Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a series that seemingly everyone plans to watch, but comparatively few have actually seen. When you stop to think, it’s not hard to understand why: it’s long, and it’s old. Either one of those would scare off most people, so both? Forget about it; it might as well not even exist. But curiously, when you do meet those rare individuals that have seen it, the show is invariably lavished with praise, and today we’ll be getting to the bottom of why that is. Ladies and gentlemen, the 110 episode space opera OVA, hailing from the late ‘80s and ‘90s and adapted from the novel series by Yoshiki Tanaka: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Let us begin.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
The galaxy is a vast expanse, dotted with innumerable stars and planets, and now mankind has successfully conquered it all. Alas, still the universe is not at peace. The galaxy is currently divided between two warring nations: the autocratic Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance. In a war that has dragged on for over 150 years, neither side has yet to gain a significant advantage. However, in the Universal Calendar Year 796, Imperial Calendar Year 487 or Common Era year 3596, our story begins.
Within the Galactic Empire, a young man named Reinhard von Musel has joined the military, with ambitions to climb all the way to the top, defeat the Alliance and reshape his hierarchical nation for the good of the people. On the other side of the galaxy, within the Free Planets Alliance, a would-be historian by the name of Yang Wenli also finds himself enlisted as a military man. Although he holds no great love for his government, he treasures the will of the people and the democratic ideal. As these two clash and rise in the ranks, they will shift the entire course of history and perhaps even bring an end to the more than century-old conflict, in one way or another. For in every age, and in every place, the deeds of men remain the same.
Alright, there’s a lot to unpack here, and I’m gonna try to get to out as much as I can, but undoubtedly I’ll get some people saying “why didn’t you talk about this” or “why didn’t you discuss that?” to which I preemptively say, sorry. To keep this piece of reasonable length (since it’s already my longest review ever), I just cannot talk about everything, because Legend of the Galactic Heroes is such a dense experience, that if I did, it would almost never end.
Likewise, I hardly know where to even begin, but I guess it would have to be with the presentation of the narrative, because all else follows from that. Legend of the Galactic Heroes takes an incredibly interesting and in-depth perspective on warfare. Much more often than not, when a work of fiction focuses on conflict, there will be a good side and a bad side. Perhaps the bad side may be fleshed out and humanized, but at the end of the day, they are usually still the bad guys, the villains that need to be stopped or defeated. Legend of the Galactic Heroes doesn’t buy into this. It doesn’t cede the notion that there has to be a protagonist and an antagonist in every battle, especially between groups as large as nations. Rather, each side is a conglomerate, a collective, made up of many good guys, many bad guys, and millions of normal well-meaning civilians in between. It offers a completely equal focus on both sides of the war, making no explicit argument on whether the Empire or the Alliance are “the good guys”.
There is no good, nor evil. There’s just people. This is a key point. So much of what the show works for would be lost if either side was unambiguously in the right. In both nations, there are heroes and there are villains, there are celebrations and there are injustices. If anything, rather than good vs. evil, this war is more a matter of ideals and principle. The Empire, while in essence a dictatorship, proves that when the dictator is just and intelligent, reform and progress are exponentially faster and more effective than leadership by committee. Moreover, the Alliance, while ostensibly a democracy, is rife with greed and corruption; politicians who care little for the people and much moreso for their own wealth and status.
So the series asks this central question: is democracy truly good? Is dictatorship truly evil? Is a corrupt ineffective democracy, preferable to a single fair and efficient leader? The show debates this point constantly, both subtextually as we watch these governments unfold under those conditions, and textually, with characters sometimes quite literally debating this exact argument.
Reinhard and Yang embody these two sets of beliefs, with Reinhard confident that the most competent government is correct, and swears allegiance only to that which is most effective, regardless of whether it directly heeds the people. To directly quote the sentiment, “if we must bring down a virtuous ruler to protect democracy, then democracy becomes the enemy of good governance”. Yang, on the other hand, advocates that, at all costs, the people must govern themselves, even upon reaching the point where they “have given up the effort of leadership and handed it to politicians”. In Yang’s view, the people’s voice is always critical, much to the chagrin of some of his cohorts.
There is no right answer here, and no attempt is made by the series to outright provide one. It is entirely up to you, whether to side with Yang or Reinhard, the Alliance or the Empire. Or you are free to reject both these outlooks, and come up with a third. It’s purely a matter of belief.
This clash of culture and ideology between the two nations is made even more obvious once you take stock of everything else about them, from their citizens’ attire and architecture to their battleships and command centers, and even their treatment of women. The Empire is styled after 19th century Prussia; an ornate and old-fashioned society, with the proper buildings and structures to match. The people are divided into clear tiers of commoners and nobles, and the Imperial military uniforms are fairly aesthetic and extravagant, while their ship bridges are very neat and spacious, implying an air of regality.
