Legend of the Galactic Heroes doesn’t impress its worldview on the viewer through single dramatic speeches, or rousing moments in the heat of battle. It’s constructed not as a war epic, but as a historical chronicle, and its cynicism towards the great acts of men carries the great fatigue only a long-view perspective can bring. Men may inspire others to action, and even rule over their fellows for a time. Men can commit great and terrible acts, and their names can occasionally become renowned enough to be remembered. But men die, and the world moves on. History is larger than our capacity to make it.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes’ fifty-sixth episode is essentially a condensed representation of its perspective, as the history of mankind from the time of global governmental unification through the end of Earth-based colonialism is replayed in brief, consistently repeated snippets. Humanity is not initially united through a desire for greater mutual understanding; instead, it takes a global thermonuclear war for mankind to rally against the inherent violence of nationalism. And whatever lesson is learned there is forgotten by the time the Earth becomes the leader of a scattering of planetary satellite states – friction leads to conflict, and this chapter closes with one more era of violence.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes may not play favorites in its detailing of mankind’s one repeated story, but it certainly has least favorites. And in the telling of this story, it’s clear that the coveting of military power is considered one of man’s great fundamental failings. “The people of this era had forgotten that every army in history can trumpet peace, but also go on mad offensives” intones our historian guide, his professional distance centering us in the worldview of the show. In the first Legend of the Galactic Heroes book, Yang Wen-li optimistically imagines he can at best create a single generation’s span of peace – enough time for a new crop of hopeful young leaders to grow up without internalizing the lessons of the prior era. Individual leaders can do what they will, but both institutions and memories decay in time.
The prologue to the war detailed in this episode is just one more echo of the failings inherent in capitalism, colonialism, and the general rule of man. The rise of the military in a time of global unification is questioned, but governments with strong militaries end up becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, and between overt lobbyists and the military’s general position, it continues to grow. As colonies are abused for resources, leaders on Earth make empty speeches praising the libertarian spirit, and condemning the colonists for weaklings. The military becomes corrupt, and realizes that armies need wars. Another page is turned.
“At this time, one could say the orders were extreme” understates our historian friend, as the images behind him flicker across bombed cities and war atrocities on a massive scale. The dry, documentary tone only enhances the sharpness of this material. There’s nothing unusual about the story being told here, and that itself is what’s infuriating. “From the brutality of these actions, the hope of the colonies was born” he eventually adds, and that, of course, starts the cycle anew. A few brilliant men turn the disparate colonies into a honed killing machine, and pay back their tragedies in turn. And then these men die, one of them briefly lamenting how he needed just a few more years to establish a real peace. Their death creates a vacuum, that vacuum is filled with war, and their shadows fall in line with all of the others.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes raises up great men only to demonstrate that even at their peak, humans can only do so much. Individuals can move history to an extent, but they are also a product of it, and you can’t truly change the river’s course. The invention of faster than light travel spurs an era of great human expansion, but eventually the human empire becomes one more reflection of age-old colonial tensions. Individuals rally against the injustices that define their times, but their actions do not change the fundamentals of human conflict. “Look at what has happened,” screams Legend of the Galactic Heroes, shaking your shoulders and pointing to the parallel lines. “Look, and remember. Never let yourself forget.”
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