For a while, some of the people who I usually talk to on MAL have come to claim that I am some kind of contrarian, due to my refusal to shout unconditional praise for some works considered to be “classics” in the same fashion a few circles do. I don’t feel that is true, though, when taking into account my general stance (just look at my other reviews!), it just so happens that I have a very particular way of judging any given work, hipster glasses off. For that same reason, when I began watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes, or Ginga Eyiuu Densetsu, I tried to free myself from any external preconception, so that by the end only my own judgment would be as fair a result as possible, coming only from my own perspective and no one else’s. Currently, the anime sits at 8th place among the highest scored titles on MAL, with an average score of 9,10, so you might imagine that analyzing it is kind of a big deal. It also has a somewhat small but quite dedicated audience that takes it in very high regard, besides being a generally respected work. This is the point where the petulant me raises his voice among the crowd to say “Well, I have some disagreements to make here!”
Just for fun, I’m going to call this one GED, because fuck me if I had to write any of the acronyms the series has whenever I need to refer to it!
Story and Characters
Oh boy, this one is a beast! As you might imagine, properly tackling a show like GED is not necessarily an easy task if you plan on doing it in depth: it has a total run time of 110 episodes, the storyline is divided into two main fronts, a fair share of it is dedicated to politics and it’s fucking packed with dialogue! For the sake of my sanity (I still have it, don’t worry!), this will be another review where I’ll tackle the different aspects of the series separately, in order to voice praises and criticisms in an easily digestible way. By the way: due to its scope and the themes the series tackles, both positives and negatives are heightened in the big picture, so if it seems that I’m being overly harsh to poor GED, keep in mind that there are equally strong positives to help mitigate the issues I’m about to discuss, and people have talked to death about such positives, so allow me to be somewhat picky this time.
The best way to begin this will be to address who are the main forces at play in the story, so let’s get to them. Two major forces are at war in the universe of GED: the Free Planets Alliance and the Galactic Empire, represented by Yang Wenli and Reinhard von Lohengram, respectively, the two characters to receive major focus from the narrative. The two develop a rivalry between themselves and the presence of one in the battlefield is bound to call for the other. Starting with the Alliance, Yang Wenli is the tosser who hates coffee. I’m sorry, there’s more to his character, but I still can’t forgive him for that posh attitude. Yang is laid-back, somewhat lazy, quite introspective and has a strong devotion to the concept of democracy. This last trait is highly emphasized by the show, although it tends to get quite overbearing at some points, making his character come off as very preachy. In these instances it seems like he is more of a mouth-piece of the concept itself, because besides spouting general observations about history, he's not very effective at defending why democracy is the better system. Humm, I wonder if this is what people who hate Urobuchi mean when they criticize his characters.
At least the man knows friendship is something to cherish.
Close to Yang is Julian Minci, a teenager who lives under Yang’s tutelage after losing his parents, who shows to be highly curious and with far more active and responsible demeanor than Yang. Julian is mostly relegated to secondary role, but around episode 82, when the rivalry between Yang and Reinhard is resolved, he becomes the focus on the Alliance’s side. Episode 83, by the way, has a particularly great character moment between Julian and Frederica Greenhill, Yang’s wife, who decides to take political responsibilities after spending most of her screen-time being just an add-on to the plot. For the most part, it seems that his arc is going to be that of becoming just a doppelganger of Yang (seriously, he begins to speak and monologue just like Yang, at some points), up until near the end of the series, when he takes action to be an agent of change in the manner Yang is not capable of. Also close to Yang is Schenkopp, captain of the Knights of the Rose, an elite group of soldiers feared in combat. Having been born in the Empire, but exiled from there still in his childhood, Schenkopp works as the practical balance to Yang’s over-analytical personality and often offers him questions in regard to the validity of his believes.
On the Empire side there is Reinhard, a young, authoritative and slightly idealistic but still down to earth rising military prodigy (on the anime’s standards, that is!) who decides to make a name during the war in order to garner power and influence so he can one day save his sister, who was taken as a concubine by the emperor, as well as overthrow the current ruling force of the Galactic Empire and reform the rules of the galaxy. It’s visible that some of the influence held by Reinhard at the beginning comes from the preference the emperor has for his sister, but that is also supported by his talent and effectiveness in combat. Reinhard hates the nobles and the current ruling dynasty, the Goldenbaum, and his desire to be the next regent puts a target on his back, as he gains the contempt from the nobles. The emperor could not care less, funny enough, the guy just wants to enjoy life and wait for death. The closest friend of Reinhard is Siegfried Kircheis (I’m starting to get a slight bias against Germanic names!), a man who has been in love with Reinhard’s sister, Annerose, and vows to help him conquer the galaxy. Kircheis is extremely loyal to his friend and serves as his moral compass at the start of the series. His influence decreases as the series goes on, though, and that brings the most visible changes in Reinhard’s character, making him more ambitious and prideful. In case you are wondering, this is a positive.
