Posted on 29 December 2017 with categories: Anime Reviews, Shoukoku no Altair

It would not be an exaggeration to say that my favorite type of anime is the political-military epic. This comes partly out of my profession, I study war and politics, but also my hobby, as military and political history is something I enjoy. When it comes to anime there is a clear sub-category that can be called political-military epics that covers elements of politics and war. These shows are characterized by some commonalities. First of all direction wise, is the large cast. When your characters are introduced with subscripts for titles, you know you are in political-military epic territory. Second, there is narrator who plays a crucial role in moving the story along.

Story wise the shows can be place into a continuum anchored by the great Chinese epics. On the one side you have those stories which are closer to the thematic of the Chinese “Journey to the West”. Political and Military events provide a backdrop, but the stories essentially focus on the story of a hero within the world. On the other side are stories in which the politics and the military events are the protagonist. There is no real protagonist per se, but instead central characters through which we see the events unfurl. The literary example of this in Chinese cultures is “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Stories that go further and relegate characters to a truly secondary role cross into thematic territory that is more in synch with the ancient Greek history, “The Peloponnesian War”. Anime wise, a recent example of the first type was “Akatsuki no Yona”. Stories in the theme of the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, including directly based on it abound in anime, with “Shouten Kouro” being the most recent example in my mind. Finally, “Legend of Galactic Heroes” stands the closest to the “Peloponnesian War”, though it is still anchored around two protagonists.

Due the central role of the politics and military events in these stories, characters are either decision makers, or people who are privy to decisions. This is what differentiates from me the political-military epic, from what I would call only military anime (in which many times the characters are not privy to decisions-for example a lot of the Gundam franchise). Thus are protagonists are ministers, princes, kings, and generals, or the people who put into effect the decisions of such personages.

The two shows I will review here both wish to tell an epic story of politics and war. The Heroic Legend of Arslan (Arslan Senki) is the creation of the author behind Legend of Galactic Heroes, Yoshiki Tanaka. Thus we have a author who has experience in telling such epic tales. The animated version I am looking at is the recent one directed by Noriyuki Abe, based on the manga interpretation by Hiromu Arakawa, of Full Metal Alchemist fame. This is quite the pedigree of creators. There was an older anime based on Tanaka’s work, which I personally liked a lot, but which did not cover much of story (which is in progress). So I was looking forward to this new interpretation. The other show is based on a manga by Kotono Kato, a historian by trade, and is their first work of note. The anime was directed by Kazuhiro Furuhashi who has some solid work behind them, but nothing exceptional per se. SuperWooper reviewed the first 12 episodes, but I decided that show deserves a full review, and he kindly let me take care of it.

Before going into the particulars let me summarize my review. Both shows suffered from a number of issues that denied them the character great, let alone exceptional. But ultimately I felt that Altair promises a lot more, and was able to craft the more interesting story. This was surprising, and to be frank after watching Arslan Senki I wondered if it really was written by the same person who wrote Legend of Galactic Heroes. It is not that it is per se a bad story, but quite underwhelming especially in the crucial area of characters. So let us go a bit more into the reasons for my conclusion.

Story

Ultimately a good political-military epic tells a good story. It posits a conflict that is both expansive and epic, but something that is beyond just a mere territorial spat. In LOGH Tanaka weaved into the story a whole semester worth of political science material ranging from questions about the trajectory of history, the meaning of war, to the relative merits of democracy and enlightened autocracy. I literally use parts of it in my lectures. Altair as a show is much closer to LOGH and the “Peloponnesian War” or the “Record of Three Kingdoms” than Arslan is. The word is more expansive, with many more powers, the politics are thus richer. Both shows try to invoke uniqueness by using as the basis of their world historical cultures that are not the usual staple of anime (or even western media). In Altair our protagonists are part of an idealized Ottoman Empire, active in a world with state that are inspired by ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, and with the antagonist being a much more aggressive version for the Holy Roman Empire. In Arslan, the titular character is a prince of Pars, a setting inspired by Sassanid Persia, facing a fanatical stand-in for European Crusaders, and surrounded by states inspired by Turkish and Hunnish tribes, and Indian medieval princes.

While both settings work to enrich their regions, I ultimately felt that Altair did a better job of showcasing its world, compared to Arslan. And this is despite its pacing issues it has (more on this later). To put it simply, I found the city -tates, empires and kingdoms of Altair much more intriguing, than those of Arslan. A lot of this might be though that Arslan in its first arc is more like a “Journey to the West” story, focusing on the travels of the protagonist and his coterie of characters. Now, Altair also does this. But here is the difference. In Altair the story of individual travel is well-meshed to the story of the politics. In Arslan it is not. Turghil Pasha in his travels not only to get companions, he crucially meets decision makers and comes to understand, and show us, the politics of his world. In Arslan, Arslan meets companions, and he learns about the world, but he learns by being told about it by said companions, rather than by experiencing it. This was crucial difference.

I also felt that despite the pacing issues of Altair, the political decisions there made sense. That was not always the case with Arslan.

