Legend of the Galactic Heroes always seemed like the longest of long shots only behind Sazae-san, Kochikame, and Anpanman in “The League of Anime That Will Never Get Licensed.” It was always the most popular of the League but that only made it the least likely series to be licensed with the biggest fanbase. Your not going to see Kochikame on lists of Anime You Have to See Before You Die but you will find Legend of the Galactic Heroes on quite a few top anime of all time rundowns. But then the Summer of Miracles occurred in 2105 with insane E3 and the crazy licenses at Anime Expo. Two of those little miracles were the licensing of both the Legend of the Galactic Heroes anime and then the novels on top of that. Just getting one of them was unthinkable but both of them was a planetary alignment. While the first box set for the anime has yet to come out the first novel has come out from VIZ.
The thing is the anime is a fairly known quantity. You can find blog posts, podcasts, video reviews, wikis that will tell you all about the series. There are even looks at the board game. We did a whole bunch of posts on the anime ourselves. While it is not that you can’t find any information about the novels, because the info is out there, but overall it is a scant amount of info and mostly just general summaries at best. That has all changed and English fandom can finally read novels and see how they stack up to the original. Will everyone go around saying how much better the books are than the TV series or will this be more of an The Irresponsible Captain Tylor situation?
While a lot of anime is based on manga, there are countless titles that have been adapted from books as well. As a person who enjoys reading the book before or after the movie, I’ve often lamented not having the same opportunity when the source material for anime titles is a book. And certainly I never would have imagined having the chance to read the original Legend of the Galactic Heroes novels.
The War between the Free Planets Alliance and the Galactic Empire has raged across the stars for over a hundred and fifty years. The war has entered a stalemate as both sides have stagnated due to corruption, incompetence, and complacency infecting them to their very cores. But the appearance of two rising stars is destined to blow away the calcification in the conflict. The ambitious and relentless Reinhard von Lohengramm will find himself opposed by the far more lackadaisical historian turned strategist Yang Wen-li. At the same time in the shadows the merchants of Phezzan plan to prolong the war for their shadowy masters.
After a misfire by beginning the book with a history lesson on the galaxy, things speed up considerably. We make it through three major battles within the confines of this single, less than 300 page, volume. A lot of those pages are devoted to space battle-y type words, but it just flies by! As someone who is really more interested in the characters in Legend of the Galactic Heroes than the battles, it was a good surprise that the book doesn’t linger.
The omniscient narrator keeps up pretty well with his anime counterpart, packing in ominous lines about characters not knowing what would become of them, had they only known, etc.
The paradox is that the novels on a surface level are generally unchanged from the anime. A brief summary would make it seem that other than one or two minor details the anime is a one to one reproduction of source material. The anime may have added an Artemis Necklace for Kircheis to bust through during the Kastrop Rebellion or changed some of the events during the capture of the Iserlohn Fortress but all the major events are still the same. It is not as if Reinhard and Kircheis were originally brothers or that there is some major battle around Heinnesen in the first chapter. But when you examine anything beyond a cursory scale you will notice that the versions are actually very different. The flow, pacing, and order of events is very different between the versions. I expected there to be some differences but not anything this large.
The first indication that things are going to be different is the fact that Dawn opens with a brief history of the galaxy, showing the rise of the Galactic Empire, and then the Free Planets Alliance. About half of this information would not be brought up in the anime until episode 40 in the second season. Then there is the simple fact that Dusty Attenborough has not show up at all in the first novel. I have to assume that he will eventually appear later on but his presence was sorely missed. Kate initially noticed it when flipping through the book for the first time and seeing that he was not on the cast of character’s page. I just assumed that was an odd oversight but it turned out he is just not there at all. His loss as a sounding board for Yang does not radically change anything that happens but it does subtly make Yang seem more isolated and alone in this thoughts.
