Legend of the Galactic Heroes

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

So far, this column has tried to maintain a balance between older, acclaimed anime, new and exciting possibilities, and hidden gems. But now it’s time to revisit one of the biggest and best anime franchises out there – no, I’m (sadly) not talking about Gundam since most of it is not legally available, but an anime that is often hailed as “the endgame of anime.” I’m referring, of course, to Legend of the Galactic Heroes

If Gundam is to Japan what Star Wars is to the US, then maybe the closest comparison to Legend of the Galactic Heroes (as noted before on this very website) is Game of Thrones, or even Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Set nearly a millennium after mankind moved away from planet Earth and colonized the galaxy, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is an adaptation of a series of novels written by Yoshiki Tanaka that chronicles the rise and fall of two interstellar states – the monarchic Galactic Empire and the democratic but bureaucratic Free Planets Alliance – and the war between them. 

Though the show mostly follows one high-ranking military commander on each side, Yang Wen-li of the Alliance, and Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Empire, it is an epic space opera that follows hundreds of characters across the galaxy in a vast and complex story that was for the longest time considered a bit of a holy grail of anime due to it not being released in the US. Thankfully, that time has passed, as you can now stream all 110 episodes of the original anime that ran from 1988 to 1997 (plus several movies and a prequel series!). But if the older animation isn’t for you, the first quarter of the story was remade starting last year with stunning animation.

What Makes It Great

First of all, one thing that makes Legend of the Galactic Heroes both great and daunting for newcomers is its scope and size. The original show is 110-episodes long (and the remake only covers the beginning of it) and it involves hundreds of characters and as many voice actors. There are so many that each episode shows a character’s name as they first show up on screen to remind you who they are. That being said, the characters are well-developed, with personalities, backstories, ambitions and agendas of their own. Like Game of Thrones, this is a show that isn’t afraid to kill off your favorite character, and the impact their deaths have follows the cast for the rest of the story. 

Also like that HBO show, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is full of political intrigue. While we follow the military exploits of two genius tacticians, we also see the rise of new nations and ideals, as politicians and nobles plot, backstab and betray one another without mercy to achieve their goals all while being victims of secret conspiracies as well as their own ambitions. The anime also goes a great length to not only show the political machinations of the upper class, those in power and those who make the big choices, but we also get to see how it all impacts the common soldier, the merchants trying to make a living and the poor citizens who have no stakes in the war but who suffer nonetheless. One of the best scenes in the entire show is a short scene in which we finally enter a star cruiser as it is being obliterated, with the soldiers inside dying horrible deaths. While the machinations and the space battles may look visually stunning, there’s always some poor commoner who is suffering for the benefit of someone they’ll never even meet.

Speaking of space battles, Legend of the Galactic Heroes has some of the biggest, most impressive battle scenes in all of anime. Thousands upon thousands of ships can be seen in the background, and the dogfights are a treat for the eyes, even with the old animation from the original show (the remake improves upon this to such a degree it makes some big-budget Hollywood movies look bad by comparison). And if you like the moment in a heist films where the plan is laid out and the leader’s genius is finally revealed, this is the show for you. Watching the space battles in such a big scale (we’re talking millions of combatants on screen at any given moment) is already exciting, but watching the thousands of ships suddenly shift maneuver and grab the enemy by surprise is awe-inspiring.

What It Brings to the Conversation

If you don’t like shows that are dialogue-driven, this may not be the show for you. But if you enjoy long and eloquent talks about religion, politics, philosophy, nations as tools to be used instead of inviolable and impermeable institutions, and the role of the military as a tool of control versus a tool of liberation, all while great space battles take place every few episodes, boy is Legend of the Galactic Heroes something for you.

What makes this show truly special is the great length it goes to be impartial, and to present as many sides of the argument as possible. You may find yourself leaning more heavily towards one side or the other, and the show may even seem to favor either the Empire or the Alliance a bit more depending on the episode, before the next one shows you the other side of the battle and you suddenly see things from a different perspective and maybe even rooting for the characters you hated only five episodes before. Due to the dialogue-heavy nature of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes, the message and themes of the show are presented via conversation instead of straight preaching to the audience – not only that, but most conversations involve one character offering counterpoints to the other, as to present both viewpoints and let the audience draw their own conclusions. 

Like Game of Thrones, the question of who can and should wield power – someone who doesn’t want it or someone with the means and resolve to take it and use it for good – only it actually examines the answers instead of forgetting about it. 

Legend of the Galactic Heroes is heavily concerned with history and the role people in power play in it. The writing is inspired by the “great man theory” which argues that history can be largely explained by the impact great men or heroes have on society and history at large. Characters are often talking about how history will view their actions and how the rise and fall of nations is but a natural part of human history. The rise and fall of empires, and the cyclic nature of history are at the very core of this show. The more we discover of the history of the show’s universe, one thing becomes clear: war never changes.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a bit of a commitment, but once you start it and get compelled by the excellent writing and characterizations, it is hard to stop. Because of the length of the show, you see the characters evolve, grow old and see the mark they leave on history, even after the characters die. Because this show is based on a series of books that were finished before the show wrapped production, the writing team didn’t have to come up with an ending on the spot or change plans halfway through. The result is one of the most satisfying endings ever in an anime show. By the time you have sat through all the war, suffering, backstabbing, conspiracies, camaraderie and celebrations, Legend of the Galactic Heroes cements itself as one of the greatest anime shows of all time, one so epic that can ruin so many other shows for you.

Watch This If You Like: Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Babylon 5.

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Legend of the Galactic Heroes is streaming on HIDIVE. The remake: Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These is streaming on Crunchyroll.

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