The Summer 2016 season of anime is rapidly approaching and three big sequels are on the horizon. The continuation of D Gray-Man and the CG Berserk sequel are the bigger sequels of the three but since I’ve already talked about the original D Gray Man before and never really got into Berserk (shocking as that may seem), instead I’m going to talk about the predecessor to sequel number 3, Arslan Senki, there will be spoilers ahead, you have been warned.
In case you never saw the original Arslan Senki, by which I mean the first season which came out in 2015 not the original OVAs from the 90’s because I haven’t seen those, here’s a quick recap. Arslan Senki is a fantasy anime technically, though it usually more closely resembles a history anime with some fantastical elements. It follows the journey of Arslan, heir to the throne of Pars, a rich and powerful kingdom which appears to have been inspired by ancient Persia. The bulk of the story takes place after the Parsian army suffers a huge defeat at the hands of the Lusitanians, who appear to have inspired by the Crusader armies of medieval Europe. Arslan is on the run and has only a few trusted allies to turn to, while his father the king is missing and the capitol city lies under siege. Arslan and his allies must work carefully to build enough support to drive out the invading army and other, more sinister forces that dwell in their midst. There’s plenty of action involved and while the story thus far has not been complex, the relatively simple tale has been told with great skill I feel, making it easy to get invested in the characters. Overall I would recommend the show, it’s a solid, dependable story that never left me feeling bored. If you haven’t seen the show and want to avoid spoilers, I suggest you stop here, because it’s time to get into more detail.
Arslan Senki has an interesting and problematic start. The first episode is solid, introduces a few characters, introduces one of the central tenets of the story’s overarching conflicts, slavery, and generally gets us to understand that Arslan is a kind and somewhat wimpy prince living in nation that is very proud of it’s military might and warrior-king Andragoras. We also learn that Andragoras and his queen, Tahamine, are not on very good terms with each other and on even worse terms with Arslan. The series then skips forward two years to get the catastrophic defeat at Atropatene. This is where the series took a nosedive for me the first time I watched it. For one thing, the CG used during large scale battles is not very good and they don’t use it to do impressive things like say Kingdom would do to make up for the downgrade in visual quality. But to me it was the logic of the series that shattered my immersion in the story. Ok so get this, the king of Pars is a renowned warrior and general who has never been beaten before and when the Lusitanians invade he decides to engage them on a battlefield that is shrouded in fog where you can’t see shit. Now I understood that the conceit was that Andragoras was too proud to retreat and too confident in victory to suspect that this was part of a trap, but even so how the fuck does any general decide ‘yeah let’s charge headlong into a battlefield where we can’t see anything,’ let alone a general who has never lost before? Ancient battlefields were already a chaotic mess thanks to the delays in relaying information and commands, and you now, the mess that is melee combat, no general in their right mind would charge into a battlefield where they can’t see anything. It would have made way more sense for them have just waited the fog out or retreated to a more defensible position. All of this still bugs me, but on my second viewing of the show it bothered me a lot less because Andragoras honestly isn’t that important to the story, and because the show is styling itself as an epic or legend, so it makes more sense because legends and epics tend to have more overblown and unrealistic characters in them so it just kinda fit.
The problems only got worse during my first viewing as the first few episodes have little for Arslan to do since he’s forced to hide while larger and more important events happen around him, like the siege of Ecbatana. Funnily enough though, I actually thought this was one of the more exciting parts when I rewatched it and I think I get why in retrospect. The early episodes, minus episode one which was mostly a standalone introduction, flow into each other really well and do a great job portraying the chaos and scale of the Lusitanian invasion and the speed with which Pars falls once the rug is pulled out from under it. Sure Arslan’s part of the story is pretty slow but he’s not really in focus yet, he’s just a loose thread that needs to be cut to tie off a much larger scheme, and once he goes into hiding the full force of the scheme takes center stage while loose-thread Arslan is put on the back-burner. So if you watched it and thought the early stuff was boring enough to get you to drop I would encourage you to give the first five episodes or so a shot because they were so much better when I marathoned them rather than watching week by week. Anyway I think it’s time to get a bigger picture of the story.
