While winning over the manga readers seems to be a lost cause, Shoukoku no Altair is doing a pretty good job of winning me over. The movement is in the right direction here, in many respects (including the visuals), and the story seems to be developing along a classic “slow burn” trajectory. More so than Arslan Senki, I think, Shoukoku seems to be built on the principle of laying down bricks one upon the other, with the overall structure only coming into shape as it progresses towards completion. Arslan offered more gratification points along the way, whereas this show is more focused on the long-term conclusion.
I’ll say this much – I would rank this as the strongest episode yet in terms of production. It doesn’t hurt to have Venice as a setting, of course, but I think MAPPA have done a pretty nice job of capturing the allure of “elegant decay” which makes “Venedik” the most beautiful city on the planet (even in medieval times it seemed to be in a state of glorious decline). As I watched these panoramas my mind immediately took me back to my time in Venice, staring at the same vistas – the nature of the city is such that one tends to find oneself in the same places, staring at the same cityscapes. It’s truly unforgettable, and I think the anime team have done it justice.
Venice is a kind of living museum now, but in its heyday it was a singular kind of world power – a place where commerce did indeed lead, and the military follow. It was also a “melting pot”, one of the first – a refuge for those of many lands, and a place where one might rise to wealth and power based on their own ability and guile (sound familiar?). As such, there was a particular sort of pragmatism to Venetian politics – what we see play out here is not especially a stretch. The Doge’s (Ono Daisuke) explanation for why he considered his treaty obligations with Phoinike fulfilled may have been galling for Mahmut (and even more for Kiros) but it was quite fitting with the Venetian view of the world at the time.
The staredown between Mahmut and Lucio is a classic clash of ideals (Lucio’s views are ideals, not merely an absence of them), but it’s Abiriga who’s central to this episode. He has a typical Venetian story – he was sold as a slave by his parents, escaped and was scooped up by a Venedik merchant ship, and – despite wounding Captain Braga – purchased and raised as the captain’s pseudo-son. Abiriga is very much a product of the system now – and it’s he who takes on the role of education the young Mahmut about the intricacies of Venedik politics.
In the end, this comes down to everyone sizing each other up – and Mahmut is central to all that. Lucio may have coldly screwed over his ally (though he does seem dismayed to find out the Magistros was killed), but he’s not naive about the Empire – he’ll play ball with them if he can, but he knows it may come down to war. If it does, he’ll need allies – and Turkiye is definitely one of them. Mahmut being present in Venedik makes him and ideal potential conduit to Turkiye, but that means figuring out whether he’s someone trustworthy, and with the savvy to survive long enough to be a potential asset.
“Inexperienced and idealistic – bad qualities for a soldier” is how Captain Braga assesses Mahmut, and he’s not far off. But the lad passes the test Braga and Lucio set for him, with Abiriga’s help – along the way displaying a Kasaparov-like mastery of chess. There’s a place for idealism in the wars to come, and Mahmut is already showing that he can adapt – as witness his willingness to consider Lucio’s claim that as a nation that avoids was whenever possible, Venedik should be Mahmut’s ideal power. Obviously Abiriga was in on the “testing” scam – but did Mahmut himself know he was being tested? I suspect he suspected – but whether he did or not, Team Mahmut now has another player in Abiriga.