The Spring 2015 Anime Preview Guide
The Heroic Legend of Arslan
How would you rate episode 1 of
The Heroic Legend of Arslan ?
The Heroic Legend of Arslan is an ambitious undertaking for quite a few reasons. The writers and directors have the unenviable task of trying to explain both sides of an ideological war, something that many anime and manga have tried but have fallen short at. After all, it's one thing to give a bullet point list of ideas and have your characters stay on message, but it's another thing entirely to create something meaningful from it. The series tries planting the seeds in the first episode via our actual hero Arslan, the crown prince of the kingdom of Pars, a country whose citizens believe themselves to be more enlightened than their enemies, the theologically-driven Lusitania. But while Lusitanians believe all men are equal, Parsians see nothing wrong with slavery. "If you just accepted being a slave, things would be a lot easier," Arslan reasons with a Lusitanian prisoner. Meanwhile, Lusitanian equality seems to only extend to those who follow their god; all others must be killed. "That's just illogical," answers Arslan in confusion. There's no doubt that the writers will be able to work their way through the pages of Hiromu Arakawa's adaptation of the original novels, but whether they'll eke something meaningful from them remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the animators have their hands full. The first episode alone has an extended chase scene where two characters race across rooftops and down alleyways. Some scenes look like they simply ran out of time—there's a cut where Arslan and the Lusitanian are on a roof, looking down at an alley. Four guards race by, but they're CG carbon copies of one another, and they stick out like a sore thumb. Another cut has the characters zipping past immobile crowd blobs who linger onscreen just a little too long. And while most of the cavalry scenes look pretty cool, one shot in particular winged it so much the horse's walk cycle looked like two humans in a horse costume.
But again, cuts like these seem to have leaked through because the project is very ambitious. There's a lot of pressure to make this perfect. Those new to the story wouldn't necessarily be able to tell from Arakawa's cherubic character designs, but The Heroic Legend of Arslan takes its origins from a long-running series of fantasy novels that are widely beloved in Japan. So yes, sometimes there are some really ghastly CG shots, but there are also some beautiful scenes, too. And perhaps as the series goes on, the production team will have a chance to iron out the kinks. Or perhaps they'll be tabled for a later Blu-ray release.
For the time being, though, The Heroic Legend of Arslan seems like it has potential, especially for viewers new to the franchise. The characters are thoughtful, the action scenes are mostly cool, and if this series is anything like the original story, we'll be in for an eye-opening ride. This series is available streaming at Funimation.com.
War is upon us! In this medieval-middle-east fantasy setting, myriad nations are at each other's throats, but the two biggest players are embroiled in a holy war that will determine the fates of all smaller countries around them. Pars hates Lusitania, Lusitania hates Pars, let's call the whole thing off!
Actually let's not, because this is a pretty solid first episode to a big sweeping "ye olde moldey epic" fantasy tale, and we could always use more of that classic flavor in anime. Arslan in particular is one of Japan's most well-known modern fantasy novel series, and it's been adapted several times, most notably in a series of long-form OVAs in the early 90's that I recall being required viewing alongside Berserk and Record of Lodoss War for low fantasy fans when I first started getting into anime in the early 00's. For what it's worth, I only really remember Berserk now, but I definitely remember the striking aesthetic of Arslan and a few key scenes from its saga, so I'm eager to rediscover the story through this modern re-telling, even if it comes at the cost of a few hiccups.
First off, the show's overreliance on CGI is extremely distracting. While the towering stone architecture and faded colors of Prince Arslan's capitol city are impressive, its desert setting is also stark by necessity, so there's not much to distract you from the awkward clone-stamped CG soldiers (and even animals!) that make the world's epic battles seem a little less epic than they should be. The 2-D animation by contrast is much more impressive, especially in scenes meant to carry the weight of action and impact between combatants. I also wasn't sure what to make of Hiromu Arakawa's character designs here. While her work in Silver Spoon has proved her range of character design and aesthetic ranges above and beyond what she depicted in Fullmetal Alchemist, I think that manga's subject matter gave her a cartoony freedom that Arslan doesn't. It's an earthier story in an earthier setting, so Arakawa goes back to basics, and Prince Arslan looks exactly like a young Edward Elric, while his bodyguard looks exactly like Zolf J. Kimblee, which is really bizarre. But for the most part, this episode isn't about the splendor of its desert kingdom or even the big battles outside city walls. It's about the naive Prince Arslan of Pars himself, and the dogmatic slave boy from Lusitania who tries to take him hostage.
