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THE HEROIC LEGEND OF ARSLAN - prettily animated epic adventure
THE HEROIC LEGEND OF ARSLAN is a six-part Japanese animated series (produced from 1991-95) consisting of two hour-long segments released to theaters and four half-hours released straight to video (OAV). Based on a series of novels by Yoshiki Tanaka, it tells an elaborate epic tale of a young prince trying to regain the throne of Palse after it's been taken over by a rival power. He starts out with a small band of followers after a disastrous battle and the party grows with each episode as he attracts allies, including a neighboring kingdom that offers him its army. The time period is 320-321 A.D., although it's kind of an alternate historical universe set in a region patterned after Asia Minor, the Near East, Eastern Europe and India nearly 2000 years ago, with none of the countries' actual names in use. E.g. Prince Arslan's country is Palse (or Pars), a stand-in for Persia, even though Arslan looks more Aryan than Iranian. Shindra stands in for India and its denizens clearly look Indian. Lusitania is the country that attacks and occupies Palse but it's not immediately clear what region it's based on.
The first two episodes are very beautifully animated and designed while the four shorter OAV episodes are noticeably cruder and afflicted with budget shortcuts (e.g. a battle on a rope bridge that never sways!). Still, it's a consistently entertaining and visually pleasing historical adventure that offers several well-staged battle scenes executed with a minimum of gore or bloodshed, making this more suitable for younger audiences than most historical anime epics.
One of the major problems of the series is the large number of intriguing characters who are introduced and then shunted to the sidelines. The interactions among the core group of characters make the first two episodes so entertaining but afterwards we see relatively little of them as new characters are added to the mix. Also, the series ends at a turning point in the action that clearly required more chapters that never came.
One aspect of the series worth discussing is its "bishonen" (beautiful boy) quality. Three of the major male characters, Arslan, Gieve and Narsus, are handsome to the point of being uncommonly pretty and adorned in attractive costumes and accessories. All three, it turns out, are also strong and agile warriors. This type of portrayal is actually a somewhat common convention of historical fiction in Japanese popular culture. Bishonen anime and manga are quite popular in Japan, particularly among female audiences for whom the Arslan series seems to have been particularly designed. There's never any hint of sexual innuendo among the characters and there are, indeed, beautiful women on hand who are part of the group as well, most notably Pharangese, a stunning brunette warrior-priestess. Arslan himself is drawn to a young Lusitanian female prisoner of war and seeks to forge a bond with her. There are a few amusing moments involving the jealousy of Lord Narsus' boy servant Elam after Narsus has picked up a cute, spunky redheaded girl, Arfurio, on one of his adventures. I would argue, however, that this is simply an issue of status, since Elam's position as Narsus' right hand could be undermined by Arfurio's amorous attentions toward Narsus.
In the final volume of the anime (eps. 5-6) as released in the U.S., the spellings of the character names were changed at the request of the Japanese producers. Except for "Arslan" (a change from Arislan), the spellings in this review reflect the earlier versions.
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