The different approach to the story also meant that Altair could get way with weak characters, while in Arslan they doomed it. In Altair, you could forgive some of the characters because the characters were always enriched by the environment. The cultures of Rumeliana (the Europe of Altair) were all so unique and interesting, that they enriched characters who stood as their proxies. In Arslan that was not the case. In general I felt the story of Altair to be richer, and more intriguing, than that of Arslan. While both had an element of a coming to age story, I felt that Altair was more able to mesh it to the political and military situation. And this helped the characters. Speaking of characters,

Characters

It is unavoidable that with their massive casts, political-military anime while have a slew of underdeveloped characters. As long as those characters are given some singular trait that makes them interesting, and as long as the protagonists are fleshed out, this is not an issue. As long as characters are not caricatures, they can be forgiven a bit of thinness. This is why story and environment play such an important role. This of course cannot be forgiven with the protagonists. A good political-military anime will have multiple protagonists, shared by the two main warring factions, and even more. They will be decision makers, or close allies of decision makers. They will be essentially our eyes and ears into why things happen, and provide some investment in the politics by having their fate and beings tied to it. The problems start when the central characters are either uninteresting, or relegated to a secondary role by the other protagonists. Altair succeeds in avoiding this, while Arslan fails.

Now both Mahmud Turghil Pasha and Prince Arslan share some character traits. They are both seen as politically naïve by others, and they are both struggling to find their place in a complex world. The starting arcs of both anime are focused on their journey to maturity and wisdom. The problem is that while we can see and appreciate Turghil Pasha’s growth, Arslan’s is not as easy to learn. This is not because he does not grow. But his growth is tethered and ultimately smothered by his companions. Too much of Arslan is about Arslan asking his chief strategist Narsus (a bad character inspired for Zhuge Liang from “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”) about what to do. There is a lot of that. As a result, Arslan’s growth is always feeling as pedestrian, predicted, boring. Turghil Pasha is never completely eclipsed like that. His growth is not always predictable, and we always see it in action.

It does not help that by a large the secondary cast in Arslan is boring. Of his companions that only two I found interesting are the warrior Daryun, who is not a rich character, but he is a well done example of the warrior template, and the fun and adventurous bard Gieve. The others did not stand out. This expands to the secondary characters on the side of the heroes. Most are bland, and boring. In Altair, despite the fact that many of the secondary characters are just as “thin”, I did not find them boring. Whether Halil Pasha, Suleiman Pasha, or Kiros and Abriga, they never seemed to hold the show down. The mayors, princes, kings that populate Rumeliana are not anymore developed than the characters in Arslan, but the combination of smart focusing on a specific trait, and their close connection to their cultures makes them interesting.

The issue becomes worse for Arslan when it comes to the question of antagonist. Now it is true that neither show comes close to the almost excellent balance of characters on both sides that LOGH had. But Altair comes closer. To put it simply ad brutally, the enemy in Arslan is boring. You have the always scowling, yelling, always angry Prince Hermes. You have the scheming, scowling, perpetually frustrated Guiscard. You have the caricature coward, scowling Bodin. Indeed there is a lot of scowling and furrowing of brows, and yelling going on. And that that is it. None of these people are remotely interesting. What drives them is boring, and thus their schemes are boring. No great questions can be put forward by such characters, and thus the battle really is more like a black and white fight, despite the continuous talk by characters that this is not the case (for the sake of all that is holy, one of the secondary antagonists chose the enemy side simply because he felt it would not be fair if there is no one on the side of the guy with he himself does not consider ready to be a king!). Hell, the most interesting opponent of Arslan is his frenemy Rajendra, who is pretty much an interesting character because he has a level head on his shoulders. The more interesting questions in Arslan are always about Arslan’s plans for the future of Pars, and that is pretty much an intra-ally discussion.

On a first glance Altair could also be considered weak on the enemy front. If there is one criminal failure for Altair, is that it never invests as much as it should in the enigmatic figure of Prime Minister Louis (a characterized for Machiavelli and Richelieu). This is partly because for a long part of the anime the “antagonist” is the equally interesting Zaganos Pasha. But the show in its second course presents us with an interesting array of Imperial opponents that give us an insight into what drives the Balt-Rhein empire forward. Their motives are much better than those of Arslan’s foes, and between Turghil, Zaganos, and Louis some major questions are put forward about the nature of hegemony, pacifism, and practical politics. The contrast between the perpetually yelling Hermes and Guiscard, and the calm Zaganos and Louis (whose voice actor is great) is in a way the encapsulation of the difference between the two shows.

Direction

Both shows suffer from direction issues. In a way they suffer for exactly opposite reasons. Altair suffers from an insane pacing, which leaves one bewildered about why and how things happen. Characters enter and leave before we have a chance to understand them or their place in the story. Essentially the fact that Altair is an advertisement for the manga can be seen in the terrible pacing, which tries to cram as much material as possible into the 24 episodes. . Arslan on the other hand, has pacing that is too slow, which means we get too much Narsus, being Mr.Perfect (I dislike Narsus, don’t I?), or Hermes scowling (GGRRR GRRRR). The pacing issues in Altair ruin a bit the enjoyment of unraveling the politics behind the scenes. But at least the politics unravels. In Arslan , we go through 36 episodes to just get back were we started, Arslan and companions on a trip.

Speaking of direction, the narrator, which is a character in these shows, was a bit more useful in Altair than that in Arslan. Also despite it pacing issues, I felt Altair was able to create some set-pieces that were quite nice, more often than Arslan. That said there was only so much the direction could do with the animation the shows got.