Amidst all the worldbuilding, namedropping, and fantasy rigamarole that comes with these grand epics, tiny Prince Arslan's brief dance with danger stands out at the core of the episode, as he is forced to see his enemy as human for the first time. I liked the stark contrast between Arslan and his captor's beliefs and reactions to conflict, even though they share a young age and naive outlook on the cruel world and unjust warring factions they were each raised under. I hope they reunite in the future a little older and wiser, and I'm curious what the show has to say about its harsh society through their interaction. We also get a great chase scene out of it, directed by veteran action series director Noriyuki Abe, whose work on Bleach and Yu Yu Hakusho gave them easily the most entertaining and visceral action scenes I can remember in a long-running shonen series. I'm looking forward to seeing his action choreography throughout the rest of the show. It's a fantasy war story after all, and I trust him to stage fights with rhythm and impact.
Honestly, I'm more interested in Arslan's classic legacy and future potential than the strength of what was presented in this episode alone. This was all basic setup for a monster saga to come, and while the ensuing story could be sink or swim in either source or adaptation, I trust this director to deliver the grit and grandeur the story needs, and I enjoyed the flawed characterization of our young hero and his potential future rival enough to put a lot of faith in the show's future. Definitely keep an eye on this one.
Rating if you've seen Arslan before: 2.5
Rating if you're new to this story: 3.5
Arslan is the Crown Prince of Pars, a middle eastern-flavored fantasy kingdom besieged by war. Lusitania, a kingdom to the west, regularly engages, and Arslan's senior advisor, the general Vahriz, believes that kingdoms to the east have ambitions on toppling Pars as well. Having won a decisive victory against Lusitania in a battle in nearby Pars ally Maryam, the king returns with prisoners of war, which Arslan is curious about. He heads down to the slave quarter to meet one, and has a run-in with a tough Lusitanian boy who escapes his cage and takes Arslan prisoner, intending to leave the capitol with him. After a rooftop chase – and a conversation about the ethics of slavery, which naïve young Arslan is still A-OK with given that the slaves are well-fed if they quietly submit – the Lusitanian boy escapes, leaving Arslan to be scooped up by his guards and loyal Pars warrior Daryun.
Then in the last couple seconds of the episode they skip all the way to Arslan's first battle, which happens while Pars is under assault after Maryam falls to Lusitania. At first I thought they were going slow intentionally, drawing out the story for as long as they could to make sure the manga would run forever, but the show cuts right to the chase. We're shown all of this material from Arslan's younger days to establish a few things about his character: one, he's kindhearted and naïve, especially compared to his grumpy warrior-king father, and two, he needs to get some religion about slavery. The show introduces the principal players in this early part of the Heroic Legend about as quickly as it can, with names and titles flashing by faster than your average Shirobako episode. It isn't tough to keep up – the show makes it all pretty simple, and this is a perfectly fine entry point to the story, which is one of the most famous fantasy series in Japan.
“Simple” kinda sums up this version of The Heroic Legend of Arslan, really, and coming to this adaptation – based on the manga version by Fullmetal Alchemist scribe Hiromu Arakawa – as someone very familiar with the original OVA adaptation from the 90s, I was pretty underwhelmed. The 90s ova is a big, expensive-looking, lavishly animated version of the story that effectively brings revered artist Yoshitaka Amano's incredible design work to life in a way that it never really had before. The story moves a long a little faster, too, but the quality is mostly in the breathtaking artwork. That version looks like this:
This one looks like this:
I've never been a huge fan of Arakawa's character design; all the faces faces look the same (change Arslan's hair color to blonde and boom, he's Edward Elric! The slave boy looks a whole lot like Al, too!) and this adaptation isn't well-served by the cut rate CG they use in every frame where there's more than one soldier to animate (and there are a lot of those scenes). I like the background work – I have a weak spot for anything that uses middle-eastern antiquity as a design inspiration – but overall this is just a flat, bland-looking version of a story I've already seen animated, this time using the work of an artist I don't like nearly as much. Fans of that original OVA will probably find this one to be lacking. Speaking as one of them, it sure did for me.