The Alliance, for its part, is much more modern and functional, with the citizens wearing predominantly outfits that would be right at home in America today. The same could be said of their military uniforms and more immediately futuristic architecture. Their ship bridges are more compact and less aesthetically pleasing, overall foregoing form for function. In regard to my comment on women, the only women seen in active military duty are on the side of the Alliance, while the women in the Empire (as appropriate for the olden aristocratic society) are mostly kept in dresses and attend balls, with offhand lines implying that war and politics are primarily the domain of men. There’s only one aspect, in my opinion, in which these societal and aesthetic differences fail to shine through, that being the design of each nation’s standard battleships, with neither striking me as especially modern nor antique, although the Empire’s flagships are somewhat more ostentatious.
Putting aside these musings on the nature and efficiency of government, Legend of the Galactic Heroes takes the time to tackle all sorts of other topics too, from human nature, to the tragedy and ramifications of war, then the folly of pride, the value of honor, the line between self- and absolute righteousness, the cost of loyalty, the futility of terrorism and just about anything else you could think of. Some of those I’ll get back to, but some I won’t touch on again, just because it’s a lot.
We’ll start with war. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a show that, leaving all else aside, you could enjoy just for its depiction of war. It sugarcoats nothing, and hides even less. It makes no bones about illustrating that, no matter the reasons, war in itself is vicious and cruel. You might have to battle for days on end, and collapse in the halls out of sleep deprivation. You might witness grotesque horrors on a sinking ship just before your own painful demise. You might actually come back physically fine, but you’ll turn around to your buddy and they’re just… gone. A full-fleshed human being snuffed out just like that. You never once saw what happened to him, or how. All you get is a subordinate’s report, and cold statistics. (For the record, while the series depicts all of what I just mentioned, its take on that death was rather brilliant).
Naturally, from that, you can expect this to be a somewhat tragic tale, though not to the point of being overbearing. Not everyone’s going to make it out alive, and the whim of fate can be downright unfair, but it never feels absurd, because in war, everything has a precipitant. Nothing will ever happen that is truly unexpected; everything is the result of strategy and tactics. For that reasons, fights in Legend of the Galactic Heroes are never ever just fights, and if anyone does try to just fight, they will invariable die. This is somewhat reminiscent of the mind games in the likes of Death Note and Code Geass, though much more grounded overall. The Empire makes a move, then the Alliance reacts, then the Empire retaliates… and so on and so forth in a seemingly never-ending game. Courage alone is not enough. Psychology and supply lines are just as important as numbers and strategy, but these layers of tactics don’t make the battles any less exhilarating. Rather a small in-depth exchange, where a single wrong move could mean the difference between life and death, really gets the blood pumping and emotions high.
Since this is a war on a galactic scale, the numbers being thrown around are astronomically higher than we’re used to, with a single skirmish consuming hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of lives. The sheer size of the fleets is difficult to verbally convey, but the show tries its best. This many people fought here, this many died there, but it’s natural for huge numbers like that to just go over your head, and the computer readouts of the fleets have comparatively little sense of scale. It’s just hard to grasp how big a big number really is. So, it is very effective when the fleets are occasionally shown in full, or as close to it as is practical. They look like stars dotting the sky, but each one is its own ship with its own crew. Of course, the numbers of POWs are also enormous, with a nice chunk of worldbuilding involving a POW camp that was so large it was in effect its own town.
I have yet to mention it thus far, but Legend of the Galactic Heroes is split into four seasons (plus two additional side story seasons called Gaiden, that take place before the series proper). The fourth season is something of an interesting departure by focusing almost entirely on internal strife rather than external conflict, which makes a certain degree of sense. With nations this large and decisions this big, there’s bound to be some intranational conflict, especially with certain belligerent parties around to stir up the pot.
Another topic traversed by the series is that of history, specifically leaving one’s mark on it. Indeed, the narrator of the story is not a disembodied voice, but in fact a historian, commentating on events from some unspecified point in the future. Although he is generally content with being a normal narrator, sometimes he will point out the large ramifications of seemingly small actions, or make cryptic remarks about game-changing future events. This is even more interesting once we consider that the series takes place over a long enough period of time to fully flesh out multiple galactic eras. The world state by the middle is very different than what it was at the beginning, and the middle itself is very different than the end, allowing a sense that you are truly watching history unfold, even if it is merely an anime.
