The Conservative Heart of “Legend of the Galactic Heroes”

Legend of the Galactic Heroes (LoGH) has long been something of a cult object in anime fandom. A 110-episode OAV released over ten years, it has been endlessly championed by fans of older anime and serious science fiction. This advocacy paid off in a 2015 liscensing by Sentai Filmworks and recent streaming release by HiDive, and serves as an example of how fans can revive interest in a previously obscure series.

However, the downside of this fan advocacy is that discussion of LoGH tends to be uncritical. It is praised for having serious political themes, but these themes themself are rarely discussed in-depth. Now that LoGH is easily accessible, I’d like to start an honest discussion of its ideas. And to do so, we must face the fact that LoGH’s worldview is deeply incompatible with many of its supporter’s progressive politics. There’s a bone-deep conservatism to Legend of the Galactic Heroes, one that tends towards supporting military dictatorship — a particularly troubling message in light of modern Japanese politics.

From its opening episodes, Legend of Galactic Heroes aims to tell the story of a battle between democracy and dictatorship. When the series begins, the Galactic Empire and Free Planets Alliance are locked into endless warfare. Both states are dominated by a parasitic upper class: the politicians of the FPA, represented by Prime Minister Job Truniht, and the nobles of the Empire, represented by the Kaizer. Both factions also contain brilliant generals in the form of Yang Wenli and Reinhardt von Lohengrim, the series’ dual protagonists. Over the course of the series, Yang’s belief in democracy prevents him from taking power, while Reinhardt, who has no such compunctions, becomes the leader of a galaxy-spanning empire and eventually crushes the FPA.

There are several problems with this narrative. To begin with, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a full-throated supporter of the Great Man theory of history, in which singular individuals change the course of history through their will and genius. Reinhardt changes the galaxy because he is wise and courageous, and is compared to other so-called Great Men like Napoleon and Alexander the Great.

Progressive historians such as Howard Zinn have argued for decades that this type of history is an inherently conservative one. Focusing on great individuals ignores the social forces that brought these individuals to power, usually consisting of both economic trends and the collective action of countless ordinary people. It discourages those of us who are not capital-G Great from participating in politics. At its extreme, it supports dictatorship: after all, if our leaders are just plain better than us, why not give them complete control?

And LoGH is certainly subject to these criticisms. While the series includes endless details about military tactics and maneuvers, we have relatively little idea of the economies and cultures of the powers involved in this conflict. The outcome of a war involving millions depends entirely on the choices of notable individuals. This presentation of history reinforces and naturalizes social hierarchies, and hence is conservative.

These hierarchies are further supported by the military worship evidenced throughout Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Military officers and soldiers are almost universally represented as decent people possessing courage and the ability to lead. Even when generals are antagonists or portrayed as being in the wrong, they are given a certain kind of nobility. By contrast, civilians with power — whether they be politicians, nobles, or businessmen — are usually portrayed as cowardly and foolish. There are exceptions, but they’re all killed off fairly quickly.

This flattering portrayal of the military is necessary to support LoGH’s critique of democracy. Yang states repeatedly that the core principle of democracy is civillian control. This is a rather odd statement — I suspect most people would name elected leaders or the consent of the people as the core of democracy, but this is not how LoGH understands the system.

There is never any suggestion that Job Truniht can be voted out of office and replaced by a better leader, or that his power is tempered by a parliamentary opposition. This omission likely stems from Japan’s political context in which a single party, the LDP, has dominated postwar elections. But if democracy is defined primarily as putting civillians in charge, and civillian leaders are invariably portrayed as weak and foolish next to the military, then as a system it seems plainly irrational.

The idea of Yang taking power himself, whether through a political campaign or a coup, is frequently brought up, but he refuses on the basis of democratic principle. The suggestion, then, is that the FPA loses the war because its democratic idealism stops the most intelligent man — who is, naturally, a general — from taking power. It’s no wonder that the faction that receives the most positive portrayal in LoGH is the breakaway republic composed almost entirely of FPA soldiers. If only we had a country without all those pesky civillians, everything would be fine.

