If a house is a man’s castle, then I’m the ruler of gnarled grasslands. No, wait, I pulled up all those weeds with my father. So make that, I’m the ruler of a barren wasteland.
When I wrote about the 2015 anime series Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers, I mentioned fantasy amine series tend utilize either a Eurocentric or East Asian setting. However, I completely overlooked one other important setting within the fantasy genre, Persia and the Middle East. While not as prevalent as Eurocentric settings, there have been a number of recent anime and manga series inspired by the stories of Scheherazade and the architectural designs, landscapes, clothing, and culture of the region. Some of the more notable works would be Shinobu Ohtake’s series Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic or the Alabasta story arc in Oda Eichirō’s long running series One Piece. In this same manner Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers was a nice change in setting. The Middle East also provides authors and production companies with remarkable aesthetic choices. Since the region has a rich culture and fantastic history, it’s nice seeing the influence of the region in anime and manga.
One anime series that was certainly inspired by the culture and history of the Middle East was 2015’s The Heroic Legend of Arslan (アルスラーン戦記 Arslan Senki). The series felt like a great representation of a fictionalized Middle Eastern world, which could be seen in many different elements of the series. Despite this, the narrative was underwhelming. Confusing as this is, the novel that formed the basis of the manga this anime series was adapted from has yet to conclude. Yet, the themes explored within the anime series appeared to be a sample of the larger story. Though I can only speculate if the anime production companies Linden Films and Sanzigen will expand on the series at a later date, I can say with some certainty it will not be in the same manner as author George R.R. Martin’s series Game of Thrones.
When it comes to series being inspired by different cultures, a fair amount of them delve into the finer details of that culture, while others seem to only use the surface elements. These surface elements would include names, architecture, clothing styles, or landscapes. I don’t condemn this practice of using the surface elements one bit because it allows the audience to experience different cultures in non-threatening ways. For example, I’ve mentioned in a previous article that Akira Toriyama used aspects of the Chinese classic Journey to the West in the opening chapters of his series Dragon Ball. It was a great way to introduce young readers to the motifs of the source material, but they were adapted in a way that was fun for them—I can personally attest to this, as seeing Bulma in a bunny girl outfit was, shall we say, stimulating to my young self. That’s not to say films like the Sinbad series don’t introduce children to Persian classics. It’s just that it does so in an entertaining and modern way.
The same can be said with the anime series The Heroic Legend of Arslan. Though it didn’t examine Middle Eastern cultures in terms of classical literature, it incorporated a number of visual and language aesthetics from the region. The visual aesthetics are not all that difficult to point out as many of the strongholds had a distinct look of historical sites from Iran and the Middle East. Take, for example, the architecture in the Kingdom of Pars’ capital from the series. While I can’t cite one specific Middle Eastern city as the model for the capital, we clearly saw influences of Middle Eastern architecture about the city. What I mean by this is when examining the prominent buildings in the city, they had the domed roofs commonly seen in that region of the world. On top of this, certain clothing choices represented the region as well. The clothing was a bit more difficult to place, but there was one specific example that had its roots in Sikh culture. Yes, Sikh culture originated further east of Persia, that is, modern day Iran, but considering the Kingdom of Shindran was also east of Pars, I thus found the clothing choices rather appropriate for the series. Though the clothing didn’t subscribe to traditional Sikh garb, we definitely saw the influence within the series.
However, as much as the visual aesthetics of The Heroic Legend of Arslan were wonderfully inspired, the foreign vocabulary was far more interesting. The series offered a great deal to examine, but a few stood out more than others. The most prominent of these was actually the name of the protagonist, Arslan. Adapted from the Persian epic, Amir Arsalan-e Namdar, the influence of the Farsi language and other regional languages can be seen from the titular character. Yet, scattered throughout the series we heard various terms not in the Japanese or English lexicon. The two terms that were possibly heard the most were yaşasin and Marzbān. Looking at the former, it was likely adopted from the Turkish word of the same pronunciation but retooled for the purposes of the series. While the Turkish definition appears to be “hurray,” the series used it to signal a charge—and trust me it took me quite a long time to find the source of the word. In turn, the latter term, Marzbān, was used in a similar way to its Persian roots in that it was a military rank. The use of these regional terms helped create a unique world for the series, but also connected it to the region it represented within the real world in the same way the visuals did. For this I commend the author of the source material, Yoshiki Tanaka, for using the terms, and I commend the anime production team for keeping them in the series.