Unleash the Fujoshis!
Next in the line of influence is Oberstein. He is cunning, stoic, an absolutely deceiving bastard full of dubious intent who constantly challenges the viewer into pondering what his real intentions are. In other words, Oberstein is amazing, the best character in the show, every moment he’s on screen is a better moment and if you disagree you are just flat out wrong. I’m not biased. Due to his methods of getting results, he is compared to a medicine that creates strong adverse effects and garners a great amount of distrust and hatred from other officials. Bunch of ungrateful fucks! His character offers a great contrast to that of Reinhard. While Reinhard is good natured at heart and charismatic, he is still ambitious for glory and cherishes the pride of battle, which are heroic traits on the surface, but still result in the deaths of millions. Oberstein, in the other hands, is not afraid of being hated, seen as the bad guy and of using methods that are considered cowardly or dishonorable, but still minimize damage and the loss of lives.
He knows how to surprise even his superiors!
From Reinhard’s admirals, the most notable ones are Mittenmeyer and Reuental, two close friends who share their leader’s disdain for the nobility. While Mittenmeyer is optimistic, strongly tied to family and somewhat naïve with politics, Reuental is dreary, cynical and ambitious, which makes some of their interactions almost comedic in the way that Reuental reads into other characters in a manner Mittenmeyer is oblivious of. The remaining officials under Reinhard’s command are very straight-forward and simplistic characters, but they have just the necessary amount of depth for the position they occupy within the narrative, which is not detrimental to the series. Let’s be honest, folks, would it really be important to have Bittenfeld or Lennenkamp be fleshed out any more? On the side of the Alliance, though, I’ll not forgive Poplan, that guy needed a major overhaul in writing. He appears frequently enough to be a relevant character, yet 90% of his dialogue is of the same breed: remind the audience he’s a womanizer, crack a joke about him being a womanizer and occasionally take a cheap jab at Attenborough. This is not quirky, this is one-dimensional!
The biggest drawback for GED in the character department is the antagonists. While the bulk of the conflict revolves around Yang and Reinhard’s rivalry, a sizeable portion of conflict also comes from specific antagonistic forces acting against each one specifically, or against both at once, like Rubinsky and the Cult of Terra. The problem with such antagonists, though, is that, except for Rubinsky, they are poorly written, one-dimensional, severely deficient on the brain-department and meet their end in anticlimactic fashion. Now, you may ask why I’m being critical of the antagonists being lackluster while cutting some slack for Reinhard’s officials, so let me clarify: conflict is what moves a narrative; therefore if the agents who bring forth that conflict are subpar it damages the work as a result, as it implies that not enough thought was put into that aspect of the story.
The biggest offenders, when it comes to characterization at least, are the corrupt politicians from the Alliance who decide to go against Yang. Most of them are not even characters themselves, just plot devices that appear in the narrative in order to bring trouble upon Yang, having absolutely no logical reason to do so. They have nothing to gain from throwing the guy under the bus, ESPECIALLY once the war has ended, and no justifiable reason to go against the one who was their biggest asset during the war. For all intents and purposes, they are shooting themselves in the foot out of pure irrational spite. The ones who get some semblance of characterization are shown to be pathetically easy to manipulate buffoons with no vision of the danger they willingly throw themselves into because of unfounded fears. On this side of the galaxy there is also the Order of the Patriotic Knights, who are big offenders of logic. This order is a known terrorist group, under the control of Truniht, the Alliance’s major asshole, and yet they are somehow seen making public speeches and attack dissident voices in broad daylight, at the exact moment it would bring more attention and raise suspicions about their connections to Truniht (just see episode 03).
Hi, we've heard you need a plot-hole, so we got one fresh out the oven!
Against Reinhard there are the nobles from the empire, who see on him a threat to their position, this one at least being a grounded and logical fear, as Reinhard genuinely wants to reform the empire and bring an end to the nobles’ abuses. These nobles, however, are fundamentally one-dimensional characters. Think about the very stereotypical picture of an entitled douchebag noble you’ve seen plenty of times in fiction and you’ll get exactly what these characters are. They show absolute disdain for the lower classes, see themselves as having some sort of inherent superiority, similar to kings who saw themselves as chosen by God in centuries past, are easily prone to act recklessly and blatantly stupid when their pride is hurt and, when cornered, become absolute cowards. No wonder they are the first ones to go down.