Nevertheless, if I put my personal biases aside, this is a perfectly suitable adaptation of the Arslan story, and it should hold a lot of appeal as a big sweeping historical fantasy adventure in the vein of movies like Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven. I'm in the minority as someone who has never really liked Arakawa's design work (I wish it looked more like the opulent, beautiful character designs we see in the closing credits of this episode) but people absolutely loved Fullmetal Alchemist and the way it looked, so I can't see that being a stumbling block for many.
Do yourself a favor, though; if you're new to this story, and like what you see here, go track down that 90s OVA version. It's a different take on the same material made at a time when budgets exploded and artists were crazy with ambition, and I've always found it a lot of fun to see multiple takes on the same material, especially when there are completely different time periods and creative talent involved. Check it out.
Or just watch this one. It might not have the impossible glamour of the old one, but it's a sturdy retelling in spite of all that crappy CG.
In the year 317 of the Pars Era, the kingdom of Maryam is under attack by the Lusitanians. Fortunately, Maryam has a powerful ally - the Pars Kingdom itself, lead by the might King Andragoras III. While Andragoras deals with the Lusitanians, his son the Prince Arslan spends his time at the royal city of Ecbatana, slowly learning swordfighting and generally being an earnest and well-meaning but also meek and harmless boy. Hoping to learn more about the Lusitanians, when his father brings back prisoners, Arslan sets out to learn about their ways - only to be captured by a Lusitanian boy and dragged halfway across the capital as his hostage. And though this adventure ends with both boys safe, three years hence, Arslan will meet the Lusitanians on the battlefield for the first time.
There's a nice sense of scale and place to Arslan's premier. We get introduced to the royal family and half a dozen major generals, the city of Ecbatana is brought to life by a diverse set of beautiful Mediterranean-styled backgrounds, and the cultural assumptions that underly the perspectives of Arslan and the prisoner who captures them feel solid and lived-in. This episode feels like it's setting the stage for a grand and confident story in the high fantasy mold, appropriate for a story originally by the creator of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. None of the beats here are that surprising (Arslan the idealistic prince, his noble right hand, the distant king who Arslan practically threatens with his “nothing bad will happen as long as my father's alive”), but the execution is solid - fine writing, fine pacing, fine character development. In general, Arslan is notable not for any unique details, but for its overall level of narrative polish.
The aesthetics are generally fine as well, but the CG animation unfortunately sticks out. The show opens with a grand battle between a bunch of identical CG models, but that's a weakness most anime attempting to portray war have to accept - more egregious are the later CG falcons, and even one scene where just a handful of guards running down an alley are given the awkward CG treatment. It's an acceptable issue in a show that's otherwise marked by consistent animation and lovely backgrounds, but it's still a shame. Otherwise, Arslan offers a competent but unassuming prologue that sticks to a very reliable genre template. Its writing is strong enough for it to have the chance to eventually become great, but we'll need more time to tell.
Review: Heroic Legend of Arslan was originally a very popular novel series which later got a very popular manga adaptation (which supposedly had an original ending because it caught up to and passed the novels). It also got adapted into an OVA series in the early ‘90s. As I have never seen that version, I will be reviewing this instead as a stand-alone project.
The first episode is gorgeous on the artistic and animation front, to the extent that it is unlikely to be rivaled as the best-looking series of the season if this level of effort holds up. Even the CG renditions of the massed troop formations are (mostly) top-of-the-line for TV series standards, allowing for some impressive shots of the perspective zooming through the formations. Only on a couple of occasions in the entire episode are stills used, with animation readily evident even for background characters. Character and animal designs are sharp, appealing, and distinctive (especially the white-haired Arslan), and the color schemes are vivid and appropriately-toned for a setting clearly based on ancient Persia. If any series this season is worth watching for the visuals alone, it's this one.