Aside from the visuals and the lexicon, though, a fair portion of the narrative in The Heroic Legend of Arslan felt underwhelming. This came from a cyclical issue regarding the conflicts in the series, namely, since the overarching story was incomplete, the minor conflicts couldn’t be completed and because the minor conflicts couldn’t be completed, the overarching story wasn’t complete. So, the two problems fed off each other creating the cyclical issue with the series. It’s far easier to address the larger problem of the overarching story being incomplete first because of how noticeable it was. When looking at the anime adaptation of The Heroic Legend of Arslan we must understand it was adapted from a manga series that was also an adaptation of a novel series. Though I can’t say for certain if the anime series only covered the events within the manga series, even if this were the case it shouldn’t have precluded the production team from exploring beyond the events of the manga and dabble in what the novel series had to offer. As such, when watching the anime series it never felt as though the overarching conflict, Arslan claiming the title Shah, or King, was resolved. Instead, the series stopped just as the climax of the larger conflict was set into motion. Not only was this upsetting, but it fell back on the current wisdom of the anime industry: if there isn’t enough content in the source material to fill out a season’s worth of televised content, the series should be cut it in the middle.
However, this was wholly untrue with a series like The Heroic Legend of Arslan because there was more content to be explored. I say this because when looking at the novel source material, fourteen volumes have already been published. Even if there have been lulls in the publication schedule of the novel series, it’s not as though an anime production company, in this case Linden Films and Sanzigen, wouldn’t be able to create fifty episodes worth of content. In fact, from what I can gather, the anime series only covered the events of the first three or four novels. This begs the question, if the novels are brimming with content—enough that three or four novels could satisfy a twenty-four episode anime series—why not continue the story in the anime series? I have no answer to this question, but I highly suspect it had to with the progression of the manga adaptation.
The issue of not completing the larger conflict led to many of the smaller plot points having little meaning as well. It’s a great shame, too, because what the series offered thematically was interesting. On the surface, The Heroic Legend of Arslan was more or less a power struggle for a kingdom. However, when peeling away the narrative layers we found a fascinating examination of faith in regards to war, one’s lineage, what constituted being a great leader, and loyalty, among other aspects of the human condition. For instance, one of the underlying plot points of the series was the conflict between Daryun, a knight who swore an oath to serve Arslan, and Sam, a Pars general who swore his allegiance to the rightful heir to the throne, Hilmes. This conflict between the characters was remarkable because it brought to light the difficulties each character struggled with. In the case of Daryun, he placed his faith in Arslan and recognized why people followed him, even if Arslan wasn’t the rightful heir to the throne. Yet with Sam, we saw him struggle with the intentions of Hilmes and what was best for Pars. Sam even stated to Daryun that Hilmes would be a fine Shah even though he was plagued with thoughts of vengeance.
The example above was a fine demonstration of how the struggles seen throughout the series never felt as though they had weight behind them because the overarching narrative was cut short. Consider, both Daryun and Sam felt they were fighting for a righteous cause and were serving the true heir to the throne. Yet, we also saw how each of those heirs acted towards their subordinates. Thus, by juxtaposing the set of characters, Daryun and Sam, and Arslan and Hilmes, we understood this wasn’t just a conflict of opposing ideals, but of lineages, mindsets, and even rule. But, because the series only covered the first three or four volumes of the source material, these conflicts rarely came to a head, and to be frank, never actually concluded.