That's right, Reinhard, don't inspect the enemy who just came him the room pushing a massive coffin!
Acting against both sides you have Rubinsky and the Cult of Terra. Rubinsky is the feudal lord of Phezzan, an independent planet whose economy is heavily based on trading between the Alliance and the Empire. He happens to be the antagonist with the better characterization, being treacherous, ambitious, karma-savvy, but still highly self-aware and with a hint of spite on his tongue. Sadly, Rubinsky is not immune to stupidity, as his major plan during the mid-section of the story suffers from a major flaw that the audience can see coming from 10 miles away. Seriously Rubinsky, did you really not expect Reinhard to come rudely knocking on your door so he could get to your neighbor of the other side? Ultimately, though, the major issue with Rubinsky is that he becomes simply a plot device by the end. He appears when needed during the second half to instigate some conflict, which will turn out mostly ineffectual by the end, and when that role is exhausted he is simply discarded by the narrative.
That same fate is shared by the Cult of Terra, the agents of several plot-relevant events throughout the series. In essence, the cult is a religious group who sees Earth as a sacred land and holds the restoration of its power and relevance as their ultimate goal, an objective they are willing to use terrorism to fulfill. While the main goal and core belief of the group is clear, the nature of the Cult of Terra as a religion is fundamentally left unexplored. Here is something that bugged me as I watched the series: why do people even join this cult? Earth, by this point, is a completely irrelevant planet, populated by just a few million people and with very little natural and technological resources, so making it the center of humanity again would be unfeasible. This even raises inconsistences as to how did the Cult have enough money to finance the rise of Phezzan as an independent state. Aside from that, the ideas that could make the cult attractive to people around the galaxy are never explored, its fundaments never brought up. The entire religion serves as nothing more than a generic antagonist, complete with an unfaithful douchebag leader and servants willing to blindly sacrifice themselves with no prospect of victory, so it’s easy to conclude that the religious aspect was implemented simply because it was the easiest to insert without raising as many questions as some other brand of villain would. Religions act based on faith, so who cares if it doesn’t make sense within the story anyway?
The terrifying might of the Cult of Earth
For the sake of comparison, look at the religion of Vodarac in Eureka Seven, or the Church of Yaldabaoth from Arslan Senki, another of Tanaka’s works (I don’t even care if you think it isn’t a good series, the parallel is valid!). In Eureka Seven, it’s explained about the meaning of the concept of Vodarac, its connection to the Coralian and what it means to its believers, as well as the effect of it in the narrative and the way it ties to the faith itself. In the case of the Church of Yaldabaoth, being the world of Arslan Senki one with rudimentary science, it’s logical that people would attach themselves to a religion that seeks to explain the universe, especially one that is the official faith of its nation and holds executing “infidels” as common practice. In both series the reasoning for people to join the faith is clearly defined and doesn’t raise contradictions in regards to their role within the story. Taking Earth out of the equation, the Cult of Terra could easily be turned into a terrorist group with political motivation and their role in the series would have been essentially the same. Throughout the series, the Cult continuously loses power, until it decides to do a desperate attack and is finally ended in anti-climactic fashion.
Speaking of political motivations, let’s talk about something where the series excels at. A very commendable trait of GED’s depiction of politics is that it doesn’t depict only the game of power, but it also includes the human factor within it. Paying some attention to modern and old politics will show that personal beliefs, morally influenced ideologies and the desire to be an agent of good play a role in governments almost as big as the standard game of interests and intrigues. Not to say that the series leaves aside that aspect either, you can easily see that at play within the nobles of the Empire and even more within the Alliance, where corrupt politicians abuse power in order to manipulate media and keep their levels of influence. If you’ve read various analyses of the series, you might have heard a few times (or many, as I have!) the main question it brings up: what is better, a corrupt democracy or a just autocracy? While the characters on the Alliance side, or at least the good ones, are very devote to the principle of democracy, as it’s in their belief that a govern that still has to bow to the people’s will is fairer, the show itself seems to have a slight bias towards autocracy, perceptible in the way it treats Reinhard’s actions and the effect of his government.
You're setting up a dangerous precedent, mate!
