Legend of the Galactic Heroes: a story of a faraway future where people still use floppy disks.
After finishing my journey through the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manga, I knew another foolhardy adventure would be on the horizon. Why not conquer the insurmountable and hack away at my backlog? Our metaphorical backlogs are endless, but here I speak of the shows on my hard drive and that I own on DVD/Blu-ray that I’ve had around for years and haven’t yet watched. Why haven’t I watched them? Because I’m a terrible fan. It’s basically the Steam problem: so much easy access to so many things that you grab a ton and then have so much on your hands that you don’t know where to start and become paralyzed. (I’m using the royal “you” here. There’s a decent chance, reader, that you are a more discerning, less idiotic viewer than me.) This year I have vowed to chip away at my backlog as much as possible.
I have 12 series on my computer and another four or five on disc. That doesn’t sound like much, but a couple of those are 70+ episodes, a couple of others are near 50 and another is near 40. You never know how long it will take to watch something either. Some shows are more easily burnt through than others by various people. It took me about as long to watch Turn A Gundam (which is 50 episodes) as it did the series I’m writing about first, Legend of the Galactic Heroes (which is 110 episodes).
Yes, when I decided to go at this project full force, I began with by far the longest series in my backlog. Nobody ever said I was going to do this the smart way.
For those who may not know the series: Two major forces, the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance, have been locked in war for centuries. Two figures stand out in this period of history: Yang Wen-li, who fights for the Alliance, and Reinhard von Lohengramm, who fights for the Empire. Both are rising stars in their respective militaries, fighting for vastly different reasons. The two and many others in the Alliance and Empire clash directly and indirectly as the two powers battle to wrest control of the universe from the other.
What struck me frequently while watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes is how thoroughly watchable it is. I mean this as a sincere compliment. LoGH has a particular reputation. When people speak or write about it, they rightfully mention its thoughtfulness regarding politics, philosophy and ethics, or its military conflicts, or the social games involved with gaining and maintaining power and keeping the subjects happy. There’s a lot to chew on, think about and enjoy in this series. It can be dense. I never doubted LoGH would be a good series; however, I wondered whether that density would lead to me taking forever to watch the series because I couldn’t view more than an episode or two in a sitting. But LoGH is hardly a series of lectures with characters talking above the viewers and making them feel stupid. It’s not just that the show tackles interesting subjects, but that it also constantly gives viewers reason to care about those subjects. The ideas are couched in the conflicts that drive the universe. The philosophizing feels personal because LoGH is very good at showing how these ideas inform the identities of the various characters and what drives them.
A quick example: Yang is a crazy good general. In the face of insurmountable odds, he always seems to come out on top by thinking through each battle situation and exploiting whatever he can. He’s promoted often, and eventually, his comrades ask Yang why he doesn’t seek more power in the Alliance. People generally love working under him, and he has his own sort of weird, awkward charisma and charm. Even if the politicians were to grumble, the people would probably accept Yang as their leader without much trouble. So why not? But Yang continually refuses. He believes in the ideal of democracy, even when said democracy is run by corrupt elected officials, and the idea of a military man interfering with the inner workings of democracy rankles him. Everyone knows of the past when military leader Rudolf von Goldenbaum formed the Galactic Empire, but as a student of history, Yang is more aware than most of what unfolded from that. Those are events he doesn’t wish to repeat.
In these conversations you get thoughtfulness about the world the characters inhabit, a sense of what drives them and what their ideals are, and how they think is the best way to conduct themselves according to those ideals. The ideas aren’t theoretical thoughts on a page; rather, they’re given humanity by how the characters play things out. Much of the drama forms organically from the various perspectives of each character. That’s what makes it work so well and keeps things moving. I see a 110-episode series and wonder, “Well, how the hell are they going to keep this engaging for so long??” Then I started watching and realized, “Oh yeah, this show has an interesting, varied cast with a wide range of philosophies and goals. They could keep this going forever!” For me, the pace never drags. It can be slow as far as advancing the plot, but there’s always something interesting going on. Even in those episodes where the plot doesn’t advance all that much, new details color the world, characters and their relationships in fascinating ways. How and why things happen are just as important and interesting (if not more so) than what happens.
Above all, though, what really makes LoGH super watchable despite having a massive cast — many with ornate names — and an expansive plot is that it moves at just the right pace for the viewer to retain what’s needed for when it’s important later. Anyone who reads my Hunter x Hunter posts knows that I forget basic shit ALL THE TIME. Even when I have literally just watched an episode, I will forget something. I am an idiot. The first time I tried watching LoGH was about three years ago. I got to episode 20 and then halted for reasons that are still unclear. When I picked it up again, I decided to rewatch those episodes rather than read summaries since I thought it would be more beneficial to do that.
I was shocked by how much I retained. “Oh yeah, this is how that battle unfolds!” “Yep, this is when Mittermeyer and Reuental get their space axes and chop people up.” (Yes, there are space axes. They are responsible for many of LoGH‘s grislier moments.) “Oh yeah, this is when that weirdo military guy goes fuckin’ craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaazy.” And so on. There are little things here and there I forgot, of course, but many events stuck with me. This is in the portion of the series before people generally agree that it gets really good, by the way. What happens throughout is generally memorable, and episodes rarely feature more or less than what’s needed to set up or pay off whatever the dominating plotlines of each arc are. What you see feels important and unfolds at a pace that feels right for a series with this much in it.
LoGH is one of those shows that earns its narrator, as well. He’ll occasionally be a spoilery asshole (though a lot of that is negated if you skip the episode previews like I did), and his foreshadowing is so heavy-handed that it’s probably inaccurate to call it “foreshadowing,” but I really dig the straight-laced presentation that acts as if the series is the universe’s most expansive documentary. It’s a good way to make sure viewers are always aware of the context of events without treating them like children. Most of the time, anyway.
I wouldn’t say LoGH is “easy” to watch, but it’s definitely a hell of a lot more viewer-friendly than I gave it credit for. It seems intimidating from a distance, for sure. I took a long time getting back to LoGH precisely because of that! But the series hooked me in a hurry and always felt inviting. (You know, for being a story about a violent, stupid war.) A good place to start is the LoGH movie, Overture to a New War, which is an expanded version of the show’s first two episodes. It gives more context to what happens in those episodes and is more immediately interesting. If that’s to your taste, then you’ll probably love the rest of the series!
Anyway, have a gun-axe. It’s a gun and an axe!