To me, Arslan Senki has a great story. It’s simple but effective and it’s very easy to latch onto and support. Arslan can appeal to a lot of people because he’s the underdog, an outsider in several ways when compared to his family and allies, very open-minded, just generally a decent guy and he has way more on his plate than anyone his age should have to deal with. Arslan compensates by attracting powerful and competent allies but the prince himself feels like a much more real and down to earth character amid a cast full of characters who are more clearly designed to fill well-worn story archetypes like the heroic knight, the brilliant tactician, the priestess and so on. And I’m glad that Hermes is a straight up villain instead of some kind of anti-hero. I’ve talked about this before in an old post about anti-heroes, as well my reviews of Death Note and Code Geass, but the overwhelming majority of anti-heroes in anime are vengeance seekers and most of them cross the line into becoming just as bad as villains at some point, but they are rarely actually treated by their stories and fanbases as if they were villains. Both Light and Lelouch are still mostly viewed as sort of good guys by a lot of people in the anime community, while characters like Sasuke get to turn around and redeem themselves from their terrible crimes without a whole lot of effort. And that’s always bugged me because I feel that once these guys go too far they really only have two options, either they become villains or they spend a significant portion of their life seeking redemption, like Akame from Akame ga Kill. But for whatever reason I don’t see a lot of people labeling Light and Lelouch as villains, even the shows they belong to portray them as sort of justified, when by the end they are far worse than any of the people they were fighting against, and that does not sit well with me. Which is why I’m a big fan of Hermes, he’s a guy who has taken his revenge too far and is made the villain for it. I loved how Arslan worries for a while about whether or not Hermes’ crimes might be justified by his quest for revenge but then concludes that it doesn’t matter if Hermes is justified or not because the lengths he’s gone to to see his vengeance realized have robbed his cause of any legitimacy it might have had. Because that’s the way I feel about Light and Lelouch and a lot of vengeance seekers, it doesn’t matter if their cause was sort of just or their ideals sort of good, they went so overboard in pursuit of those things they are ultimately irredeemable to me. Hermes embodies this idea and the fact that he is so blatantly the villain is refreshing.
But getting back to the rest of the story, I think what makes Arslan Senki good is that it mostly appears so obvious. The broad strokes of the story are telegraphed well in advance, they even say when Arslan makes the declaration to abolish slavery that he later became known as Arslan the Liberator because of this, which strongly suggests he comes out of this contest on top if the title itself wasn’t enough of a tip off. And given how invincible all of Arslan’s companions appear when compared to everyone except Hermes, it’s never a surprise when Narsus outsmarts all of his opponents or Daryun kills a major enemy like Bahadur or Xandes. Arslan makes up for being predictable in the broader scope of things by being more surprising and engaging in the details. For example, while it’s immediately apparent Arslan isn’t loved much by the king and queen, it’s not revealed until much later that he likely isn’t related to either of them (though he looks like he should be the queen’s son if not the king’s) and spent his early years in an orphanage not knowing he was a prince at all. Likewise I would get bored by Narsus unbeatable strategies if the show didn’t go out of it’s way to show how his plans work in action across the full battlefield and without much in the way of exposition to boot.
An especially good detail is how different Lusitanians act with regard to their religious beliefs, they’re collectively painted as a bunch of religious nutjobs and they kind of are. But in between the sweeping generalizations and almost hilariously overblown characters like Bodin, who honestly feels like he would fit right in in Akame ga Kill, there’s more depth. You have soldiers who don’t really care about the actual tenets of their religion, they just use it as a tool to take what they want. You have others who refuse or question Bodin’s commands, or that one guy, who I wish they showed more of, who straight up called his own religious leader a bloodthirsty devil and openly wonders what the hell kind of god would accept child-killers like himself and many other soldiers into heaven. Even the Lusitanian prince doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about religion and only exploits it when Bodin makes grabs for power. On the other end of the spectrum you have Etoile who takes her religion so seriously she honestly can’t understand why others don’t see it’s greatness and criticizes her men when they act outside of her faith’s moral tenets. You even have the women who are so insane in their faith that they would rather throw themselves off a building than be captured. All of this is in service of showing how horrible and hollow religion and faith can be, and I want to stress the can because religion and faith certainly aren’t all bad regardless of how cynically this show views them and it’s not like people don’t find other reasons to be horrible, and sets up the Lusitanians’ downfall. There’s a line from a captured Parsian knight right as the siege of Ecbatana starts where he says something like he’ll watch from the afterlife as the Lusitanians’ fanatical religion and their cruel acts of faith end up devouring them, and aside from that line being a great one liner in context it’s totally predictive of where the series is going. When the Lusitanians had momentum and unity they won, but the longer they stay in Pars the more they fragment and begin to die.
The characters for all their reliance on very basic and well known archetypes are also pretty good, or perhaps enjoyable would be a more precise term. I think what makes most of the characters be enjoyable is how they change depending on who they talk to. For example Daryun is the stereotypical perfect knight whenever Arslan is present and all of his lines include the word Denka (Highness) in them somewhere, which makes him pretty flat and boring in the name of getting his sheer dedication and loyalty acorss. By contrast he feels much more human and detailed when he’s alone with Narsus where’s he allowed to poke fun at his friend, talk about Arslan’s potential lineage problems and other topics he doesn’t want Arslan to know about. Likewise I could see people getting annoyed with Alfreed because when she’s around Narsus she’s obnoxiously clingy and always bickering with Elam, but she really comes into her own when she’s talking to other women and is allowed to have actual conversations about her goals, beliefs and relationships that give her more depth. Almost all of the main characters have this sort dual-characterization, they behave in a specific archetypal way around some characters and are allowed to be more varied and human around others, and as far as I can tell it works, it sells me these characters who would otherwise be totally boring when they weren’t doing something badass.