Animation

Well to put it simply animation in both cases was not something to write home about. While there were some well animated scenes (the fight between Turghil Pasha and Rod Orm, the fights between Hermes and Daryum), in general the animation was lackluster. Massive battles are the bread and butter of these shows and neither did a good job at it. Arslan opted for using CGI graphics, and the battles ended up having a rather Total War Rome feel to them (only TWR had more model variation). Altair, perhaps wisely, eschewed that for mostly still frames and traditional animation. They both get their story across, but there is none of that wow I got from the massive battles of LOGH.

Art

While I like Arakawa’s art I felt it plain compared to that of Altair. In general the world of Altair was more colorful and varied than that of Arslan. The Turkish, and Italian Renaissance basis of the clothes showed in Altair. There were some bad choices (the naval uniforms are too much One Piece like for my taste, and the uniform of the officers of the Balt-Rhein empire too LOGH Empire style) but in general they nailed the look. In Arslan the looks are servisable, but that is about it. One of the other blog commentators said that there was something whimsical in the art of Altair, and while initially I did not like it, it came to grow on me. I believe that if Altair had the animation budget of Arslan it would had been a much more beautiful show.

Music

The Opening and Endings of Arslan and Altair were in general generic and boring. I found the second Opening of Altair the most interesting, partly due to the good direction. When it came to soundtrack, Arslan had the better one, with the track Tenchi Rai Sanka standing out and being well used in the series for memorable scenes (Sher Senani! Sher Senani!). Altair was not graced with a soundtrack that was as good. It does its job, but that is it.

Final “Feel”

Ultimately I felt that the story that Altair tried to tell was a more epic and nuanced story, in a richer world. I felt that the political principles at stake were more expansive and interesting. It is not that Arslan does not have a good question at its center (the nature of kingship). It is more that the story failed to work with it well (since Narsus, has all the answers!). To be fair, nor does Altair really do a good job fully exploring its question. Indeed it more teases it. Perhaps the biggest thing holding Altair back, is that it is an anime conceived as a advertisement for the manga, with all associated issues in pacing, characterization etc. And to be frank it does that job well. Despite my initial dislike of the manga art, I came to be interested in it. Arslan’s issue is much more fundamental. It does not know what it wants to be. Is it a story of development like “Journey to the West”, or a war and political epic like “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. This is never clear, and to be frank from some summaries I have read of the books not animated, it gets worse, with fantasy elements invading with increasing vehemence.

Thus both shows fail to reach their potential. And perhaps I ask for too much. I mean LOGH had over 150 episodes to develop a sweeping and epic tale. That would be a fair rejoinder. But not in a world with Tanya Senki (Tale of Tanya the Evil). Tanya Senki is also a political-military epic. And despite its short course of 12 episodes, tight direction gave us tale that was rich enough. Tanya proves that you can tell a good political-military epic in 12 episodes. And thus the inability of both shows to do better in double the episode length is disappointing. With that said though, I believe Altair has the promise to tell a tale worthy of LOGH down the way. Arslan less likely.

Final Scores
Characters: Altair Record of Battles: 80/100; Heroic Legend of Arslan:70/100
Plot: Altair Record of Battles:80/100; Heroic Legend of Arslan: 70/100
Art: Altair Record of Battles: 70/100 ;Heroic Legend of Arslan: 70/100
Sound-Music: Altair Record of Battles: 70/100 /Heroic Legend of Arslan: 75/100
Final:
Altair Record of Battles: 75/100
Heroic Legend of Arslan: 70/100

Posted on 9 October 2017 with categories: Series which were Dropped, Shoukoku no Altair

Well, this is awkward. I’m so behind on Altair that even a double episode review isn’t enough to get us caught up. Two months ago, I made the decision to discontinue my coverage of this series once it hit the halfway point, and even though episode 13 functions as the true conclusion to this arc, I’m content to finish things here. There’s no sense in laying out each of my issues with the show – you can read past reviews for that – but to put it broadly, the entire production feels hurried, and not just in terms of its breakneck narrative speed. There’s some good dramatic material in Altair’s story, but in the hands of a conservative director and an overworked studio, it rarely came alive for me. There was a big exception to that rule in one of these two episodes, though, so let’s talk about it… after refreshing ourselves on the details of the anime.

Several weeks ago, we left off with a plot to assassinate the sultans of the Turkiyean territories, who would all be in one place thanks to Prince Orhan and Aishe’s wedding. Now, word of this plan makes its way back to the Divan in Turkiye, who send a pro-sultanate representative to the ceremony. The envoy makes a pit stop at Balaban’s doorstep, however, and spills the beans regarding the trap waiting for him in Kuluch. Armed with this information, Balaban (and the other sultans) choose to march their armies to the wedding and conduct a preliminary strike against their would-be killers. But this leaves their territory undefended, and Zaganos quickly moves to seize control of their major cities. The show later frames this as a cause-and-effect scenario, and given Balaban’s blinding pride, it kind of is, but I do wonder what would have happened if he had refused to attend the wedding. The political fallout from that disrespect is nothing compared to the potential loss of your country, or even your life. Uzun, in particular, should have called in sick on invasion day – his only interest ought to be the completion of the trade route that would secure his nation’s financial independence from Turkiye.

