Well, the first thing I wanna say is,
mandate my ass Yang Wenli is my spirit animal.
I may not have the military mind of Wenli (but, hey, maybe I will some day!), but we absolutely share an affinity for tea. Like Wenli, I, too, have had people try to foist coffee on me in a military environment but have stood firm in my preference for tea. The naysayers will claim that coffee is a must in the military. The naysayers are wrong, and this 2D general is ample proof of that. (I am drinking tea as I write this; Whittard of Chelsea’s Chelsea Garden blend, although it is in a Royal Grafton Bone China cup, a detail that feels likelier to be from the Galactic Empire than the Free Planets Alliance.)
It has taken me long enough, but I have at last gotten around to watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes. So far, I’ve really enjoyed it; unlike some other things I’ve been working my way through recently, it has, thankfully, lived up to its reputation. At the same time, it isn’t wholly without issue, although one of the things I was warned about – that the female characters are a bit lacking – has turned out to not be entirely the case.
It’s absolutely true that there are fairly few female characters in LotGH. However, the ones who’ve appeared so far have been pretty decent. Jessica Edwards in particular stands out, turning her grief over the loss of her fiancée into the hardened will to go into politics with the goal of bringing about the end to the conflict in which the Free Planets Alliance is involved. It is her evolution from would-be officer’s wife to pacifist leader that really clinches her status as a great female character, because of the complexity of it. Had she been introduced to us as a politician from the get-go, it wouldn’t’ve carried the same weight.
Even though Jessica shows up fairly early on, though, I was leery when I saw the episode preview for the episode concerning Annerose’s difficulties with the kaiser’s former favorite, Sussanna von Beenemünde. It didn’t help that the voice-over of the preview implied that the lesson to be learned is, ugh, stupid women and their natural cattiness and jealousy! As such, I was surprised to find when I watched it that it was reminiscent of Madame Du Barry’s storyline in Rose of Versailles. While Sussanna’s actions are not defended by the show, the show takes pains to depict the context in which she takes them, to the extent that she is ultimately sympathetic a villain. The sense coming away from it was that a system wherein women’s only “power” is derived from how much a man likes one is stunting and oppressive.
The remaining female characters are admittedly a bit of a mixed bag. Annerose is a perpetual victim in some fashion, whether it’s from being a virtual prisoner due to her status as consort or when Sussanna tries to murder her. That she doesn’t display any personal resentment about her situation is irritating, particularly considering that her brother’s motivation boils down to being angry about his sister being sexually controlled by the kaiser. Male character being on fire over the sexual victimization of a female character they care about even as said female character doesn’t display much reaction herself? How novel! How fresh!
Magdalena von Westfalen displays a good bit of spirit but has very limited screentime. Frederica Greenhill doesn’t seem bad but also suffers from limited screentime in what I’ve watched thus far. There’s a female civilian who is important in episode fourteen (despite my already having forgotten her name!) but since she, like everyone else in the episode, is a one-shot character meant to underscore a message, she’s fully in archetype territory – the woman who fell for one of the invading soldiers and defends her would-be man even as everyone else she’s ever cared about around her is killed. I mean, well, plus points for physically shielding said man from an assault, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re an archetype, madam.
All of which is to say, though, that I’ve found the female characters of LotGH to be much better than I’d feared based on some of the warnings I had heard and also given the age of these first fifteen episodes. For a comparison of what other space war shows of the era were doing with their female characters, see the Macross: Do You Remember Love? (at points absolutely horrifying) and Zeta Gundam (in which Kamille’s anger problem and Kamille’s dad’s adultery problem are both blamed on Kamille’s mom being enthusiastic about her job, among many, many other sexist moments in the show).
Another thing that I like about the show is how well it marries its politics to the central military conflict of the show. Shows that purport to be serious about war will generally include some perfunctory scenes of evil, self-interested politicians pounding their fists on tables as a means of indicating that there is a connection between the two, but LoGH has so far spent roughly equal time on political wrangling and haggling as it has on battles. There is a tendency for the ‘evil’ politicians to be pretty one-dimensional, i.e. they do bad things because they are power-thirsty, but the exceptions are good, in some cases in part because they sound eerily like politicians who’ve appeared in real life since these episodes were made! Cornelia Windsor’s insistence upon the necessity of invading the Galactic Empire for the sake of spreading ‘freedom’ is unsettling to watch in the wake of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by U.S. troops and their allies. (In fact, he isn’t a politician, but watching Andrew Faulk bloviate about how the civilians will greet the Free Planets Alliance’s troops during the planned invasion of the Galactic Empire immediately brought to mind Dick Cheney’s, “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” in the run-up to Iraq.)