This view of history, and its relative importance, is handily communicated by the depth and detail of the world itself. Episodes 40 and 56 are, in their near entirety, historical documentaries, presented like actual historical documentaries, with stoic looking old people sitting in chairs and explaining historical events through a “modern” lenses. Of course, the events they analyze are entirely fictitious, taking place well after the year 2017, but this level of commitment to the setting is almost astonishing. Combine that with another history-heavy side story in the Gaiden OVAs, and you have a whole collection of this world’s historical figures, their equivalents of the likes of George Washington and Adolf Hitler, and it was fascinating; there’s no better way to put it.
As a side note on the world’s history, they have a brilliant explanation for why Earth is not the galaxy’s center of commerce, despite the fact that it very much still exists. Here’s the train of thought: the human race is said to have originated from Africa. Is that area today regarded as a particular beacon of prosperity or homeland for the entire species? No. So likewise, once people left Earth, and generations upon generations piled up, why would they have any particular affinity for Earth? They’d be more apt to consider themselves denizens of wherever else they were born, or simply the galaxy as a whole, and that was a very interesting tidbit, in my opinion.
Okay! With that, I’ve hit pretty much everything on the purely story end that I wanted to hit. Now we can delve into the characters. Rather than talking about Reinhard then Yang in that order, I’ll be going through the whole Empire, then the whole Alliance, using a very loose definition of “whole”.
Anyway, the Empire means we’re starting with the blonde-haired Reinhard von Musel, a cocky and ambitious young man, but not exactly outright arrogant. Reinhard’s goal, as I’ve mentioned, is to steamroll his way to the very top of the Empire, seizing power for himself and making the world a better place for those souls unfortunate enough not be born an aristocrat. Unsurprisingly, this crusade is motivated by something of a personal vendetta, after his older sister was taken away against her will by the Kaiser to serve as his concubine, but despite his vengeance-fueled motivation, Reinhard is nonetheless a lenient and fair man. He holds no tolerance for greed or foolishness, but conducting oneself with respect and efficiency is an easy way to enter his good graces. However, he is not without flaw. For one, Reinhard is very young, beginning our tale in his late teens, and his inexperience in worldly affairs does present itself on occasion, either whining about his circumstances (though this is disguised by eloquent articulation) or allowing his emotions to rule his decisions. Additionally, despite his good intentions, as he rises through the ranks, the realities of politics, power and war make him colder and colder, all the while becoming somewhat listless, as he finds much more joy in seizing fame and authority than maintaining it.
These bad habits are kept in check by his best friend and brother-in-arms, Siegfried Kircheis. Kircheis serves as Reinhard’s conscience and voice of reason, almost always counseling restraint and preventing Reinhard’s more cruel or violent tendencies from boiling over. However, this is not helped by the presence of another advisor, Paul von Oberstein, a slippery and dead-eyed individual who always advocates the most immediate and most effective path to victory, regardless of the moral cost. Oberstein, moreso than Kircheis I’d say, is a very interesting character, as while the coldhearted tactician type is usually portrayed as a villain, and he is even perceived by most of the other cast as a villain, the truth of his existence is much more gray. Despite his ruthless actions and detached demeanor, there seems to be a possibility that he truly does act in what he believes to be the nation’s best interests.
Reinhard is flanked by a number of Imperial Admirals, whose number only increases as the series progresses and his own power base grows, and as such the only two I will touch on are Wolfgang Mittermeyer and Oskar von Reuenthal, as they serve directly under Reinhard from the very beginning. The two are good friends and excellent military strategists, an interesting thing about them being that (despite their near constant presence) the show takes quite a long time to significantly flesh them out. However, over time their natures are made clear, Mittermeyer as a more down-to-earth family man, believing in the usual ideals of kindness and justice, while Reuenthal is a somewhat more cynical individual, with no real family to speak of and several ambitions of his own, only dwarfed and reined in by that of his glorious leader.
Introduced somewhat later than the rest is one Hildegard von Mariendorf, or simple Hilda, the lone daughter of a low noble family, one who is quick to note Reinhard’s talents and passion, and sides with him in hopes of ensuring his victory. Although not strictly a member of the military, unlike the rest of the Empire’s main cast, she proves invaluable to Reinhard’s accomplishments with her deft eye and knowledge of politics.