All of that aside, “The Prince of Swords” gets good right at the end, when Orhan’s father goes back on his pact with Mahmut. Fearing for the safety of his people if the bloodthirsty Balaban breaks into the city, he attempts to kill Aishe and offer her head as a gift to him. Orhan, driven by love for his bride-to-be, kills his father to save her life. What makes this an especially remarkable move is that, earlier in the episode, he had learned that Aishe was in love with her uncle, and had no desire to be married. This is a character who was played strictly for laughs until this point, so when he came before his royal guard and confessed to the murder, decrying his father’s cowardice and proclaiming his own ascension to the throne, I got chills. Whoever provided Orhan’s voice did a fabulous job with this material – I almost looked to see who it was, but then decided I don’t want to associate that performance with any other characters. Even though I won’t be watching beyond these episodes, I hope that Orhan has some part to play in Turkiye’s post-rebellion landscape.

Speaking of the rebellion, most of the second episode is dedicated to the military struggle between Balaban’s forces and Mahmut’s. Though our heroes are outnumbered 4 to 1, Balaban brings only 5000 men into battle, not wanting to lessen the glory of his victory with superior numbers. This turns out to be his undoing, as Mahmut is able to eliminate most of his troops before luring the survivors into a narrow valley. It’s in this remote setting that Beyazit’s trump card from last month is finally put to use, as his musketeers use their revolutionary firepower to pierce the shields of Balaban’s strongest soldiers. As for the Red Tiger himself, he dies in his brother’s arms, despairing at the fact that the only person who truly loved him also helped to engineer his downfall. There were several flashbacks to younger versions of Balaban and Beyazit throughout these episodes, and while none of them particularly moved me, they did establish the two men as fated opponents, despite their affection for one another as children and young adults. Balaban was too big and too colorful a character for the rigid world of Rumeliana, so if he had to go, at least it was with a bit of nuance.

That’s it from me where Shoukoku no Altair is concerned. There’s still another cour to go, so if you’ve been enjoying the ride, I hope the show stays on course. The new fall season has produced a handful of worthwhile shows so far, so I’m itching to start blogging one of those instead. Whichever series that ends up being, I hope you’ll stick around as we transition to a new story and a new set of characters. Thanks for reading.

Posted on 17 September 2017 with categories: Series which were Dropped, Shoukoku no Altair

This was the busiest episode of Altair yet, with a script that pinballed between Turkiye’s four stratocracies, introduced a handful of new characters, and chronicled the formation of both alliances and rebellious plots. To try and recap everything that happened this week would require hundreds more words than I’m willing to expend, so let’s assume we’ve all seen the episode and jump to its most important reveal: Beyazit’s demonstration of the musket’s power just before the closing credits. These last few moments marked the first time in a while that Altair has kept my full attention – it was a great choice to cut the background noise and put reverb on the sounds of the gun being loaded, then raise the orchestra after its firing. As the music indicates, the introduction of handheld firearms into this world has history-altering implications, which is lucky for Team Mahmut, since he’s been tasked with leading revolutions in all four sultan-led territories. Beyazit claims to have 77 of these deadly weapons at his disposal, which is enough to convince an important new character to join forces with him.

That character is Ismail, prince* of Buchak, which is perhaps the most important of the four stratocracies, narratively speaking. That’s because of the trade route its sultan Uzun is constructing between his country and Balt-Rhein, which has promised to support them after they break from Turkiye. This road is the key to Buchak’s financial independence, which means the coup that Mahmut is engineering must succeed before the route’s completion. Ismail’s willingness to betray his father, though, should give our plotters an advantage in their dangerous game of thrones. Another of their allies, Aishe (princess of a different stratocracy – how nice for Mahmut that these connections have fallen into his lap), concocts a plan to gather all the sultans in one place. She’s engaged to be married to Orhan (yet another prince, this time of Kuluch) and proposes to his father that he announce a date for their ceremony, which ought to be attended by all the people that Mahmut aims to take down. The masked sultan Selim, who only submitted to the Empire for the safety of his country, agrees to Aishe’s gamble, and thus anime’s version of the Red Wedding is set to occur within an episode or two.

(* Although the show uses non-Western titles for its stratocratic royalty, I’m opting to use familiar terms for my own sanity. The subtitles I’m reading are inconsistent with their terminology and spelling in the first place, so this makes things easier for me.)

That’s enough plot summary for this week. Let’s talk about fight scenes – specifically, the one that opened this episode. Rod Orm have never been especially threatening on a small scale, but Mahmut still managed to look like a badass here, calling Iskender to claw open one flunkie’s back and slicing another across the chest himself. Watching a newly one-handed Eleanor plead for her life was satisfying, especially since it gives us the sense that both Mahmut and the show have undergone a significant evolution. The former general isn’t taking prisoners at this stage in the game, especially with a shot at redemption in Turkiye on the line. He does let eyepatch girl escape, but Altair can hardly afford to give her another second of camera time, given how quickly things are moving elsewhere in the world. Blood is about to be spilled in Kuluch, and with time running out for the rebellion, no one is exempt from the dirty business of killing.

