Although my initial impressions of The Heroic Legend of Arslan were highly positive, enthusiastically pointing to its depiction of the crises of confidence facing an exiled heir to the throne learning the injustices the house he represents has placed its people under, this enthusiasm has waned as the series has settled into its stride. Quite why was initially hard to describe; knowing that Arslan was from the same writer as the superlative Legend of the Galactic Heroes made initial criticisms about the style, narrative voice or aesthetics seem like they were based on placing this new, unrelated series in the shadow of something known to be a standout classic of its genre. Galactic Heroes is a 110 episode minimum OVA from some decades ago, meaning it was made under a very different release pattern and era of animation to a modern-day weekly broadcast television series. Making direct comparisons between things in fundamentally different media in this way is a common misconception among writing about anime, particularly in aesthetic terms; as a result, it took some time to settle into accepting Arslan for what it is, and then in turn discussing what works and does not work within that medium.
The most interesting aspect of the opening episodes of Arslan was definitely its portrayal of the young prince as someone naïve, sheltered and as a result wholly patriotic and incapable of comprehending the misdeeds of his nation. It did not inherently present the enemy nation, Lusitania, as good (because they, in turn, were shown to be treacherous and brutal), but it did not automatically assume either that the prince would become a good king without some serious attitude changes or that Pars was a good kingdom. It seemed to offer some thematic nuance that would drive an interesting character journey; following his exile, the prince visits an exiled military genius (with echoes of Galactic Heroes‘ Yang Wenli, someone so dangerous in his ability to win wars bloodlessly he ended up in exile) to apparently build allies and help retake his kingdom. Someone strong in something other than arms is clearly needed to fight an enemy who have won the war by starting a riot inside Pars’ capital to get past its walls. This plotline remains interesting; Prince Arslan meets, once again, the Lusitanian slave he freed – now a military officer of some standing – and both are shown to have changed. The Lusitanian officer is not prepared to accept her men’s mistreatment of defeated innocents, perhaps softened by her time in Pars. Arslan is shown finding his courage to stand up to injustice as Lusitanian soldiers threaten a Parsian woman. It is simplistic, for sure – a very easy barometer of character progression within fantasy tropes – but it works.
But Arslan’s story is only part of the story being told by this point in the series; the B-plots, surrounding the occupation of Pars and the fate of the royal family (the missing-in-action King Andragoras and his wife Tahamenay), as well as the flight of a roguish bard who was in the castle when it fell, are comparatively poor. The latter story’s weakness is more easily explained; during the flight from the fallen city, an obnoxious rogue ends up travelling alongside an uptight priestess in a crushingly tediously executed odd-couple plot. Both are seeking Arslan, in a fashion, yet the writing of their interaction is uninspired tsundere stuff that feels underwhelming as a progression from the apparent nuance of the political/bildungsroman A-plot of the young prince-in-exile. The jokes are not particularly funny, and while Varangis is one of only a small number of women in the story she is hardly well-depicted. Her costume and mannerisms feel like they are from a different style of fantasy story to the heavier, more medieval look of the fighting-men in Arslan – she performs stunts of horseback archery in something resembling a Roman courtesan’s outfit. Interestingly, in a previous adaptation of the story, she was depicted in full plate armour – an aesthetic that somewhat more suits the hard-fighting warrior priestess she is written to be.
This problem of character depiction – both in aesthetic and dialogue choices – continues in the other notable subplot. The king of Lusitania, Innocentius VIII, is shown to be awkwardly courting the former Queen of Pars, Tahamenay, to the disgust of his court, bishops and generals. There is the grain of an interesting story here, a parallel to Arslan’s questioning his own position as the ruler of the theocratic invading force has his faith questioned by falling in love with an infidel. Monarchs throwing aside their roles as spiritual guides (or taking on new ones) in the name of love is a timeworn historical precedent; recently I have been watching Wolf Hall, an adaptation of a novel about Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and short marriage to Anne Boleyn. It is a well-known historical event in Britain; the then king changed the entire face of English Christianity to allow himself to divorce a woman he no longer was interested in and marry one he was. This story of the Reformation is, I would say, one of the most well-known pieces of English history; or at least King Henry’s reputation is. This is relevant in relation to Arslan because Innocentius’ lust for Tahamenay may be foreshadowing (juxtaposed as it is by scenes of the mad Lusitanian religious leaders’ atrocities) a reformation in his nation. He is prepared to anger influential people by marrying outside his faith in the aftermath of a war predicated on apparently religious grounds.
Yet this is wholly undermined by precisely how ineffectual Innocentius is shown to be. Wolf Hall depicted Henry VIII as a shrewd, unpleasant and hard ruler surrounded by equally conniving men. It made sense that such a king could risk war over getting a divorce – and protect his own crown from his growing enemies at home. Arslan presents the King of Lusitania as a comically fat simpleton with the mannerisms of a child. The disconnect in this is immediately apparent; Lusitania is a harsh, cruel nation that will wage war against unbelievers in its faith. Its ruler is apparently too stupid to effectively rule, shows disregard for the faith and disregard for his advisors. In some ways, the novel I, Claudius’ depiction of the Roman Emperor Claudius seems an interesting comparison here. Historically, Claudius was disabled and as a result ostracised by his family; the novel presents him as someone who did very well out of being underestimated but could, when it mattered, be decisive. Arslan has yet to really show Innocentius having any real power; he can impress his will on a captive noblewoman but his continued survival – based on his behaviour as depicted so far – seems at odds with the ethos of Lusitania as depicted. This incongruous caricaturishness continues into another major Lusitanian character; the leader of the state religion, the cult of Yaldabaoth.
This religion is shown to be dubiously moral (given it incites revolution in Pars with promises of the abolition of slavery which it then makes no hurry to implement) and anti-scientific to the extreme. A recent episode has the frothing, wild-eyed religious leader burn the Library of Pars in an allusion, most likely, to the legend of the burning of the Library of Alexandria by Pope Theophilus. When a soldier asks if medical texts can be saved to improve society, he is told that illness is divine judgement and then burned alive. Returning to the idiotic Innocentius, one wonders – based on the framework of the story – how such a radical church has allowed such a slack and ineffectual king to continue. As a major plot point seems to be Innocentius’ insulting the church and drawing their ire, the extremes of characterisation seem incompatible. Historical allusions are being made – it seems entirely reasonable to see the courting of Tahamenay as the possible foreshadowing of a religious reformation, for example – but their painting in caricatures seems both weak writing and also shockingly lacking in nuance compared to the implications raised by the first episode’s thematic introduction.
On a more fundamental level the same issues as Varangis’ bizarrely inappropriate costumes arise; a crazy-moustached bishop resembling a character from perhaps The Slayers or Shin Getter Robo spouting weirdly Tea Party rhetoric about people getting sick being a sign of their personal failings, and a king presented as an almost-spherical baby-man with a high-pitched voice and the mannerisms of a young girl just feel incongruous in the world Arslan has built up. In a visual medium, aesthetics matter; when the character and costume designs of a series seem to work against the tone of the writing, the whole story feels lessened and it is this inconsistency of theme and tone which I realise is what is dragging Arslan down for me. Fellow blog The Cart Driver has expounded more on the issues with the depictions of Innocentius and Varangis; their writing on Arslan is well worth reading.