But overall everything in the novel seems far more condensed. The Kastrop Rebellion is a big affair that takes up a whole episode in the anime but it is little more than a few off-handed pages in the novel. In both cases it is to show that Kircheis is a capable commander and strategist as in addition to being Reinhard’s right hand man and conscience. In the anime Kircheis needed a boost in the visibility of his skills because they use most of his times that he makes a big impact in a battle from the novel to show off someone like Mittermeyer or Reuenthal. Also certain things like the capture of the Iserlohn Fortress zoom by in the novel. While there are several levels of complications in the anime it is a relatively straightforward affair that sets up the situation and resolves it in short order in the novel.
I also felt certain characters come off differently in the novel. In the anime Reinhard’s father is portrayed as a broken man who was forced to sell his daughter to the Kaiser and winds up drinking himself to death as the guilt of his action crushes him. In the both the novel and the anime Reinhard merely says that his father was a greedy wastrel that callously traded away his daughter body for money so he could live a life of excess. So far in the novel we have not seen a neutral party’s impression of Reinhard’s father so at most you can only speculate what Sebastian was actually like since his son clearly has a very prejudiced view of him. I also feel like Merkatz comes off a bit more stodgy and close minded about Reinhard during their first battle together but by the end of the battle he seems a bit closer to how he is normally portrayed in the anime.
The largest part of the disconnect probably comes from the fact that you expect the novel to be the more robust and detailed version with the anime being truncated but making up for that with the power of its visuals and audio. So when it turns out that the anime really expands scenes and scenarios it is a bit surprising. Most of the time it is not as if radical changes are made but it is clear that Noboru Ishiguro and Shimao Kawanaka leave their thumb-prints on the series making it their own.
While the anime may go more in-depth, Yoshiki Tanaka’s ability to convey who a character is within a paragraph and perhaps a smattering of dialogue is very impressive. Yang’s reluctance, Reinhard’s fire, Kircheis’s earnestness, von Oberstein’s detachment, Fork’s petulance, it is all there and more. Even some characters who really appear for mere moments in this first volume like Bucock, Schonkop, and Poplin I was able to walk away one with a solid picture of (though those gentlemen are very uncomplicated).
Reinhard being in love with Kircheis feels much less ambiguous in the novel. Also it is done with minimal prose. The intimacy between them and the Reinhard steals looks at him is pretty telling. As is the scene of Reinhard thinking about and playing with Kircheis’s hair. Maybe that happened in the anime and I just forgot? Admittedly this could just be hindsight making it more obvious.
Much of the character developement is helped along again by the omniscient narrator who now and then lets us in on characters private thoughts during scenes.
I can’t say that equally for the entire cast though, the surface of characters like Mittermeier and von Reuentahl are barely scratched here. However, it is rather difficult for me to remember when they came into prominence in the anime. I definitely remember them getting into a bar fight (!) at some point.
But I think in this introductory volume the most important players are laid out with a deft hand.
So who is the Legend of the Galactic Heroes Novel for? If I was asked to pick which one I think is superior in a vacuum I would say the anime. With its expanded story that can take time to breathe, the classical soundtrack which adds to the atmosphere, and the visuals which can make a connection with the large sprawling story are all factors in favor of the anime. But the novel has some powerful strengths. One is it is a good way to get people who might not watch an anime into the series. The stigma that comes with an animated series is avoided by the novel. It can be hard sell to an anime to segments of science fiction convention that would otherwise love the series. The novel is also a much smaller time commitment. The 110 episodes of the main series is a daunting barrier to entry even if you try to use something like the Overture to a New War movie as a hook. A book that can be read in a day or two is far more approachable. Also the swifter pace is going to be more appealing on general level even if the anime was not over a hundred episodes long.
In the end if you have to start somewhere I would always pick the anime but if your hesitant to try the series the book lets you wet your feet without too much of a commitment.
The first book of Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a very quick read (minus the prologue, just skip it). Mr. Tanaka opens the series by saying so much with so little that it is rather refreshing. Although I was surprised to find that in this volume I wasn’t quite at the point of wanting Yang and Reinhard to somehow both win in their battles. Yang’s way of approaching his ever-increasing rank in the military makes him incredibly endearing, and that never goes away in the series. Reinhard on the other hand indulges some of his more sinister instincts in this volume (aided by von Oberstein) which makes it harder to believe in his vision at this point.
Onward to volume two!