This show needs no introduction. Regardless of your personal tastes in anime, bait online anons with statements like “Code Geass – greatest anime ever?” and there are bound to be smart-alecks who fire back with the response of, “Nuh-uh, Legend of the Galactic Heroes trumps all.” To which most everyone else can say absolutely nothing, because unlike every other immensely, grossly, extraordinarily well-regarded show, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is not popular in the layman’s sense of the word – so how do you dispute a statement like that, when you probably haven’t even watched the show for yourself?
And therein lies the origins of Legend of the Galactic Heroes’ selectively privileged but rabidly proud fanbase. As you might already know, Legend of the Galactic Heroes (hereafter referred to by its truncated Japanese name, Gineiden) is a 1987-1998 OVA space opera series that spans a whopping 110 episodes. It’s not just dated animation that stacks the odds against it – but also the bare fact that it’s a show about politics and space wars without giant robots. Considering its length, don’t expect many to even attempt to start on it, let alone bash through the first two episodes of static mannequins with movables jaws. There are people who force themselves to sit through 12 or 24 episodes of something they already know midway they aren’t going to like, just so they can eventually say they know exactly why they’re calling it trashy. But 110 episodes? That’s a little more unlikely.
So, speaking as a being with proportionately lesser intelligence than the average elitist snob, as promised, I’ll be doing my best to guide you through the dilemma of whether or not to even commit to watching this thing. As far as plot goes, we’re faced with a future where space conquest and interstellar colonisation have become realities. For years, there has been an ongoing war between two political superpowers, the monarchist Galactic Empire, and the democratic Free Planets Alliance. Rising through the ranks of the Empire’s military, is none other than Admiral Reinhard Von Lohengramm, otherwise known as the Blond Brat by everyone at least thirty years older than him. Following a traumatic childhood experience of having his beloved sister forcefully abducted into marriage with the reigning Kaiser, Reinhard is hellbent on ending the Empire’s Goldenbaum Dynasty, or, for the uninitiated – he wants to wipe out the ruling lineage of corrupt monarchs, and claim the throne for himself.
It follows that Reinhard’s greatest foil just has to be someone who couldn’t be more different in almost every single aspect – and so we also follow the merry adventures of Admiral Yang Wen-Li of the Alliance, a middle-aged aspiring historian who (sorta) accidentally wound up becoming a military strategist with an ironic hatred for the very thing he’s best at – war. Both gentlemen are hailed as military geniuses by their loyal followers, yet have to navigate the dirty world of politics and conspiracies, pitted against each other as rivals despite being unequivocally noble and righteous in their own ways.
Let’s first state the obvious – for anyone who is accustomed to watching anime coming out in the 2000s and 2010s, Gineiden first strikes one as being completely…different. Entire episodes can revolve around stiff-necked men standing or sitting around in cabinets and in flagships, talking, talking, talking…and talking. Why does this sound so familiar? Oh yeah, I said the same thing of the Monogatari Series; only this time, the stuff that is being talked about is far from being about nothing (sorry Monogatari fans, but it’s true). The characters discuss anything from politics and ideology, to human nature and philosophy, to battle strategy, right down to the merits of alcohol. Believe you me, Gineiden probably has the most intelligent writing I have ever seen – and it’s not just uptight conversations about war and conquest, it has some of the funniest, wittiest jokes as well…courtesy of Yang Wen-Li, the guy who’s described by Dusty Attenborough as “useless from the neck down” (seriously, why don’t we get humour like that coming out anymore?). Every single episode is chock-full of quotables, and even the deceptively filler-ish episodes have depth and significance.
To really get into Gineiden, it’s good to ensure that you’re following the threads of the conversations, but it’s equally important to put your money on the characters. The cast is phenomenally huge, and while there are several key characters, no-one is ever dispensable – single episodes are in fact devoted to diverting attention from the key players like Reinhard and Yang, instead exploring the mundane, ordinary lives of common soldiers and civilians, just so that a wholesome picture of all sides to the war can be painted. I can’t actually describe how incredible each and every individual character is. They’re all so precious in their own way, watching them makes me almost feel like a proud parent – and other than the corrupt politicians and aristocrats who thankfully don’t stick around long (goodbye Flegel), it’s really hard to hate on one any character.
