Written by Robert Frazer on 05 Jun 2018
Distributor Haikasoru • Author/Artist Yoshiki Tanaka • Price £9.99
This review has been a long time coming and I wasn't looking forward to it. I found the first two volumes of Legend of the Galactic Heroes an outright chore to read - volume one was badly-written and volume two was highly objectionable - and despite my best efforts to shine a more discerning light on this entirely uncritically overrated series it doesn't seem to have mattered. The 'opening trilogy' of releases with which imprint Haikasoru was testing the level of interest in the series has sold well enough for them to continue publishing further volumes - volume four will be coming out later this summer. Still, a promise is a promise and who knows, maybe Yoshiki Tanaka has finally found his feet and acquired the rock-solid foundation that has made him a permanent fixture in literary anime-and-manga canon. The title of volume three, "Endurance", is challenging me - never let it be said that I backed down and lacked the stamina to see it through.
The simultaneous civil wars that wracked both the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance have died down, but the effects internecine strife has had on each power are wildly different. The Empire is undergoing a total and previously unimaginable social upheaval as Reinhard, now Emperor in all but name, is using his absolute power to dismantle the edifices of the nobility that opposed him. Their estates are being liquidated and their property redistributed amongst the commoners, but while this has won the benevolent dictator Reinhard the love of the people as a reformer and liberator, the nobles he has dispossessed are not entirely without resource and are already hatching plots of revenge. In the Alliance by contrast the defeat of its own rebellion has resulted in what is to all outward appearances a reversion to normality as the duplicitous Chairman Trunhicht returns as leader. However, while Yang Wen-Li has not accrued the long roll of titles and official legal authority that Reinhard enjoys, he nonetheless holds great respect and informal sway as a hero of the republic - alarming the Alliance establishment who are keen to quash this irregular factor in the usual order of things despite Yang's continued protests that he has no presidential ambitions of his own. All this politicking however doesn't alter the fact that while the home fronts have been secured the wars abroad are still going strong, with Alliance and Empire resuming their battles against each other. Yang Wen-Li's brilliant and bloodless infiltration and capture of the impregnable Iserlohn Fortress was one of the biggest strategic upsets in centuries, and it's a victory that Reinhard is determined to see undone on the road to fulfilling Kircheis's dying wish for Reinhard to "seize the stars and make them his own". Easier said than done, as to defeat the most heavily-armed installation in the galaxy will require an effort of high momentousness... as these two titans square off for the next stage on the galaxy-sized duel worlds will collide, quite literally.
Now, a common criticism lobbed my way after my previous reviews of Legend of the Galactic Heroes was sneering that I'm just a petty contrarian who's snootily pooh-poohing something popular to enjoy the notoriety of dissidence. Would that it were, at least then I'd get some benefit from trudging through this wood-pulp stodge. Alas, the UK Anime Network don't pay me for my reviews so even the most inflammatory clickbait that I could cynically crow to bring masses of site traffic here to voice their indignation and click on ad banners doesn't gain me so much as a brass farthing. If that doesn't convince you of my honesty, then allow me to say that I'm not universally intolerant of Legend of the Galactic Heroes - the synopsis in the previous paragraph highlights a quality of the series that I've actually come to like, that there are salient differences between Reinhard and Yang. As Reinhard and Yang are set up as rival admirals it would have been very easy to make each character a mirror image of the other - two identical sides would have been appealing for chess-like strategy (videogames with their recent pretensions to e-sport have become especially hypersensitive to perceptions of symmetry... No Items, Fox only, Final Destination!), and Tanaka could even have spun an easy if lazy 'politicians are all as bad as each other' moral out of it. However, Reinhard and Yang are contrasting counterparts and their differing attitudes, combined with the fact that despite being set up as rivals they've never met, helps the story to keep a much broader scope than a purely personal feud. In Endurance specifically, that the regressive feudal Empire experiences a social revolution precisely enabled by its dictatorial system while the progressive democratic Alliance defaults to an inequitable restoration despite the opportunity for refreshing elections is an amusing human irony. Circumstances that re-emerge the Alliance in particular are an observation that's also turned out to be fairly perspicacious given our own countries' return to the mean following the upheaval of the 2008 financial crisis.
However, as much as this set-up offers potential that doesn't necessarily mean that it actually realises it and Tanaka's political commentary is once again poorly thought-out, presenting serious problems for a series that relies upon these grand constitutional sermons for its appeal. Reinhard's revolution is a case in point. Reinhard inveighs against the oppressive nobility - sycophants who "the only reason they hadn't wagged their tails for Rudolf had been that they lacked them" and wastrels who don't realise that "the bountiful lifestyle they had enjoyed up until now had been thanks to an unjust societal system" - and he dismantles their estates, seizes their property and distributes it to the commoners. All very stirring and invigorating stuff, I'm sure, but the edge is taken off of it when you realise that this egalitarian invective is coming from His Grace the Duke von Lohengramm. Tanaka seems faintly embarrassed by this, and in previous volumes took pains to stress that that Reinhard's family wasn't moneyed and was aristocracy "in name only" and so despite being a man of title, pedigree and considerable social advantage he's one of the good ones, as the racists say, and so he can be preserved from the bonfire of art and treasure which sweeps away the rest of his class as he was miraculously not contaminated by the "spiritual rot" which debilitated every other member.