Though I pointed out the political power struggle of the series, it was actually the idea of faith that upset me the most, not in a sense that having faith is good or bad, but how we interpret our faith and act upon it. In fact, I felt as though one could find parallels between the character Etoile and real life people such as Kentucky’s Rowan County Clerk, Kim Davis. While I admire the courage of their convictions in regards to their faith—Etoile wanted to convert everyone to the religion of Yaldaboth and Mrs. Davis opined her faith in Christianity disallowed her to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples—with The Heroic Legend of Arslan we never truly saw how Etoile’s convictions affected Arslan or how her views on his faith changed over the course of the series.
Had The Heroic Legend of Arslan been longer, the issues revolving around the different plot points would have certainly ironed themselves out. As I stated above, fourteen books in the novel source material have already been published. To think some of the plot points I raised wouldn’t resolve themselves over the course of those books is unthinkable. Therefore, when watching the anime adaptation we saw how the issues of unresolved plot points and poor coordination on the part of the production team was cyclical. Though there are many solutions to this problem, I felt the best course of action would have been for Mainichi Broadcasting System (MBS) to extend their Sunday at five o’clock block of anime from thirty minutes to one hour. This could mitigate the problem of series ending prematurely, as was the case here, and would also provide a nice setup for one series to lead into another. For example, it was announced in July 2015 Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans would begin airing in the Sunday at five o’clock time slot on MBS in October 2015. However, a series like The Heroic Legend of Arslan having an extended break potentially makes it difficult for fans to return to the series. Thus, having one series lead into the other could drive ratings for both and possibly bring in new fans.
That being said, there’s no doubt The Heroic Legend of Arslan will have another anime series made in the future. I made the comparison to the Game of Thrones TV series in the introduction. In all honesty, The Heroic Legend of Arslan will not follow the model set by the popular HBO series of ten episodes a year. The main reason for this is the airing schedule for the Sunday at five o’clock block of anime on MBS for the foreseeable future is already set: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans from October 2015 to March 2016 followed by My Hero Academia from April 2016. While it’s possible The Heroic Legend of Arslan could end up in a late night block of television, as was the fate of Haikyu—which angers me to no end—this would ultimately be a poor choice for every party involved. I say this because there was a lot of untapped potential in The Heroic Legend of Arslan and to exile it to a broadcast slot during which time not many people will be awake is like building a coffin for the series. Yes, online streaming and recording is a viable option, but not everybody has those options available to them. Thus, making it available to the widest possible audience is critical for a series like this. However, I’m not the final arbiter for the fate of this series. So, all I can do is hope for the best.
The Heroic Legend of Arslan was a wonderful high fantasy series. The use of a Middle Eastern setting was a splendid change for a fantasy anime series. It was the addition of regional terms that enhanced the viewing experience, though. Although I only mentioned three different terms, yaşasin, Marzbān, and Shah, there were a handful of others that found their way into the series. Of course, the architectural and clothing designs were pleasant to look at as well, but it was the lexicon that fascinated me the most. However, this is not to say the series was not without its flaws. In fact, the major issue concerned the fact the series was reminiscent of the snake ouroboros, the legendary creature that eats itself, in that the problems with the series fed upon themselves. That is, many of the smaller plot points that added to the larger story never felt complete because the overarching story was only half complete and the overarching story was only half complete because the minor plots weren’t resolved. Consequently, because the production team knew the overall narrative would be incomplete, they abandoned bringing even one of the minor plot points to a close. My guess is more seasons of the series will be released slowly over the years mitigating this problem, but I hold no hope they’ll be made any time soon. Hence, if you are interested in watching The Heroic Legend of Arslan I would suggest waiting until the second season has been released. Better yet, read the novel series. But, for those who are interested, while disappointing in certain regards, this is a series you will have fun with.
Title: The Heroic Legend of Arslan (アルスラーン戦記 Arslan Senki)
Under: Linden Films, Sanzigen
Official Site: http://arslan.jp/index2.html
More Info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Heroic_Legend_of_Arslan