Heroic Legend of Arslan
by Rose Bridges,
The Heroic Legend of Arslan has a lot to recommend in its first six episodes. Up to now, it's given us pretty backgrounds and fun main characters. It introduced some broad thematic ideas about slavery with the hint of more in the future. Now it's finally delivering on those implications, giving a clearer indication of what it plans to say about power. This episode was full of talking, battling, and talking while battling. The conversations were all about power: who has it, how they keep it, and how they can lose it when they take it for granted. This is all too easy to do in the highly-stratified, feudal system of Pars.
Feudalism and the slave system seem like insurmountable obstacles to modern viewers. It's hard enough in our modern capitalist system to rise beyond your station, but this world is specifically designed so no one can, or so you'd think. A system based more on honor and social rank than exchange of currency is also much more dependent on a social contract. If rulers lose the trust of the people under them, and it occurs to those people that they have the right to question that, their power goes away. Pars flourished so long because everyone understood and followed its system without question. Once the Lusitanians rush in and give its lowest ranks—the slaves—an out, it all comes tumbling down.
Of course the Lusitanians don't do this out of the goodness of their own hearts. It's just something they can exploit to enter Ecbatana and take over Pars. It helps that they disagree with slavery anyway, but it's not like Lusitania really plans to liberate the slaves. If they don't convert to the Lusitanian religion, they're dead meat too, (although the slaves might not know that). However, Lusitania does do something important for the audience's sympathies by showing us that the Parsian system is just as cruel and bigoted as their own. One defines people as subhuman based on religious affiliation, and the other based on class or race, but both systems can backfire when that causes them to underestimate their enemies. Parsians make disparaging assumptions about slaves' capacity for rebellion several times in this episode, and it comes back to bite them in the butts. (Lack of formal access to weapons doesn't matter if you have the numbers to overwhelm armed guards.) Bigotry can be effective at keeping people down, but when the powers-that-be themselves buy into it, watch out.
Gieve extends this beyond the slaves in his conversation with a lady-in-waiting in the tunnel. The woman agrees so completely that the queen is superior and special that she gladly switches places to allow her escape. Gieve points out that this plan shows the queen doesn't really deserve her devotion. She's so quick to make her own escape while putting everyone else in danger, even when "everyone else" are the people she's meant to protect. The lady-in-waiting insists to Gieve that he's wrong, but it's clear that she's never thought of it that way. She doesn't get time to really ruminate on it, because Kharlan and his men find them and kill her shortly after. Still, Gieve gives the audience food for thought, about who really holds the power and gives out the ruler's Mandate of Heaven.
I love this stuff. I've always been leery of traditional low fantasy because of how fundamentally conservative it can be, so invested in its bygone political and social structures that it often yields a not-too-subtle yearning to return to those times. So I eat up shows like The Heroic Legend of Arslan and Game of Thrones that break down the problems with those themes. Of course, I'm not everyone, and I wonder how much this show appeals to people who aren't in love with the ideas discussed in its breathless conversations.
The show's problem lies in its characters. Don't get me wrong; The Heroic Legend of Arslan has done a lot to make its main characters likable. I care what happens to Prince Arslan, Daryun, Narsus and Gieve. I really want to know more about Kharlan's motivations. However, the supporting characters, like the soldier and lady-in-waiting who kicked it today, have nothing to them but power and honor. For that reason, I can't find it in me to care much about the larger fate of Pars or Lusitania in this battle, not while our heroes are safe elsewhere. To contrast Arslan with Game of Thrones: GoT is full of colorful and complex characters at every level of importance, so I do care about the fate of the Westeros nation and who rules it. If this episode of The Heroic Legend of Arslan evens the odds, it's mostly by making Pars and Lusitania both unsympathetic. It has a lot of time to fix this in the future, but I get the sense it wants me to care about who wins the war now, and I can't.
If The Heroic Legend of Arslan wants to appeal to shounen fans as much as Fullmetal Alchemist did, it's going to have to fix that. FMA is another show that combined complicated political themes with distinctive characterization, which was key to its popularity both here and in Japan. I don't feel like I understand yet what makes this show's original novels so beloved. I hope the anime does more than bank on its existing popularity. I need something to attach to more than its conceptual ideas.
Heroic Legend of Arslan is currently streaming on Funimation.
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