It's the first part of a 110-episode series based on a series of novels. It's epic SF on a galaxy-spanning scale, thought through in detail and very impressive. However it's also sometimes a bit stodgy and short of laughs.
The full series is as follows:
- Season 1 (episodes 1-26) = books 1-2
- Season 2 (episodes 27-54) = books 3-5
- Season 3 (episodes 55-86) = books 6-8
- Season 4 (episodes 87-110) = books 9-10
Yoshiki Tanaka's original novels are about a never-ending war between the dictatorial Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance. It's been going on for 150 years already. The cast is large, but the two protagonists are two military geniuses, one on each side. Reinhard von Lohengramm (the Empire) is a ruthless destroyer who annihilates his enemies (both on the battlefield and in civilian life), but always seems to make more. He cares about his sister, sold at a young age to be the emperor's concubine, and to a less extent about his best friend, Siegfried Kircheis. Unlike Reinhard, Kircheis has a conscience.
Meanwhile, on the Alliance side is Yang Wen-li, who reminds me of The Irresponsible Captain Tylor. He's the equal of Reinhard on the battlefield, but also a happy-go-lucky lazybones who'd like nothing better than to retire from soldiering. He's by far the nicest character in the show.
Is this show fun? I don't know if I'd go that far. I tried getting into it several years ago, but ground to a halt and gave up. I think it didn't help that I started by watching the two prequel movies. This time, I jumped straight into the TV series and fared better. If you're prepared to slog a bit, there's lots of meat here as the story digs into the military and political conflict of two interplanetary empires. The anime's found a clever way of portraying complex space battlefield maneuvers (coloured icons), while the plot developments include court intrigue, assassination, right-wing death squads, execution by forced suicide and civil war. Our heroes' tactics are often clever. Sometimes also ruthless, but clever.
Yoshiki Tanaka's also digging into politics. Long ago, Tomoko stopped reading his novels because she felt he was getting on his soapbox too much. Here the aristocratic Empire is German-speaking and full of Wagnerian names, while the democratic Alliance is more ethnically varied and uses English. (One could try to liken these to the two main sides in World War Two, but as it happens the Empire's a poor match for Nazi Germany. I think you'd be on firmer ground in likening the two sides to modern Japan vs. feudal or wartime Japan.) Anyway, they're both corrupt and appalling, though, which is something Tanaka's examining in considerable detail. Is it better to be: (a) a democratically elected but loathsome warmonger with a secret army of jackbooted bully boys and the integrity of a rattlesnake, or (b) the inept and disinterested ruler of a fascist dictatorship, in which the aristocrats are all-powerful and the population's lives are disregarded? Answer: you'll hate them both.
I hear this gets taken a good deal further in later seasons, by the way.
There's a strong anti-war sentiment from a lot of Alliance characters, not least Yang himself. Nothing so wishy-washy from the Empire, of course. You could try looking for gay subtext here and there (Reinhard-Kircheis in ep.4, or even Reinhard-Yang in an "obsessed with each other but fated never to meet" way), but to be honest it's pretty thin. The battles are more interesting than you'd expect. Female characters are in a minority, but they're not completely neglected and they're not just Stoic Wives Waiting For Their Husbands To Return.
Sometimes it's cool. It's always fun to see intelligent heroes crushing the morons with which both sides are cursed. (How stupid are the Alliance military in ep.14, for instance? Unbelievable.) I enjoyed the meeting in ep.17. And of course there's no such thing as an unkillable character, with Yoshiki Tanaka more than willing to shock us with the death of a key regular.
On the other hand, I was going "who?" at the big reveal of a mastermind later on. He's got an anime face and I didn't even recognise the name, despite the shock from all the show's characters. I eventually worked it out from the reaction of one of the character's relatives.
What boggles me most about this anime is that it's an OVA. (Well, apart from the fact that it's also been adapted into a Takarazuka musical.) You have to harvest a kidney in Japan to buy even a single DVD or video, so the mind reels at the financial commitment of the fans who bought all 110 episodes. Do I like this show? Well... yes, I think so. I'm going to keep watching. It wasn't always the first thing I'd choose to watch next from my stack, but it's intelligent and admirable even if it could be argued to lack a light touch. It could use more humour and the characterisation can sometimes seem to be at a distance, if you know what I mean. However it's intricate, it's full of classical music and it takes itself very seriously. It's anime for adults. Slightly dull from time to time, but impressive.