One of the most anticipated titles of the year is also technically one of the oldest. Today's review is based on a series of old light novels, albeit with a fresh new of paint thanks to one of the best shonen creators working today. So is this a successful reboot with some fresh new perspectives or will this be just another retread?
THE HEROIC LEGEND OFARSLAN (Arusuran Senki), based on the light novel series by Yoshiki Tanaka with art by Hiromu Arakawa. First published in 2013, and first published in North America in 2014.
Ecbatana is a proud and powerful kingdom that is in the midst of a large and bitter war, fueled by religious conflict. Ecbatana has survived in great part because of their fearsome, warmongering king Andragoras, but people are more doubtful about his heir Arslan. Arslan is the black sheep of the family and he's eager to prove his worth to not only his family, but to the kingdom as a whole. He finally gets that chance to go to the battlefield, but instead of winning glory Arslan is witness to a massacre which endangers not only his family, but the kingdom itself. Arslan now must learn from the past and from others if he is to transform himself into the great leader his land needs.
Arslan has a long and storied history behind it, in more ways than one. It started as a light novel series in the 90s written by the creator of The Legend of Galactic Heroes, and since that time it's been adapted into an OVA series as well as two manga adaptations, of which this is the latest. It's also got a lot of history in the story itself, as it clearly takes a lot of cues from the medieval Middle Eastern history, although it puts enough twists on both sides that it's not too obvious.
The advantage of it being based on a book series is that its pacing is clearly geared towards the long-term. The pacing here is slow and purposeful, giving plenty of time to develop Arslan as a person before throwing him into battle halfway through the volume. We also get a lot of time to develop the personalities and allegiances of the minor nobility and soldiers around Arslan, as well as the opposing side of Lusitania and the cult of Yandabroth, which appears to operate like a cross between the cult of Ba'al and the Catholic Church. Mind you, Ecbatana doesn't come off as terribly noble in comparison to them, considering that their wealth is shown to be built on the back of slaves and that Andragoras rules over it all like a tyrant. Still, it's weird that Ecbatana gets a fairly nuanced take on its issues while Lusitania is painted like one giant cult.
Arslan is weirdly passive for a protagonist of a war story. Most of his time is spent having others lecture him, always subservient to his parents and teachers, and while it's never stated outright he's clearly desperate for approval from his distant parents. Still, he's shown to have the ability to learn from his mistakes and from those around him. He might not be a good swordfighter, but when he's confronted by a Lusitanian slave about his presumptions about his people and beliefs, he takes it all in and begins to question his own beliefs. He may not be physically imposing, but he's good at making friends and allies, some of which literally save his ass when the battle goes badly. He may be passive, but he's also willing to learn from the mistakes of the past, which will clearly serve him well in things to come.
Once you get past the slightly giggle-inducing name, Heroic Legend of Arslan becomes the compelling story of one boy's rise set against the fall of his native land. It clearly has a mind set towards the future, as the story is more than content to take its time and establish its hero as well as the people and cultures around him.
Arakawa is a great match for this story, considering her own experience writing and drawing elaborate worlds centered on war. Still, I feared that this series would fall into the same trap as Hero Tales, where Arakawa was simply content to recycle characters from Fullmetal Alchemist. Thank goodness that this time her focus was not so divided, and the art is glorious. While there are still some slightly familiar faces amongst the crowds, the cast is distinct enough that one cannot simply point out "Ok, there's the Edward stand-in, and there's the Roy, and there's the King Bradley..." and so forth.
Arakawa does a great job capturing not only the setting, but also the sheer scale of this world. The cities are elaborate, exotic, and sprawling, and the sieges are massive seas of soldiers and cavalry surging over vast, rocky plains and escarpments. The same crisp, clean qualities that she brought to her own art is evident here as well. Her action scenes are never choked with speed lines or sound effects, but instead she uses a lot of well-drawn poses alongside a few bursts of dynamic energy or a little bit of a blur to convey the powerful swing of a sword or a soaring volley of arrows. Even in the midst of battle, each little brawl is easy to follow and it allows the reader to follow the battle just as easily as they can follow Arslan's plot. It's genuinely epic art, and it's a perfect match for this epic story.
Once again, we get Arakawa's humorous brand of omake, along with an interview with both her and Tanaka. It's a very informative piece, as both go into their own backgrounds as well as their thoughts on the creation and adaptation of this series.
The Heroic Legend of Arslan is a fine historical epic that's more than content to sit back and establish its world before diving into battle, and it's complemented by the crisp and finely detailed art. This is one legend I can't wait to see unfold.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 2 volumes available. Both have been published and are currently in print. This series is also available digitally through Crunchyroll.
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