Future History is Awesome: Legend of the Galactic Heroes Novel Volume 1

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Depending on your definition of good science fiction, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is one of the finest SF stories ever. Leaning more towards space opera, LoGH combines political intrigue with a genuine look at how people and societies can change (or even regress) as they expand out into the universe. I mentioned the anime on Ogiue Maniax many years ago but never really got into great detail about the series, but now that it’s being released in English in both anime and original novel form I thought that it’s about as good a time as any to talk about what makes LoGH such a strong series by reviewing the first volume of the novel.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes is the story of a corrupt democracy versus a stagnant empire in a far-flung future where humankind has ventured deep into space. Two figures, the unassuming Yang Wen-Li on the side of the Free Planets Alliance and the righteous Reinhard von Lohengramm on the Galactic Empire, act as both heroes and rogues within their respective systems, and their actions change the fates of their societies in unforeseen ways.

As I have seen the entirety of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes anime most of the story is not new to me. It’s been quite a few year so I may have forgotten some details, but the major notes are still pretty fresh in my memory because of how much impact this series has. The prologue of the first volume is actually a short history of how the Galactic Empire and Free Planets Alliance came to be, and how they each try to erase the presence of the other for political reasons. Something as simple as the fact that the Free Planets Alliance (which came after the Galactic Empire was formed from a Hitler-esque powergrab in its predecessor the Galactic Republic) reverted to an older calendar system instead of the Empire’s standard shows just how complex political philosophies and their manifestations in everyday life can be. A similar example exists in the real world: Taiwan’s official name is still to this day the Republic of China because it denies the idea that the People’s Republic of China is the legitimate government of China (and the PRC does the same to Taiwan). Even in the first volume, it encourages thought about how governments and even people’s everyday actions can maintain hegemony.

For some, such as myself, it’s a fascinating read that provides the perfect context for what happens in the main narrative as Yang goes about questioning the blind fervor by which people toss around the term democracy, and Reinhard similarly tries to chip away at the ossified core of incompetency in the Empire. Their personalities, but also many of the characters around them, are so well-portrayed and so effectively invite readers to pursue connections and thematic similarities among the gigantic cast of LoGH that it makes the book a pretty easy read overall. The character of Paul von Oberstein is especially notable for creating more questions than answers, and to this day you’ll have debates over what his true motives are.

Reading the first volume of the novel, one thing that stood out to me that had actually never occurred as I was watching the anime were the parallels between Reinhard and Rudolph I, the original founder of the Galactic Empire many centuries ago. Both believe that their government is suffering from stagnation and corruption, and that the best way to deal with these issues is to seize power from within. While Reinhard believes that people should be judged by their merits and Rudolph I was a staunch proponent of eugenics, the conviction by which they have sought change are strikingly similar.

Similarly, though this isn’t nearly as strong a connection, Yang is portrayed as being a brilliant but lazy man who despite all of his talents and keen insight wishes to live a quiet life. The current Galactic Emperor is initially shown to be a somewhat lost and even incompetent man, but he seems to display sudden flashes of intelligence that imply he might know more than what people expect. However, just like Yang, he prefers a more idle life.

The translation for Legend of the Galactic Heroes is overall very solid. I have not read the original Japanese, so I can’t make so direct a comparison, but the language flows well, never gets too dense or overwhelming even in the most dry of sections, and characters’ personalities are conveyed in a matter of moments. If I have any criticism of the translation, it’s less of a language issue and more of a copy editing complaint. At various times throughout the story, the spelling of Reinhard’s best friend Siegfried Kircheis changes, from Siegfried to Sigfried and then back into Siegfried. It doesn’t impact the quality of the story by any means, but that’s the kind of mistake that shouldn’t be happening.

I don’t think I can recommend LoGH enough, but then again I know pretty much the whole story. That being said, while both the overarching movements of the narrative, as well as the small details that connect with each other, build into something much greater, the first volume does a tremendously good job of setting it all up.

[Anime Secret Santa 2015] The Possibilities of Adolescence: Simoun

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My first exposure to Simoun came about 10 years ago, when many of my online friends had been discussing the series. As my friends were fans of cute, sexy girls, and girl-girl relationships of both the Ikkitousen and Maria Watches Over Us variety, at the time I had felt it difficult to genuinely gauge the series based on their positive responses. Though my wariness caused me to set aside Simoun as an afterthought, more recently it was chosen for me to review as part of the 2015 Reverse Thieves Anime Secret Santa. Having finished the series  I realize now that I had unfairly judged Simoun for its surface qualities, and that is in fact a very strong, emotionally-oriented science fiction story that fits in and exemplifies a long and evolving tradition of science fiction anime and manga.

In the world of Simoun, everyone is born a girl and choose their genders when they become adults. The main character of Simoun, a teenager named Aer, joins the Sibyllae, priestesses who fly divine vessels known as Simouns. The Simouns and the priestesses, normally meant to fulfill a religious role, are also thrust into conflict because their vehicles can be weaponized, though unlike conventional crafts they fight primarily by inscribing patterns across the sky that trigger magical effects. The key to the Simouns, and why Aer and the others are chosen to be Sibyllae, is that they can only be piloted by those who have yet to become adults. Simoun Sibyllae form close bonds with their co-pilots, signified by a kiss before they take flight.

Sometimes there will be an anime where where you can maybe argue that it’s concerned with gender and sexuality, women’s rights, and other similar topics, but that requires a fairly loose reading. Simoun is not one of those anime. It is a work, and a world, where questions about sex, gender, and sexuality are front and center. For example, while it’s not difficult to see why Simoun is labeled as a yuri series, in many ways it defies that categorization. Though everyone enters the world as a girl, the paths they make towards their ultimate choices are contingent upon the circumstances of their world, who they fall for, and how they go about navigating their lives in general. Children who fall in love as girls might both become women, or men, or any combination.

