It’s Time to Start Watching Japan’s Best Military Sci-Fi Series
'Legend of the Galactic Heroes' is very good, but don't start with the books
Yoshiki Tanaka wrote Legend of the Galactic Heroes, a series of cult military space opera novels, beginning in 1982. The epic, far-future books later went on to become an excellent, cult anime series with the same name.
The anime series may be some of the best military science fiction ever put on screen. Now the first novel, Dawn, has received an English after more than 30 years. I quickly ordered it from Amazon when it dropped earlier in March.
But after reading, I’m hesitant to recommend the novel … at least until sampling the show. And I emphasize sampling, because despite how good it is, there are 110 episodes which stretched from 1988 to 1997. The DVDs are rare and insanely priced, but the whole series — with English subtitles — is easily available online.
For the most part, Tanaka’s setting is better fit for the visual medium than as a novel. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is ridiculous, satirical and enormous in the best sense.
The characters and uniforms are campy and totally outrageous. Many of the officers in charge are incompetent, blustering fools. A single engagement will have 80,000 warships blasting away at each other.
But underneath all that bombast is a smart and weighty examination of military tactics, and the causes and consequences of war.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes tells the story of two military prodigies who emerge on opposing sides of a 156-year-old interstellar conflict. The war, as the series begins, is at a stalemate. It’s a pretty obvious parallel to World War I.
In the Galactic Empire, 20-year-old Reinhard von Lohengramm rises rapidly through the ranks due to his unorthodox tactical skills. In the Free Planets Alliance, the Empire’s enemy, 29-year-old Yang Wen-li becomes a sudden war hero after saving a fleet from annihilation.
The blonde, model-factory Von Lohengramm is preening, insecure and ambitious. His military career is a platform for greater ambitions. Yang, in a plain uniform, hates war and wants it to stop, but the Alliance depends on him for victory. Both men also happen to be geniuses.
The Free Planets Alliance is a lot like our own. It has a capitalist economy and a liberal-democratic government, but moves slowly and bureaucratically — much to the frustration of the military. In the anime, people even dress similarly.
There is far more freedom than in the Empire, true, but with some important caveats.
Private paramilitaries silence dissent if it goes too far. The society is lazy and corrupt, with elected officials arguing over the merits of continuing the war because it costs too much money, although stopping it would risk their careers.
The Alliance claims the moral high ground, but is structurally and politically unable to win the war or give up. The burden falls onto the families of the dead as the fighting goes on.
The Empire, however, is actually evil. It is an aristocratic monarchy that practices slavery and eugenics. Its leaders are arrogant, privileged buffoons obsessed with maintaining their honor even if it means their own deaths or those of their men.
Aesthetically, the Empire looks like a cross between Imperial Prussia and Liberace’s mansion. And it is clean, orderly and efficient.
Tanaka could have made Legend of the Galactic Heroes into a simple morality tale of good versus bad, but he didn’t. Instead, he contrasts a liberal and corrupt society with an authoritarian one that gets things done.
This framing makes no clear endorsements about which is better, and Tanaka is explicit in showing the horror at the Empire’s foundation. Power structures in general are up for mockery here, and he trusts that the observer is astute enough to reach their own conclusions.
Laser weapons are not very effective inside warships, so this is how boarding parties take care of business.
For most part, it’s fantastic. Now let me stress why I’m reluctant to recommend the first book.
When the story shifts back into space and to the war, which is the driving force behind the plot, the perspective zooms out — most of the time — to the officers. This is fine on screen, and the anime series is good at visualizing what is going on around them.
Occasionally, the show will transition to a glimpse of the soldiers on the front lines. The violence is graphic and sometimes shocking.
Nor are there easy victories. Yang and Von Lohengramm will fight each other to a stalemate … and then withdraw their fleets to fight another day. Meanwhile, politicians at home manipulate the results into fantastic (and false) successes. Think of it as a brainier Star Wars.
The dry writing style makes Dawn, however, read like a work of military history. Yang and Von Lohengramm spend much of their time discussing battle plans with their advisers without much emotion. Ultimately, a story succeeds or fails because of its characters.
Here, it largely fails.
The anime is, again, much better. I can see Yang and Von Lohengramm’s faces and expressions. They have voices. And once you get past the title credits, set to elevator music in 1980s anime style, Legend of the Galactic Heroes jumps into a sweeping soundtrack of Mozart, Mahler and Mussorgsky.
Even better, the show is intensely — at times hilariously — homoerotic. (The book more so.)
The flip side to this male, military-dominated environment is that women are largely absent from the picture. This feels anachronistic, but as a complication, Tanaka deliberately depict the Empire and the Alliance as deeply chauvinistic, misogynistic and dysfunctional societies … and sets them up for plenty of lampooning.
Do I regret reading Dawn? Not at all, actually. But I might have, if I didn’t watch the show.