I just finished watching the two Legend of the Galactic Heroes Gaiden series, half a year after marathoning through the main series. They immediately reminded me of one of the main reasons, why so many people, including myself just now in the previous post, claim that this anime is “truly epic”, as opposed to others that are merely “awesome”, “large scale”, or “long”. There is a significant qualitative difference, in which only Legend of the Galactic Heroes is truly similar to the legends, epic poems, and awe-inspiring ancient tales that so few modern works can imitate in any media.
That difference is the background setting’s depth.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes truly gives the feeling of a complete universe, where all side-characters have their own stories, and each of these stories have side characters that have their own stories. Just thinking about it, I can get lost in it, like in the paths of a spiral labyrinth. Not to mention the temporal depth, how everything has a backstory, and future consequences.
But what makes this series so exceptional? Every anime has background characters, and many of them have an elaborate backstory, or an open ending, that’s true. But in those series, it’s usually still made clear, that the story told during the plot is the “real thing”, and everything else is just a decoration for it. For example, let’s just look at the backstories: The method of only choosing a specific past event as a plot cornerstone, is so common, that it could be considered a trope on it’s own. In fact, a few years ago, I tried to launch a trope page about exactly that, with the name When It All Began. The stories that are using this, are trying to create only an illusion of depth, just like when the actors in old movies are playing in front of the poster of a scenery instead of the actual scenery, to imitate physical depth. It’s better than nothing, but in the end, the feeling that it is fake, inevitably gives a sense of insularity.
Likewise, many stories that are ending on a cliché like “This is only the beginning of the adventure”, are just resorting to stating a truism, that the characters aren’t dead, so theoretically their story could be continued. Legend of the Galactic Heroes doesn’t resort to such imitation. There is no “backstory”, there is only a continuous history, some of which happens to be out of focus during this plot. And there are no side-characters, only people, some of whose story happens to be less relevant to the Legend, than that of others.
The old legends, myths, and epics, had an adventage in that regard, because they were put together from the huge pre-existing multiverse of oral tradition. Every casually named “redshirt” in the Iliad feels like a deep individual, because they were important legendary figures at the homeland of the speaker, who chose to add them to the basic story. It is comparable to how Star Wars would look like, if it would be rewritten by a bunch of Expanded Universe writers. Every single stormtrooper, droid, and goofy alien from the Mos Eisley cantina, would get at least named, and several of them would get short references to all of their adventures in the books that were written about them since the original release.
And that’s how Legend of the Galactic Heroes feels like. Everything from the narrator’s seemingly random references about a character’s personal details, to the character designs that manage to provide enough different faces, seems to enforce the idea that there is a living galaxy out there.
Whenever a great anime ends, I feel either sad that the characters’ story ended, or in the worse case, annoyed that it was an unfinished adaptation or an (indecisive original ending) and there would be more to tell about them. With the Legend of the Galactic Heroes gaiden, just like with the main series, it was neither, but somewhere in-between the two.
“Ah, so this is how this Legend ended. It’s time to say goodbye. But no, wait, I want to know more about that other Legend, with Bruce Ashbey! Even if Yang doesn’t care about the culprit, I do! And what happened with that little girl, Margareta, from “the Retriever” arc? And all those soldiers from “Mutineer”! We are not done here! We will never be.”