in the Shell, Blood, Neon Genesis Evangelion 1.0). Several sequences in Arslan simply take your breath away. An inordinate amount of intricate moving camera shots -- most pulled off with stunning fluidity and precision -- are sprinkled liberally through the film. (Keep in mind, this change in perspective was done manually then, without the aid of computer modeling.) A stunning experimental scene using pastels is also noteworthy. Even still pans are beautifully rendered; in particular, the images of the castle and Queen Tahamine.

All of this is brought under the direction of director Mamoru Hamatsu (whose To-y OAV I've worshipped for years) with a feeling of reverence and gravity. Hamatsu knows that this is ultimately a political story, and that politics is really just a dismissive cover for the interactions of human beings. Each has their own personalities, their own attitudes and their own reasons for being who they are; and all of these play out on the grandest stage possible: the battlefield. Arslan himself is paid the most attention; he is new to the cutthroat ways of the world, but is clearly very smart and has made his final determinations on how a land should be governed. His ideas are clearly progressive, and his fight is one for liberation as much as for the rule of his kingdom.

Special attention should be paid to the music of Arslan, a beautiful orchestral score by noted violinist Norihiro Tsuru of the quality expected from the best Hollywood period films. The end theme, "Kutsuato no Hana" (Flower in a Footprint) by Mimori Yusa, was sadly never translated on the CPM discs (nor was any of the other vocal tracks), but it remains one of my favorite ending themes ever; a high-pitched, somber but energetic anthem to the aspirations of youth. It reminds us of the nostalgia of a time long past, and how the lives we still lead today echo those of men and women and civilizations long lost. The ending theme(s) to Part 2 are fairly lame, but theme song from later episodes -- "Ryoutte Ippai" (Hands Together Until) is a gentle, folky ballad that sticks in your head for days afterwards.

Unfortunately, the first movie is easily the series' high water mark. The second movie drastically simplifies the character designs and, while still featuring some absolutely gorgeous backgrounds, completely lacks the ambition and the visual oomph of the first film. Parts three and four, both OAVs, are clearly animated on a shoestring budget and look closer to a TV series than an OAV. The final two episodes, OAVs produced years later, look a bit better. More importantly, the subsequent episodes lack a certain urgency that the first had in spades. Maybe it's because we're no longer seeing Arslan's kingdom burn; that the crisis is over and that the recovery mission has descended into pure politics. They're still worth watching (despite the ultimate conclusion being somewhat anticlimactic), but I far prefer to let the first movie stand on its own, as a testament to picking up the pieces of destruction and starting over; of the emblematic power of youth.

I love the dub. I usually have a soft spot for dubs produced by Manga Video UK (even the ridiculous ones), but this one is truly a quality work. Being produced in London with real British actors, the production takes on a Shakespearian quality that feels appropriate and welcome. (At the same time, it also feeds our Hollywood-born expectation of antique civilizations speaking with British accents.) Ben Fairman (Venus Wars, Tokyo Babylon) makes for an amusingly limp-sounding Arslan, while Stephen Pacey works well as the sharp-edged Darün. Sean Barrett (Lt. Britton in Dominion Tank Police) is chilling as Silvermask. Unfortunately, Manga Video, not knowing more of the series would be eventually released, attempted a fairly loose rewrite that provides closure to a few dangling plot threads... and in the process kills off a character that later reappears! (Hint: ignore the epilogue narration on Part 1.) Unfortunately Manga UK was no longer in the Arslan business by the time the last two parts were released, and CPM dubbed those with a different cast.

One unfortunate aspect of this eventual release is the names of the characters; upon licensing the last two OAVs, Central Park Media was informed by the licensor that they were to change the way many of the character names were romanized. Arislan became Arslan, Daryoon became (actually Persian) Darün, Narsus became Narcasse, et cetera. CPM threw together a defensive and bizarre "The Licensors Made Us Do It" video to explain the situation to confused fans. Hilariously (or mortifyingly), both the old dub and the new dubbed episodes completely ignore the hints of the Japanese pronunciations and go off completely with their own interpretations of the written Anglicized names, so between those and the Japan-ized original, no production has really pronounced the names "correctly." It should be noted, however, that CPM's own dub of the last two episodes, produced in New York City by the late Michael Alben, is hideous.

Back in the day, it was once said that you were a fan of either Arslan -- the realistic, human sort of antique fantasy -- or of the far more typical Record of Lodoss Wars. I was decidedly one of the former (while perhaps unfairly judging Lodoss on how slow the series was -- "In THIS episode, Parn crosses the room!" one coworker once shouted). Tastes in fantasy fiction aside, the animation in The Heroic Legend of Arslan is one of the great achievements in anime history, and it should absolutely never be forgotten.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
CPM released the entire series on a two disc set, but unfortunately did so before they really knew how to make a good-looking DVD. The discs use the VHS dub master, and being a Manga UK dub, was converted from NTSC to PAL, then back to NTSC. The result is a blurry disc marred by ghosting and other video issues, remnants of a post-production process that fans would find completely unacceptable today. Episodes 3 and 4 were edited together (eliminating one of the credit rolls and a recap), then messily re-split for DVD. Songs are not translated, and the original theatrical trailers that were on VHS and laserdisc releases are nowhere to be found here.

CPM has since lost the rights to Arslan, and there is no other DVD release, so unfortunately it looks like this is the best we're going to get for a while. The disc is now technically out of print, though it can be found online without too much trouble. Watch out for the cheaper dub-only experiment released by CPM years later, which has all of the problems but no subtitle track. (It's got a red cover.)

Screenshots ©1992 Yoshiki Tanaka/Kadokawa-Shoten/MOVIC/Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc.

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