Sunday suppertime is definitely the epicentre of the anime week in Japan for a change, at least if you’re looking for consistent quality. Kekkai Sensen airs at three in the morning Sundays, but if you have only one hour to have the TV on, 5-6:00 PM should be it, thanks to Arslan Senki and Baby Steps. Neither of these series are long on flash, but they’re fat with substance – different as they are in terms of genre they both build their success on complex and interesting character and plot arcs, which is about as timeless and dependable a method as there is. Both are strong sellers as manga and figure to be stiffs on disc, but selling discs is (happily) still not the only measure of success in anime.
If this week’s Baby Steps was the perfect sports anime episode (I’ve already had my “100.00%” corrected to 110%) I think this week’s Arslan Senki was pretty close to the perfect medieval epic (we’ve been lucky in getting a couple of those already this year, thanks to Akatsuki no Yona). It was beautifully paced, advanced the story and filled in some blanks while still leaving plenty of mystery and not feeling rushed, and fleshed out several major characters (including the boy in the title). And while the animation wasn’t God-tier (I can’t help but remember Seirei no Moribito Episode 2 when these kinds of eps pop up) it was tastefully executed with a lot of flair. I was especially impressed with the choice of BGM, which was some of the best in any anime this season.
What I really like about Arslan as a main character is that his primary weapons are simple decency and curiosity of mind. He’s brave, but not unbelievably so, reasonably skilled in battle for a child his age, and clearly intelligent. But none of those qualities are off-the-charts exceptional – it’s his open-mindedness and kindness which is. And we clearly see the way the characters surrounding him react to it, which tells us a lot about both Arslan and themselves. Elam, as an example, was clearly hostile towards Arslan at first. Arslan represented everything he despised – a spoiled child of privilege, and the scion of the kingdom that enslaved him to boot. Arslan has won him over (to the point where Elam gives the prince his bow before the confrontation with Kharlan’s army), not with grand promises or heroic deeds, but plain sincerity and humility.
This is the real story of the early part of Arslan Senki, it seems to me – Arslan’s slow and steady establishment as a character worth believing in and fighting for. Daryun was solidly in his camp from the beginning (even before his Uncle’s admonishment to be personally loyal only to Arslan), and Falangies arrives on the scene with an explicit mission to be useful to Arslan. But people like Elam, Narsus and obviously Gieve are a much tougher sell, each for their own reasons. Narsus is a hard man, and cynical of any and all centers of power – he’s silently tested Arslan repeatedly, and approved of the results. And Gieve, to all appearances, is loyal only to himself – even now he dismisses Arslan as a “naive prince” (not wholly untrue) and professes that he’s only signing on to be close to Falangies. But even he’s starting to see something in Arslan that’s interesting, at the very least.
Whatever Gieve’s reasons, the arrival of he and Falangies does at least improve the odds somewhat – Narsus notes that each member of the party is now only required to defeat 50,000 Lusitanians (a number which Daryun feels is quite within reach for him). Kharlan’s army is a mere thousand or so – and once they’re lured onto a narrow mountain road by Narsus’ deception (which appears to have included a sacrificial lamb – poor guy), that’s quite manageable. As Narsus notes, bright men like Kharlan are the perfect pieces for geniuses like he to manipulate on the chessboard – smart enough to find the bait, but not smart enough to see the trap. Arslan himself has a vital and dangerous role to play here, acting as the bait – with only six in his army, Narsus can afford to spare no one for safety’s sake.
The battle which follows is the best of the series so far – cold and calculated and deadly, with Kharlan’s men dancing on the end of Narsus’ string. He may only have six, but they’re exceptional each in their own way (Elam is no slouch by any means). It culminates – once the main army is in rout – with Arslan luring Kharlan into single combat with Daryun. Kharlan is no coward, and a fierce fighter – but eventually Daryun gets the better of him. And frustratingly, Kharlan (unintentionally, I believe) falls onto his broken spear, which causes him to expire before he can answer the main question Arslan (and Narsus) would ask him. He does tell Arslan that his father is alive, but that the “rightful king” will soon ascend the throne – but not explicitly why he chose to cause the downfall of his capital to an invading army.
The aftermath of Kharlan’s death is rather remarkable, as Arslan asks Falangies to offer an elegy for Kharlan and his fallen soldiers. This is accompanied by the most beautiful BGM and backgrounds in the series to date, and in many ways seems the defining moment for Arslan’s character so far – compassion for traitors and enemies, and genuine sadness over the passing of an enemy he thought was a friend. The epilogue of the episode is revealing – Andragoras is indeed alive and imprisoned in Ectabana’s deepest dungeons, and Silver Mask claims to be his nephew Hermes – son of the brother Andragoras betrayed (over Tahemanay).
That Hermes would use Lusitania to help topple Andragoras as a prelude to turning on them and seizing power himself seems quite feasible, but I sense there’s more to Kharlan’s choice than simple politics. Clearly he bore Arslan no personal animosity, and perhaps this is nothing more than a case of Kharlan choosing the man he believed to be his rightful king over the man he saw as a usurper. But that doesn’t feel like enough to me – I think there was something more deeply personal driving his actions, and we’re going to find out what it was sooner or later. This is a complex story full of subtle layerings, and it yields up its secrets slowly – but that’s all the better, considering what a fascinating tale is being told here.