Granted, Reinhard aside, precious few of the characters are aesthetically charming by today’s anime standards, and many are dull on first impression – characters don’t have cute catchphrases, nor special weapons nor magical abilities, not even trademark costumes and accessories. The soldiers are very ordinary men, leading very ordinary lives, and they all talk in ordinary ways – but like I said, you still care about them without even trying, and this is probably one of the reasons why Gineiden is so unique. I find it fascinating how I’m able to feel so attached to a character, through the narrator’s use of pure exposition – for example, “look, this man is called Wolfgang Mittermeyer, he’s married and has a wife, he’s known to be a loyal husband”…the rest is for you to fill in the gaps. Mittermeyer’s private life is henceforth never a topic frequently brought up on the battlefield, but when he’s working his magic as the Gale Wolf, you can’t help but feel that there’s so much more at stake for him than victory for the Empire – and it’s this realism that pervades the entire of Gineiden.
Before enjoying the plot or characters, though…it’s crucial that you get over the outdated animation. I’ve definitely been through it myself – I felt absolutely uncomfortable when I watched the first episode. The stiffness of the animated humans felt like they were cold, detached, and impersonal – but nothing could be further than the truth, and I’m glad I got that impression out of my head. I grew accustomed to the animation as it was. And then the creators decided to remake a few scenes, and intersperse old animation with new animation (disclaimer – this is in the fansubbed version I watched). Honestly, there’s very little to say about that, other than the fact that I think they should have just stuck with the old animation and left it as such. It makes for an interesting study to see how the studio back in the 1980s chose to allocate their resources – whenever there’s the old animation I’m positive they bombed half their frames solely on Reinhard’s hairflips.
I might have gone the whole hog in saying that for a show of the 1980s and 1990s, it’s completely excusable that you don’t normally get shimmery eyes and furrowed brows communicating emotions…but I can’t do so in good conscience. Because if you compare Gineiden’s animation to other titles in its era (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, the very first Mobile Suit Gundam series), then Gineiden is comparatively lacklustre, although I’m not complaining about that. Thankfully, a large part of a character’s feelings are communicated through voice alone – and oh my word, I have to say the Japanese voice actors put their modern counterparts to shame. On one hand, you have incredible consistency for a show which was released over a period of twenty years, and on the other, the voice actors know just how to make subtle changes expressing a range of emotions. Reinhard, Yang, Oberstein…it’s simply astounding how much personality can be communicated through their voices alone.
And the music of this show…I love classical music, and I love all the music in Gineiden, which always gives me the same enthralling feel I get when I watch Disney’s Fantasia. Honestly, the first thing that really drew me in about Gineiden, was in fact the very first thing you see when you start watching it – the first OP, Skies of Love. I fell in love with it immediately. Since Gineiden has such a huge cast, the director did the smartest thing he could have possibly done, and made each of the 4 OPs centre around the Empire army, and the 4 EDs centre around the Alliance army. All OPs are grand but not overly bombastic, expressing the ambitious and visionary nature of the Empire faction – and all EDs are contrastingly calming and bittersweet, instead focusing on the hope and camaraderie that seems to bind the soldiers of the Alliance. The third ED, especially, has that same sneaky, underhand conditioning effect that Anohana’s Secret Base has; making you feel so inexorably…emotional when it plays. I can’t continue talking about it – there’s too much feels involved. So I’ll leave you to go check it out for yourself. Seriously, even if you aren’t going to watch this show, at least listen to some of the OP and ED songs – I never skip any of them. (Okay, maybe except the last OP.)
