The Newspeak and Twisted History of Legend of the Galactic Heroesby Matthew Roe,
What defines a legend? Well, if we pop open the nearest thesaurus or dictionary, we're certain to get a slew of similar answers. It most commonly refers to a hodgepodge of cultural myths, or extravagant stories of select events, time periods, or people. Though ultimately, a legend is something elusory. While it may be birthed from some stray fact, the subject becomes so fantastic through each reiteration that, after a few rounds of tall tale telephone, something pedestrian may become extraordinary.
But, when this organic evolution is supercharged by direct manipulation and mass hysteria, a legend becomes more than just a story – it becomes a weapon. It goes on to perpetuate the agendas of those who use it; shifting each re-telling away from the truth by varying degrees. And for us, this seems to be an ever more present danger, as our contemporary era is becoming increasingly more defined by the idea that “objectivity is a myth”. And while we, as a global civilization, have created and consumed metric tons of propaganda since the dawn of the written word, it doesn't stop the idea of a legend from being an attractive tool to enact massive change, whether altruistic or apocalyptic.
For example, remember those 300 Spartans, standing stoic and solitary against the millions of invading Persian soldiers, at the Battle of Thermopylae? Yeah… they had a lot of help.
Over 6,000 soldiers combined from 31 Greek Cities were present at Thermopylae, and while the Persian army was absolutely massive (around 300,000 soldiers by the largest estimates), it was hardly equal to the rumors which swirled around immediately following the battle. And the battle itself wasn't some hail-Mary-moment either; it was a stalling action so that the Athenian Navy could defeat the Persian Navy at the Battle of Artemision. If the Persians could just sail on by them, no number of impressive phalanxes would do the Spartans any good. And the Greeks primarily held out because of their specific placement on the battlefield, and that the Persian army hadn't modernized in decades, not just because they were badasses.
And when the Persians did rip the Greeks at Thermopylae apart, with the essential victory at sea secured, this loss didn't sap Greece's morale, but instead galvanized the city-states against the Persian advance. Even though the Athenians were the real brains behind the defense of the peninsula for most of the war, the Spartans are the ones who've consistently gotten the credit within popular culture. And that isn't accidental.
Whether legends are built rapidly, or gradually over ages, they affect humans on political, social, and cultural levels. And when someone is able to directly control the central moral of the story to suit their own ends, the effects are clearly reflected in the zeitgeist. And when you've applied this methodology to, say, an intergalactic culture overwhelmed by proxy wars, corruption, and constant revolution; legends are bound to emerge. And so we arrive at Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
Long praised as one of the watershed moments in 1980s fiction, it is a series so vast in its scope, so complex in its nuance, so intricate with its character dynamics, that I'd need a whole series of videos to get through it all. And that isn't hyperbole. This is one of the most extensive narratives I have ever experienced, and it constantly seemed that if I turned away from the screen for a split second, I would miss some vital piece of information I wouldn't revisit till some ten or twenty episodes down the line. So, pay attention.
In roughly 2801 CE, numerous powers leave Earth to form the Galactic Federation, creating their own space calendar in the process and resetting the year to One. Jump-cut about 300 years later and Rudolf von Goldenbaum, the series' weird Adolf Hitler/Wilhelm I hybrid, is elected to power. He soon makes himself emperor, and creates his own calendar, so now we've got three sets of dates to consider if we want to have any idea of when anything takes place. Rudolf's tyranny, which sees him enacting a galactic holocaust claiming billions of lives, runs rampant for about forty years until his death (which occurs very similarly to Joseph Stalin in many ways).
The Goldenbaum Dynasty continues for another twelve decades before a group of imperial serfs manage to escape. After losing nearly half their number, they reach a new arm of the galaxy and establish the Free Planets Alliance: a democratic republic, and the antithesis to their former nation. Another century later, the Empire establishes first contact with the Alliance by trying to subjugate them. The two nations have remained at war for roughly 150 years by the time the series begins, with the main storyline spotlighting two men on opposing sides of the conflict: the Empire's Reinhard von Müsel and the Alliance's Yang Wen-li. And while I am assuming y'all have seen the series, I'm going to limit spoilers as much as possible for all of those who didn't heed my warning.
While Reinhard begins as a noble-born brat with powerful aspirations, his machinations against the Goldenbaums, stunning record of military genius, and well-televised love of the people and the imperial army allow him to usurp the throne. Meanwhile, while Yang only wishes to carry out a quiet life as an historian, his tactical brilliance lands him a role as the star admiral of the Alliance, all the while his corrupted government seeks to muzzle him and exploit his reputation at every turn. While the actions of these two men are almost always at odds with one another, they are consistently able to see events and ideals from each other's perspectives, almost acting as each other's devil's advocates.
For example, Reinhard hates the nobles of the Empire, and uses his dictatorial powers to break the arms of the ruling class. And while he admires the core ideals of a democratic republic (seeing how majority rule could make centuries of ineffectual royal lineage impossible), he also recognizes it as the government which gave the universe the tyrant Rudolf in the first place. And Reinhard notes that Yang's largest obstacles in his fight against the Empire is his own democratically elected government. Though he's mentioning this while brazenly admitting that his sole motivation in his path to glory is a personal dream to conquer the universe; reorganizing the societies to better suit the lower classes is ultimately a byproduct of that goal.
On the flip side, Yang is overly frustrated by the strong-armed interference from Alliance politicians and military rivals. He does see the simplicity and effectiveness of an autocratic state, and he admires (in some ways) the benevolent dictatorship espoused by Reinhard. At the same time, he rejects it as an easy way for people to push off the failures of government onto one person, instead of holding themselves accountable for their own complicity or silent consent. He sees the mistakes and misguided opinions of the masses, whether homegrown or forcefully cultivated, as the simple cost that must be paid so that the ideals of a democratic state can survive. Though, his involvement and leadership through military suppression efforts does make that perspective a little shaky.