Moving across the galaxy to the Free Planets Alliance, we have Yang Wenli. Although unimpressive at first glance compared to his Imperial counterpart, his mind for tactics is just as sharp. Originally planning to be a historian, Yang enrolled in military academy because it was the only college he could afford, but he did not allow the stringent military measures to break his character. Laidback and informal, with flippant body language that could almost be described as childish, Yang hates the public spectacle spun out of his victories, wishing for nothing more than the war to end so he could hit an early retirement, proudly spouting that “wasting effort is against my principles, so I’ll try to win as easily as possible”. However, that is not to say that he is entirely unmotivated, because in his heart he does have faith in democracy, and its basis in civilian control, with a firm belief that neither one man nor the military should ever have the absolute right to govern. Nonetheless, he is frustrated by bureaucracy, holding a persistent and sometimes hilarious disdain for the world of politics, particularly when it prevents him from carrying out his duty. The duality between him and Reinhard is an interesting one, as while Reinhard is able to reach greater heights in his militaristic nation and come to dictate large decisions, this is at the cost of being present for boots on the ground tactics. Yang, on the other hand, while unable to command the entirety of his democratic nation at will, is therefore usually present for the moment to moment action, countering as best he can Reinhard’s sweepings stratagems with his own momentary maneuvers. Although Yang, being over 10 years older than Reinhard, generally has a better handle on his facilities, he too is somewhat emotionally immature, cutely flustered by the thought of passion and romance.
Yang, also like Reinhard, in short order comes to command his own select posse of soldiers, most immediately including Walter von Schenkopp, an Imperial defectee and classically charismatic, likable dude, who leads his Rosenritter squadron to repeated victory in boarding missions and hand-to-hand combat. Yang’s capable adjutant is Frederica Greenhill, the daughter of an accomplished Alliance admiral, and his home life is kept in order by a teenage adopted ward, Julian Mintz.
Oh, and there’s also Attenborough.
I’m going to stop there and move on, but there are a ton of named characters in this show, on both sides of the war as well as certain third parties (which I’ll come back to), and it goes into excruciating, almost overwhelming, detail for so many of them, even some minor ones that perhaps did not need it. For this reason, there are also a lot of voice actors. In total over 300, in fact. If you know any voice actors that have been in the industry for a while, then they’re here somewhere, guaranteed, from Sailor Moon to Vegeta to Coach from Gunbuster.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes’ soundtrack is appropriately grand, filling the space battles with booming orchestral dramatics to a tune that, to my untrained ear, sounded vaguely classical. This truly exposed my lack of knowledge on the subject, because later on, once I had actually checked the MyAnimeList staff listings, I found that the music indeed was classical, crediting a number of famous composers whose work was used in this series. I wish I could be more specific than that, telling you who was used when and where and how, but I apologize, my knowledge of the classical genre is more or less nonexistent.
On the opening and ending side of things, each of the six openings (the four standard ones and two from Gaiden) are performed by a lone female singer in English, shockingly with perfect fluency and pronunciation in all but one case, and most with an epic, ballad type feel to accompany the scope of the narrative. The endings, for their part, are all sung by one Kei Ogura, a man with a deep voice whose material managed to evoke an array of different emotions depending on the context. Visually the entire bunch is fine but reserved, usually showing off each member of the cast one by one, with the openings favoring the Empire and the endings the Alliance. The Gaiden offerings are a slight exception to this visual rule, but this may perhaps not be for the best, because the second of the Gaiden openings almost looks fan-made.
Sadly, nothing is flawless, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes, though close, is not without some of its own.
Being an OVA, you would not be faulted for wondering if the show’s runtime fluctuates from episode to episode, but it really doesn’t. Between seasons you might get a little variation, but within seasons it stays the same and you’re always within a couple minutes of 25 total. Visually, the series can be surprisingly gory, with most hand-to-hand scuffles involving a lot of blood.
The animation quality as a whole never really dips, though it is rarely exceptional either. Outside of a handful of cuts, that actually occur with increasing prevalence the further and further you get, I could rarely call Legend of the Galactic Heroes well-animated so much as just well-drawn, but even that compliment comes with a disclaimer. During some episodes, and even certain individual scenes, the visual style will abruptly change and then change back for no discernible reason. Apparently, this was not a feature of the original release, and is the result of frames being redrawn for later DVDs. I haven’t found any official reason for this, but have seen internet speculation about either the original frames being damaged or simply that the drawings were seen as too bad, and worth redoing. In either case, the new drawings are certainly much clearer, but their flip-flopping presence is slightly irritating.
Personally, I suspect these new frames were drawn by members of J.C. Staff, who handled the second series of Gaiden OVAS, succeeding Artland who had handled more or less everything else prior. Every shot in that Gaiden series looks exactly like the altered style of the original, leading me to believe this is when and how the corrections took place, though of course it’s nothing but speculation.