Indeed, the Duke von Lohengramm enjoys grace both temporal and spiritual. "Reinhard had turned twenty-two, and both a shade of melancholy and a ruler's dignity had been added to his natural comeliness, giving him a presence of late that called to mind that of a demigod. To the soldiers, he was a presence worthy of awe - awe made of the same stuff as religious faith." All Reinhard has to do to enjoy such literal deification is condescend to live in officer's accommodation instead of a palace... still "a house for a high ranking officer" with a big garden and bedroom for a servant - but just the one! Big woop, oh Buddha Reinhard, turn up to work wearing nothing but rags fished out of the trash and eating only what scraps are picked up off the floor and I might be impressed by your "poverty of desire".
Reinhard's close ally Hildegard von Mariendorf is adored by both patrician and pleb alike as a resurrecting ancient myth in flesh as a "Minervan" beauty of wit and intelligence unbound by the strictures of the nobility - her statuesque grace completely unlike the lugubrious inbreds whose mutant genes she was born from. Morality seems to be physically reflected in your stature in Tanaka's understanding of biology, which I'm sure will impress the Negroes. Hildegard's radiant hagiography is laughably excused as she belongs to a "medium-income" aristocratic family. Yes, she is still a blueblood of inherited title and, spared the seizures the other nobles suffered, still owns vast planetary estates far and above what a meagre commoner might enjoy, but like how Reinhard lives entirely comfortably but is just a little understated in his choice of decor, she's not quite as grotesquely extravagant as some others were and that's enough of a politely self-effacing gesture to be tasteful about it, surely? Somehow I don't think the commissars lining up the latest batch of class enemies against the wall will display quite so much artful sophisticated nuance in their politics. These middle-class champagne-socialist hypocrisies irk me - everyone else is a horrid exploitative enemy of the people, but I'm alright, they're bad people and I'm not a bad person, I'd know if I was! In writing Endurance Tanaka might be trying to convince himself that despite being an enjoying a sedentary and easy academic lifestyle he's still a good ol' calloused-hands worker really. It's a short-sighted indulgence for the well-off to enjoy the self-assurance of pious sanctimony with the fatuous notion that they'll still be alright after the wars they ignite, but when you make relative wealth a position of not just morality but social tolerance the dark forces these delusional revolutionaries unleash is a bloody self-destruction of jealous covetous strife burning everything down in a race to outdo each other in mutual desolation. Just ask the kulaks, or all those right-on progressive university graduates buried in Cambodia's killing fields. "The people were on Reinhard's side, and they were watching the former aristocrats like hawks, eyes burning with hostility and thirst for revenge." it doesn't sound much like a society enjoying a new lease of freedom and equitability, rather one being riven by new hatreds, but Tanaka nods at this favourably as having created an atmosphere of public honesty and morality. Yes, and so did the Stasi.
You may say again that I'm letting my personal politics colour my perception of the book, but Endurance fails as a political study in more ways than just the specific policies it tries to promote. Reinhard's deification might have been more tolerable if Siegfried Kircheis had remained as the levelling counterpoint, the one subordinate who wasn't as much an unctuous sycophant to Reinhard as he accuses Rudolf Goldenbaum's hangers-on of being. Kircheis is conspicuous by his absence in this volume, and Tanaka's stupid decision to kill him off in Ambition has permanently hobbled Reinhard's story. Kircheis was much more valuable as a humanising foil than as some mawkish totem to excuse Reinhard's megalomania; in the later books of Legend of the Galactic Heroes multiple characters will wistfully lament "oh, if only Kircheis was here!" and even if it's for different reasons I really do have to agree with them. Beyond that, if Reinhard's reforms fail to convince on the constitutional level of high policy, Yang's experiences fail on the practical level of political engagement.
Yang's own major political conflict in Endurance is when he is recalled to the Alliance capital to face a formal inquiry into his conduct during the mutiny in Ambition, transparently an attempt by the Establishment to pull him up before a kangaroo court and get a thin legal excuse for disposing of him. This whole episode is an incompetent farce from beginning to end. The court is completely unprepared for the slightest resistance Yang might proffer, they make accusations without even manufactured evidence to support them, and they flounder flummoxed and frustrated by his cool commanding confidence and impeccable considered reason, before having to pathetically crawl back on hands and knees and beg for his forgiveness so he can ride off to save the day when the Empire launches a sudden attack, nothing having been achieved over pages and pages except reconfirming over and over just what a supreme-yet-modest genius Yang is. It reads like the "Marine Todd" and "Albert Einstein" copypastas somehow escaped from the internet and were actually taken seriously for professional publication.