The story is a little more fundamental, with episode 1 essentially serving as the prologue for a main story which will focus on Arslan as a teenager. Here he is the 11-year-old crown prince of Pars, a powerful nation which has just assisted an ally in defeating the invading nation of Lusitania in an epic-sized battle. He laments the need for sword practice and seems soft and frail compared to his towering father and stately mother, both of whom are distant to him and (in the case of the queen towards the king) each other. He is gregarious and curious, however, which leads him out of the palace to seek to speak to some captured Lusitanians who are set to become slaves, as he has heard that they fight in the name of their god Yaldabaoth. When a captured Lusitanian boy escapes, Arslan winds up becoming his hostage in exchange for the boy sparing other children. Not knowing who his captive is exactly, the boy drags Arslan along in a chase all across town, which turns out to be quite the enlightening adventure for Arslan. In his conversations with the boy, Arslan learns for what's probably the first time that the slavery that he and other Parsians accept matter-of-factly may be morally wrong. At the end the boy escapes, with a second encounter no doubt destined to happen later on.
Director Noriyuki Abe's primary previous experience has been helming long projects like Bleach, Tokyo Mew Mew, and Yu Yu Hakusho, but he ably handles the pacing here; not a moment seems wasted and the story moves along at a carefully-measured clip. Characters and basic relationships are firmly-established and the writing even manages to insert considerable relevant details about the setting without feeling like it is info-dumping. As a result, the episode serves very well as an introduction to the bigger and broader story that is coming.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
This is a great season so far for exquisite backgrounds in anime. The Heroic Legend of Arslan, a new version of Yoshiki Tanaka's fantasy novels which previously received an OAV series in 1992-3, is set against the backdrop of the middle eastern city-state of Pars, a gorgeous walled town rising from the desert. The diversity of its people and the different levels of shadow depending where in the city the characters are is enough to make you wish you could just jump into the show and walk it yourself.
Of course, that might not be such a good idea. Pars is at war with Lusitana, a kingdom which follows a harsh, cult-like religion that preaches death to all non-believers (though all believers are totally equal). Because Pars is “heathen,” the Lusitanians are determined to follow a convert-or-kill policy; the first scenes of the episode are a strangely bloodless battle. While Pars is victorious in this first fight, we as viewers can make an educated guess that this state of affairs will not last long. In the meantime, however, the king and his soldiers return to Pars victorious, with a small group of prisoners destined for the slave market.
Prince Aslan, the eleven-year-old heir to the throne, has clearly lived a sheltered life, although he does get daily sword training. Unaware of the harsh realities of war, he's excited when his father brings back the prisoners, wanting to talk to them and learn about Lusitana. In part I get the feeling that this is because he feels like a disappointment to his parents – the king brushes him off upon his return and the queen is pretty much the medieval fantasy version of the Snow Queen: cold and apparently heartless. (Doubtless there's an interesting history there.) With both of his parents emotionally unavailable, Arslan seeks out other companionship, seeming to have a good relationship with his guards and eager to find others to talk to. This results in his becoming the captive of an escaped Lusitanian boy his own age, who opens his eyes to what the war is really about. It also gives us an interesting picture of what's going on in the story's world in terms of real-life metaphor – the war really appears to be about religious fanaticism. Arslan points out the twisted logic of the boy's religious zeal, but it falls on deaf ears; at the same time, it's clear that this kid isn't all bad, or even a little bad. He and Arslan simply come from different backgrounds and are products of their worlds. It's kind of a timely story right now, and fantasy is often a very good vehicle to make real world points, so it will be interesting to see how this goes. Arslan the Unnamed Boy are both going to have to change, although I hope that Arslan never loses his sweetness – that might be the single best hope that Pars has.
Even if fantasy isn't your genre, this one has enough parallels to the contemporary world that it might pique your interest. Apart from some clunky CG of running soldiers, this looks very nice, and as always Hiromu Arakawa's art translates well into animated form. As I said before, the battles are weirdly bloodless, and in fact we barely see anyone fall even though we know people must be dying, and right now that feels like the biggest strike against it. This looks to be a strong start to a second attempt to capture the novel(s).
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