The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
I've been in work hell lately, which means I haven't had time to play the video games I was enthusing about last time. No Super Robot Wars, and just as importantly, no Arslan: Warriors of Legend. It's fine and good to obsess over one title while you chew through it, but you gotta have a few different kinds of game on deck in order to mix things up. Arslan is one of Koei Tecmo's “musou” games, based on the Dynasty Warriors series. The creators of the original Dynasty Warriors, which has its roots in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, hit on something brilliant some years back: you can take the mechanic of Dynasty Warriors—the player's powerful battlefield general bashing the crap out of wave after wave of cannon fodder enemies, plus frequent bosses—and simply apply it to existing licensed series. That's how we got Dynasty Warriors Gundam, which I adore for its fearless mixing of characters and lore from various Gundams, as well as tie-ins to Fist of the North Star, One Piece, and several others. Arslan is just one of the latest installments.
This Arslan is a tie-in to the current TV anime and manga adaptation, so it looks and sounds fresh as can be. But I've been watching Arslan on the tube too, and you can kinda tell that the game was localized by a different team. One change that amused me in particular was the title of the show's intimidating conqueror-king, Andragoras. The TV series refers to him as “Emperor,” but the game, harkening back to the story's Persian roots, refers to him as “Shah.” I mentioned this to my translator pal Neil Nadelman, who pointed out that this wasn't that weird of a difference, because “heika” doesn't simply translate to “emperor” or “king,” but “your majesty,” so two different translations can both be correct. This, in turn, got me thinking about the older Heroic Legend of Arslan – the one with the funny name issues.
The Heroic Legend of Arslan is Yoshiki Tanaka's other sprawling literary franchise, occupying a historical fantasy niche far removed from his celebrated science fiction epic Legend of Galactic Heroes. It's been resurgent lately, because Fullmetal Alchemist creator Hiromu Arakawa has been adapting the books to manga form, with her character designs providing a familiar-looking yet much-needed update to earlier character illustrations by the likes of Yoshitaka Amano, Shinobu Tanno, and Chisato Nakamura. For some readers and viewers, the updates are a little too familiar – it's very easy to see the face of Alphonse Elric in Arslan's, and the faces of other FMA characters in his war companions. But it looks cool, and it led to a TV anime—which wasn't the first anime.
The original Arslan anime was one of those OVAs that screened in movie theatres way back in 1991. For its first few episodes, it does a pretty solid job of adapting Tanaka's novels, which are a brash, charming amalgam of the Persian epics Amir Arslan and the Shahnama, plus details of the 6th century Persian-Byzantine war, the real-life reign of Cyrus the Great, and plenty of original characters, side stories, and details. In this tale, the kingdom of Pars is a formidable and warlike state, led by the conquering Andragoras. But very suddenly, the royal capital of Ecbatana is overthrown by the neighboring Lusitanians, who use their religion to justify an invasion and leverage the discontent of the city's slaves to complete a siege and win the day. This last bit isn't shown in that old OVA, though; instead, we only see the first battle of crown prince Arslan, son of Andragoras. The king is confident in his superior numbers but Arslan isn't- and neither is Daryun, one of Pars's top generals. Furious, the king tosses Daryun out of the ranks and orders his son to join the battle. Here's a neat little comparison of Andragoras in the old series, and in the new.
Arslan was right to be concerned; the Lusitanians, aided by Parsian general Kharlan, set a trap. He's promptly rescued by Daryun (from the beginning Arslan is depicted as having tons of charisma and intelligence, but he's a pretty mediocre swordsman, which makes it kind of fun to use him in Arslan Warriors, where he utilizes the sword and spear much more competently), who takes him to meet Narsus, a brilliant strategist in self-imposed exile. The pair need his help to start building support amongst the scattered troops and to make a plan to retake the capitol. Narsus doesn't want a high title or piles of money, but Arslan's a perceptive and empathetic young man; soon enough, he's able to offer the tactical genius exactly what he really wants, and so he starts, with these two men, to build an inner circle of generals, spiritual advisers, mercenaries, and charming rogues to help him roll back in towards Ecbatana, retaking Pars along the way. You'll notice major stylistic differences between the two versions - below, here's two Kharlans.
The 1990 Heroic Legend of Arslan starts off looking great, thanks to its lovely character designs, courtesy of City Hunter and Black Jack TV character designer Sachiko Kamimura. The series also makes some nice visual choices; the cities and battlefields of Pars are colorful, and the staff do a good job of communicating just how scarily powerful of a cavalryman Daryun is. Particularly enjoyable, in a weird and kitschy way, is the English dub, courtesy of Manga Video. Here, they don't poorly disguise their voices with spotty American accents, but instead use their natural English and Welsh ones, so the characters sound a touch more authentic, albeit sometimes hilariously miscast. (Arslan's mysterious rival, Silver Mask, is supposed to be a young man, but he sounds about 40 years old here.) Unfortunately, Arslan's luster doesn't hold up. Only the first two OVAs were screened in theaters; afterwards, thanks to a shakeup at Kadokawa (hint: the boss went to jail. Man, I need to write a Haruki Kadokawa column…), the series tumbled back to direct-to-video only, hosting a revolving door of directors, artists, screenwriters, designers, and key animators.
You'd think this decline in quality would be off-putting, but the character of Arslan and his world is too compelling. The mixture of historical and fantastic detail is really neat, and Arslan's a great hero, a genuinely good ruler who understands that, if he's going to heal his country and fight off the invaders, he's going to have to both win huge battles and build a strong political coalition. Then, in the last couple of OVA episodes, something funny happens. If you pop the US DVD release in, the feature is led off with a quick little explanatory video which points out that the show's licensor, KSS, requested some name changes against the earlier versions. So all of a sudden, Daryun is now Darun, Narsus is now Narcasse, Pharangese is Farangis, and Gieve is Guibu, and last but not least, the character identified in the title of all the earlier tapes as “Arislan” is now known as Arslan. It's a fitting change, you see, because when the OVA was initially licensed, both western companies (Manga UK and US Manga Corps) wanted to call the character “Arslan,” but the licensor, KSS, instructed them to use the romanization “Arislan.” Then years later, they went back on it! Discrepancies like that crack me up.
Those last two episodes also include a new dub, produced in New York, which is completely squirm-inducing, with a weird, obsequious Guibu, a screamy king Innocentis (the Lusitanian king who's taken up residence in Ecbatana), and best of all, a new side character named Jimsa, whom every character in the dubbed version refers to as “Jisma,” making sure that his name sounds as much like the word for “semen” as possible. The dub isn't as bad as the legendary Garzey's Wing dub, but it ain't much better. This auditory aberration is somehow fitting when you put it against the show's continuing visual decline, though when it was released in the late 90s I was so happy to have Arslan and his companions back I gave it a much better grade than it deserved. Revisiting it now, it does not hold up in the slightest; maybe it's partly due to the DVD looking like crap, a mostly-letterboxed horror from before we all really figured out how to properly master and present widescreen home video on DVD.
Those big name changes aren't the only odd differences that crop up suddenly. Midway through the series, Lusitania abruptly becomes Rusitania, the stronghold of Peshawal becomes Peshawar, and Arslan's beloved kingdom of Palse is redubbed Pars. These differences aren't really that surprising to me; when you have a work that sprawling, it can be a huge pain in the ass to keep things consistent. Various western Gundam releases, for example, have had differing romanizations of stuff like Char's name (“Sha”) and the force he fights for (sometimes “Zeon,” other times “Zion” or “Xeon”). Sunrise eventually had to sit down and mandate a unified name spelling list for all Universal Century Gundam, but even it has some bizarre discrepancies (the father of the Zeon's ruling Zabi family, whose first name is デギン (“Degin”) is referred to as “Degwin,” for example.).
With the 90s Arslan turning out to be such a mixed bag, it was surprising to me to see some fans look at the sleeker, CG-heavy TV series and pine for the older version's visuals. From a storytelling standpoint, at least, the TV series is generally superior, simply because it's way more comprehensive – the slavery subplot, which is instrumental to Arslan's growth as a character, gets a lot more time, and key characters who appear rarely or not at all in the OVA get to play their parts to the fullest here. The series is also loaded with fun little visual references, like thisNausicaa shout-out.
I chose the title of this column not merely to make you think of the Spin Doctors song (ha! You did, didn't you?! I win!), but because it's germane; after all, not only are there two princes in conflict in Arslan's story (there's even a dang TV episode called “Two Princes!”), there are two similar but surprisingly distinct versions of the same character across these two versions of the tale. I'd compare those dueling anime versions to the 90s version of Birdy the Mighty and its TV retelling, Birdy the Mighty Decode. Both are worth watching, but the latter's larger scale and longer duration makes it more suited for telling the tale provided by the source material. Try and pick your favorite Arslan; just go ahead, now.
Some differences are glaring, of course. On places like twitter, I've seen a lot of griping about Arslan TV's usage of CG to stage and execute the large-scale battles, because… well, let's face it, there's a lot of silly shit like using the same soldier models over and over again, the same walk and run cycles over and over again, and other simple mistakes and shortcuts that make the CG modeling a little too obvious. But I can forgive that. Because seriously, just compare this:
Is the latter approach, with its warm cel animation, really that much better? The Arslan OVA is beautiful from moment to moment, but it leans heavily on simple, limited shots like this one to communicate its fight scenes. In many ways, anime is still a limited-animation medium, so I can overlook charming flaws like recycling CG models. But the name thing, man. That just doesn't stop. The OVA's Arufurido is now Alfreed—okay, I can hang with that. Hermes son of Osiris, the brooding cipher behind the silver mask, is now Hirumes, son of Osroes. Peshwar's mighty generals, Quishward and Bachman, are now Kishward and Bahman. This doesn't make it any harder to keep track of the large ensemble cast, but it's interesting to watch. I'm betting that we'll see similar charming inconsistencies between Tanaka's Legend of the Galactic Heroes novels, from Viz/Haikasoru, and the OVA and movies, from Sentai Filmworks.
What's your favorite example of a transliterated name that suddenly changes, is humorously mismatched across multiple releases, or just doesn't quite fit? Is it Hellsing's peculiar Alucard/Arucard problem, perhaps? Is it the Jojo's Bizarre Adventure producers' inexpert attempts to conceal character and Stand names? Or is it something even weirder and sillier? Share yours in the comments!
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