Both of these men believe in their ideals, but they only truly remain that way at the behest of their inner circles and closest advisors, who act as their moral compasses. When those individuals change, so do our protagonists, and so do the reputations they project to the galaxy. Like with all public figures, stories, rumors, and judgments follow these characters around. Their service records inspire both fame and infamy, their demeanors attract both loyalty and disgust. And while some of these assumptions and impressions are completely intentional outcomes for these two, others are formed out of unwanted envy, fear, and the desire for power. It makes for a perfect sociopolitical allegory that's about as subtle as the score.
And I haven't even brought the Dominion of Phezzan into play. It's a quasi-independent state, and basically the planet-sized adaptation of Florence during the Italian Renaissance, when led by the Medici Bank. It maintains its influence and power through an intricate web of trickery, backstabbing, and money, serving as the only seemingly neutral link between the Empire and the Alliance. And its leader Adrian Rubinsky is basically (I find) an adaptation of the real-life Klemens von Metternich; though instead of preventing massive wars, Rubinsky encourages them. And if you've noticed by this point, I am constantly bringing up figures and events from various points in our history – that's because this is basically one large history lesson, in space. This series is full to bursting with nods to historical conflicts. While primarily taking notes from the Napoleonic Era, it also takes inspiration from events and figures from ancient history, the Middle Ages, both World Wars, and even aspects of the Cold War, which was in its final years when this anime was being produced.
There are still active debates within the fan community centering around which of the characters have historical counterparts. And, because I don't have time to go through every important character in detail, and I am biased and totally taking advantage of my platform here, I'm proclaiming that Reinhard is Julius Caesar and Frederick the Great combined. Yang is absolutely Yi Sun-sin. Heydrich Lang is totally Lavrentiy Beria. And Paul Von Oberstein is Niccolò Machiavelli – I know a lot of people liken him to Maximilian Robespierre, but Machiavelli wins out because Oberstein never goes bonkers. And the lists just go on from there, and it always seems that some new theory pops up every other year.
So, as I've spent the bulk of this breakdown just drooling over the series' philosophical debates, real-life historical parallels, and impressive story structure, how does it actually hold up as an anime? Well, like most anime from this era, there are some brilliant moments, and some things which have aged as well as forty-year-old eggs. First and foremost is the animation. Now, we're all pretty used to the crisp and fluid animation styles of today. So, when you power up Legend, the execution is quite jarring. You've got 110 episodes of awkward and robotic movement to muscle through, not to mention this weird uncanny valley of quasi-realistic character designs, which was all still fairly common for the era. Now, this isn't completely a problem, because I really enjoy the art style and production design – there's something both futuristic and rustic in a way that other similar properties hadn't been able to capture. Though with Legend, there are some moments where the animation simply looks incomplete. And while we can appreciate the impact the space battles have upon the story and characters (and while I appreciate the fact the fleet movements mainly mirror Napoleonic tactics), they are often fairly boring to sit through. This is compounded by the co-occurring interior scenes, whose mismatched tone and tempo nullify any suspense. They all seem a little too casual, especially when the ship is blowing up in their faces.
And while I've mentioned that the score is bombastic (to say the least), it also likes to jump in and out of scenes with seemingly reckless abandon, as if it's a stinger from some 1950s William Castle horror movie.
I will admit that the version that I watched is certainly not an official release, and that the soundtrack is spotty, possibly for copyright reasons. Though I did my utmost to snag an official copy, the only current release of the original run is over at Sentai Filmworks, and while it is impressive – including the whole series, all OVAs, three of the tie-in movies, commemorative coins, and a couple 3D cards – it also costs over $800. Partial Blu-ray box sets of this series likewise run hundreds of dollars, with resellers going into quadruple digits, and none of these can play on western players due to region locking, and (obviously) they aren't subtitled either. So, try as I might, there really aren't a whole lot of options to get a hold of this show except for streaming on HiDive, and that's a damn shame.
But honestly, as far as criticisms go, that's about all I have. The writing is phenomenal, masking exposition dumps in documentary and news footage. Though by the end of the show, I've been so used to listening to that Super Friends-style narrator, that with such a dramatic year like 2020 finally coming to a close, it's given me legitimate anxiety that some disembodied voice is about to boom out of the sky like, “And thinking their journey through hell was over, the humans of planet Earth were about to face their first true challenge.”
The wit and cleverness of the characters are fascinating, and just when you feel you've gotten a hold of the plot, a handful of twists (though all making sense within the context of the story) riot up and throw the whole trajectory down a different path. While the voice acting is mostly standard (compared to similar 1980s anime), I could not tell you if any of the performances were out of character – one, because there are so many damn characters, and two, because no matter how small the role, the cast is always going for their best.
Besides the basic limitations of the medium at the time, and the resources allotted by the (now largely defunct) Kitty Films who produced the series, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is as entertaining as it is educational. You're getting a crash course in fundamental battle tactics and political theory. And when you take it all in, exploring each perspective (well-meaning or devious), you'll be hard-pressed to not re-examine your own ideas and preconceptions about society. It is a series that remains relevant even without consistent updates to its canon, though that has occured as recently as 2018.
It is a perfect example of how we can use our knowledge of history to better our understanding of the present. Because, as we know, history is somewhat cyclical. While it doesn't literally repeat, our history ripples through our collective civilization in ways so similar in cause and consequence, that to those of us who understand the ramifications, we are doomed to watch ourselves repeat the mistakes of our progenitors. And these mistakes are often washed away by the glory, majesty, and mythology which has been cultivated throughout time – we'll always accept the legends which tell us: we are the heroes, they are the villains, and what I am doing is the right thing.
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