Yoshiki Tanaka is a giant figure in Japan, but for all his presence he's been curiously absent from much of the Western anime fandom. He's best known in the West for his sci-fi epic Legend of the Galactic Heroes but that's only one of the titles that this prolific author has penned which range from paranormal detective dramas to scholarly translations of Chinese literature. While Tanaka's officially-licensed material in the West has been spotty before now - Central Park Media made an earlier attempt to release The Heroic Legend of Arslan and his other fantasy series Legend of the Dragon Kings back in the early Nineties, but there's been little since then - we now seem to be gearing up for a Tanaka Tsunami with Legend of the Galactic heroes in both novel and anime formats and now his other major title The Heroic Legend of Arslan leading the charge for Universal Picture's new anime division. It's a high profile release supported by a wealth of extra content, but as much as Tanaka is a publishing colossus back home, will that colossus break in the long stride across continents?
Whereas Legend of the Galactic Heroes was Tanaka's space opera, The Heroic Legend of Arslan is his fantasy epic. It'd be easy to make the two contrasting counterparts - as well as their similar titles The Heroic Legend of Arslan was written in immediate succession to Legend of the Galactic Heroes (the first volume came out in 1986, shortly before the first run of Galactic Heroes ended in 1987). Also, while it's not reached the sheer scale of its predecessor The Heroic Legend of Arslan has nonetheless accumulated some franchise power behind it too. The anime we're looking at today is actually the fourth distinct adaptation of the books, including two separate manga series from the Nineties and the Tens. The latter has already been available in UK bookshops for over a year and is remarkable for being drawn by Hiromu Arakawa, famous of course as mangaka of the renowned Fullmetal Alchemist. The modern anime is not so much a direct adaptation of the books, more an animated version of Arakawa's manga. Nonetheless, there are important thematic differences - while Legend of the Galactic Heroes was about men seizing the world and making it their own, The Heroic Legend of Arslan is about a boy being given the world, then having to earn it.
It tells the tale of Arslan, a young child prince and heir to the Kingdom of Pars. Pars is a prosperous country on the continental crossroads, but as well as being a merchant hub and bounteous in both fertile fields and rich mines it's also skilled in war - as it has to be when many rival countries covet its wealth. Pars is ruled over by the imperious, forbidding figure of King Andragoras, and Arslan is very self-consciously in his father's shadow. Arslan earnestly wants to do well and grow into a good King but he's not sure how - the King is always off fighting a campaign somewhere and Arslan has little ability to connect with him. The opportunity to do so finally comes as Arslan grows into a teenager and is brought along to fight against the invasion of Pars by the Lusitanians. Arslan desperately wants to prove himself to his father and earn his attention by fighting well, but there are some doubts in his heart as he's come to the uncomfortable realisation that Pars' prosperity is built on the backs of slaves, but the Lusitanians are no liberators. Lusitania is a theocracy preaching that all are equal under God, but it's the equal height of a scythe through hay - anyone outside of God's sight is a worthless heathen to be mercilessly slaughtered with crusading zeal.
However, what's expected to be a triumphant victory over Lusitania is turned into a crushing defeat - betrayed by his closest generals and faced by the black hatred of a figure who hides the disfigurement of a past defeat behind a silver mask, King Andragoras's reputation for invincibility is smashed to pieces and his kingdom overrun. Arslan thus finds himself, very abruptly, thrust into the position of King - a vagabond King ruling ashes on the wind. He used to have a whole regiment beside him and a palace of attendants, but Arslan now has no more than a single loyal retainer as a subject to hail his coronation. Arslan wanted to be a good King, but he's going to have to learn very quickly - does he have the right stuff within him to win new allies, inspire new followers, and build his lonely duo back into an army capable to retaking his phone and freeing Pars from the destruction wrought by Lusitania?