That said, even this style change is far less apparent than that of Golden Wings. In addition to the main series and the two Gaiden series, there are three Legend of the Galactic Heroes films, two of which are pretty much more of the same, and I would actually recommend watching both before the series proper since that is where they take place, but the last one is called Golden Wings, which not unjustly has a reputation for being the black sheep of the series. In my eyes, this is mostly for its design decisions, which were apparently made to mimic the manga adaptation, but it looks worse in, without exaggeration, almost every way imaginable. It doesn’t help that a lot of its story (though to be fair not all of it) is a retread of material that the original series had already covered.
Speaking of retreads, it’s time to move back to the main show, because it sometimes retreads itself. Not often literally, but early on, there is some repetition to the events of the story. It is a time when neither Reinhard nor Yang held much sway or power, and in order for them to gain that power, they had to distinguish themselves in military matters. In doing so, they slightly break the show’s more realistic feel, since somehow every superior they both serve under in this time is grossly incompetent. It’s amazing the war managed to last as long as it did, when apparently both militaries had been in shambles before our main characters rose to the top, populated with nothing but short-sighted and incapable leadership.
The battles themselves could too have done with some more pizzazz. Although the tactics on display are generally engaging and cunning, at a point you start to wonder “Why is everyone fighting on two axes, as if space is flat?” I can count on one hand the notable instances where strategies from either end made use of the fact that space is in fact three-dimensional. There’s no particular reason or even excuse given for why this is ignored; it’s just apparently convention that all space warfare is conducted on a 2D grid. While this never significantly bothered me, it was a slight oddity that I couldn’t shake for quite a while.
Some more oddities exist with the show’s handling of technology. Despite the unbelievably fleshed out lore and history, the actual present day has some strange anachronisms that are never fully explained, like the use of battle axes in combat or paper letters for communication. There is a throwaway explanation given for this, something about how their technologies are so good at countering each other that it actually became beneficial to go back to basics (for example, paper letters can’t be hacked), but I’m not sure how much I bought that. Regardless, this was hardly enough to break the world’s believability, and moreso existed as a slight curiosity.
Now it’s time for me to touch on those “third parties” I mentioned earlier. There are two additional factions in the fight between the Empire and Alliance, neither of which are as compelling by virtue of being more or less straight antagonists, only there to drum up death and conflict. The first is an autonomous Imperial territory called Phezzan, whose leader hopes to pit the two major powers against each other to the point of mutual near-extinction, after which Phezzan can roll in and seize the galaxy for itself.
This isn’t very interesting, firstly, because as I said unlike the Alliance or Empire characters, Phezzan’s much smaller cast is not developed much beyond being villains, and when they are briefly humanized, it’s usually used as fodder to then turn around and show how villainous they really are after all. Secondly, due to Phezzan’s size and nature in the plot, you know they have they have no chance of winning. There’s little of the suspense that there is between the Empire and the Alliance, where it’s unclear who will come out on top since neither are the good guys, but what you throw a clear antagonist like Phezzan into the mix, it’s rather obvious that they won’t get far. Now Phezzan wasn’t great, but they also weren’t the worst.
The worst were the members of a religion called The Earth Cult, or depending on the translation, followers of Terraism. If the clever pun went over your head, Terraism sounds like “terrorism”, because that’s exactly what they are: terrorists. The Terraists’ existence and actions are supposed to prove one of Yang’s long-held beliefs, that terrorism can only delay the progress of history, not reverse it, and in that respect they serve their purpose but as characters they are woefully underdeveloped. You’re given no sense of their purpose, or their origin, or why their base of followers is so large and pervasive. Furthermore, only a single archpriest comes even close to being an actual character, while the entire rest of the cult is nameless, violent fanatics, and even that one archpriest is a bad character in the end. His goal is to be evil for the sake of being evil. If there’s one thing I hope this year’s remake will fix, it’s the Earth Cult. They suck.
Oh man. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a lot. The cast is all over the place in the best way possible, juggling every sort of role and perspective imaginable on both sides of the conflict, while the plot is an excellent mix of politics and military strategy that has everything to say about war, government, choice, pride, ambition and practically anything else you could think of. The music and animation are moreso functional than exemplary in my eyes, but the story itself is so masterfully done that it really doesn’t matter.
So after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S… c’mon, it’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It’s an S. It wasn’t without flaw, I couldn’t look you in the eye and say “Legend of the Galactic Heroes is literally, objectively perfect”, but its issues are so dwarfed by its strengths that it might as well be.
So, you may be wondering, where can I watch it? Well, this shouldn’t come as a surprise given its age, but at the time of this writing, and likely forever, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is legally available nowhere. You used to be able to find it, in its entirety plus Gaiden, on YouTube, and that’s how I watched it, but it got taken down literally about two weeks ago. Huge bummer.
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