Posted on 11 September 2017 with categories: Series which were Dropped, Shoukoku no Altair

The world of Shoukoku no Altair has been widening by the episode, but it underwent its biggest expansion yet this week. In exploring the ripple effects caused by the Empire’s defeat of Phoinike, the show opted to jump all over the map, introducing stratocracies and sultans left, right and center. The most significant of these were the satellite nation of Muzrak and its colorful leader Balaban, a sultan with a taste for both warfare and beautiful men. The concept for Balaban’s character is wasted on this show, which saddles him with dry dialogue and immediately connects him with the show’s primary antagonists, but his motivation – to be recognized as the head of an independent country – is one that grows Altair’s universe in an interesting way.

Turkiye, it seems, is a nation with four surrounding stratocracies, all of which protect and receive economic benefits from the central state. In response to the recent Imperial aggression in Centro, each of these neighboring city-states sends their leader to vote on the formation of a Turkiyean Federation, which would effectively bring all of Turkiye under one banner. Zaganos stands in firm support of this plan, which tells us exactly what the mainland stands to gain from its passing: a stronger, more unified military force. Yes, Zaganos is still on his quest to command the mightiest military in Rumeliana, even with the older Suleyman Bey at his side for this half hour. Unfortunately for the Poison General, the sultans (including Balaban) vote unanimously against the proposal, and when he suggests that Turkiye simply annex those territories, one of their representatives warns him that any aggression on his part will be returned in kind.

Zaganos eventually convinces his boss that overthrowing the sultan-led governments of their territories is the way to go, but Mahmut doesn’t have such an easy time out in the world. With Kiros and Abiriga in tow, he finds himself in a place called Liman, where the kulak is revealed to be Balaban’s younger brother. The poor guy has locked himself beneath the local water temple for fear of his older sibling, who wants his head for sheltering their traitor niece. This whole plotline would have been way more effective if we had known about their family for more than ten minutes before the gloves came off, but you know what they say about beating dead horses. Luckily, there’s some redemption for this story in the form of a conversation between Mahmut and Balaban, whose hunger for power and autonomy clashes with Mahmut’s loyalty to the country that demoted and effectively exiled him. Balaban offers the former Pasha a place in his Yenicheri (a force of 10,000 men hand-picked by the sultan himself), and brings up Turkiye’s unjust punishment to goad Mahmut into switching sides. With this meeting on the books, the Red Tiger manages to escape mere one-dimensionality, though the last third of the episode keeps him locked at two.

Here’s where things get silly. Eleanor (the woman who works for Imperial Minister Louis) makes an appearance at Balaban’s palace immediately after the arrival of Mahmut and company. She chides her apparent ally for letting the boy live, but Balaban, not being the type to follow orders, brushes her off. I would have preferred for this connection not to have been revealed for at least a week, since it removes the suspense from the political situation in Muzrak – another dead horse, I suppose. Mahmut, sensing that he needs to make a dash for freedom at the nearest opportunity, enlists the help of walking plot device Abiriga, who procures some Yenicheri uniforms for the boys. When the sultan’s troops are called to assemble, though, Balaban spots them and decides to heed Eleanor’s advice. Unfortunately for him, Abiriga single-handedly karate chops at least fifty of his goons into submission, and our heroes escape the city with nothing but a couple bruises. Earlier in the episode, too, Abiriga put his ear to the ground, did a quick number crunch, and calculated that there were 500 people inside the water temple. Ever been torn between insane martial arts prowess and supersonic hearing as a trait for your ideal guy? Get you a man who can do both!

Posted on 5 September 2017 with categories: Series which were Dropped, Shoukoku no Altair

The conflict between realism and idealism became clearer than ever on this week’s Altair, with the show using precisely those terms to describe its own thematic underpinnings. Perhaps it’s due to the contrast with Kiros’ brash personality, but I thought Mahmut demonstrated some real patience and political savviness during his time in Venedik. He certainly came closer to camping with the realists than ever before, despite being known to Doge Lucio as “the Pasha who despises war.” That such a title would be a clear identifier tells us all we need to know about the strangeness of Mahmut’s allergy to conflict, at least in this world of uprisings and betrayals. As he continues to meet new people and encounter different perspectives, perhaps he’ll earn a more flattering reputation. “The Pasha who formerly despised war, but now understands that sometimes countries must fight to protect their own interests,” perhaps?

Mahmut is actually a Binbashu now, rather than a Pasha, which is a demotion I’d nearly forgotten until Doge Lucio made sure to mention it during their face-off. Lucio’s explanation for his betrayal of Phoinike is a technical one: Venedik deployed a fleet, as the treaty between the two nations required, but because it said nothing about the ships’ arrival, they were free to remain at sea while the Empire invaded and conquered their former ally. Mahmut bristles at this deception, and at the Doge’s willingness to form a new trade agreement with Balt-Rhein, but Lucio insists that going to war with the Empire wouldn’t have benefitted his people. As the two young men began to answer questions with questions, it became clear that their opinions regarding the political landscape of Centro were irreconcilable. Thankfully, this wasn’t another instance of Mahmut taking a hard-line stance and getting BTFO immediately afterwards – he later admitted to Kiros that his opponent’s views were justifiable, even if they left a bad taste in his mouth. I’d say that’s a good bit of progress, considering how slowly the game of international relations is mastered.