The aspects of the show that are reminiscent of World War I are a big draw for me as well. Reminiscent of WWI? Yes! Although the Galactic Empire is based off of 19th century Prussia, there are many aspects of the conflict between it and the Free Planets Alliance that bring WWI much more easily to mind than the former (never mind that, too, the royal court life depicted as well as the common mode of dress smells a hell of a lot more like pre-Revolution France than like 19th century Prussia – Friedrich III and Wilhelm II had little in common, but neither of them was into maintaining mistresses; they also eschewed the sort of court life that is seen in in LoGH, Friedrich III because he was a reformer, Wilhelm II because he and his wife were so very Victorian). Reinhard von Lohengramm’s allowance of the advances of the Free Planets Alliance in order to then follow on with a counter-attack against a weakened foe is compared to the catastrophic invasion of Russia by Napoleon, but it’s very much the approach that was taken by the Germans in WWI, who repeatedly allowed Allied forces to bash themselves forward into weakly manned or abandoned trenchlines so that they could then hit back hard with troops who had not been worn out like their foes had been. (In this scenario, the Wenli is most likely Petain, by the way.)
(Ended up having to take a break because it was so late at night; I am now drinking Adagio’s Cream blend out of a Coalport teacup – one which, incidentally, is the only fine china teacup which I own that I did not buy secondhand… which explains why it cost roughly the same amount as two-thirds of the remainder of my modest collection of china teacups. I also own four Yuri Bear Storm teacups but they’re made of the sort of porcelain used to make ceramic coffee mugs. My teapot is far less distinctive, made of light porcelain by an unknown company as the maker was not listed on it in any form, likely since I bought it at a Kam Man Food. Nevertheless, it is a very good teapot, with an excellent spout that doesn’t dribble like some cheapos do.)
But, back to WWI. Probably what really emphasizes the parallels to me is the casualty counts implied in the battles in LotGH. We repeatedly witness a casual annihilation of thousands in one shot of laser-artillery alone, and with all the ships exploding and spiraling into the surfaces of stars, planets, and asteroids, it’s clear that the casualty figures must be immense even if there is rarely an exact accounting of it done. WWI had an industrialization of slaughter that hadn’t been seen before, and arguably hasn’t been seen since – WWII does have a higher absolute total of casualties, but based on the standard casualty figures from both conflicts, they are on par in relative terms (WWI was 2.1% of the world’s population, WWII was 2.5%). The highest-casualty single day of battle in world history remains the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which had roughly 76,000 casualties for all engaged forces (worth noting: of this, 57,000 were British forces). And while it was certainly extreme, it also was hardly an outlier – the Battle of the Marne in 1914 had roughly 500,000 casualties over the course of seven days, the Battle of Arras in 1917 had 278,000 in seven days, Tanneberg had 183,000 in four days, the Eleventh Battle of Isonzo (yes, eleventh) had 250,000 in slightly less than a month… The highest-casualty day in the Franco-Prussian War, which seems appropriate to mention given the real-life basis of the Galactic Empire, was 32,000 at the Battle of Gravelotte for all sides, by the way.
(That there is next to nothing about the deaths of civilians who find themselves in the line of fire prevents my making comparisons to WWII civilian casualty tolls, such of, say, the firebombings of Tokyo or Dresden. Ditto for civilian casualties in WWI, although any attempt at comparison there is also complicated by the fact that these figures are pretty hazy at best given differences in record keeping; it’s a bit remarkable how much changed in the short time between WWI and WWII on this front.
Did you know that Operation Meetinghouse, the three-hour firebombing of Tokyo in April 1945, killed nearly the same amount of people as the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined?)
So the way in which massive amounts of soldiers are wiped out in the course of mere minutes is heavily reminiscent of the meat-grinder that was WWI.
