When I was in high school, anime didn’t occupy the corner of the media landscape it does today. It was certainly gaining a foothold thanks to weekly broadcasts of certain high profile direct to video features and movies on the Sci-Fi Channel and daily doses of Voltron, Robotech, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block, but we were still firmly in the era of fansub tape trading and commercial releases carrying two, maybe three episodes of a TV series if you were lucky. I still vividly remember buying Neon Genesis Evangelion two episodes at a time for months on end, and buying it dubbed into English because those tapes were five to ten dollars cheaper.
There were a few other anime fans I knew in town, and one in particular who rode the same bus home that I did. He was a big, funny guy who had a vast library of anime series and films at his disposal, all duplicated in Extended Play from tapes he’d rented from our local anime shop. I can’t remember what all he loaned to me over the years; I’m fairly certain that’s how I first filled the gaps I had in the original Tenchi Muyo series, and I know that’s how I saw the first season of Ranma 1/2 and one of my all-time favorites, the first series of El Hazard: The Magnificent World. But next to El Hazard, one of my absolute favorite things he loaned me was The Heroic Legend of Arslan, a gorgeously animated fantasy adventure based on, I would later find out, a series of novels by Legend of the Galactic Heroes author Yoshiki Tanaka. I’m usually not drawn to fantasy stories, but the ornate armor stylings, lavishly garbed and beautiful character designs, and hauntingly lovely musical score enchanted me, and the English dubbed version by Manga UK was well cast and perfectly watchable. In those days most of what we were getting in the States were movies and short direct to video series, so when after four episodes (the last two of which were kind of shabby around the edges) it just sort of trailed off it was irritating but not unexpected. Two more episodes would make it to the states a few years later, but the animation had gotten worse, the English language cast had been replaced with lousy domestic sound-alikes with bad phony English accents, and the story still was far from resolved.
So last year, well over a decade after I’d last given this series more than a moment’s thought, I was scanning through the new preorders at Right Stuf’s website, keeping an eye out for anything that looked remotely interesting, when I saw a title that caused me to do a double-take. Of course it was a new adaptation of The Heroic Legend of Arslan, this time in manga form. There was no way I wasn’t going to buy it, but I did a quick bit of research and was surprised to see that it was being adapted by Hiromu Arakawa, the author of the last decade’s smash hit Fullmetal Alchemist, a show so enduringly popular it was adapted into two entirely separate anime TV shows of over fifty episodes each. Arakawa’s boxy, streamlined style didn’t strike me as an obvious fit for Arslan, but I was willing to be convinced, and naturally I’d love to see where the series went after the final episode of the home video series was released way back in 1995.
The story of Arslan is fairly straightforward. Young Prince Arslan hails from the kingdom of Pars, a prosperous land with an army that has stood undefeated in battle since his father took the throne. And yet, with the aid of a turncoat general and an unnervingly unnatural fog, the royal army of King Andragoras does indeed fall to the religious fanatics of Lusitania. With the aid of the disgraced general Daryun, Arslan escapes the battlefield and begins a quest to raise a new army, take back his home, and build a greater, fairer kingdom upon its ashes.
The first thing I found striking about the first two volumes of Arakawa’s Arslan adaptation was how familiar everything was. Clearly director Mamoru Hamatsu’s original Arslan film must have been a fairly faithful retelling of the beginning of Tanaka’s story, because while there are a few scenes that don’t ring a bell, including a prologue set three years before the fall of Pars and a seemingly important digression at the end of volume two involving King Innocentis of Lucitania and his desire to take Arslan’s aloof mother’s hand, the bulk of what I read in these two volumes matched up quite well to the first half of of the hour-long 1991 movie. Arslan and Daryun’s first stop after making their escape is the home of Narsus, a self-styled artist, scholar, and master strategist living in self-imposed exile; Daryun’s low opinion of Narsus’s art (and Arslan’s reaction upon seeing one of Narsus’s pieces for the first time) is one of the few sources of comedy in the story so far. Meanwhile, in the capital city of Ecabatana, a minstrel and con artist by the name of Gieve provides a swift death to a Parsian soldier being tortured as a heretic by the Lusitanians and ingratiates himself into the royal court, only to be given a job as a bodyguard that turns out to be more of a decoy mission, and which also puts him face to face with the mysterious field commander of the Lusitanian forces.
