Review/discussion about: Arslan Senki
This introduction is difficult for me because I have no experience with war. Sure, I have historical knowledge, but I have never taken part in violence of that magnitude. I do not seek out confrontations, instead I seek out calm. I prefer friends over fights as it were. That is just who I am.
I therefore must rely on the words of others here, rather than my own. There are a lot of famous phrases about war. “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” A famous lyric sung by Edwin Starr. “War. War never changes.” An iconic statement of the Fallout video game franchise. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Irony of monumental proportions, written by George Orwell and taken from his classic 1984. Each medium – from music to games to literature – thinks the same simple thought: war is always bad.
At least, that is how the vast majority of people think nowadays. Go back far enough, and you will discover that war was often the norm. Arslan Senki sits in this latter camp, portraying war, succession, and politics in anime form. Whether or not the show delivers a solid performance, though, is still up for debate.
Arslan Senki sets itself up as a prolonged adventure. A lot goes on, and a lot has yet to happen. Still, the anime covers a lot of ground in its first season, from big themes to involved battles. Again, there is a lot of plot left to get through, and while the show could be in a better spot the anime is not outright horrible either.
The narrative clearly states the end numerous times. “And thus, the boy would become king” and the title of the show The Heroic Legend of Arslan – where legend implies an immense level of fame achieved through exploits and success – spell out a complete win for Arslan. Thus, what matters is not where the plot ends up but how the plot gets there. What makes up the majority of the plot is the demonstration of war. Swinging swords, strategizing against the enemy, and the before-and-after effects. That last point is important because the downtime is where the show puts the most attention on its larger ideas.
These themes are heavy. War. Slavery. Religion. Arslan Senki targets ideas that are wide in scope and are therefore a bigger challenge to explore properly. The first two more or less see adequate development, especially war and its misgivings. War brings more than just death; war brings betrayal, camaraderie, fear, suffering, and understanding, all of which the narrative shows time and again. From the sacking of Ecbatana to the victory at Saint Emmanuel, the byproducts of war are interlaced throughout the experience. Slavery likewise plays a prominent role. Slaves’ mistreatment, Ecbatana’s fall, Narsus’s background, Arslan’s relationship to his people, and Kashan’s persuasion are each examples of the ways in which slavery is explored, remaining relevant for much of the season. For both of these themes on war and slavery, the anime also manages to include the grotesque sides. Displaying the severed head of a traitor and the killing of captives proved that the show was not afraid to venture into the more unsightly aspects of these themes.
Sadly, the anime missteps with its religious theme. In the beginning, Yaldabaoth and the idea of conflicting ideologies has a major role in how the plot proceeds. The overzealous nation of Lusitania demolishes the powerhouse that is Pars because of their devotion to their god. Following the opening arc, however, religion is pushed to the wayside. The concept of religion is brought up later on with Hermes who denounces religion as nothing more than a farce, but a huge chunk of the plot ignores religion and its influence on not just the events but also its other themes on war and slavery. Of course, Falangies and Estelle are characters whose very traits revolve around religion, but they are not prominent enough within the narrative to add weight to this important idea.
Arslan Senki has an even bigger glaring problem in its narrative that is best described as a plot contrivance. Specifically, the enemy’s dark sorcery is the home for too much convenience. Besides Falanngies’s apparent ability to communicate with the Djinn, the anime almost entirely focuses on the believable aspects of war. Horses, castles, and spears make up the vast majority of the content. The tiny sliver that does not encompass the realm of the real is the evil magic that Hermes has at his disposal. This ally of his can materialize from the portals he makes, he can traverse quickly over land, and he can even bring others through the darkness.
Simply incorporating this into the show automatically introduces potential issues. One, the bad guys can be saved whenever the show chooses – this happens near the end of this season. Two, the bad guys can appear whenever the show chooses – this happens during the splitting-up in the mountains as the troupe heads for Peshawar. Third and lastly, the bad guys can kill Arslan whenever the show chooses – this never happens but that is exactly the issue. For instance, in the final fight between Arslan and Estelle, the darkness not appearing to eliminate the young prince, despite him being alone and despite him fighting for his life, makes little logical sense given the anime’s overall context. Granted, this dark sorcery is used quite sparingly. But this is still an unfair crutch that removes natural progression of the plot and instead favors a tool that artificially pushes the narrative where Arslan Senki needs it to go.
