Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a Japanese science fiction media franchise originally based on a series of novels by Yoshiki Tanaka. I have never read the novels, which have received only a partial and recent English translation. This post is about the anime, which ran for 110 episodes (plus a two hour prequel movie, “My Conquest is the Sea of Stars”) over a nearly ten-year period from 1988-1997 — partly a review, partly a way for prospective viewers to decide whether they want to take the plunge.
The Legend of the Galactic Heroes anime (henceforth LotGH) has a small cult following, and is currently being remade by the well-known Production I.G in an abbreviated form (I haven’t watched the twelve released episodes, and don’t particularly care to do so as a veteran of the 110-episode original series). It is occasionally recommended to those interested in “space opera” because of its epic scope and character focus. It’s also a huge time commitment for a subtitled animation series with generally solid but sometimes sketchy production quality. But what’s it all about? Why does anyone like it? Might you, the reader, like it? Read on. I will keep it spoiler free.
The overarching plot of LotGH is the struggle for dominance of the Milky Way galaxy between the Galactic Empire (represented by the upstart admiral and later usurper Reinhard von Lohengramm) and the republican Free Planets Alliance (home to Reinhard’s rival and opposite, the career space-navy officer Yang Wenli). Some counterbalancing minor factions, especially the planet-state Phezzan, have maintained an equilibrium between the two forces for some time at the start of the series; this equilibrium is upset, of course.
Reinhard and Yang. Guess which is which.
LotGH is well known for its nuanced portrayal of the two sides of this conflict. The Galactic Empire, founded by a man strongly implied to be more than roughly analogous to Space Hitler, has settled down into a genteel albeit distinctly Prussian existence before the alexandrian Reinhard upsets the established order, partly over personal grievances against the ruling dynasty and partly from megalomania. The Free Planets Alliance, a multiethnic “democracy” in name, has degenerated into an oligarchy that cannot deal effectively with the epochal threat of Reinhard’s ambition. Reinhard is ruthless and thoroughly undemocratic but not brutal; Yang refuses to compromise his belief in liberal principles even as the Alliance begins to cede both territory and virtue in Reinhard’s war.
LotGh is, ultimately, “about” what happens when a single man manages to seize the reins of history. Still, the series uses its length well for both storytelling and exposition purposes, and there is plenty of time to deal with minor plots, side characters, world-building, and general detailing, although it the whole thing gets a little off track after a certain major character development around Episode 80.
Aside from the faster-than-light starships, which are for all intents and purposes reskinned navy ships, and a few minor stylistic flourishes, LotGH takes a staid and realistic approach to its setting and subject matter. The series is refreshingly devoid of typical anime tropes. Nowhere is this more true than the characters, whom LotGH generally portrays with relentless realism. Given the staggering length of the series’ dramatis personae, some viewers — especially those who enjoy the cartoonish characters common in certain anime — may find the endless parade of more or less stern and competent space navy officers and politicians exasperating.
The art is well directed but certainly not first-rate in execution, and the animation is serviceable but frankly third-rate — though particular care is lavished on certain important moments, and the many battles are staged with a certain stateliness that’s visually effective without requiring too many frames. A great deal of attention is paid to establishing distinct looks for the major factions — the Galactic Empire’s civil society consists of a semi-rural aristocracy lording over the common folk in embroidered jackets (LotGH does not concern itself whatsoever with how an apparently agrarian culture manages to field huge fleets of starships), while the Free Planets Alliance pretty much looks like the United States in the late 80s as seen by the Japanese. There are cultural differences as well, which deviate in subtle ways from the real-life bases for the respective factions.
The Alliance and Imperial capital cities
Imperial commanders are literally enthroned aboard their elegantly sculpted warships; Alliance officers even at the flag level issue orders to their more utilitarian vessels standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their immediate subordinates. The art direction extends to both civil and military fashion, and the viewer is expected to be able to identify the rank of the many military men (and a few women) by looking at their uniforms — a very nice touch, and if you think otherwise you probably won’t enjoy the series at all.
An Imperial High Admiral, flanked by his aide — a lieutenant commander — speaks to a Vice Admiral.
The helpfully labeled commander of an Alliance fleet with his rank insignia prominently displayed. His subordinate’s fleet patch is visible.
No dubs are available for the series, aside from an abortive fan project covering only five episodes. This is probably all for the better however; the subtitles consistently include title cards to identify characters who have been off-screen for a while. You’ll appreciate them.
Although very long — “epic” in length — LotGH does as I said use its length well. This also, I found, makes it unusually easy to see the strings of the narrative at work. LotGH takes a highly operatic approach to plot and character development (also, btw, to its soundtrack) — for instance, a side character may be built up over several episodes in order for Reinhard or Yang to defeat them, in turn developing those personae. Sometimes this device takes place at multiple orders. Character strengths and tragic flaws are exploited or subverted with equal precision. Important characters who have done their part for the story receive a demise appropriate to their station. Just because the series isn’t about Ulrich Kessler or Alexander Bucock doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of time for us to learn all about them. There are hundreds of named characters, dozens of whom receive substantial exposition. For those who don’t mind its realism, then, LotGH might appeal to those seeking immersion in a cast of characters.
This is just a taste
One important caveat: George Lucas said of Star Wars that the ships moved at the speed of plot. This sort of thinking permeates all aspects of LotGH, particularly the ubiquitous space combat: in true operatic fashion, battles are not actually fought by some sort of unified doctrine or even really subject to underlying physical laws, but are expressions of the fates of the characters involved. If this concept bothers you, avoid the series. As someone who might reasonably be credited with a better-than-layman’s understanding of military history, tactics, and strategy, I did not mind it at all. It’s literally a Space Opera. But your mileage, and tolerance, may vary.
The series isn’t without padding. This becomes a particular problem near the end, when the conflict between the Empire and the Alliance — yes, there is some stylistic influence from Star Wars — is partly eclipsed by the actions of “Terra-ist” terrorists. (I have no idea if this amazing pun was anticipated by the Japanese creators. Surely it was!) This subplot just about derails the series for a good 15 episodes. By that point, you will probably know enough to consult Gineipaedia without much risk of spoilers; it would be fine to skip this “major subplot” to get to the end of the series. If you have persisted that long, you will be able to make that judgment yourself.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a deliberately-paced, character-driven space opera that dispenses with common anime conventions in favor of a more realistic, almost “live action” approach. Much thought went into the details of the setting, although this was not matched by the amount of money available for art and animation. If this sounds appealing, then you’ll probably like it. But it’s not for everyone.