The main exception to this rule is Arslan himself whose character is governed by a term I’m now-coining the Yona Effect. In Akatsuki no Yona, Yona the heroine was totally useless for the first few episodes, she had no skills, no contacts, no nothing and she was totally dependent on Hak to survive. What made Yona such a fantastic character though is that she forced herself to improve because she was tired of being useless. This attitude pops up all the time, mostly in shounen shows, where characters say something “dammit I want to stronger…” What makes Yona special however is that she can remain a relatively weak character and we can still appreciate how much she grows because she started somewhere even worse, whereas in a typical shounen story a character gets overpowered as they improve themselves. It’s also just a lot more endearing and gripping to see a totally weak character grow into someone stronger than it is to see a character who is already strong get even stronger. And Arslan follows this model almost to the letter, he does have some sword skills early on but not nearly enough to survive on his own, and otherwise he has no skills whatsoever. In the early episodes he constantly tries to do something, just to feel less useless and ends up breaking all the plates he touches and that sort of thing. Which is why by the first season’s end when he gets to the point where he’s grown in confidence and skill but still remains weaker than his allies, you really appreciate how much work it took to get where he is. It’s not handled quite as well as Yona’s development but it has a similar effect nonetheless and it’s a much needed break from Arslan’s more invincible allies.
So far I’ve been going on and on about the good stuff and only mention some of the bad stuff in passing like the bad CG. So I think it’s time to get some complaining in. When I finished the first season I had two major problems, One, I thought the show really should have done more to resolve the main conflict because I didn’t know we would get a sequel so soon and while the first season did end at a natural break in the story, it also left off right in the middle of incredibly important, huge and urgent story of Arslan reclaiming Ecbatana. Two, why did we waste fiveish episodes on Arslan’s sidequest in Shindra? Now it’s not that I disliked the episodes in Shindra, and I do like the addition of Jaswant to Arslan’s party. However given how relatively unimportant the Shindra part of the story was and how those fiveish episodes could have been used to further Arslan’s main goal of driving the Lusitanians out of Pars, I thought it was a waste of time and after re-watching it, I still feel mostly the same the way. In fact the only good thing which I didn’t notice before from the Shindra arc was Farangis’ costume change and let’s address that too.
As I’ve discussed several times before, I am big fan of strong women and Farangis qualifies as such. I like her aloof, dignified demeanor, archery skills, slight of air mystery when it comes to her ability to hear Djinn and other magical/religious knowledge and of course how she is a hot mature woman. What I am not a big fan of however is her costume, she might as well be wearing just her underwear and a cape for all the clothes she has on. I get that the idea was to promote her sexual appeal but come the fuck on guys, she had all the appeal in the world without being half naked. Her outfit is totally at odds with her profession, priestesses usually aren’t known for their skimpy outfits, and her aloof, dignified demeanor, I mean most people would look absolutely ridiculous is they acted with a tenth of the pride she has while wearing the same outfit. To the show’s credit it does not obsess over Farangis’ lack of clothes and put her in a bunch of shots that emphasize her cleavage and whatnot like so many anime do, but still I always thought the outfit itself was in poor taste. I don’t know maybe I’m just a bit of a prude, or maybe it’s because I’m not 15 years old anymore, but that outfit just does not appeal to me, aside from it already being a low class act in and of itself, it does not mesh with the character at all and even seems a bit disrespectful to Farangis herself. Like shouldn’t a character this awesome deserve an outfit that reflects her better and isn’t designed for base titillation? What’s more it doesn’t even get you much, most shots with Farangis focus on her gorgeous face and maybe her bust, you only really see the full skimpiness her outfit in battle scenes where it’s important to see the whole body, and boy does it look out of place there. In the Shindra arc they actually put Farangis in an outfit with some real clothes and she looked so much better, because she looked more like a real person in a real place, not a character from a porn game in the middle of a serious, historic setting. And then when they go back to Pars she ditches the clothes and ugh…fuck this is ridiculous. I know this is such a small tangent and it really has no bearing on the show but just… FUCK. Is it really too much to ask for some more thoughtful and thematically appropriate costume designs? Seeing strong women get thrown into trashy outfits that don’t fit them all just drives me up the fucking wall. This is even more frustrating than having big tits as the default setting for anime women, which I bitched about before. Ugh.
To summarize, Arslan Senki is a good show with a lot of different strengths and I for one am looking forward to season 2. I am also fervently praying that someone on the creative staff will have a flash of reason and put Farangis in some real clothes again. I hope you enjoyed this post and I’ll see you in the next one.
PS: If you enjoyed Arslan Senki and/or this review there’s more, the Arslan Senki Season 2 review is out.