I've long been an advocate of adaptations departing from the source material
to refresh, enhance and expand the source material and The Heroic Legend of Arslan
does it well here too. The opening episode is an original incident written by Arakawa that wasn't in the original novels, and it's actually an important one that helps to establish Arslan as a sympathetic character that's worth following. The Parsians are slavers, so despite being the protagonists they'd automatically be the baddies to most audiences - when their kingdom is destroyed most probably would see it as the slavers getting their just deserts and resent Arslan for trying to restore it. Arslan's conduct in this opening episode though sets him apart - when an escaping slave with a sword takes some children hostage Arslan gives himself up in exchange for them - so we can appreciate his basic moral courage and sense of decency so even if his background comes from an uncomfortable place we can respect Arslan himself and his potential to change it. The ill-fitted match of the King and Queen is also set up well with a coldly courteous scene between them.
Arslan has a good heart but a body needs a backbone to stand tall. A story is meant to be about Arslan's growth as a leader but he never has to show much effort in that - of the five in his retinue, only one of them, Narsus, he actually has to persuade to join him - Daryun was sworn to him anyway, Elam comes along as a value-add as Narsus's pageboy, Farangis was instructed to join Arslan by a bishop who we never see, and Gieve tags along with the hope of seducing her. However, this is a long series and there is plenty of opportunity for further developments to come, and to the story's credit there is more subtlety to the slavery issue than just crying "let freedom ring!" and everything being happy and solved forever. The twist at the end is painfully obviously telegraphed, but it'll be interesting to see what Arslan makes of it in part two.
Gieve also illustrates that these characters really have no flaws that Arslan as leader would need to use judgement to balance out between them. We're introduced to Gieve after he falsely takes the credit for a deadly commander-killing bow-snipe that impresses the Queen. Gieve is a shameless huckster and he has an excellent, characterful introduction when it's revealed that he's slept his way through the Queen's ladies-in-waiting by charming them with fanciful tales of being a questing prince, but he deftly gives this deception a poetic spin by saying that "we shared in hopeful dreams, which could have grown into fond memories". It would have been interesting if amongst the warriors and hunters in Arslan's retinue for Gieve to have shown a different facet as a rogue who needs to use his quick wits and silver tongue to slip out of tight spots, but when he's not just a master musician and consummate con-man but even also a superior swordsman who gallops into battle as courageously as the heroic knights (would a self-centred con artist really stick around to face down a whole army of crusaders, no matter how smokin' hot Farangis may be?) and can slaughter whole squads of Lusitanian soldiers with wall-jumping acrobatics he becomes just too good and it detracts and distracts from the qualities that made him interesting.
At the other end of the scale, just as the heroes are too good those on the wrong side of the history are too foolish. Happily The Heroic Legend of Arslan doesn't descend to nearly the ludicrous depths of the early volumes of Legend of the Galactic Heroes where antagonists were so blitheringly inept you wondered how they managed to even dress themselves in the morning let alone advance to positions of command, but still the losing sides of each confrontation make rather too many unforced errors. This is most obvious when The capital of Pars is besieged, and is breached both by a slave revolt and an enemy division creeping up through the underground waterways. Despite the fact that they're a long-established slave state the Parsians seem completely flummoxed by and unable to handle unruly slaves even though you'd think that'd be their first priority (the Spartans of classical yore were renowned for their military prowess mainly because they had to keep their helots in line); and the Parsians are fully aware of these waterways, even using them as a route to spirit VIPs out of the city, but didn't think to post guards of their own!
Also, while the story is about Arslan's growth from a hesitant youth into an inspiring leader, he toughens up perhaps too quickly. He's understandably a bit of a wreck following the first disastrous battle which breaks his father's kingdom and the delirious adrenalin surge of his first real up-close-and-personal fight (which is well-directed and a credible balance of his lack of experience firmed by intense training), but just a few days later he's coldly mowing down enemy soldiers with a bow with nary a blink of concern.