Another trait that is commonly highly praised by the fans of GED is its battles, both in the epic scale present in them, as well as the strategies in display. Sadly, this is another aspect I’ll have to criticize. There are issues in the depiction of battle tactics, in the presentation and in the writing itself. Let’s start with the strategies. I suppose video-games don’t exist in this distant future, since even though these battles take place in space, where they would have freedom to position and maneuver fleets in all directions, nobody takes advantage of the z-axis. The vast majority of space battles take place in a strict two-dimensional plane, and you can count in one hand the amount of instances someone remembered they could move up or down with their massive spaceships. This leads to the most glaring problem: the vast majority of the tactics used are predictable and simplistic. What can eventually break the monotony is the introduction of futuristic elements, like Zeffir particles, but for the most part such strategies involve just fleet positioning that Hannibal would consider just part of a beginners guide: multiple times it’s visible when the some fleet (usually lead by Attenborough) is retreating to lure the enemy into their plan, or when one fleet is about to be surrounded by the enemy, the biggest offenders in this case being Bittenfeld and Fahrenheit in episode 79. There’s another aspect to this issue, but this one I’d like to discuss when talking about the presentation.
Bittenfeld prefers his strategies like himself: loud and stupid.
Eventually, this creates a disconnect between what is show on screen to what the show keeps telling us in regards to Yang and Reinhard’s supposed strategic brilliance. For my money, I’d bet on Bucock being the one that truly displays to be an strategic mastermind, as even though he only leads two battles, both of them are masterfully conducted. In both instances, Bucock makes excellent use of the scenario surrounding the troops, predicts enemy movement, leads them into successful traps and manages to hold off vastly bigger armies. For all accounts, he only loses because the plot demands so. GED actually makes a strong case for the value of experience against natural talent, if you look at it that way, as Merkatz also shows to be a much more cunning military leader than his young counterparts.
When it comes to issues with the writing, it’s visible on how the usual antagonistic forces that get in the way of the main heroes are defeated by their own incompetence, to a point that can sometimes become contradictory to what their characters are supposed to be. When faced by Yang or Reinhard, it’s not uncommon for admirals and generals to commit grossly amateurish mistakes that the audience itself can see through. Here is an example: one of the first battles in the series, designed to “prove” Reinhard’s genius, is one where his fleet is outnumbered AT LEAST 3 to 1 by the Alliance’s army. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Now here is a question; if you are close to engaging the enemy in combat and your troops have vast numerical superiority over theirs, how do you proceed: position your army in a manner that allows you to quickly surround and dispatch the enemy forces, minimizing damage taken and preventing them from escaping, or you separate your soldiers in troops small enough to be inferior to your enemy and position them in a way they can easily be picked apart and destroyed? Because this last one was the method chosen by the Alliance’s fleet. By all accounts, Reinhard took the advantage not because of any brilliant strategy, but because of his enemy’s crushing idiocy. I say that these are issues with the writing because, being such characters experienced commanders, such rookie mistakes should be out of the equation if the idea is to highlight the efficiency of the main cast or make the antagonist seem like even slightly competent characters.
See if you can find who you care about in the middle of this mess!
The last issue I’d like to discuss in this section is the role of the narrator within the work. Now, the existence of a narrator in a work like this is not an issue; when you have a large universe with organization far different from what your audience is accustomed, it’s natural to include narration to ease your audience in, so that the elements of the story don’t come out as jarring. The problem with the narrator in GED, and this is possibly the most pervasive issue, is how overbearing it is. This obnoxious prick constantly chimes in the most varied situations to give away stuff that could be easily inserted within dialogue or individual thoughts without compromising the narrative, when he’s not giving away bafflingly pointless details. He blatantly spouts what the characters are feeling and thinking at certain moments, he narrates actions and emotions the exact moment after we saw the characters act it on screen, adding nothing to the scene (“Not being able to defeat Yang, Bittenfeld got extremely irritated” thanks, by I noticed that on my own!), he even feels the need to tell how many spoons of soup Reinhard ate! His is also one of the voices you’ll hear the most during battles, as they frequently opt to have days take place within an episode with only the narration explaining the events. This problem has a lot to do with the source material the anime was based on, the novels: that overbearing style of narration and the way certain events of the story are paced within the narrative are very characteristic of how a novel is written. The issue here is that GED was not translated from one media to the other in any smooth fashion, even as an anime, it retains a style of narration that is not fit for this media specifically. Since anime is an audiovisual media, it benefits more from having the scene and the characters themselves show what is going on, not having it spelled out for the viewer.
Let’s be honest, folks: taking into consideration the amount of whisky, wine and beer consumed by these characters, I’d say half of the main to secondary cast should recognize they have some sort of drinking problem! I can’t be the only one who sees that!
