By Andrew Osmond
Like all true legends, Arslan’s story has been told before – several times, in prose novels, manga strips and anime, involving a succession of top creators and artists. It’s a medieval-style saga about a young (fourteen year-old!) prince in exile, Arslan, gathering allies in a bid to drum up an army and free his land. But that simple premise is developed on multiple levels, with modern resonances. It’s not schematic good-versus-evil. The prince’s enemies may be violent religious zealots, but then the prince’s own father is a tyrant and slave-owner. It’s a clash of civilisations where neither side is straightforwardly good, and individuals must choose their own paths, straight or crooked. There are brawny massed battles – just look at the trailer – but as much examination of minds and hearts.
The Heroic Legend of Arslan is a fantasy which stays in touching distance with the real world. Arslan’s homeland is modelled on Persia (now Iran). It’s the kind of story where the fantasy is trimmed right back – the world may be imaginary and open-ended, and there may be sorcerers and monsters, but they play a very limited role behind the human actors. Two obvious comparisons to Arslan are America’s Game of Thrones and Japan’s Berserk, though the Arslan books predate both; judging by their adaptations, they aren’t as consumed by sensational sex and violence. Which is not to say Arslan is soft. This is still a medieval realm, and torture and slaughter exist beside the pageantry and finery.
Arslan began more than twenty years ago as a series of Japanese prose novels by Yoshiki Tanaka; he also wrote the books which became the SF anime epic Legend of the Galactic Heroes (and you can read all about him in a massive new article by Jonathan Clements recently posted in the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction). Some editions of Tanaka’s books had pictures by the famed illustrator Yoshitaka Amano, who’s perhaps best known for his work on the early Final Fantasys. He also illustrated the Vampire Hunter D novels and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: The Dream Hunters..The Arslan novels began in 1986, and haven’t ended yet.
In the early 1990s, they had their first round of adaptations, being turned both into a manga strip (drawn by Chisato Nakamura) and a series of anime films. It’s the first of those films that’s best remembered by old-school fans. It had a cinema airing in Japan, and contained extremely stylish, mist-shrouded battles on horseback and strikingly beautiful character designs. It had a VHS video release from Manga Entertainment, which dubbed the anime itself (though it wasn’t always true to the Japanese script; beware the unreliable voice-over narrators!)
The later Arslan episodes in the 1990s were shorter, cheaper straight-to-vids; they had American dubs and different character names, though Manga had started the name confusion when it called the exiled-prince hero Arislan instead of Arslan. A moment’s thought will tell you why (and you can stop sniggering at the back).
After these versions, there was a gap of a decade before a new Arslan emerged in the 2010s. A fresh manga telling began, drawn by a star who many readers should recognise; it’s Hiromu Arakawa, who previously created Fullmetal Alchemist. Although Alchemist’s steampunk world had much more tech and magic than Arslan’s, there are obvious parallels. Both use upfront resonances with the real world (Arslan’s religious armies, Alchemist’s kingly Fuhrer) and play up the human characters’ conflicts, external and internal. If you’re looking for more Japanese parallels, you might consider Hayao Miyazaki’s manga version of Nausicaa, which played down the film version’s big bugs in favour of a war between empires, waged over a desert.
The new TV Arslan is directly based on the Arakawa manga. Director Noriyuki Abe steered the Bleach franchise for a decade, while chief Character Designer Shingo Ogiso cut his teeth on several Bleach films. This means that hopefully we’ll get the best ideas of two heavyweight creators: Fullmetal Alchemist meets Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
Heroic Legend of Arslan starts simulcasting from Anime Ltd in April.