The anime competition is pretty fierce at the moment – Ushio and Tora, Working!!!, Baby Steps and Gangsta have put on a masterful display this week of how to execute their genres and demographics pretty much flawlessly. But let there be no doubt, Arslan Senki has leveled up big-time in the last couple of weeks (and it was already good). This has almost certainly been the best two-episode run since the very early stages, if not of the entire anime.
This Sindhuran arc has broken up the air of complacency that had dimmed Arslan’s star just a bit, adding a nice dash of unpredictability and taking things to some refreshingly dark places. It’s not as though Narsus isn’t still several steps ahead of everyone else, but at least he hasn’t been so demonstrably manipulating events to his own ends as he had been. Not every variable in the Sindhuran capital was within his powers to control – though he certainly had what would happen after Arslan departed down pretty much pat.
I think to some extent what these early arcs have been about is twofold. First, it’s an education in the ways of the world for Arslan. And second, it’s an education of the audience – defining Arslan by contrast with the character of his peers and rivals, starting with his (presumed) father. Rajendra is rather more subtly layered than some of them, though his treachery here was easy to spot. He is, as Narsus says, an actor so good that when he’s acting, he can even fool himself. Is he acting when he promises his dying father that he’ll allow Gadevi to live out his days under house arrest at a temple? Is he acting when he breaks down in tears at Karikala’s funeral?
The answer, I suspect, contains both yes and no. He intends to give Gadevi the chance to prove worthy of being spared, fully expecting his brother to fail, And he truly does grieve his father, but he’s acutely aware that a public display of extravagant grief can build a good deal of capital in the realm of public perception. And when he trots out Arslan at the banquet “honoring” Gadevi, the latter does indeed fail miserably – moments after groveling for his life, his rage consumes him and he attacks the Parsian prince – only to have the boy’s falcon peck his eye out. Soon enough, Rajendra makes that injury rather moot, having his brother’s head removed and displayed on the city walls for all to see.
Really, though, the title of this series should never be far from mind, because fundamentally it all comes back to Arslan. The grief Arslan displays at being part of all this ugliness is unmistakable – he truly hates seeing the brothers feuding, seeing one publicly executed. He hates the fact that underneath Rajanedra’s big-brotherly friendliness is the betrayal Narsus has told him is coming, and he hates deceiving people to achieve his goals. I think it’s fair to ask – indeed, I think we’re meant to ask – does this kind, sensitive boy have the stomach to be a medieval king? Surely he has reserves of strength and resolve – we’ve seen them amply displayed – but can he do the things a man in the position he seeks must do without being truly miserable in his existence? Daryun dismisses these concerns with a heartfelt “You are you, and you need not change your way of thinking” – but the reality isn’t quite that simple.
When Rajendra’s betrayal comes, Narsus has naturally seen through it. Rajendra reminds me of a dog that keeps getting his nose swatted bloody by a cat, but continues to stick his nose too close for the cat’s comfort. He’s just not in Narsus’ weight class, but Rajendra is consumed by delusions of his own genius. Maybe in his own mind he really does think he’s doing Arslan a favor by educating him as to the cruel ways of war, and he probably does like him, but his scheme is doomed before it starts. Arslan lets him off rather easily (which is perfectly in-character) with a three-year non-aggression treaty in-pocket, but apart from a likely (though not certain) respite from possible near-term invasion from Sindhuran, it seems to me he rides for Pars not materially stronger than he was when he and Rajendra met.
One more thing Arslan does ride for Pars with, though, is a new ally in Jaswant, who he’s saved yet again by getting him freed from the dungeons. Jaswant swears he’ll fight for his own country if it ever goes to war with Pars, but Arslan’s overarching strength is his ability to inspire a personal loyalty that transcends borders and factions, and Jaswant seems a pretty formidable guy to have on your side. In this sense Arslan has indeed grown stronger, and as he travels he continues to gather an impressive select band of very smart and capable allies. It’s not the easiest or flashiest way to rise to power, but it may be the method with the most staying power.