Speaking of the way these battles are depicted, I do have a bit of a bone to pick with LotGH regarding one aspect of this. While on the one hand, I find the battles for the most part fairly engaging and interesting to follow, that they take place at the operational level often makes it feel very cold and distant. When people like Lohengramm sedately order shifts of massive forces from one piece of the battlefield to another, it can make it feel as if war is ultimately a game in which the powerful engage while the common person simply must abide these far-off decisions. Even when leadership grits their teeth and bemoans the losses they envision resulting from what they are being told to do, it feels like it’s more a matter of giving us reasons to consider these folks as “good” rather than as a critique of the overall system. LotGH may think that war is somewhat bad, but its heroes are still men who actively practice the art of war, after all. We’re a fair bit of distance from Gundam territory (i.e. “war sucks… but check out these neat, and deadly, robots!”); however, there remains that our lead from the Free Planets Alliance is Wenli and not Jessica Edwards.
At the same time, though, when LoGH does attempt to get down to ground level and consider the average person’s experiences of war, it comes off as being akin to the after-school specials of old. Episode fourteen, featuring a planet ‘liberated’ during the invasion of the Galactic Empire, begins optimistically with the invaders helping the people reform agriculturally only to then degenerate as supply line issues crop up and the Alliance forces seize foodstuffs from the civilians. Ensign Franz Valleymunt, whom we never see again, is our lead in this episode, as he is able to use his background as a former student of biology and agriculture to assist the civilians. He of course is very bright-eyed and naïve, and falls in love with the daughter of the local civilian leader, Therese, who loves him back even as her father has directly told her to scheme to get close to the ensign for political purposes. And of course it all goes sideways, and the final shot is of Franz and Therese clinging to each other as a fire rages, nearly all the people Therese has ever known and cared about massacred by the Alliance forces who callously stole from these same civilians and thus sparked the uprising they’ve just crushed. War sucks.
It isn’t that the premise is inherently bad, mind you. If this is a story we’ve heard often, it’s because it is one which echoes life. But the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. In using characters we’ve neither met before nor will meet again, it takes on a feeling of capsulization, and could very easily be discarded from the overarching storyline without making any difference to that storyline. If your story could be replaced with a few shots of rioting involving well-placed signs making explicit the problem being attacked by the rioters, it isn’t a well-done story. If, instead, this episode had followed Julian as a very young officer becoming disillusioned in the way that Franz is, it wouldn’t feel so perfunctory, because Julian is someone we’ve spent some time with previously and potentially have feelings about as a result of that. We already know Julian is enthusiastic about military service and desperately wants to serve even though his guardian doesn’t want him to. Seeing him in his bright-eyed youth and then watching him go through the experience Franz does here would have a lot more impact than what we do get in episode fourteen. Alternately, had the story of episode fourteen been stretched over several episodes instead, it’d become more meaningful from allowing the audience to spend more time with the figures involved. But, that it does only consist of one episode is revealing – LotGH wants to say that, yes, war is bad for civilians, but it isn’t really interested in that matter even as it registers on some level that it is a somewhat important piece of the war puzzle. War is bad for civilians, but impressive military maneuvers in space are much more interesting, as are the dire machinations of politicians.
This, then, is a combination of issues – LotGH doesn’t spend enough time examining the lives and experiences of people in war below the operational and strategic levels, but when it does, it does so poorly. As such, I then wonder which is the worse option, that they ignore the lower levels, or that they do make nods toward them but they feel like they’re meant as a sop instead of as an organic part of the space opera. Fingers crossed that this something the show figures out in the nearly one hundred episodes that I have left!
Having been negative for the past several paragraphs, I do want to emphasize that I really like LotGH so far, even with the areas that I think need improvement. If I were to recommend it to other folks, though, I would with the caveat that having some understanding of western Europe between roughly 1770-1918 likely deepens one’s ability to engage with it significantly. This is, however, the first time I’ve watched an anime and then wanted to go into work and tell my colleagues that they should really check it out. Do you think my thirty-years-of-military-service boss would like this show? I know there are at least some weebs on-post, as I’ve spotted Pretty Cure merchandise for sale in the charity shop and there’s a real loser weeb with a Hatsune Miku decal on their car (a car from which windows have more than once poured the strains of idol music), but I’m skeptical that any of my immediate colleagues are into anime.
If you’ve lasted this long, you probably deserve a prize…