The rest of the episode deals with a plan, orchestrated by Captain Brega and a spice merchant named Mora, to frame Abiriga (who we met last week) for a crime he didn’t commit, thus exiling him from Venedik and freeing him to travel with Mahmut. I was surprised to learn that Abiriga wasn’t a member of Suleyman Bey’s spy network, though it wasn’t a shock to learn that Bey had tried to recruit him years earlier, given his status as an outsider. Abiriga’s refusal stemmed in part from loyalty to his adoptive country, whose citizens hold him in high regard; Brega calls him “highly trusted and accomplished,” which made me doubt the necessity of the cloak and dagger routine. If Venedik wants a good relationship with Turkiye, and Abiriga has the support of the people, why not make him an official emissary? Keeping it a secret allowed the conspirators to test Mahmut’s character (he passed, in a manner so silly that it doesn’t bear recounting), and to keep from “attracting unwanted attention,” but the whole thing felt like an M. Night Shyamalan film to me. The real goal must be to keep the Empire in the dark regarding a potential Turkiye/Venedik alliance, but Kiros has concerns of his own – with Abiriga being likely to pass information back home during their voyage, how much longer will Mahmut and company be able to travel undetected?

Posted on 30 August 2017 with categories: Series which were Dropped, Shoukoku no Altair

Shoukoku no Altair ran a double feature last Friday to reclaim some lost ground after its brief hiatus earlier this month. I’ll be covering both episodes here, but this post won’t be any longer than normal. Truthfully, although Altair moves through its plot at a rapid pace, it’s often a struggle for me to generate worthwhile commentary about the series, and its latest offerings are no exception. This week, I watched as Imperial forces utilized a two-pronged attack to conquer Phoinike, after which point Mahmut was smuggled from the city and rescued by a friendly ship, recovered from a life-threatening wound for nine days, arrived in Venedik, and was granted an audience with their leader. That’s a lot of stuff packed into 42 minutes, but the show is so matter-of-fact in its presentation that I haven’t a shred of desire to speculate about its characters, or what fates will befall them. “The Sinking City” ends with Mahmut getting straight to the point (that’s all anyone seems to do in this world) and quizzing Venedik’s leader about the betrayal of their former ally, but I doubt the show will do anything other than handwave the question and jump to the next story beat when it resumes.

One curious sequence from the first of these two episodes occurs during its opening minutes, when an Imperial ship helmed by unwilling soldiers begins to take on water. Immediately after this scene, there’s a shot of Glalat (the blond nobleman) sharpening his sword with a whetstone. The implication is that Glalat sank one of his own ships, predicting that the disgruntled men within his ranks would use that opportunity to escape and beg Phoinike for asylum. For his ploy to stay on track, Phoinike would then need to fall for this obvious bait and lower the chains that restrict entrance to the city, allowing Glalat’s ship to break into the bay, but only if a tailwind arrived to push it through precisely as it began its approach. This is some Death Note-tier planning, complete with a character furiously scribbling nautical calculations on a piece of parchment as the scene unfolds. Of course, the Empire’s strategy is successful, but what was intended to be a pulse-pounding miracle of a defeat for our heroes instead feels ridiculous. Implausibility isn’t the only issue here, however – the bigger problem is that we know so little about the Phoiniken characters that the events around them have no dramatic weight, despite all that we’ve heard about the city’s past invincibility.

The second episode was marginally better, despite feeling like it was playing in fast-forward for most of its length. Kiros got the best material, including a runner where he tried to feed Iskender multiple times before finally managing not to get squawked at. The kulak and the eagle are two of a kind, really, in that they’re both slow to trust; Kiros was immediately suspicious of Abiraga, the red-haired leader of the fleet that picked them up, even after he allowed Mahmut to recuperate in his room for more than a week. Kiros’ mistrust is likely misplaced, as we audience members know from the OP that Abiraga will eventually accompany Mahmut on his journey, but in the meantime, his smiling opacity lends his character a dash of intrigue. My guess is that he’s another kulak, and that we’ll get some backstory sooner rather than later, but I’d be happy to be wrong on one or both counts.

Posted on 19 August 2017 with categories: Series which were Dropped, Shoukoku no Altair

After a three-week break, Shoukoku no Altair returned today with an episode reminiscent more of its first three than its last. If you’ve been reading these posts for the last couple months, you’ll know that’s not a good thing, at least from where I’m sitting. We were awash in exposition and timeskips again this time around, and looking at the off-model characters scattered throughout the episode, I suspect it may have been outsourced (or else MAPPA is spread too thin with Kakegurui and Bahamut also airing this season). Still, the show’s weekly barrage of new characters, nations, and locales lends Altair a briskness that makes it easy to blog. You know the old saying: when the show’s too thin to analyze, suck it up and summarize.

Actually, there was one theme at work in this episode that I felt was rather effective, and that’s the struggle between realism and idealism within Mahmut. When we first met him, he was tactless and naïve, despite his military status – he spoke without thinking, abandoned his city to help his friends on more than one occasion, and was regularly taken aback by the machinations of enemies and political rivals. His do-gooder streak remains, as we saw this week when he refused to leave Phoinike even after they declared war on the Empire, but he’s becoming more pragmatic and self-aware all the same. The decision to sail for Venedik and gain their support was motivated not by emotion or instinct, but by the fact that if Phoinike falls, the Empire will have Mahmut’s homeland of Turkiye surrounded. The former Pasha was also able to recognize a display of overconfidence in a friend, flashing back to his own trust in Ibrahim, who betrayed Turkiye just a month ago. I don’t expect that Mahmut will transform into a battle-hardened cynic before the series concludes, but the nuance is appreciated.

