Heroic Legend of Arslan
by Rose Bridges,
The Heroic Legend of Arslan is probably one of the most anticipated works of the new season. It's based on one of the most beloved fantasy novel series in Japan, adapted into manga by Hiromu Arakawa of Fullmetal Alchemist fame. It has all the bloody battles, epic fantasy mechanics and ideals clashes of a Game of Thrones story. One major difference is its idealistic protagonist Prince Arslan, who resembles Edward Elric in more than just appearance. He's a peaceful and idealistic but clever kid in a cruel world that plans to throw his worldview for a loop. It's clear that the story isn't totally against him though. The big mean guys around him don't exactly succeed in their cruel aims, either.
In short, there are a lot of parallels to draw here with Fullmetal Alchemist, and it's obvious why Arslan would appeal to that story's creator. That being said, The Heroic Legend of Arslan is not really an "Arakawa work." The manga's art is unmistakably hers, but its writing comes courtesy of the original novelist, Yoshiki Tanaka. Over here, he's probably best known as the mind behind Legend of the Galactic Heroes. In the first episode, Tanaka sets up the sort of tense political clash he's known for: Arslan meets and nearly befriends an escaped Lusitanian prisoner after his country defeats them in battle. Lusitania is known as a land of religious fanatics, and Arslan asks him to explain his zeal. The slave boy says they believe everyone is equal, except for those who don't follow their faith, who deserve to die. Arslan finds the first part admirable, but says the other part doesn't make any sense. It's a good foundation for the boys' petty battles in the first episode, and the bigger ones to come.
It's clear Tanaka did a lot of research on his choice of setting. Pars and Lusitania's conflict is rooted in the actual religious conflicts of the ancient and medieval Middle East. Christianity and Islam spread so quickly around the region largely due to their doctrines of class equality—in sharp contrast to the highly stratified societies of their time. It was radical in a slave-owning world to say they were equal to their masters, and immensely appealing to people on society's bottom rungs. At the same time, those religions were touted as the One True Path in contrast to the beliefs they supplanted. Hence all the wars, conquering, and strife.
I hope the series continues to give the Lusitanians their due, and represent this ideological conflict with Pars fairly as a struggle between religious tolerance and social equality. It's a compelling, meaty thing for this kind of show. The second episode shifts its focus to military strategy though, and the Lusitanians are back to being faceless baddies. From what I know of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Yoshiki Tanaka is big into talking heads verbally hashing out ideas with each other. This makes for some dialogue that moves so fast it's a little hard to follow, but the gist is that Arslan's loyal bodyguard doesn't trust the king's strategy, and is seen as a traitor based on a tip from the actual traitor to the crown (as we learn later). He has to prove himself on the battlefield to regain his title.
This sets up another interesting conflict for the major characters, reminiscent of last season's Yona of the Dawn. The current Parsian king, Andragoras III, is a ruthless, take-no-prisoners kind of a guy. That makes him a capable military leader, and explains his domination in that arena, but it also means he can't listen to competing ideas, and dismisses anyone who dares question his authority as a traitor. That's a recipe for major military blunders. On the other hand, while Prince Arslan is more understanding and forgiving, he's also a dove. He doesn't like killing people and prefers avoiding it at all costs. That's not the best attitude to have when your country is constantly at war. Presumably, Arslan's story will be about him growing toward a middle path. He can balance that compassionate, peaceful attitude with the need for might when his domain is threatened. He's already taking steps toward this, when he's forced to kill a Lusitanian soldier that attacks him in the second episode.
All this would be easier to stomach and follow if the series' visual presentation were doing it any favors. Hiromu Arakawa's really distinctive designs make this difficult. It's not just that everyone looks like a character from Fullmetal Alchemist. (Arslan aside, his bodyguard is Kimblee, and the king looks like Izumi's husband or that one ape chimera guy.) The character designs are repetitive even among the cast, especially in the battle scenes with their helmets covering their hair. It took me a second to realize that the traitor, Khayrun, was not the same person as Arslan's bodyguard Daryun. The names are close, the faces are close, and it's easy to get confused. The Heroic Legend of Arslan has some impressive and lush backgrounds, befitting its ancient Near Eastern setting. It can afford to step it up a bit with the character designs and also the awkward CG. It's getting better as of episode 2, but that falcon soaring in was still too noticeable.
If the Fullmetal Alchemist resemblance gets more viewers in front of screens though, it's all the better. While I think Arakawa's faces work better in their original manga form, their rounded cartoonish look does provide humanity for such a dense, dark conflict. As pretty as the old OVAs were, they ran out of steam and were never finished. Such a popular story deserves a full anime reboot, and I think it's succeeding so far.
I do hope that there's more stuff like the first episode than the second one going forward. Arslan's conflict with the slave boy is shown as much as it's told, both visceral and immediately understandable to the audience. If it's all nobles arguing and walls of CG soldiers instead, my patience will wear thin. This show has a lot of potential to pull in a wide audience, so I hope it uses that.
Heroic Legend of Arslan is currently streaming on Funimation.
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