Sometimes the stars align. Legend of the Galactic Heroes can barely even be called an anime of 1988. Quite possibly the longest-running, and absolutely the most ambitious, OAV series of all time debuted in December 1988. While Galactic Heroes would soldier on across 110 episodes to end in 1997 (not counting gaiden episodes), its beginning was an explosive end for one of the best years in one of the best decades for Japanese animation.
Based off a series of novels by Yoshiki Tanaka, the OAVs depict a far-flung future where space colonization is an old story and Earth a backwater fringe planet. Colonized space is split down the center between the corrupt and inefficient Free Planets Alliance and the top-heavy, moribund Galactic Empire, who have been entangled for years in a quagmire of a war with each other. A tilt in the balance, however, seems imminent as a new generation of military and political minds rise to prominence on both sides of the conflict. The question is whether they are as apt to rip up the institutions they’re tasked to uphold as much as those of the enemy.
To even have considered taking on the investment of time, money and backbreaking work to depict such a story in animation must have required troubling amounts of ambition. Just be grateful to whichever Japanese investor was signing off on Kitty Films projects in between finishing his gold-dust-and-cocaine chaser off the leg of the Russian blonde hostess he had just finished eating sushi off of one night in 1988. Be especially grateful that he had the presence of mind left to assign a dry, level-headed director like Noboru Ishiguro to the task of heading the project.
Tanaka and series director Ishiguro, both of whom are still working today (thank heavens for small mercies), know that the best science fiction stories are not insipid little diatribes on X piece of speculative technology and speculating on its speculative scientific feasibility, but instead those old-fashioned little stories involving human drama and conflict. And, for my money, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is the greatest story depicted in the medium of animation, ever.
Barely even an anime of 1988 perhaps, but such a straight-to-video project could only have ever been green lighted and thrown money in cash-drenched late-80s Japan.
So many things set Legend of the Galactic Heroes apart, but for my money the deal-sealer is the fact that the series assumes its viewers are relatively intelligent. The audacity of Ishiguro to assume that his viewers had the mental capacity to keep track of multiple characters, relationships, motivations, dynamics of political power and military maneuvers! The presumptuousness of thinking science fiction fans might want to follow a story that focuses on smart, adult characters who are as dependent on the institutions they’ve been tied to as they are their own impulsive, individual drive.
The series’ influence can be seen in recent projects like Sunrise’s Code Geass and Gundam 00. I use the term “influence” loosely as the cues they’ve taken are about as shallow and flat as the levels of shading on both shows. What Geass and 00 forget is that all the topsy-turvy plot corkscrews and alphabet soup factions in the world don’t mean a fig when none of the characters matter, none of the institutions, none of the batshit insane relatable-to-no-one-who-lives-in-reality political philosophies matter.
There’s a reason why the Free Planets Alliance, for all its rampant corruption and distortion of democracy, has a military cast of multiethnic people with kooky-sounding names of varying gender and the Galactic Empire’s navy, adhering to Prussian efficiency, seems to be entirely staffed by white Aryan males with Germanic names that take up half the screen.
When a character like Yang Wen-li, the Alliance’s greatest admiral, gives an order that will almost certainly result in the death of thousands, you know exactly why he would do it because you’ve been given the keys to unlock what his motivations are, and no, it is not an overpowering hormonal urge to protect his paraplegic blind autistic little sister who also secretly rules the Alliance.
When characters die you almost always feel some sort of actual emotion, usually a pinch at the core of your gut or righteous vindication; not disappointment that you will no longer see fanservice shots from said character for the rest of the series (unless they come back to life!).
To be fair, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, more than most other anime described similarly, is not for everyone. In particular it’s not for those who aren’t part of that tiny elitist clique of people who’ve finished reading a book in their lives. If you have serious problems keeping track of what’s going on across this show’s 110 episodes it’s OK, but you should probably read more.