The man who will facilitate the aforementioned departure for Venedik is the newcomer Kiros, who you may have recognized as one of the riders flanking Mahmut during the opening theme. Kiros is another one of Zaganos’ spies, although his idea about what constitutes an effective disguise might make him ill-suited for the job. (Seriously, what’s with the Jack Sparrow cosplay?) His acquisition was handled by Suleyman Bey, who preyed on Kiros’ hatred of his politician father’s two-faced greed in order to bring him into the fold. This flashback was among the more interesting scenes of the episode, as it depicted the grittier side of espionage. Although Mahmut actively seeks out the company of intelligence gatherers, it might be a while before he gets his own hands dirty, so for now I’ll make do with the backstories of shadier men.

Konstantinos is the other significant character who made his debut this week. Though he appears friendly at first, he quickly reveals himself to be a dead ringer for Zaganos, who will use whatever (or whomever) is handy to achieve his ends. Konstantinos invites Mahmut to a government meeting in a fancy amphitheater, where the Phoiniken senators are set to debate whether they should allow the Balt-Rhein Empire to use their ports. Rather than allowing his guest to voice his opinion, however, it becomes clear that Konstantinos has only allowed Mahmut to attend the debate as a symbol of imperial defeat. With the support of both the people and his fellow senators, he declares war on the Empire, and what follows are a series of bloody conflicts along the wall that presently keeps them out. Altair’s politics are about as complicated as a mud pie, but its battles are much more interesting – Lady Lelederik is back, with a plan to scale Phoinike’s crystal cliff and infiltrate the city for the first time in 1800 years. Now it’s a race between her troops and the reinforcements Mahmut hopes to bring, and though the victor is all but assured, the contest may be compelling yet.

Posted on 28 July 2017 with categories: Series which were Dropped, Shoukoku no Altair

Shoukoku no Altair seems to be settling into a rhythm. For an episode containing as much new terminology and backstory as this one, “The Eagle’s Joint Struggle” moved from beat to beat with an ease I wasn’t anticipating. That tone is partly owed to the character of Baskan Suleyman, whose competent yet approachable personality dominated the proceedings this week. As one of just two survivors of the Tughril people, you might expect him to be a darker, less forgiving figure, but his competence and charm made him my favorite cast member thus far. Mahmut seemed to have a similar opinion, which transforms his journey into one of purpose, rather than exile. It was great fun to see the two falconers swap stories and team up on a few of Louis’ flunkies. Mahmut now has his first real comrade, as opposed to the mentors, friends, and enemies he’s encountered until this point, and that’s a welcome addition to the series.

It wasn’t all fun and games this week, however, as the episode-opening dream sequence made the horrors of our hero’s past more vivid than ever before. During the first of these visions, Mahmut was literally rooted to the ground while his mother was murdered before his eyes. One new detail I spotted in this scene was the baby she cradled as her attackers advanced – this couldn’t have been her first child, since Mahmut was five years old when his village was burned, so perhaps his younger sibling was tragically taken from him that night, as well. Even more interesting would be if a third Tughril tribesman still lived, perhaps as a member of the Empire, having been captured during the raid. We aren’t given too much time to reflect on these possibilities, however, as the dream shifts to feature shadowy figures that prey on Mahmut’s self-doubt and tear at his eyes and ears. This is a new, more serious tone for the show, so it’s good that some friendly faces were introduced later to provide some balance.

Those faces belong to Barbaros, a kulak (Turkish for “ear”) in Zaganos’ spy network, and the aforementioned Suleyman, both of whom reveal themselves to Mahmut when he pays a visit to his home village. The show wasted no time in demonstrating the function of the Pyramis from last time; when held under a fountain at particular shrines, it emits a beam of light that Zaganos’ people can identify, and which Barbaros quickly spotted this week. It’s such a clever device that I’m already past worrying about how easily it fell into Mahmut’s lap, and ready for him to travel to more shrines and meet more potential allies. Not that I’ll forget Suleyman any time soon – his goal of using the spy network to prevent war stands in fascinating contrast to Zaganos’ apparent desire for it, so there may be an ideological clash in their future. Perhaps the larger arc of the series will be Mahmut flipping the spy network’s ultimate purpose from one of conflict to one of peace. Then again, maybe the Poison General isn’t as war-hungry as he appears, and everything we’ve seen from him so far has been part of a much longer game.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the smaller details this week that really helped the episode breathe, including the brief ritual Mahmut performed upon his arrival at Yeni Tughril. What really impressed me about this scene was its lack of explanatory voiceover – we know from context that the water is intended to pay respect to the dead, and while the finer details may escape us, the silence makes the moment that much more poignant. (That being said, anyone who wants to offer additional commentary on that scene is more than welcome to do so!) Also worth noting is Mahmut’s observation that the area’s wild eagles will migrate north soon, so he won’t be able to use them in combat for a while. These quiet moments gave the show a healthier, more natural air this week, so I’ll be on the lookout for them next time, as well.

