It’s finale weekend in anime (a few frontrunners beat the rush last week, but you get my point), and it’s been possibly the strangest I can remember. Working gave us an ending that wasn’t an ending and made us ecstatic about it, Gangsta gave us an ending that wasn’t- well, anything – and pissed us the fuck off. It fell to Arslan Senki to be the first LiA show of the weekend to give us something that felt like an actual ending, and do it damn well at that.
We all knew that like Gangsta, Arslan was going to have to end an ongoing story. But hard as that is to do it’s certainly not impossible to do well, and by God, a studio (in my view) has a responsibility to at least try to give a show some kind of closure. Even if you can’t resolve a story narratively you can give it a sense of resolution, a benedictory quality, and leave the characters in a place that feels like a natural stopping point. Most of the time studios at least try, and sometimes they do quite a neat job of it. Manglobe did neither, and Lidenfilms did both.
Arslan Senki is a series that can be a bit clunky in both its storytelling and animation sometimes, something that no doubt fuels some of the barrage of criticism it receives from fans of the original novels. But there’s an honesty about it, and old-school anime directness that I find very appealing. And underneath that sometimes heavy touch is a real subtlety and sense of history (again, things the novel readers love about this series) which I think survives and thrives in the anime. And it’s that which drives the finale, despite the occasional off-key note.
Etoile (I will – as does Arslan – continue to call her that, as she wishes) certainly represents the human face of religious extremism, cross and all. For all that one might wish to deny the fact, there can be no question that the Lusitanians represent the Christians of the Middle Ages and their crusades (seriously – adding another horizontal axis to the cross isn’t even trying to hide it). I don’t find this especially controversial, because the Crusades were a dark time in Christian and European history and in my view, not one that should be celebrated. But Etoile’s role here is to explore the idea of how a fundamentally good person can buy into a fundamentally evil belief system and still retain a semblance of themselves. As such, she can be argued to be the second-most important character in the narrative, and it’s no coincidence that the anime chose to showcase her story both in its first and last episodes.
Tanaka – and Arakawa – play no favorites with history here. Slaves were in fact traded in Persia until the beginning of the 19th Century, and it’s the lingering stain on the Parsian nation of this story. The difference of course is that Arslan has transcended the orthodoxy of his people, and Etoile has not – but that I chalk up more to the characters themselves, not any hidden racism on the part of the authors. Arslan is the protagonist, the hero – and furthermore, it’s fundamental to his character that he’s kind and open-minded to a fault (literally – to a fault).
Arslan’s decision to spare Etoile can surely come as no surprise to any viewer of the series – it’s just who he is. It does irritate me that he continues to recklessly put himself in harm’s way by trusting those who haven’t earned his trust (like Etoile) but he’s not going to change – that’s who he is. Just as he’s inspired the loyalty of those of his own nation by sheer force of decency, perhaps a smattering of Lusitanian survivors and one on cross-dressing Knight might slowly begin to have their perception of Pars changed by witnessing Arslan’s mercy close-up over time. He offers them a prayer for their dead for one of their own kind. He gives them precious food and water, and medical attention, and carries them with him to Ectabana despite having little manpower to spare in guarding them. Clearly, this is a boy who’s decided that succeed or fail, live or die he’s going to try to succeed by making the first move – even if he has to put himself at risk in the process.
The game of thrones to come has just gotten more complicated for Arslan. I think things being out in the open between Hilmes and Guiscard makes them much more dangerous than the dance of deception they’ve been engaged in up till now. They share a common goal – to depose the monarch of their own kingdom – and Guiscard is unsurprisingly willing to let Hilmes have Pars (which Guiscard never really seemed to want anyway) in exchange. There’s much we don’t know about the royal puzzle of Pars – who Arslan’s real parents are, for starters – and it seems Gieve has been dispatched to discover the truth of the situation and return with some sort of proof of Arslan’s claim.
For me , the strongest moment of the final episode, the one where all the clunkiness faded away and the poetry soared, was when Falangies explained to Etoile why so many exceptional people follow the “pampered boy” – the one who refuses to act high and mighty as a prince should – of their own will. “The throne has no will of its own” is as elegant a summation of this story as one could ever hope for in a single sentence. Power is only as great or small as the person that wields it, and Arslan’s greatness is that he never stops trying to be better. Guiscard, Hilmes, Andragoras – all have their own reasons to seek and hold power. But Arslan in the one who embraces the responsibility of power, the onus it places to always seek something nobler and more compassionate for themselves and for the world. In this way Arslan represents both abject humility and an understanding of his own importance – a very rare combination in a ruler. And flaws and all, that’s someone that’s worth following.
Arslan Senki, too, is well worth following – flaws and all. This is a story of genuinely complex and interesting characters and ideas, a literate and savvy piece of fiction that has a sense of history and of the human psyche. In terms of production and execution it’s not especially slick or marketing savvy, but it’s one of the more honest stories to come to anime in a good while. Arslan Senki is timeless in a good way, a product of age-old storytelling and not the fashions of the day, and I think that’s why it’s found an audience. The manga is a monster seller, the anime a remarkably decent one for the sort of series it is. Is all that enough to get us another season? I think that’s as tough a call as there is in this business, because the circumstances surrounding the franchise are so unusual. But I’d bet that as Arakawa-sensei (who finally gets the end card this week) progresses far enough with the manga, we will get more anime – though that’s probably going to be a good while yet. The sooner the better as far as I’m concerned – anime needs as many series like Arslan Senki as it can get.
End Card by Arakawa Hiromu: