Reviews of “Legend of the Galactic Heroes: My Conquest Is the Sea of Stars” (1988) and related work

“Legend of the Galactic Heroes: My Conquest Is the Sea of Stars” (1988Moving picture, 60 minutes)

The Free Planets Alliance, a democratic polity, oversaw the expansion of humanity across hundreds of exoplanets. It almost collapsed when it elected a fascist government that set about establishing a thousand-year Reich patterned after the Kingdom of Prussia’s aristocracy, called the Galactic Empire. Fragments of the old Alliance survived on the fringes, taking up residence in a different spiral arm of the Milky Way. In the 35th century, the Alliance counts 13 billion citizens, the Empire 25 billion. Two talented naval officers affect each other for the first time. They’re on opposite sides of an altercation in fusile terrain.

All-human space opera. A one-hour pilot of sorts, based on a brief episode from Tanaka Yoshiki’s novels (1982–1987). Nice use of Ravel’s Bolero. The view of history is uncomfortably bellocentric, more so than in the massive series that followed.

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Legend of the Galactic Heroes (1988Moving picture, 92 hours)

It took me approximately five years to get from beginning to end.

Separated by the gap between their spiral arms, the Alliance and the Empire have only two swiftly navigable paths between them, after having been at war on and off for 150 years. To any brilliant tactician rising through the ranks, the balance seems delicate. Having conquered his reputation of being sheltered by the skirts of the Kaiser’s concubine who is his sister, Reinhard von Müsel is one such tactician, who dreams of conquering known space completely, and overthrowing the corrupt aristocracy of which he is a part. On the other side, Yang Wen-li is equally gifted, but has no taste for war. Like Shiro’s boss in Wings of Honneamise: Royal Space Force (1987), what he really wants is to be a historian, and he doesn’t like what he sees in history. They will meet again, during four years of upheaval.

Probably the longest OVA (direct-to-video) series ever, at 110 episodes released and supported by its audience from 1988 to 1997, amounting to some 36 hours of animation. In the US, this was the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994), which was episodic, in the sense of plot continuity. LoGH, by contrast, is one serialized narrative, told almost entirely in sequence, with hundreds of characters and directed by Ishiguro Noboru (Yamato, Macross). The dramatis personae ranges in influence from fighter pilots, waiters and clerks, all the way up to Imperial Kaisers, albeit with the typical focus on elites.

LoGH is epic in scale and able to deliver on its ambitions. It takes production guts to fill episode after episode with scenes of plain men doing lengthy planning together in their uniforms, punctuated by equally lengthy pitched battles that are far more sedate than their equivalents in sillier franchises like Trek or Star Wars (1977). While the battles are less energetic on a strategic level, violence is paradoxically more real: At long intervals, anyone can die or be horribly wounded (e.g. episode 63), just as well as they can find love, crack jokes or play with their children.

The author shows an unfortunate bias in the consistent underlying conflict of republicanism versus hereditary autocracy. He clearly loved his Japanese Prussians in space. The title card is German: “Heldensagen vom Kosmosinsel”. Reinhard’s is the smarter-looking, more charismatic lot. Those who point a gun at Reinhard himself do so in awe of his magnificence. Maybe that’s because Reinhard’s quest to destroy the aristocracy from within is an echo of Japanese Meiji history. Or maybe it’s a Shōwa universe that runs on notions of destiny and loves a semi-divine dictator, haunted though he may be by the cost of revolution. Corruption seems equal in either system, surpassed only by Fezzan, with no viable alternative presented.

I imagine the parallels with Japanese history are intentional. Both sides in the war can represent Japan: Prussian culture was a major influence on Meiji modernization, including the gakuran that many schoolboys still wear, patterned after military Waffenrocken. Japanese democracy had a rocky start in that era, not really coming to its feet until the US occupation, and therefore tainted in the eyes of far-right nationalists. In this interpretation, Fezzan would be the West.

As pleasant as it is to see the horrors of war lamented, war is meant as an attraction of the show. This is virtually always the case in space opera, and LoGH is certainly space opera, with FTL and beam weapons everywhere, even if the “galactic heroes” are less prominent than the title implies. War as entertainment exacerbates the slightly creepy ideological bias.

The technology of the far future is badly dated (DOS makes an appearance) and fallaciously implemented. Asteroids can be accelerated for use as weapons, but only once. Space is underutilized (fleets just line up head to head), there is very little cultural or other broadly based change or variety visible in the universe, and women are stereotyped. The variety of characters is good as far as the males go, and the casting very impressive, including a magnetic Wakamoto Norio as the complicated Oskar von Reuenthal. Kawajiri Yoshiaki did “guest” character design work on the first couple of episodes.

Hirasawa Suzumu may have been referring to the occasional faction-appropriate foreign dialogue in the refrain of Sign (“Prosit!” is Reinhard’s toast of choice), and the series itself produced some good songs, including the poorly written but strangely haunting anthem of the democrats at their nadir: “Oh hail, Liberty Bell, true freedom for all men!”

References here: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).

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‣‣ The Legend of the Galactic Heroes: The New Thesis – Encounter (2018Moving picture)

Seen in 2018.

This review refers to the first one-cour season, 12 episodes.

Largely a wasted opportunity. To be sure, it’s mostly an improvement. The pacing is better. The summary of Rudolf’s takeover is admirably clear and relevant to the mid-2010s decline in democratic regime legitimacy. Fezzan is brought into the plot more effectively and now looks more like Giedi Prime in Dune (1984). The cleaner plotting, free of the uncertain production schedules that seemed to affect the OVA, makes me curious about reading the books in a way that the 1980s productions did not.

Alas, all the weaknesses of the story are preserved. The beautiful Kaiser tends the beautiful roses in his garden as he laments mono no aware and anticipates the rise of Lohengramm. In his Empire, ordinary people seem as poorly equipped to fight an interstellar war as would be actual 19th-century Prussians. Episode 11 shows both such ordinary civilians and the bizarre spectacle of ultra-high-tech starships leaving underground planet-side wet docks on Odin to go into orbit. There is no sane reason why such ships would ever land. It’s all akogare no Paris, the old Japanese dream of an idyllic occident producing high-tech 19th-century empires where the autocratic leadership is as good as the wine.

A little earlier, in the Alliance, the cabinet (High Council) discusses whether to use the newly captured Iserlohn Fortress for defence, or negotiate, or launch an attack. Bizarrely, there has been no uptick in public approval of the government upon the capture of Iserlohn, yet public approval for reelection is proffered as the biggest reason to launch the attack. The biggest stated reason not to launch it is the economic opportunity cost. The military-industrial complex seems to have no voice in politics, which is strange after so many generations of war. There is nothing here like the militarism of US culture. The cabinet decides by majority vote, not consensus, as if a momentary strict majority in this tiny group could be considered a democratic means of starting a war of aggression. The politics of the show have not improved. Ironically, while the show acknowledges that the Alliance’s system is a false democracy, it seems unfit even to serve its leaders.

There are similarly no updates on gender roles. See Greenhill blushing in episode 9; though competent, she is primarily a love interest, as Annerose is primarily a narrative token. The Alliance has self-driving cars but the entire traffic system still breaks down for lack of technicians, so apparently the self-driving cars are worse than real cars. There are more fancy holograms than in the old show, but they’re used to advance the plot, not for worldbuilding.

The single biggest disappointment in terms of modernization is in tactics. I was hoping for Blue Planet II (2017) with missiles. The spaceships do get cosmetic improvements with 3D CGI, but only dogfights use any of the power of 3D graphics to show 3D combat in episode 12. Even those dogfights are the same close-range WW1 crap you see in Star Wars (1977), complete with colour-coded beam weapons. The larger ships do not use the third dimension of space beyond stacking themselves in cube formations that look like mathematical orchard problems, dense beyond all reason. Any attempt to show how combat might happen in space would have motivated the remake, providing a solid foundation of realism beneath the politics, yet the effort is not made.

Much else is also disappointing. The Patriotic Knight Corps attack on Yang’s home in episode 5 is poorly conceived: A hand grenade destroys a table but doesn’t harm the windows, whereupon a platoon is repelled by the lawn sprinkler. Schönkopf has been remade as a near-bishōnen, befitting his name. Oberstein and Reuenthal are still fun to watch, but Wakamoto Norio is sorely missed.

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Golden Wings (1992Moving picture)

Siegfried meets the orphaned “penniless aristocrat” Reinhard, when he moves in next door. They go to school.

One-hour film made between the 3rd and 4th seasons of the main series. It is a prequel, having a basic story continuity with the ongoing OVA, but it is also a spin-off, because it was based on a 1986 comic title commissioned by the author of the novels but created by Michihara Katsumi. The mechanical and clothing design are inherited from that spin-off, not the main branch of the anime, and even Iserlohn looks very different as a result: closer to the novels, if I’m reading correctly. Different actors too, and it skips the classical themes.

New title card with another German version of the franchise title, “Die Legende der Sternhelden”. Technological stagnation is explained as a consequence of the war, which doesn’t really make sense. The Empire guys are oddly colourful in this continuity, and I don’t like the design of the young Yang. The bombing of Iserlohn by Spartan(ian!) fighter craft, clearly inspired by Star Wars (1977), is also pretty gratuitous. Overall, a lot of coincidences and shōnen-style fisticuffs, in the tradition of inferior prequels.

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Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Overture to a New War (1993Moving picture)

The tragic fate of Jean-Robert Lappe and a lovely ride in a non-horseless (horseful?) carriage.

Hour-and-a-half feature remake of the first two episodes of the main series, with added twists. Another German title presented on screen: “Die Ouvertüre eines neuen Krieges”. The budget is spent on nice lighting and lovely people-scale details in the pitched battle, and Jessica in a military graveyard. Nice music, particularly Annerose von Grünewald gazing up at the stars from a balcony, to the second-movement allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th. The film as a whole adds practically nothing to the franchise.

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‣‣ Legend of the Galactic Heroes: A Hundred Billion Stars, A Hundred Billion Lights (1998Moving picture)

A few clearly delineated episodes from the lives of boon companions Siegfried and Reinhard up to the age of 18, and a little Schenkopp, already a boringly unkillable man’s man. Ground engagements on an icy world in the Iserlohn corridor, a murder investigation, cracking a drug ring, and other boyhood frolics.

A dry seinen interpretation.

Episode 20 carries this whole series. Siegfried returns alone to his childhood home, where his mother, who hasn’t seen him for years, gives him a look that says she doesn’t share his faith in a swift defeat of the rebels, or his interest in it. He goes next door, to where Reinhard and Annerose used to live. The “untidy” family that lives there now, the Beckmans, have portraits of their three sons on the wall, all of them killed in the war. Siegfried reflects on the distance from everyday life at which he’s living, and meets a scholarly old friend named Martin who quietly resents the interference of the military with academic freedom and learning. The narrator describes Martin as starving to death after an arrest 6 months later, on suspicion of support for a campus anti-war group. In the very same episode, the petulant young Reinhard openly wishes for a great offensive so he can be promoted yet again. If it wasn’t for this great episode, the glamourization of war would be a notch worse than in the original series.

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‣‣‣ Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Spiral Labyrinth (1999Moving picture)

Review refers to very poor HK subtitles.

The first half tells Wenli’s story up to My Conquest Is the Sea of Stars. The second half brings Siegfried and Reinhard to the same point, ending with them seeing the Brünhilde for the first time, which the narrator reflects may be their happiest moment.

Dry seinen. A fair amount of filler and unnecessary anticipatory coincidences; adds practically nothing to the franchise. Very nice and clean computer graphics for in-universe computer displays though, which is surprisingly beneficial. Probably the strongest homoerotic undertone of all the franchise anime.

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