Area '88: Legend of the Galactic Heroes
by Mark - June 4 2009

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.


Comment from: TheAngryOTaku [Visitor] ·

For a time, I was an absolute convert, and loved that series ever so much. Then the 1990’s ended and I had to work for a living, all the while wondering if such a series would ever be available in an easy to get way. The “Chinese Democracy” of the anime world hands down, it’s a great example of when the creative and accounting departments never exist in the same universe. I think I still have my old cosplay uniform somewhere.

PS: replied to your last on my end. Not reprinted here, since it’s too long.

06/04/09 @ 02:56

Comment from: Daryl Surat [Visitor] ·

It must have been about ten years ago at this point, back when I was a poor college student, that I sprang for the full series in VCD just so I could see what the heck happened beyond the point where the VHS fansubs (and Lee Thompson’s RealVideo encodes) stopped, mid-Season 2. It set me back a few hundred bucks. Hard-subbed in Chinese only such that I could not truly know what was being said let alone read the names of any new characters, all I really had to go on was the LoGH Mailing List (which oddly enough I never posted in or actually subscribed to), Lee Thompson’s LoGH Information Center, and IRC conversations with LoGH god fan/anime con translator numero uno Taka.

The entire series was finally subtitled, which should forever be held up as the shining example of what fansubbing efforts ought to be. And yet, my tragic flaw is that I can’t bring myself to rewatch titles unless I’m showing them to someone else, and convincing other people to watch through LoGH with you from the beginning is a tremendously hard sell.

I haven’t watched the show in years. It, like Rose of Versailles and so many others, is something I’ve almost entirely forgotten the details of at this point. I just remember “it’s one of the single best anime titles of all time.”

06/04/09 @ 08:46

Comment from: mark [Member]

TAO: Thanks for visiting. The term “Guns and Roses” really does fit LoGH, doesn’t it?

Sorry about spamming your comments section, by the way.

Daryl: My impulsive refusal to ever do plot summary probably doesn’t help the fact that many have forgotten the finer details of what happened in LoGH. Basically there was this guy, Yang, and another guy, von Lohengramm, and they wanted to fight each other but might have also wanted to hook up.

Central Anime really outdid themselves with LoGH. I was originally going to mention their work fansubbing the series, but probably would have sprawled on too long (stay turned for an upcoming Turn A Gundam review or look back to the multi-part Patlabor TV review, to see my “unchained melody” as it were).

It would have fit though, because one of the themes of Area 88 is the fact that all these cartoons are such a product of their time and everything around LoGH has the air of stuff that today seems impossible – probably even to the people who worked on the show now.

06/04/09 @ 11:26

Comment from: ben [Member]

“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.”

I wouldn’t doubt that Ishiguro – or all but the most jaded anime creators, really – felt that his audience was capable of demanding and appreciating such things.

The real question, as with all TV anime, would be whether the people bankrolling him felt that way. It is they, after all, who REALLY determine if and how his show gets made.

06/05/09 @ 17:55

Comment from: Marc McKenzie [Visitor] ·

Ah, Legends of the Galactic Heroes…proof that there are intelligent, engrossing anime out there.

It’s too bad it has not been officially released in the US. In the wake of the much-admired and acclaimed rrvamp of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, LOTGH would certainly appeal to fans of BG or anyone who appreciated BG intelligent, no bull storytelling.

What’s sad is that many anime fans, both old and new, don’t even know of the show. Oh well.

06/06/09 @ 22:40

Comment from: Alvaro Hurtado [Visitor]

Legend of the Galactic Heroes is one of those shows that represents the best of what the anime medium has to offer, as long as the proper factors and circumstances are in place.

It really did blow my mind away when I watched something that required surprisingly little suspension of disbelief and had a definite sense of real political and philosophical relevance. That this happens only rarely in modern anime is surely an understatement.

Much of the credit for this accomplishment should go to Yoshiki Tanaka, for his pen crafted this wonderful story and these incredibly relatable characters, but the anime staff and those who funded the production deserve their own share of congratulations for not messing things up during the adaptation process and giving this tale the treatment it needed. For instance, you couldn’t possibly do justice to it in less than over a hundred episodes, the overwhelming majority of which had an actual purpose instead of amounting to repetitive filler arcs.

It’s simply too bad that we all too often have to settle for a lot less than this. Even Tytania was incredibly underwhelming in comparison, although Ishiguro has recently claimed that Tanaka’s unfinished novels were meant to be intentionally unfilmable so perhaps that was always the logical outcome, but I suppose it is also a sign of the times.

09/09/09 @ 20:55

Comment from: David Lim [Visitor]

Hands down, one of the best hardcore anime sci-fi shows ever. Despite its numerous characters and deep complexities, this show is definitely not for fanboys who need to see gratuitous panty shots of their favorite anime character.

The 80’s saw some of the best anime around, thanks in part to the economic wealth of Japan at the time.

It’s a shame that there are not too many anime out these days that do not rely on fan service like a bunch of the adolescent crap they call anime these days.

09/10/09 @ 23:35

Comment from: Jack [Visitor]

While Legend of the Galactic Heroes is indeed a thoroughly excellent show my brain can still barely comprehend how it ever got made. Even with the crazy amounts of wealth available I still can’t quite imagine pitching a show this slow and complicated to anyone.

>> It’s a shame that there are not too many anime out these days that do not rely on fan service like a bunch of the adolescent crap they call anime these days.

While this is indeed largely true partly that just seems to be because 90% of most of anything is poor. There are still reasonable shows made from time to time at present, while anime from the past can also be adolescent crap.

09/11/09 @ 15:24

Comment from: Milton Streeter [Visitor]

I have been an anime fan for decades and I never knew exactly what LOGH was until five years ago.
Now that I do, it’s far and away my favorite anime–deep, intelligent, engrossing, and ohgod do I love to see huge spacefleets clashing! I agree, it’s not for everyone, but those who invest the effort will not be disappointed.

11/10/09 @ 12:07

Comment from: Sargonarhes [Visitor]

It took me a long time to finally get to see this whole series, my first exposure to it was at Otakon ‘95. It was definitely an influence on me. As usually I’ve said if Gundam is Japan’s equivalent of Star Trek, then LoGH is like Babylon 5! A well thought out series that does not insult the viewers intelligence, as well as a master piece. This has easily come to be my #1 anime and sci-fi in general, yes I will even place LoGH over Star Wars with no debate.

11/16/09 @ 07:55

Comment from: David L. [Visitor]

Although I do admit I do like the “adolescent crap” from time to time. I think i’m one of those old-timer anime fans who bootlegged videotapes back in the 80’s, the golden age of anime (in my opinion).

These younger whippersnappers who watch their 400th episode of Naruto don’t know what they are missing haha.

12/06/11 @ 21:22

Comment from: LUNALUXLEPUS [Visitor] ·

I just wrote something on my blog about LOGH, and I linked this article. I hope you don’t mind.

01/20/12 @ 22:16

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