Back in the late 1990s I always thought of that figure, known as Silvermask, as sort of a Darth Vader type, though a lot of that could have been the cool echo effect Manga UK had put on Sean Barrett’s voice along with the full face mask character designer Sachiko Kamimura gave him (though she might have been taking the lead of the novels’ illustrator, renowned artist and designer Yoshitaka Amano; I’ve not seen Amano’s Silvermask, so I just don’t know). Arakawa’s Silvermask’s mask only covers the top half of his face, which better matches his role as more of a Char Aznable figure but makes the parallel with the legendary Mobile Suit Gundam ace and arch-foe that much more obvious.
Arakawa tells the story clearly and dramatically; Fullmetal Alchemist fans already know she doesn’t shy away from horrific violence and she acquits herself well with the opening cavalry charge and slaughter on the fields of Atropatene. She does a fine job striking a balance between the ornate look of Amano and Kamimura’s costume design and the need of a manga artist to draw all these characters over and over again on a deadline. I wasn’t entirely sold on Arakawa’s sleek, squared-off and exaggerated character designs through the first book, though her designs certainly track with the temperaments and stock types the characters are based on; there’s only one or two characters who I didn’t immediately recognize. I’m still of two minds on her look married to this material, but the latter half of book two has me coming ’round. Her design for the fanatical Archbishop Bodin hits the mark perfectly, giving him an armored costume more befitting a mad phony “soldier of God.” Likewise, I’m more than okay with Arakawa’s more modern, spiky-haired take on the rogue Gieve and her more faithful design for the bewitching Queen Tahamenay. Of course, if you’re coming into this cold, and especially coming into this as a fan of Fullmetal Alchemist, I’m sure you’ll be far more receptive to the look of the series than I was at the outset; this is mostly my problem as a fan of the earlier adaptation. My only other gripe is one that actually follows from all the previous artistic interpretations of this story; Pars is a highly fictionalized version of Persia, and the novels draw from a legend from that part of the world. And yet, of course, most of the characters appear awfully light skinned; Arslan himself, as far back as Amano’s paintings, is depicted as having hair so fair it looks white or silver. Darker skinned characters do appear in Arakawa’s version, but always in the background; Elam, Narsus’s loyal attendant, was darker skinned in the ’90s anime, but here is as lily white as the rest of the core cast. I think at its core this whitewashing of the cast may be an artifact of the series remaining visually wedded to Yoshitaka Amano’s early work on the novels, as he has a tendency to cast most male leads as near-albino Adonises, but whatever its cause it still leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth.
Still, that’s not going to stop me from recommending Arslan. The spine of it may be a familiar tune — ousted prince seeks to reclaim his throne — but Tanaka’s story builds a solid cast of slightly offbeat characters around our sad-eyed lead, and I appreciate the disgust with which the narrative treats both Pars’s slave-owning culture and Lusitania’s destructive, murderous zealotry. The world its heroes inhabit is far from black and white — indeed, you even hear some sense out of the Lusitanian camp towards the end of volume two — but Arslan and his allies clearly have a better world in mind once they’ve driven out the invaders, though I’m guessing just as in real life that kind of social change might prove to be harder than it looks; that sort of struggle, built on the foundation of the story’s slightly heavy-handed prologue, could easily feed some drama down the line. I’m also looking forward to seeing a bit more of the intrigue within the Lusitanian camp; I always enjoy seeing a bit of tug-of-war among the “bad guys,” and given how Arakawa is painting them in deeper shades of gray despite their “convert or die” attitude, the political maneuvering among the higher ups should prove interesting. I do love me a heavy dose of scheming and backstabbing with my swordplay. I’m betting if you do too, you’ll probably like Arslan.
Volume 3 of The Heroic Legend of Arslan is hitting stores Stateside in May from Kodansha, while next month sees a new anime TV series adaptation based on Arakawa’s manga from Yu Yu Hakusho and Bleach director Noriyuki Abe. No word on who, if anyone, will be streaming it in the U.S. — though considering it’s a fantasy saga ostensibly adapted from the latest work of the creator of Fullmetal Alchemist, I’m thinking someone’s going to pick it up within the next week or so.