Legend of the Galactic Heroes: The Strategist's Space Opera

By James Tanaleon 16 Oct 2013 0

Editor?s note: OK, this is a little ?off the wall? for Wargamer, however, because of its different approach I thought that readers may be interested to read about this ? we have a wide variety of interests after all. I?d like to hear from readers as to whether more occasional articles on subjects like this would be welcome. Rest assured, however, that Wargamer will stick to its core subject for the vast majority of articles. 


Let's face it: most film or television is not geared for the heart of a strategy gamer. Most shows are meant for mass-appeal entertainment and very few pictures are offered that showcase actual warfare and politics on a strategic level. Even such politically charged shows as Game of Thrones focus more on the interpersonal adventures rather than on the travails of warfare. Usually this means that the strategy gamer must subsist on the meager and, many times, sterile offerings of documentaries. I had all but given up hope that any such offering would exist to entice a discerning strategist to sit through a series. 

Consider my surprise when I began watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Let me set the record straight first: I don't watch anime. Or, rather, I would never have considered myself to be an avid watcher of the medium compared to the scores of other individuals that perpetually tune in every week to the latest episode of Naruto, or be swept up by the currents of summer hits like Attack on Titan. But, I suppose that's the strange thing about Legend of the Galactic Heroes: I would even resist categorizing it as an anime in general. After all, what ?anime? has a soundtrack filled with scores from the Romantic Era like Dvorak's ?New World Symphony? filling the air as Admirals debate the finer points of political theory? What ?anime? has a narrator who outlines the strategic geniuses of battle formations? What ?anime? spends episodes not powering up Spirit Bombs, but scrutinizing fleet movements across a galaxy? 

Perhaps the reason is that unlike a lot of anime which first began as a manga or visual novel, Legend of the Galactic Heroes was first written down as a conventional set of ten novels - and a critically acclaimed set at that winning a ?Best Novel of the Year? award in 1989. What the watcher gets, therefore, is a tightly coordinated work of art undiluted by the conventional tropes and failings of the plebeian strains of visual entertainment. The story follows the gargantuan struggle between two galactic forces millions of soldiers strong, set several centuries into the future. On one side is the autocratic and aristocratic Galactic Empire and, on the other, the ostensibly democratic Free Planets Alliance. These two factions are locked in a death struggle for supremacy of the known galaxy and have been in a stalemate for years. 

With this backdrop, two careers are followed closely: Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Empire and Yang Wenli of the Free Planets Alliance. The destiny of these two individuals form the backbone of the narrative and the episodes switch operatically between both camps and features an ensemble cast of admirals, agents, and vassals that populate the theatrical landscape. Reinhard is a young and rising star among the officers of the Galactic Empire and his ambition to rule the galaxy at such a young age, and through genius rather than birthright, makes him a cosmic entity that eclipses even Napoleon. On the other end is the philosopher-strategist Yang Wenli who combines the monastic contemplation of a man who wished to be a historian rather than a soldier with the impeccable analysis of Sun Tzu. These two geniuses in constant battle and competition set the stage for episodes filled with meticulous attention to strategic detail; order of battle; ruses and maneuvers; and the nobility of gentlemanly combat. There would be times when episodes would cover an intense engagement and I could not help but rise from my seat and salute the fallen admirals that had remained on the field so that the remnants of their fleets could flee. 

The experience of watching this show is a subtle mix of the exciting turn by turn skirmishes of Napoleon: Total War and the grand scope of Star Wars. This galactic civil war, however, is not a mind numbing disarray of ships in close combat like in most depictions of space battles, but battle lines are drawn and the ships of each set of fleets glitter in a grid like diamonds arrayed evenly on a tapestry. The fronts of battle are more akin to the seamless symmetry of naval warfare than the gratuitous melee of other shows which simply wish to carpet bomb the viewer with action. It's not just in the visual style, but each particular ship and function is calculated. Tactical advantages and disadvantages vary between commanders as they do between ships. From the lowly captain to the Fleet Admiral, battles become rational exercises in the Art of War mixed with the horrors of laser weapons and precision missiles. From the small Valkyrie fighters to the massive capital ships, the flow of battle is documented with the overview of a seasoned History Channel documentary, but synthesized with the high drama of romantic warfare and larger than life characters. One can't help but yell out ?FEUER? along with the Prussian uniformed Galactic Empire. 

Despite the action sequences, the show contains a deep and rich political and philosophical core. Interspersed with the action are the long arguments on justice, power, political theory, and, of course, warfare. There are such memorable discourses on whether or not authoritarian monarchies or democracies should be the ideal form of government; whether or not an order should be followed even if it means allowing your greatest enemy to live; or who has the right to command and by what standards. Even with such heavy handed discussions, the artistry of the piece is not neglected. Each line is delivered like poetry. When one of the lower officers, for example, is caught accepting a bribe, he tries to justify his actions one way or another, but his commanding officer merely shakes his head and sighs that, ?a mouse cannot understand the feelings of a lion.? That's not to say that all of the characters are philosopher-princes. As one of the High Admirals proclaims: ?I am neither poet nor philosopher, but a vulgar soldier.