Another minor grievance is the anime’s unwillingness to remove key players. It is fair to assume that Arslan, Daryun, and Narsus would continually live following each encounter. Arslan is the main protagonist and both Daryun and Narsus are vital to the crown prince’s success. However Falangies, Gieve, Elam, Jaswant, and Alfreed, characters who are by and large not that important to earning Arslan’s glory, are barely affected. The same can also be said of the enemy. Other than Kharlan (who died early) and Hermes (who is the main antagonist), Bodin, Xandes, and Guiscard are figures that still have a presence despite not doing much or meaning much to the narrative. Given Arslan Senki’s penchant for war, not having any of these heroes or villains eliminated reduces the believability the show strives for. Again, to be fair, this is the first season of the series, meaning it is entirely possible that some of the aforementioned characters will perish in due time. But when the only truly harrowing moment is when Elam is wounded protecting Arslan, and even then the wound is not as life threatening as it could be, the narrative once again comes off as unfairly guided rather than naturally progressing.
Similarly and seemingly unnatural is, at first glance, the Sindhura arc. However that entire ordeal centers on three concepts. One, bolstering the credentials of Arslan. Joining ranks with another country and staying loyal to this country demonstrated his abilities as a trustworthy leader, giving him the necessary clout to establish his decrees. Two, recruiting Jaswant into his party. While much happens during this arc, one of the most important aspects is having Jaswant join Arslan’s gang as further proof of his trustworthiness and his ability to unite disparate people. Three, the conflict is representative of Arslan’s battle against Hermes. The clashing brothers, the power struggle, and the throne succession questions, combined with the capabilities of those rulers and their relationship to their father, mirror Arslan’s own difficulties abroad. This in turn gives Arslan the chance to understand that birthright is not all that is needed to become king.
Yet this arc introduces an inherent problem: displacement of focus. While these qualities of this portion of the narrative are intentional and purposeful, this long stretch of episodes takes away from the main point of contention, namely Pars, Ecbatana, and Hermes. For a time, Arslan Senki becomes less about Arslan and his fight to win the throne and more about this aside that, ultimately, means very little to the grander goals at play.
The anime has other positives. The season ends on a total victory for Arslan, achieving a full-circle framing for the narrative that brings about a sense of closure to his initial defeat. The anime also has other negatives. The anime fails to give competent world-building. Other rival countries, terrain traversed, and societal life are barely investigated. Altogether, the anime does not entirely miss the mark with its narrative but there is definitely room for improvement.
Where Arslan Senki falters hardest is in its art and its animation.
To clarify, the anime’s character designs are partially exempt from most of the issues. Most notable are their “crispness”, the defined outlines and vibrant colors of the characters heavily contrasting with the backgrounds they find themselves on. The paleness of Falangies and Arslan, the intricate outfits of Alfreed and Daryun, and the striking eyes of Jaswant and Gieve make them almost pop out of the screen, their looks alone defining them. However their designs are more than just visually pleasing, holding symbolic purpose as well. Arslan’s white hair symbolizes his innocence as a child and purity as a leader. Furthermore, his androgynous depiction is a clever way to highlight that Arslan is a ruler representing everyone. Daryun dons black armor, black representing strength and power, both of which the knight carries in spades. And Narsus’s comparatively lackluster appearance actually reflects his deceptive nature; he does not stick out like everyone else, making perfect sense for the genius strategist. This type of analysis can be applied to each character, proving the strength of each of their designs.