Now…what’s there to dislike about a show this reputable? If there’s anything that Gineiden has going against it; it’s nothing less than the snobbish fans that use it for the sake of putting everything and everyone else down. It’s not uncommon for people to make bold, assertive statements like, “this show ruined anime for me”, and “after watching Gineiden, every other moe show feels like rubbish.” And honestly, it’s my opinion that such people haven’t actually watched Gineiden. Or, at least, they watched it simply to gain membership to its elitist fanbase, and learnt absolutely nothing from it. Because if there’s one thing I can safely say that Gineiden is not, which other popular anime like Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion can be perceived as being – it’s that Gineiden is probably the most unpretentious anime I have ever come across. Granted, it doesn’t set out to tell a straightforward, linear story – but it chooses to do so in the simplest and most straightforward way. It unfolds like an earnest documentary, guiding the viewer through page after page of history with clear recaps and helpfully positioned time stamps. If you pay attention, there’s genuinely nothing complicated about the world of the Galactic Heroes.
So take elitist exaggerations with a huge pinch of salt – but here’s where I admit there is some truth in their words, however arrogantly put. The thing is, there’s just so much the show does, which so many other popular shows have been hailed for, but don’t even do as well in. Miyazaki films like Grave of the Fireflies are renowned for being “anti-war” – by portraying the plight of innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire. And yet, here we have Gineiden’s main cast engaging in strategic warfare, yet delivering one of the most powerful anti-war statements of all time. Why is it so compelling? Precisely because it doesn’t gloss over the deeper issues that pervade the gritty issue of war – for example, the unattractive possibility that war is born out of necessity to flush out a greater evil, such as a corrupt regime. And just when you thought about making a firm, uncontroversial stand against the tyranny of dictatorship and absolute power (shout-out to both Death Note and Code Geass) – along comes Reinhard von Lohengramm to tell you everything you know about democracy is wrong. How does this show even do it so well? I just don’t understand it.
Above all, Gineiden has a timeless message. And no, it’s not some “war is bad” or “be kind to everyone” kind of overused morality tale. Gineiden’s message can be encapsulated in the words of Alexander Bucock:
“No, its citizens have turned over rulership to politicians, instead of participating in it! The people have democratic principles on their lips, but can’t spare the effort to safeguard it! The collapse of a government is the sin of its rulers and leaders. The collapse of democratic rule is the sin of every citizen!”
Not to make real-world affairs bleed excessively into fiction, but where I’m living, elections are coming up, and as usual, turnouts are going to be dismal. Watching Gineiden just hits me so hard because it’s a poignant reminder that the real issue with politics isn’t the political philosophy you subscribe to – rather, the biggest evil is in being completely apathetic about politics itself. If I end up generalising, I apologise, but I daresay this problem is particularly true of anyone who devotes a lot of time to fictional mediums for escapism (and yes, anime fans could well be guilty of this). You get people who are completely disillusioned with reality, unwilling to think about what they want for society; or worse still, people who complain about society but refuse to make a change by doing something as simple as turning up for election voting. To that, Gineiden says, well, watch out…especially those of you who live under a comfortable liberal democracy. What other show encourages you to take a minimal interest in current affairs? And an anime, no less? I can’t think of anything more powerful and relevant than a lesson such as this.
Henceforth, here’s my entirely biased, subjective view on this show. Yes, I do indeed think it puts so many other series to shame – and I’d even go so far as to say that personally, I do indeed agree that there’s no other anime (that I’ve seen yet) which deserves the coveted stamp of “best anime ever”. Will you like it? That depends, and it’s not a mark of “immaturity” or “shallowness” if you discover that you don’t. Gineiden is a heavy, dense show with long stretches of exposition, and very old animation – and I myself had to watch the first two episodes about three (?) times just to make sure that I got what was going on. But when it gets good…when it gets so good…nothing else comes close. I’d probably insult Gineiden by giving it a 10/10 – but that’s basically the kind of response you can’t give to a show about legendary men who are “heroes” in every sense of the word.