Posted on 22 July 2017 with categories: Series which were Dropped, Shoukoku no Altair

With this episode, Altair’s first arc comes to a close. Mahmut Pasha, teenage prodigy and commander of eagles, is now simply Tughril Mahmut, a disgraced former general set to leave Turkiye on a journey of discovery. Though its main character didn’t fare so well this week, I thought the show wrapped everything up nicely in its third effort, considering the amount of material it needed to cover. It put a bow on the conflict in Hisar, lovingly kicked our hero from grace while confirming his suspicions of an impending war, and introduced an important plot device that will drive the story going forward (more on that in a bit). Though Altair hasn’t become the polished production I’d originally hoped for, the stage is set for a new, hopefully more fruitful chapter in the show’s history.

Last time, after hearing that his friend Ibrahim was in trouble, Mahmut left for Hisar without saying a word to anyone. Though he was successful this week in rescuing Ibrahim and the hostages that had tied his hands, his reward upon returning to Turkiye was a demotion. The council’s justification: in addition to acting rashly at first, Mahmut later made the decision to free all the Araban people (subtlety isn’t one of Altair’s strong suits) who had been lured into Hisar by the evil Minister Louis, in the hopes that they could persuade their countrymen not to carry out a larger invasion. Mahmut’s fellow generals would have preferred that he let only a fraction of them carry the message, but they also want war with the Empire, and it’s this second motive that seems to be the real reason for the dismissal. This sudden reversal of fortune doesn’t carry a lot of emotional weight, since it comes so close to the beginning of our story, but it’s the best and boldest decision the show has made so far. Stripped of his rank and without a means of aiding his country, Mahmut is now free to hit the road and meet the two young men who appear at his side during the opening theme.

My previous suspicions about Zaganos were off the mark, though it turns out I was right not to trust him completely – he’s the type of guy who controls a spy network that spans the entire continent, which explains why his troops were located so conveniently in the last episode. Though the Poison General gives his court rival no credit for the happy ending in Hisar, he’s kind enough to give him a necklace that functions as the key to contacting these spies. Why Zaganos would give such a valuable trinket to a man intent on leaving the country is a mystery to me, but maybe a more observant viewer or helpful manga reader can ease my confusion in the comments below. Perhaps Altair is just the type of series to create more questions every time it answers one, à la LOST (though hopefully not as opaque). In any case, this handy plot device ought to provide the thrust for the rest of the narrative, so how it fell into Mahmut’s lap is less important than where it takes us next. After this week, I’m looking forward to seeing where that will be.

Posted on 15 July 2017 with categories: Series which were Dropped, Shoukoku no Altair

After last week’s runaway locomotive of an episode, I had hoped that Shokoku no Altair would find a lower narrative gear during its second offering. That dream remains unrealized, however, as the show continues to introduce settings and push its plot without giving its cast much time to breathe. The first two episodes thus far share a similar structure: Mahmut attends court and learns of a conflict that puts Turkiye at risk, objects to his rival Zaganos’ plans, is shot down, runs off to fix things himself, and stumbles upon a conspiracy orchestrated by the Empire. Altair’s premiere had a fun festival scene that introduced Ibrahim and Shara, at least, but this time all we got were a couple of clumsy flashbacks before being thrown into another dispute between Turkiye and the opposing Imperial forces.

On one side of this dispute is Zaganos Pasha, who is almost too eager to ride for the Turkiyean territory of Hisar and quell what seems to be an uprising there. While most of the primary characters have been playing with their cards face up, Zaganos Pasha is someone whose motives were in question after a single appearance. His thirst for war seemed to hint at an alliance with the enemy, but this episode revealed that he and Imperial Minister Louis (who was behind the whole thing once again) were on different pages regarding the plot in Hisar. Time will tell if Zaganos is a simple foil for Mahmut, or whether his military aspirations are more deeply rooted.

If there’s still hope that Zaganos will reveal himself to be more than a puppy-kicking villain, the same can’t be said for Louis, whose lack of a twirl-able mustache is a big missed opportunity.  Whenever there’s an establishing shot of the castle where Louis confers with the Emperor, a comically evil piece of organ music starts up, just in case you were unsure who the bad guys were. I had high hopes for the Emperor at first, but his awareness of Louis’ schemes was more concrete this time around, which robs their scenes of any potential complexity. Much more interesting is Lady Lelederik, whose brief introduction revealed her cooperation with Louis to be tenuous at best. I’m no expert on monarchical titles, but I expect this new Duchess to trump the Minister in the coming weeks.

It occurred to me during this episode that Altair’s score is distinctly western, despite being set in an alternate version of the Ottoman Empire. The string section alternates between bombastic and mournful, but they’re nearly always audible, even during some of the characters’ inner monologues. We only get a break from this sameness during the dance scenes, where the music is cheerier and more varied, but not quite Turkish or even Middle Eastern, at least not to my untrained ears. (Feel free to call me out in the comments if I’m off base here.) Altair’s backgrounds and buildings look authentic, but its unremarkable music may be contributing to my lack of engagement with the series. Its ending theme, though, meshes traditional and pop music to create an entrancing beat for which I always stick around – that’s one department where Altair never lets me down.

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