The same kind of strength cannot be attributed to the rest of the anime’s artistic and animation direction. There are three big problems with the art. First, the main setting. The mountains, the plains, and the forests inherently provide dull stages for the actors to use. Indeed, watching a bunch of rocks or seeing the group traverse through dense foliage is not the most impressive sight. Arslan Senki attempts to switch things up with the occasional fortress or encampment, but the majority of the show finds itself on the boring side of life. This problem stems from the second: the frequent battles. Due to the war theme, these mountain passes, open fields, and trees are needed because that is where war normally takes place. So while the places are not too enticing, their inclusion is forced. The battles, in turn, introduce the third problem: the CG. By far the worst aspect of the art is the CG. Its blocky textures are a negative, but it is the reused sequences – soldiers with the exact same faces standing right next to one another or the same set of animations used, just with reskinned people – that truly hamper the anime. The reasoning for using as much CG as the show did was to combat (coincidentally) the battles. Their size and frequency ultimately meant that resources were spread thin, this lacking CG art and animation having to be relied on more so than wanted.
Consequently, actual animation follows suit. Much of Arslan Senki has animation of a level that is not what one would consider favorable. It is not just the calmer times, where the characters talk with one another without too much hair or body movement. The battles likewise see a downgrade. The camera often pans high to give a lot without showing too much action. The camera zooms in a lot, too, swords, bows, and halberds used but without finesse or choreography. Combined, the anime never really shows extensive fighting, resulting in less overall animation. The actual animation peaks during the first fight between Daryun and Hermes. The rest of the show, however, tends to keep most objects and people from moving too much. Again, the anime is not devoid of animation, but given the focus on war and battles – alongside the questionable CG work – the amount provided is sorely less than appropriate.
Arslan Senki is a classic case in anime when it comes to a singular main character and the many side characters that support him or her. In question form, how much is “enough” for the supporting cast?
Realistically, nobody else matters besides Arslan. This is a story about the young boy, so do the side characters really matter that much? Daryun, Narsus, Falangies, Elam, Alfreed, Gieve, and Jaswant constantly surround the young prince, but this is not their story. As such, many of these characters have very little known about them. Falangies in particular gets the brunt end of the stick; she has zero noteworthy scenes, and outside of her temple disciple background and her ability to hold her liquor, nothing else worthwhile is known about her. She effectively sits on the sidelines making a comment or two during this initial tale. So it begs the same question as before, does having so little about specific characters negatively impact the show’s execution when all that matters is Arslan?
A difficult question to answer because that line in the sand is not definitive. For example, Jaswant is arguably the best of the side characters: the audience learns of his background, the audience witnesses his intriguing and parallel relationship to Arslan, and the audience eventually understands the Sindhuran’s own convictions. Daryun, on the other hand, is the “Black Knight” of unparalleled strength with an equal amount of devotion to Arslan. But the viewer does not learn anything else about him. His background is never shown, he seemingly has no flaws, and his relationships except to those of Arslan and Narsus are rarely expounded on. All of these problems, yet he was next to Arslan since the very beginning of their journey. Most of the supporting cast are somewhere between Jaswant and Daryun in terms of strength. Alfreed gets multiple venues of motivation, Gieve more or less tags along, and so on. Again, expecting extensive development for the entire cast is a fruitless endeavor. But to focus on each of them so minimally as Arslan Senki did?
Of course, similar to Jaswant, there are other exceptions. Hermes stands as a wonderful antagonist, even if the narrative unfairly uses him as it sees fit. As Arslan’s foil in more ways than one, Hermes is a man whose rage knows no bounds. Driven by revenge, the former king’s son does not want the throne so much as he wants his cousin’s and his uncle’s head, doing whatever it takes – such as murdering his own people or betraying those he has joined – to achieve his ends. He is scarily powerful, maniacal, and technically in the right. His family was killed and his home was taken for yet-to-be-fully-revealed reasons, so his actions are not entirely unfounded. Still, this burning desire to kill those who have wronged him drives everyone away. This contrasts heavily with Arslan, whose behavior naturally draws people to him. However this fiery rage also symbolizes Hermes’s eventual downfall. His one weakness are flames, caused by the trauma of his family’s original slaughter. This fact alone makes Hermes a well-rounded character simply because he is not infallible just as Arslan is. For now, it remains to be seen if Hermes can be saved or if his inner fire will consume him, but as it stands Lord Silver Mask is not just a worthy opponent for the crown prince but also one of the strongest characters of the cast.