LoGH’s elevation of the military to sanctified status is problematic for any kind of progressive politics. Blind trust in the military establishment has lead us into as many destructive wars as blind trust in politicians. When viewed from a Western perspective, this debate can see somewhat abstract, an almost Platonic discourse about what a good state is. When placed in the context of contemporary Japanese politics, however, the message of Legend of the Galactic Heroes starts to seem more pernicious.

Throughout the twentieth century, Japanese politics has been defined by a shifting balance of power between the military and the political class. In the 1920s and 30s, the military essentially took control of the state and sidelined both the political class and the nobility, ultimately leading to the calamities of World War II. After the war, America imposed a pacifist consitution on Japan, seemingly giving civillian politicians permanent control.

However, more recently Japan has seen a resurgence of right-wing nationalism (as has much of the rest of the world.) This current fetishizes Japan’s war history, arguing that they did nothing wrong in WW2 and that the military should once again be built up to re-establish Japan’s national pride. The pacifist constitution, long a treasured object of the Japanese left, is seen by the nationalists as a symbol of humiliation. This line of thought has popped up in anime as diverse as KanColle and GATE. In politics, it’s influenced the government of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has severely weakened the pacifist clauses of Japan’s constitution. An obscure OAV certainly doesn’t bear much responsibility for the rise of the right, but it is possible to see LoGH as an early part of this trend.

One of the ways in which Legends of the Galactic Heroes makes its military dictatorship appealing is by juxtaposing it only to twentieth-century capitalist democracy at its most corrupt. While the original LoGH novels were written during the last decade of the Cold War, there is no mention of any kind of socialist or communist society, or even the possibility of one. Political development, the series suggests, more or less stopped in the nineteenth century. Hence, if a capitalist democracy has problems, these are not signs that we should move further forward, but rather that we should return to an older kind of government — textbook conservatism.

So, why has Legend of the Galactic Heroes become a classic among serious-minded anime fans while series like Irregular at Magic High were mocked for their right-wing political messages? Perhaps it’s that the setting of LoGH, a science fictional galaxy modeled largely after nineteenth century Germany, makes these conversations sufficiently abstract. Another element of LoGH’s success is that it allows likeable characters (in particular Yang Wenli and his followers) to hold positions opposite to the main thrust of its narrative. Its argumentative mode is Platonic, allowing an oppositional voice to establish itself before ultimately being disproven. There are even strains of a leftist critique of war in certain episodes of LoGH. Narration talks about the uselessness of battles, and the tragedy of the loss of human life that takes place for the abstract gain of the elite. The episode that narrates Earth’s history, to take one example, presents a left-wing historical view, where common peoples’ hopes and aspirations are routinely taken advantage of and crushed by ruthless governments.

However, as in Plato, the oppositional voices are always set up to fail. The fundamental assumptions of the plot stack the deck against Yang’s position: if, as depicted in the series, civilian leaders are always craven and idiotic and the military always heroic and intelligent, then Yang’s refusal to conduct a military coup is idealistic stupidity. And if we really took the occasional critique of war on board, we would lose interest in all of the military drama that followed — we have no real character or plot arc to follow except that of the Great Men waging heroic combat for their ideals. The didactic narration, and the series’ core assumptions about the world, always guide the viewer back around to its reactionary thesis.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you can’t be politically progressive and enjoy Legend of the Galactic Heroes. The history of art is full of geniuses with intolerable politics, from Wagner to Yukio Mishima, and most scholars and fans find a way to reconcile their love of a particular work with politics they disagree with. But it’s important to understand that in a country ruled by military dictatorship mere decades ago, and in a world sliding into the grips of right-wing nationalism, a series that raises the possibility of a “good dictator” cannot be entirely abstract. Now that Legend of the Galactic Heroes is widely available, it’s time to start acknowledging its political slant and taking it seriously.