Ok, going back to the space battles, let’s talk about that last issue I mentioned. As you watch the series, you’ll most likely notice these battles are presented in two manners: the first one, obviously, are those where we get an overview of the combat, with the massive spaceships firing at the enemy and hundreds being blown up in both sides; the other one is the fleet movement being displayed in the monitors and commented. The first point of contention here is the way the action displays how these battles evolve: the sequences of lasers getting fired are not enough to convey the flow of the battle, so most of the information about the combat is relayed by the characters in command, making the action itself lackluster. These sequences lack the flare that traditional action sequences have and it took me a while to understand why, but I would, controversially, say that the scope is the source of the issue. The numbers are all so high, counting on dozens of thousands of ships and millions of soldiers, that the series has difficulty properly framing that within the combats and simply displaying random ships being blow up doesn’t cut it, it’s not enough for the viewer to understand how those particular vessels being destroyed is in anyway meaningful to the big picture, when so many of them are shown in every battle and rarely anyone important is in them. Also, just looking at enormous ships far apart from each other be destroyed doesn’t pack the same variety and creativity seen in traditional action sequences the media can provide, like gunfights, swordfights or the tried-and-true mecha-battles, so the combats in GED don’t take long to seem somewhat “samey”.
Riveting, isn't it?
Let me get a bit light with the bashing, though, I can feel the target on my back itching. If you wanna know about the animation: it’s pretty good, son. It’s distinct, not featuring the most common visual tropes associated with anime, characters have varied designs, making it easily to distinguish them immediately and the series generally packs a unique visual identity, setting it apart within the media. Sometimes you can see a few shoddy frames, but the work generally has very stable animation quality. One aspect that might be divisive when it comes to the visual presentation is the Imperial’s infatuation with 1800s style fashion, architecture, furniture and pretty much everything else. Seriously, they even use gold coins to bribe a guy at one point! Whether you find this particular visual identity goofy, thematic relevant, stylistically clever or just plain unnecessarily is up to you, but it does raises some questions in regards to world consistency and logic. It took me 42 episodes to see the first security camera on the streets of an imperial city, for once, while none seemed to be present at the Emperor’s residence. When in focus is on the military aspect, though, there’s care put into making the pomp of each rank translate into their appearance, with uniforms distinct to common soldiers, generals, admirals and so forth.
You probably want me to talk about the soundtrack, which is composed of classical pieces, but here is the problem: I barely notice them! Perhaps that is because I was so focused on the dialogue and plot that I happen to miss them, but I generally could not remember the pieces that played throughout the series. Same can’t be said about the voice acting though, which is packed with classical voices from anime, like Shiozawa Kaneto (Rei, from Hokuto no Ken), Inoue Kazuhiko (Cyborg 009, Kakashi, etc), Horikawa Ryo (Vegeta) and Sakakibara yoshiko (the Puppet Master, from Ghost in the Shell), pulling their A-game here.
It’s clear to many that, while critically acclaimed, GED is also somewhat of a niche product, so let’s do that exercise I like to bring up and try to understand why it garners such reputation. For once, the audience who composes fans of the series seems to be composed mostly by people who are drawn to older works, so having started in the late 80s certainly gives it that old-school appeal. The series also has a distinctive aesthetic that is a clear departure from the standard anime-look, even for the time it began serialization. That aesthetic possibly helped sediment it as a work of clearly serious tone, appealing for those who looked for something of more mature look within the media. Adding to that, the characters are mostly adults, certainly appealing for anime-fans who are somewhat tired of the overreliance on teenage/kid characters that we see throughout the media. Lastly, the theme of politics is one that is not seen so often even in other media, and seeing it being tackled gives an intelligent vibe to shows that are able to handle it properly. Also helps that the entire work is design to have a very classy feel to it.
This might not be the most accurate assessment to make, but I believe most people tend to look at anime only focusing on the big picture: the most surprising twists, the main actions protagonists partake, the big events in the plot. Looking solely at the big picture, Legend of the Galactic Heroes sure is an impressive work: whole solar systems are involved in the conflicts, battles feature impressive large numbers, it has long spamming plans taking place, deals with an universal concept and its main characters are noticeably treated as larger-than-life people (none of them up to Samus level, but hey, they do their best!). However, I think that when you look at it with your mind on the details is that the nuances, real qualities and flaws become a lot more noticeable, and when it comes to Legend of the Galactic Heroes, its qualities are surely strong and worth comenting, but its flaws are also quite persistent for it to be among what I consider to be the very best in anime.