Estelle (disguising herself as Etoile) is also worth mentioning. Initially the audience is introduced to a boy whose belief in his ideals pushes him where he needs to go. When Arslan and the boy grow up, the two meet again, only to part ways still butting heads. For a time, it appears that the boy no longer has a spot among the cast until the show reveals that he is not a he but a she. Estelle infiltrates Arslan’s keep to inspire him unintentionally (once again), she inadvertently causes the fall of the Keep of Saint Emmanuel, and she, oh so slightly, begins to expand her narrow-mindedness. Arslan has a unique relationship with the girl; while mutual feelings of romance have yet to bloom (a guess, since a king needs a queen and the narrative is screaming for it to happen), the pair hold different approaches to the same ideas of life. Similar to Hermes and the rest of the cast, she has yet to fully develop as a character. But as is the norm with the first season’s characters, she is poised for greatness later on down the road.
To be fair towards everyone that is not Hermes or Estelle, some leniency is warranted. This is only the first season of the anime. A second season is on the horizon and will, presumably, be a two-cour show as well. Meaning these separate problems – Falangies forgotten about or Daryun hardly experiencing hardship – will most likely be addressed later on. So for now, it is not that absurd to assume that the characters will get the attention they deserve in due time. That is, the first season essentially gave us the characters and their respective characterizations (however slight they might be) in preparation for their eventual growth in the coming season.
Assuming much of the side cast can be overlooked, at the minimum it is then fair to expect Arslan to carry more weight than considered normal. Therefore, and keeping in mind the split seasons, the final question, how does Arslan fair as a character at this point? He started as a wimp. Naïve of the world beyond the capital’s walls, his first taste of war is utter defeat. He sees his friends die, his subjects perish, and his father taken in the span of an evening. Obviously unable to do much of anything by his lonesome, he enlists Daryun who directs him to Narsus, and there the true adventure begins. Along the way, Arslan gains more followers, usually of different creeds. A former slave, a bard, and a nomad are but a sampling of the people that pledge themselves to Arslan.
Their variety is precisely what gives Arslan his edge. He is not incredibly strong like Daryun. He cannot wield a bow like Falangies. He cannot cook meals like Elam. But what Arslan can do is lead. A leader is not someone who can annihilate his foes or has immeasurable riches. A leader is someone who gains the utmost trust of those he leads. Arslan does this through his kind heart, his empathetic nature, and his reliance on others. That last part is important because that is exactly what Daryun, Narsus, and the rest do. They might not change but they support, and in turn morph, Arslan into the kind of king he will need to become. Arslan is far from that conclusion, but in the short span of time he has fought to earn his rightful spot on the throne he, like Hermes and Estelle before him, is more than ready for what lies ahead.
In the end, those previous questions will always remain heated points of contention. But for Arslan Senki, Hermes, Estelle, and Arslan do more than enough (this season) to overlook the lack of support for the supporting characters.
The first opening theme mixes rock and acoustics, providing a sound that simultaneously does and does not fit the atmosphere of the anime. The combination is weird but the strangeness gives the piece some much needed “oomph”. The fast lyrics, alongside the adrenaline-filling instruments and back-and-forth vocals, also give the piece a certain allure that works to get the audience in the mindset needed for the show. The second OP takes a similar approach, but less determined and more emotional in its presentation. Unfortunately, only the repetition in the middle and end is memorable, the rest of the piece a cacophony of sound and lyrics as opposed to a coherent piece of music.
It is not until the first ending theme is heard that the true formidability of the music is heard. The incredible vocalist, the mood-setting instruments, and the beat of the track propel the piece away from “just another ED” to “an ED worth remembering”. Even the simple “ah” as the song concludes demonstrates the power contained within. The only problem with the first ED is that it gave way to the second which is, understandably, a step down. True to Kalafina form, the track is both mysterious and grand in scope, a nice fit for the direction of the anime. The women both share and trade the spotlight, turning the piece into a swirling harmony of singing that is soothing on the ears (also true of most Kalafina pieces). While not as strong as its previous ED, the second one does what it can to fill the first’s shoes and at the minimum finds a decent spot among the legendary tale of Arslan.