I have to stress how much this series plays with the ideas of gender and sexuality, because it’s such a major factor in Simoun. Girls, as they become adults, slowly transform into their new bodies, so a girl, even a buxom one, will only start to resemble a man after a few years. While the idea of transitioning between sexes is nor considered the norm in our world, in Simoun this is just the natural way of things, both physically and culturally. One interesting choice Simoun makes to emphasize this fact is that all characters, from children to bearded old men, are voiced by women.

Simoun features a very emotionally and environmentally robust science fiction narrative that interestingly is tied strongly to the emotional weight of its characters. Romance is a part of their world, but it’s not their entire world. Other countries attack Kyuukyoku because the Simouns do not pollute the sky like their own aircraft. The war itself is ever-present, and the Syballae put themselves on the line, but they’re shown to also be somewhat disconnected due to their positions as religious figures. The girl-girl kissing that happens before every battle might be seen as a thrilling yuri moment, but it’s not necessarily the case that the characters need to form romantic relationships to fly their Simouns.

The very power afforded those who have yet to become adults, the power of potential, is integrated into the very core of the narrative and its explorations of this alternative universe. Even the Simouns themselves have a certain bizarre quality in their designs that make it difficult to ascertain how much they’re truly divine aircrafts and how much they’re simply highly advanced technology.

Part of the reason I had my slight misgivings over Simoun back then were that the character designs are very reminiscent of more fanservice-oriented series. While I myself like the designs, and Simoun does not have a great amount of sexual allure on display, it’s enough in its promotional materials and its general aesthetic that one could,  even while watching the show, take only shallow titillation from it. This isn’t inherently bad, but I can imagine there are others like myself who approached the series with an eyebrow raised because that was all it appeared to be. Moreover, there are elements that might have come across as merely fulfilling certain fetishes, such as large age differences, incest, and more. However, they are for the most part developed well, and exist as a few of many possible relationships in the world, and just in general I do not feel like they hold back Simoun to any large degree.

Overall, I would highly recommend Simoun to just about anyone, but especially those who want to see an anime that fosters thought and discussion. It presents a unique and robust world of utopian/dystopian imagination full of limitations, possibilities, and unique characters.

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Burning Out On Quality

A while back I wrote a post about mitigating burn-out when it comes to consuming anime and manga, advice that had the caveat of me never having actually burned out, which means that I’m either very qualified to talk about it or not qualified at all. Recently though, I was in a situation where I had trouble watching anime, and I feel like I learned a lot from it.

I’ve been watching a lot of science fiction-themed anime, series full of ideas about how the future can/will/should be, not necessarily heady stuff but enough to make a person think a fair amount. However, even though I like everything I’m watching, one day I just suddenly had this strong desire to not continue, like my brain and eyes were telling me that they would refuse to process that information meaningfully if I tried to watch more. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, until I could hear my own thoughts more clearly.

I need to watch something ultra dumb.

And so I did, not knowing how long it would be until I could restore my capacity to watch so much science fiction. In the end, it only took a day away from those shows for me to feel the urge to keep watching, but it taught me a valuable lesson that seems so obvious in hindsight: You can have too much of a good thing.

Often the picture of anime burn-out seems to be that someone who just watched too many bad shows and can no longer handle the bottom-feeding tropes which populate low-tier anime, but I think that a more fundamental aspect of such burn-out is just monotony. Much like eating the same food day in and day out with no variety, even the most delicious of meals can lose their flavor, especially if you’re not naturally predisposed to liking them. Also like food, the level of variation needed to keep things interesting varies from person to person. With anime, I find there are shows that I can become quite fond of with little effort, shows that I can watch just about any time, but for other shows, I find I need to put a bit of myself into the show. As a result, sometimes I find myself unwilling to watch another episode because I can sense that my mind is “exhausted” and will not give me an accurate impression, and just pushing and hoping to power through that mental blockade can end up doing more harm than good.

And so, I have much gratitude for ultra dumb shows. Sometimes they’re just what I need.

The Hardships of Raising a Child in the Ghetto: District 9

A few days ago I saw the new movie District 9. Having passively avoided all of the explicit advertising for the movie that would explain any of the story at all, I came in with fresh eyes, and by the time it was over I felt pretty amazed. The movie takes a variety of unusual elements and ideas, such as its balanced blend of strong science fiction elements in a real-world setting of sorts, as well as its documentary-style camera work and uses them to approach a variety of themes, from fatherhood to xenophobia. However, for all of its scope, it is ultimately is a very personal and very emotional story, and that is what makes the movie so strong. It takes all of these wild and disparate elements, presents them naturally, and then tells a surprisingly localized tale of a man not knowing what will become of him. In other words, much like Up, it shares a lot in common with many of the best anime titles.

While not a strength exclusive to anime, I’ve always felt that this recurring ability to take very unorthodox plot settings, be they science fiction or otherwise, and tell a very emotional story with them is one of the hallmarks of Japanese animation and one of the key ingredients to drawing in new fans and keeping them there. As is the case in District 9, when done well or even half-decently, the various parts of the story do not fight each other for your attention.

One might say that the very idea of doing any sort of complex story and having it be a cartoon is unorthodox enough of a setting, but it might also be the case that such unusual trappings and the meat contained therein is generally helped by the stylistic coherency that comes with making something animated. Generally I say, because as you can see there’s a movie called District 9 which manages to do it all with real actors.

On a final note, I’d just like to say that the CG characters themselves were also fantastic and arguably better than the humans. The level of attention they were given is something the Transformers movie franchise should learn from.