After staying clear from anime for a few years. I got into Legend of Galactic heroes last year as recommended by the Waypont (now Vice Games) podcast. As a fan of both the political themes of earlier seasons Game of Thrones and political themes in science fiction, I was fascinated by their description of a show that has both strategic space battles and a sober observation of both a liberal democracy in crisis and a feudal culture transitioning to “enlightened” despotism.
Legend of Galactic Heroes follows two protagonists and a large cast of secondary characters in a galactic war taking place centuries in the future. Two human factions, the liberal democratic Free Planets Alliance, inspired by the United States, and the authoritarian Galactic Empire, inspired by Prussia, have fought for 150 years before the show starts.
A minor faction that schemes behind the curtain is the autonomous state of Fezzan. The small state occupying one planet that trades between the Alliance and empire through one of two space corridors. This nation most likely refers to mercantile city-states such as Venice, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
The protagonists are Yang Wenli, a reluctant historian and cynical commander for the Alliance and Reinhard von Lohengram, an ambitious petty noble who seeks to rule the empire by deposing the existing imperial dynasty and feudal system.
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In April of this year, I cosplayed as Yang Wenli alongside my friends cosplaying as characters from the 80’s parody meme short film Kung Fury at Awesome. My costume was a combination of online purchases, using my 3D printer and paint to make badges and clips, and getting reacquainted with sewing machines to sow the neckerchief in the alliance uniform. I ran into only two people in the convention who recognized me in uniform, and one admitted he was more a fan of the Empire over the Alliance.
The history of Legend of Galactic heroes is shown through isolated episodes that feature Julian Mintz, supporting character and protege of Yang, watching a series of documentaries about human history as he travels through space.
The Galactic Empire was founded by a military leader who took power from a space-faring republic. His rule favored German heritage and his cabinet instigated genocides against those considered “impure”
Because of this. The characters in the Empire are all of Germanic culture and European appearance. The name of the palace “Neue Sanssouci” is a reference to the Sanssouci, the palace of Frederick the Great of Prussia in Potsdam.
The origins of the republic that the Empire overthrew began as a struggle for independence from a united Earth. In this setting, Earth is marginal politically, but a religion that has formed around it, and terrorist acts by the Earth religion, plays a role in the plot.
The Free Planets are more diverse, since the original settlers were political prisoners and refugees from the empire. In the Free Planets Alliance, The names of planets and systems originate from Arabic (Ba’alat, Masjid), and Sanskrit(Urvashi, Amritsar, Gandharva), and many characters have African, South Asian, East Asian, and European heritage.
Legend of Galactic Heroes is often praised for its political themes. The show goes into detail about several traits and flaws in both liberal democracies and feudal empires. The war includes phases such as occupation, guerilla warfare, and large scale space battles evoking 18th-century naval line battles.
As a progressive liberal, My lot falls with the Free Planets Alliance. The show often criticizes jingoism and political corruption in a democracy. One of the antagonistic groups in Alliance the is a patriotic militia who often target dissenters and those not considered “patriotic enough”, echoing the rise of the far right American “Patriot” groups such as the Three Percenters and Oathkeepers.
(It should be mentioned that while the show has enough content to make allusions to current day politics, the show doesn’t intend to predict events, but to comment on the cyclic nature of history. The intro in the second season shows text that reads “In every Age, In every Place, The Deeds of Men Remain the Same” )
Some of the politics in the show has been criticized by Rob Hutton on Medium. The author argues that Legend of Galactic Heroes justifies “enlightened” authoritarianism, military rule and conservatism.
The show also tends to idealize Reinhard’s noble ambitions. Scenes that occur during his rise to power also uncomfortably evoke the rise of fascism, including cries of “Heil”.
The show falls mostly in the liberal-centrist political camp. Viewers who expect a Marxist analysis of history and economics will be disappointed. Little is said about the means of production or analysis of economic class in the Alliance, or Fezzan. The analysis of class in the Empire mostly focuses on challenging the feudalist class structure from the top down.
The dilemma of flawed democracy or an enlightened dictatorship is given more balance than Hutton gives the show credit for. In Episode 31, Yang undergoes an inquiry by Alliance politicians about statements he made against nation-states, suggesting that Yang has anarchist sentiments. Yang also leads a faction opposing a military coup-de-etat of the Alliance instigated by Reinhard and Fezzan. During the El Facil Revolutionary Government arc later in the series, also Yang insists on the necessity of civilian rule in the new breakaway state that offers him executive power.
Since the original light novel author Yoshiki Tanaka is from Japan, a country that has experienced liberal democracy, feudal states, and authoritarian dictatorships, the show reflects a more holistic political view.
Although critics of the authoritarian traits in Legend of Galactic Heroes may dismiss the show’s politics because it doesn’t broadly condemn the Galactic Empire, I have a more nuanced view. I have friends and family members who have lived in both liberal democracies and authoritarian states. These people willingly left a democracy for states that restrict media, freedom of speech, the press, public assembly, dietary choices, intimate relationships, and religious beliefs for economic opportunity.
I once brought up why they would willingly accept the rule of or vote for a group that doesn’t share their views. They mentioned a time that a politician of one party had rerouted relief supplies that helped their parents overcome a natural disaster. They followed this anecdote by saying “Politics is not always about who agrees with you, but who takes care of you”. Along with voting for a politician who took care of them, they moved to and worked in an authoritarian state that took care of them. They set aside their political views to land a job that supports their family.
Episode 14 of the original series shows an example of this is when starving serfs of the Empire ask for food from the Alliance occupation force before they enjoy freedom and equality the Alliance promises.
In conversations I’ve had with both natives and expats in authoritarian countries, they can at least say that their state’s goal of power is at least candid and unpretentious. They can justify themselves by saying that liberal democracies rarely hold up the ideals of equality and freedom they claim to follow. Unlike the benign origins of the Alliance, refugees from the empire who founded and settled uninhabited planets, liberal democracies in our world were built on the original sins of colonialism and chattel slavery.
Like Reinhard and his followers. People who are raised in these authoritarian states can point at dysfunctional events and periods in democratic countries to defend their way of life.
Any country can point to flaws in other countries to make themselves look better. It’s easier to criticize a free society when a free press and people can criticize their government while those in authorization countries cannot.
The status of women follows traditional gender norms. Most of the prominent women in the series, such as Frederica Greenhill, Hildegard von Mariendorf, Katerose von Kreutzer, Annerose von Grünewald and Jessica Edwards are mostly defined by their relationships to men, as daughters, sisters, wives, and widows. Their growth as powerful characters in their own right originates from those relationships.
Did I mention I enjoy politics in my science fiction?