However, the battles themselves are very well done. It's interesting to compare The Heroic Legend of Arslan to another fantasy war epic recently reviewed here, Lord Marksman and Vanadis
, and see how Arslan's story does it better - there are also a lot of CGI soldiers here too, but the battles are much more interesting with an active camera that sweeps through the middle of the melee to really put you in the heart of the action. The small scale is done even better than the large - there are a series of thrilling duels in this anime, moving at whiplash speed slamming into head-spinning blocks and parries, aided by superb sound design which really drives home their impact with swords that shriek and howl as they scrape and clash - I actually physically winced at some of the ringing reverberations, you feel the weight thundering behind each blow in your ears. A night-fight between two of Arslan's companions and the villain Silver Mask practically looks like a laser battle as swords reflect the moonlight, you could well imagine not just being cut by them but bisected.
The depiction of these duels also reflects on the high quality of the art itself. Arakawa's art style has always been very clean and open and, well, anime-ish, but that also means that it's easily watchable - and occasional cartoony reaction shots show that she still injects the art with a sense of humour and that the story has enough downtime to recuperate between the dramatic beats. The old OVA series was quite a different beast with an art style more reminiscent of Record of Lodoss War and there's a hint of it in the changed art style for the ending sequence (which incidentally has a theme which has shot up to become one of my absolute favourites). There are subtler things too - for instance, when Gieve is laying the moves on Farangis he's surrounded by typical shoujo sparkles, but when she brushes him off they don't just vanish but tinkle to the floor which is a cute effect. While Arakawa doesn't fully depart from her older titles - Arslan himself has a distracting similarity to Edward Elric, even down to the M-shaped "jet intake" fringe on his hair - The Heroic Legend of Arslan is not a Xerox of Fullmetal Alchemist, as the design of the Kingdom of Pars borrows heavily from Byzantium and Persia, an atypical setting for anime which leads to some gorgeous backgrounds with elegant geometric patterning fretwork. Moving on from natural to human beauty, there's a bit of light low-fat cheesecake - I'm surprised that the Temple of Mithra isn't so large that it makes the huge Lusitanian crusading army look like a cultish rabble, if their priestesses all wear vestments as skimpy as Farangis they'd have no trouble gaining converts! Even the Queen's widow's weeds have a bosom-flattering low cut. However, beyond Gieve's verbal flirtations there really isn't any sex to speak of at all. One covering we could do with being taken off though is the obsessive captioning of the cast - yes, we know that this is Lord Silver Mask, you told us in each of the last five episodes!
This is a very international release with multiple dubs and subtitle tracks, which speaks well to Universal's better resources, but the set also shows their inexperience with how anime is presented - while the extras do include the usual clean opening and closing animations, they've peculiarly all been lumped together in a single continuous "music clips" item you have to track backwards and forwards across to find the sequence you want. Also, whoever encoded these discs wasn't paying close attention because the extras include both animations and comedy shorts from the unreleased Part Two of this series as well. Normally I wouldn't object to getting more content but these do let slip some significant spoilers for the future of the series so you have to tread carefully around them.
When I reviewed "Legend of the Galactic Heroes" last week
I was disappointed by Tanaka's flat writing style - there were good ideas struggling to make themselves heard under the muffle of bad writing. It was my hope that the anime versions of his stories would give life to the barebones of his manuscripts and I'm pleased to report that The Heroic Legend of Arslan seems to bearing that out. Battles are exciting to watch on fields that are pretty to look at - while Arslan's heroism is somewhat dinted in that victory comes rather too easily to him, it's nonetheless shaping up to be an grand fantasy adventure on an epic scale.
English 5.1 audio, Japanese, French and German stereo audio with English, German, French and Dutch subtitles. Extras consist of textless opening and closing animations, trailers, TV spots, and comedy shorts.
Physical extras in this Collector's Edition include eighty page book of interviews, character profiles and artwork; 12 art cards; 4 collectible character cards; a map of the Kingdom of Pars and a boardgame with forty tokens featuring all the key characters from the series.
You can find our look at the full contents of this Collector's Edition over here.