The remainder of the soundtrack is often of orchestral origins. Resounding drums, deep violins, and sharp trumpets are heard, perfect for that feeling of war. Given the Western and European setting, many of the pieces also incorporate vibes of a similar nature. Stringy guitars and simple flutes place the audience in the correct location and time period without coming off as overbearing. Other tracks are mysterious, violins and harps cloaking the viewer in a veil of the unknown, such as when Hermes visits Andragoras. Other tracks are lighter, such as when Arslan has his new troops trained, soft pipes uplifting the mood. And although the OST does not contain any noteworthy pieces, they do their job nicely enough throughout the season.
Finally, voice acting in Arslan Senki sees about average performances overall. Wataru Hatano as Jaswant uses a surprisingly deep voice that works quite well. Yuusuke Kobayashi as Arslan is relatively new to the field, his childish voice a bit too kiddy for the king-to-be. And Shirou Saitou as Bodin is supposed to sound furious but instead sounds like he needs to clear his throat.
Part of the reason why I was not liking this one as much as I probably should have is the characters. Falangies is beautiful but so little was given about her she was not that enticing. Gieve teasing Falangies was amusing, but not that funny because that is all his person became. Narsus is intelligent but he is a rather dull person to see on-screen. Arslan likewise fails to leave a lasting impression. He is nice and gentle, but he does not really do anything throughout the season other than yell out names and continually learn from those around him. “Presence” is the right word; nobody in the cast had a presence that affected me. No one is cute or funny or cool. They are all just…there. And to be fair, that kind of realness not only makes sense for the anime but also means a lot to other people. However I would have liked to have seen a teeny tiny bit more eccentricity, considering how flavorful everyone seemed. Hermes might count, but listening to him throw a hissy fit each time he made an appearance got old quickly.
There was one shining ray of hope that pierced my heart, though, and that was when Estelle revealed her true identity. Seeing her slightly smaller height-wise compared to Arslan, her boyish attitude compared to Arslan’s girlish one, and the encounters they had in the past, immediately caught my attention, setting my romance-gears in motion. I always wondered if Arslan would find a lover, let alone who it might be. Falangies? She is an adult and he is a child. Alfreed? She has fallen for Narsus (Elam has a shot I believe). Tahamine? The time period makes such incestuous relationships not too farfetched but that would be out of left-field. Therefore Estelle is the one for Arslan. All I wanted from the moment they talked in the castle and in the prison cell was for the anime to continue to explore their complex relationship. Of course I knew (and know) that the anime was not (and is not) going to head full-force in that direction – this is an anime about war and Arslan’s journey to become king, not some romantic-comedy. But the romantic in me yearns for more. As such, I remain hopeful for the upcoming continuation.
Regardless of the characters and the potential romance, the other entertainment factor of Arslan is the fights. There is approximately a battle every other episode, be it a duel or a large-scale conflict. The show does its best to diversify each one: one skirmish uses fog to mask a trap, another still lures a battalion onto a thin sheet of ice to send them to a watery grave, and another involves stampeding elephants. Despite the show constantly changing tactics, I never once found myself emotionally invested in the anime. Perhaps it was because I “knew” that the show never had the guts to kill off any of the main cast, but I was never cheering for Daryun nor was I clapping as Narsus’s plan worked flawlessly per usual. The fights were not boring per se, but as I was with the characters I was not invested in whatever the show happened to dish out.
Arslan Senki is the start of a journey, a start that got off on the semi-right foot. The characters are primed and ready to go and the music at times is easy on the ears. But the poor art and animation direction, combined with the less-than-stellar narrative, bring everything down further than the show would like. Hopefully the next iteration does not follow war’s path and instead changes for the better.
Story: Fine, heavy themes of war and slavery, theme on religion forgotten, unwarranted plot contrivances, intriguing parallel narrative in the Sindhuran arc, and mixed structural decisions
Animation: Bad, very nice character designs, poor artistic direction, and below average actual animation
Characters: Good, while many of the supporting characters have yet to actually do much of anything they – alongside Hermes, Estelle, and Arslan – have promising starts
Sound: Fine, good first OP, bad second OP, fantastic first ED, good second ED, okay OST, okay VA performances
Enjoyment: Fine, an uninteresting cast, uninvesting battles, and a dash of potential romance provide a competently entertaining beginning to this tale
Final Score: 5/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3