It's pretty good, but it was never at the front of my queue to watch and it hasn't made me want to watch the 1990s OVAs. Solid rather than brilliant.
It's a historical fantasy epic, set in the Middle East where the enemy are fundamentalist religious fanatics who wage unprovoked war on entire countries, then torture and kill anyone who doesn't share their beliefs. In other words, Christians. The enemy here are Crusaders, or at least very thinly disguised equivalents. They have a pope, knights templar, assumptions of moral superiority, etc. Show them a medical textbook and they'll burn it as the work of heathens. This is quite funny and one of my favourite things about the show, coming as I do from a culture where Richard I is known as "the Lionheart" rather than "the mass-murdering jihadist bastard". Other viewpoints are good.
Technically it's fantasy. There's a magical shadow assassin, while Farangis's mystical claims look to me to have been substantiated by ep.24. (If her magical protection weren't real, she'd now be dead.) However this is still an improvisation on real history with the names only slightly changed.
- HEROES = Persia (Pars)
- INVADERS = Lusitania (the Crusaders)
- OTHER NEIGHBOURS = Turkey (Turk), plus a very obviously Indian culture in a place called Gujarat
- PROTAGONIST = whose name appears to come from the Persian epic of Amir Arsalan, but there are more parallels with Cyrus the Great and other 6th century Persian historical figures.
...and so on.
It's based on a novel series by Dr Yoshiki Tanaka, perhaps more famous for Legend of the Galactic Heroes. There's also a six-part OVA anime adaptation from 1991-1995. Tanaka's clearly an important writer, but I sometimes wonder if he's not a little too epic for me. He does the rise and fall of civilisations, the reshaping of societies, the course of wars and their aftermaths, etc. Big stuff. In practice this generally means war, which here means men with swords. Big men with swords. Proud, honour-bound men willing to die for their country and have no sense of humour. I don't hate these people (except for Andragoras), but I'm not particularly interested in seeing them fight and for me all the interesting stuff is off the battlefield.
This anime isn't directly based on Tanaka's novels, though. Instead it's taken from a manga adaptation by Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist, Silver Spoon). My impression of Tanaka is that he's humourless, possibly unfairly, but this series occasionally has funny bits and I'm wondering how much of that is Arakawa's. I also usually prefer her character designs to the blandly pretty 1990s ones. The main exception is Arakawa's Farangis, who's wearing a ludicrous stripper bikini and yet is also so cold and bored that I wouldn't even call her attractive. Farangis and Tahamine are supposedly beautiful, but they're so dead-eyed that you'd avoid them both. Farangis improves slightly over time, though.
Of the other characters...
Arslan himself is honest and likeable. His father, the king of Pars, probably mistrusts anyone with a personality and thinks he's a good king because he starts wars and has killed tons of people. Arslan, though, is a feminine-looking boy who has compassion for his fellow humans, despite being the crown prince. What a weirdo. He'll astonish his friends and foes by talking to people and being nice, while his relationship with Etoile ends up being amusing.
Daryun is a mighty warrior. That's about it, unless you count hints of potential romance with Arslan. In an intensely manly way, of course. Daryun's the kind of brooding hero whose intensity dial is permanently turned up to eleven.
Narsus is the show's funniest character. It would be harsh to call him the show's only actual character, but occasionally it felt a bit like that. He's a slightly camp military genius whose hobby is painting pictures that he thinks are simply exquisite, darling. (There's a Koei computer game based on the series where Narsus's special attack on the battlefield is to paint pictures so bad that they make foes explode.) He's also incapable of looking after himself. He thus has a servant, Elam, whose attachment to him is fierce enough to suggest romantic possessiveness, so sparks fly when Alfreed shows up halfway through and unilaterally proclaims herself Narsus's wife. Elam and Alfreed are both about fourteen and Narsus is serenely above all this, but there's still comedy here.
There's very little to Farangis beyond her impractical costume. Gieve is a womanising con man who glues himself to her like a burr. Jaswant is great, despite being yet another one-dimensional honourable swordsman, because of everything he goes through for his principles. That whole Shindra digression contains some excellent material, especially its resolution, even if their duelling-by-proxy holy judgement practices are outrageously stupid. (In a realistic way, mind you. That's not a criticism of the story, but of the belief that bashing in someone's skull means your cause was righteous. There's a lot of it about.)
It's quite intelligent. Tanaka believes in exploring the flaws of both sides, so even our heroes have to deal with pig-headed, terminally macho warlords who've signed up to fight against the baddies but will try to start fights with their own allies. (They're racists.) Also, more importantly, Pars is a slave-owning culture. The Lusitanians' exploitation of this is quite clever. Arslan wants to free the slaves, but even the slaves themselves don't all agree. People from different cultures tend to be surprised to learn that their opposite numbers can actually be decent people. The show's also fairly harsh on the expected behaviour of royalty and how much hereditary inheritance actually matters.
I did wonder why Arslan didn't just convert Pars to the Lusitanian religion. That would have fixed things overnight. Look, we're not heathens any more! Foil the bastards with their own logic! However I'd guess the Parsians have their own religion that they don't want to forsake, while the Lusitanians probably wouldn't all stop looting, pillaging, torturing, etc. just because their convenient excuse had been taken away. (Many of them would, though.)
It's good. I watched all 25 episodes happily enough and I'll be watching Season 2. However I didn't adore it. I feel no urge to see the 1990s OVAs. It's still basically men being one-dimensionally macho with swords. There are a few female characters too, some of whom I even liked (Alfreed, Estelle), plus some likeable and/or entertaining male characters (Arslan, Narsus). It's intelligent and political. I'd recommend it, but I wouldn't call it a favourite.