The warrior mentality of these gentlemen should not be underestimated either. Questions of character, loyalty, and duty all factor into the rich personalities which dominate the high nobility of this opera. Any fan of the American Civil War will raise an eyebrow at the conspicuous chivalry of some of these characters. Any ponderer of political theory and war will be admonished. Any person who has tried to bring their faction to glory in Shogun: Total War will be humbled by the vassal loyalty of this cast. Any person who has ever used the Death Star in Star Wars: Empire At War will understand the subtle thrill and tingling in the pit of their stomach when they watch the discharge of the megaweapon ?Thor's Hammer? from the liquid-metal space fortress Iserlohn in less time than it takes to say, ?that's no moon!

Most episodes feature overlays of the tactical situation as the characters see it in real time. Figures and holograms track the movements of the fleets and the maneuvers are explicitly outlined for the viewer in lush detail. Flanking motions, ruses, and hidden ambushes are treated with due respect and the viewer can't help but be captivated by the nuances of space combat where tens of thousands of ships are involved. One of the most interesting things about this treatment of space warfare is that far from having skirmishes in the deep void of empty space, many of the engagements occur in areas with ?terrain.? Namely, there are black holes, asteroid belts, gas giants, unstable stars, moons, and even restrictive space anomalies that narrow the combat width considerably. All of these factors provide for a different experience and flavor in every battle. 

While the showdowns are impressive and the geniuses of each commanding officer and his subordinates is illuminating, the show does not romanticize the horrors of war. Soldiers can be seen carrying their entrails and crying out to their mothers. Whole sections of ships are blown away and men are spaced indiscriminately. Although the whole affair is theatrical, this show is very well aware that it is a story about war and does not spare the viewer from loss and tragedy - even amongst the main pantheon of characters. This is punctuated by the intense hand to hand combat scenes that pepper the main plot. While most of the action does take place in space, there are still sequences of infiltration, sabotage, and massive marine landings which will satisfy any purveyor of the martial arts. This is made even more obvious by the fact that instead of relying merely on pistols and rifles, elite corps of panzergrenadiers or the famed ?Rosenritters? engage in hand to hand combat with giant halberds. 

Indeed, one should not let the space setting be a distraction: while this show contains a cogent internal world of science fiction, unlike such shows as Star Trek, the science fiction is merely a tool for the dramatic battles and elegant discourses. It is an easy show to pick up even if one is not used to science fiction but merely has a love for the strategic, tactical, political, or philosophical. In fact, it is the mind that becomes most stimulated by this orchestra of warfare. The witty comments and sage sayings by many of the characters becomes a Socratic dialogue in the art of war. For example, when Yang Wenli is asked by a seedy politician what a commander needs in order to always ensure victory - obviously expecting some kind of fluffy and elevated maxim in the same ivory sphere that politicians seem to romanticize warfare with - Yang merely replies that all he needs is to have a force seven times as large as the enemy and unlimited supplies. 

The finesse in which the show demonstrates the difference between good commanders and those commanders which merely throw away their men and material like chess pieces forms a master class in the gentleman general; the philosopher prince; and the compassionate commander all of which instill a real sense of growth in any one who would purport to enjoy, love, or study strategy. 

Aside from the two main factions involved are also the various smaller groups that add flavor to the conflict and steer the plot in unexpected ways. The neutral merchant world of Phezzan, for example, attempting to straddle the competing interests of both factions - or the mysterious Earth Cult which seeks to return human life back to the depleted and irrelevant planet from whence humanity came. The inclusion of these political factions within the larger framework helps to add a level of Grand Strategy to the whole experience. One is not only introduced to the competing philosophies of each party, but the spectrum of politics and warfare that Carl von Clausewitz paints can be immediately apprehended and appreciated in this show. 

The whole background of how these factions came to be and how the galaxy became divided between the two competing camps is a major point in several of the episodes and the narrator revels in exposing these historical backstories in well crafted documentary scenes. It's as if the show also contains a historical narrative that rivals many of the best Historical After Action Reports for games like Europa Universalis. It is obvious in the show that the author is not just a student of warfare, politics, and philosophy, but also of history which is reflected in the holistic approach to being a warrior which is so prevalent in the characters depicted. 

At the end of the day, Legend of the Galactic Heroes represents a particular gold standard in animation. In one sense, it is the only anime I am aware of that caters to adults. One is not bogged down by mind-numbing fanservice or is condescended to. While watching LOGH, one gets the sense that this was made for a Master's student in war and politics. Whereas other shows exist that one can eat popcorn to and coast through, this is a show that provokes true thought in a warrior, soldier, general, or, plainly, a man. It is the nobility of the samurai warrior fused with the elan of the Prussian soldier. It is the cleverness of Zhuge Liang wedded to the epic scope of Wagnerian Opera. One can't help but feel edified at the calm and benevolent philosophies on family life by Vice Admiral Cazerne before being riled up to ride with the Valkyries whenever Admiral Bittenfeld charges forward aboard his black flagship Der Königs Tiger.


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