To take one example, Yang is criticised for attacking the defensive satellites surrounding the capital as a strategically unnecessary action of gratuitous destruction, to which Yang rejoinders that there was a risk the mutiny's leadership would take VIPs hostage, necessitating a quick action to crush the rebels' spirit. This is meant to show up the cowardice of the inquiry board as they're invited to reflect on being the hostages themselves and they dutifully all act hangdog and shamefacedly beneath the wise and insightful Yang, but this defence could have been dismissed in an instant by pointing out that the mutineers still had a whole planet to run around in and there would be nothing stopping the rebellion from putting guns to the captured leadership's heads regardless of whether the satellites were intact or not - Tanaka's poor sense of scale again at play - and Yang's action was indeed utterly pointless. Indeed, it could well have been counterproductive as Yang asserts that the rebels felt "backed into a corner", but what situation feels more desperate - when the government fleet is holding orbit offering terms, or on the ground literally knocking down the door? Now, the inquiry board members are not military strategists - they admit as much - but neither am I yet I realised the flaws in Yang's logic within seconds of reading it. A blow-by-blow dismantling of the inquiry's other flaws would double the length of this review but this example will serve to show that a whole chapter is dedicated not to fine courtroom rhetorical cut-and-thrust but continuing to stroke the messianic glory of "Miracle Yoshiki Tanaka" - er, sorry, "Miracle Yang" - which wouldn't be so bad if you couldn't plug the sun shining out of his backside with all the illogical claims that go unchallenged during his defence.
I must admit though that while Endurance's rhetorical defences are patchy the physical defences are much stronger. Each volume of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes is anchored around a big set-piece space battle and the confrontation of Endurance is the Empire's attempt to reclaim the Iserlohn Fortress sensationally captured by Miracle Yang - in an audacious move, fixing engines to the planetoid of the Gaiesburg Fortress to turn it into a rival battle station to match Iserlohn's fleet-busting firepower on equal and extraordinary terms. It's an exciting prospect and there's finally a fight worthy of it too. I've criticised the battles of the previous two volumes for their tactical underdevelopment and the demeaning stupidity of the opponents the heroes face but after a halting start in the earlier books in this third volume Tanaka does seem finally to be getting a better handle on war's complexities. The fight between the Fortresses actually isn't all that bad! The rival commanders, if sometimes headstrong or prideful, have at least had a basic upgrade in effectiveness above 'drooling imbecile'. The decisions they make, if not always correct, are reasonable ones given the information available to them that are prosecuted competently, and they are responsive to the evolving situation and pro-active in seeking to regain the initiative. I admit that on a purely visceral level I would have welcomed an opportunity to behold the awesome sight of two Death Stars squaring up to the crease and smashing together in a truly cosmic slugging match of planetary mass and armada-sized ordnance, but it would require fervid lashings of purple prose to realise such a ferocious bout on the exaggerated epic scale it needed - I've already established that is completely beyond Tanaka's writing abilities so he sensibly doesn't overreach this time - the ensuing campaign of feint and counter-bluff by each fortress's accompanying fleets may not be so grand but it is finally, if belatedly, reaching something like the chess-match sophistication promised by the publicity.
Unfortunately for me it's too little, too late. Endurance is a better-constructed and more tightly-plotted book than the previous volumes, but even if you like his politics your enjoyment of them is interrupted by Tanaka's usual foibles which are all still here unvarnished to stick you with their splinters. He keeps hammering his calculator at meaningless games of numberwang (He has 64,000 engineers! He needs another 25,000 engineers! How much do they do, and who cares?) and characters' stilted robotic dialogues degenerate into literal essaying here as one chapter is given over to Yang not just writing his socio-political treatise, but drafting it too... which is a handy way to run up the word count if nothing else. I'd like to spend more time discussing Tanaka's outmoded Whiggish notion that civilisation advances on a single railroad track of capital-P Progress, and challenge his assertion that invasions ironically often destroy the invader (on the face of it superficially true - Nazi Germany was annihilated, America was humbled in Vietnam - but a distortion of hindsight overlooking hundreds of contemporary variables which made the conclusions not at all certain), but really while the English publication of Legend of the Galactic Heroes will continue on I no longer have interest in following it and it's brought me to the limit of my endurance.
Robert's life is one regularly on the move, but be it up hill or down dale giant robots and cute girls are a constant comfort - limited only by how many manga you can stuff into a bursting rucksack.
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