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October 25, 2000

Peter the Great

"Alexander"

There are rare moments in a person's lifetime when he or she discovers a
hidden talent, one which represents the path not taken. Say one has
dedicated one's career to software development. In the evolution of his
self, the software wonk might try his hand at writing. And then that
rare magic moment would manifest itself, revealing that he is actually a
gifted writer, skilled in conveying the kernel of a topic with
effortless ease. This is not one of those rare moments.

I won't even go into all my faults as a writer. I leave that to the
reader who bothers to plow through my turgid prose. But I've come to
recognize one very clear shortcoming. I can't for the life of me
clearly describe why I like a particular anime. If you've suffered along
with me through any of my previous reviews, you've seen me puzzle over
such gems as Tenshi ni Narumon, knowing I liked it but at a loss
as to why. Well get used to it. Confused I came into this world, and
confused I shall ever be.

Now that I've done with that unburdening, let's take a look at
this month's puzzle. The name of the show is Alexander, and it is based
on the life of Alexander the Great, in much the same way that
U-571 is based on the capture of the Enigma cypher machine in
WWII, and the manner in which Gladiator is based on the reign of
Commodus over the Roman Empire. This is to say, very, very
loosely.

Real history tells us that the British captured the Enigma machine,
before America even entered the war. The best historical accounts of
Emperor Commodus' life suggest that he either died of an illness, or
poisoning at the hands of his advisors. And oh, yes, he never had a
general named Maximus. I won't go into any such myth-puncturing when
looking at Alexander, but just keep it in mind as we proceed. Oh,
alright, there were no -- to the best of our knowledge -- flying
sorceror-assassins of the cult of Pythagoras in ancient Greece. But it
wouldn't be an anime if they were missing.

I don't even need to give a synopsis of the story background, since that
at least is relatively accurate, and recorded for anyone willing to do a
little reading. So instead I'd like to spend what remains of this column
considering the style of the show, which I'm told will last 13 'acts'.

Alexander is the product of numerous fertile minds. It is based
on an original novel by Hiroshi Aramata. According to the official site
for Alexander, he "combined his life-long interest in the subject
with over 5 years of painstaking research to present his own unique
interpretation." And he certainly didn't let that painstaking research
sully his unique interpretation.

While I'm sure that the director contributed to the vision, I don't know
how much influence over the look and atmosphere of the show he had. For
the record, note that he was Yoshinori Kanemori, and that he has also
directed Galaxy Express 999, Final Fantasy and others. Feh
on the producers. Who knows what they are thinking, on any given day?

Of course the jewel in this creative crown, the pearl of this video
oyster, the prize in this Crackerjack (tm) drama, is none other than
Peter Chung. If you haven't heard of him, shame on you. He is my
personal hero of the animation world, responsible for inflicting on the
world that marvel of originality and tribute fused together, Aeon
Flux
. If only for this one work I will worship at this altar for
many years to come.

Far more of his work has been in the realm of character design than in
actual writing and story development. In 1994, starved for more Peter
Chung, I sank so low as to watch Phantom 2040 religiously on
Saturday mornings, despite the fact that his only involvement was to
contribute the character designs (actually the writing for the show was
not too bad and a cut above many of the made-for-USA kids' shows of the
time). Fortunately the very next year marked the launch of the Aeon
Flux
television series, an encore brought about by the unquestioned
popularity of the original sequences found on MTV's Liquid
Television
.

Imagine my surprise to hear that the creator of so many angular,
anatomically questionable heros was going to turn his talents to
Alexander the Great. I was certainly excited to hear it, even if he once
again was constrained to merely designing the characters, rather than
contributing to the story.

Now years later (his character designs were completed in 1996), the
grand design has come together. The multifarious minds behind
Alexander have delivered up their child. Alexander is a
sprawling epic told in several episodes of a more personal scope, as
Alexander wins the respect of his people, and then falls prey to
overweening pride. Amongst the characters we have Alexander
himself, Roxanne, the daughter of a powerful Persian clan leader and
eventually his wife, Alexander's friend Hephaestion and a cast of
thousands.

I viewed the first two episodes in the original Japanese, without
subtitles, so perhaps I can be forgiven my bemusement when Alexander is
attacked by the utterly spooky Pythagorean assassins, who are convinced
that he will be the agency of the end of the world. Olympias,
Alexander's mother, is also a trip. We are treated to a flashback of her
giving birth to Alexander while entwined with giant serpents. She's
apparently all for her son becoming the world-destroyer.

None of this is made any easier by the set and costume design which has
about as much to do with ancient Greece and Persia as General Relativity
has to do with Dr. Who. Colors are bright, buildings are postmodern,
everything is very jumbled. But lest we rush to blame Peter Chung,
consider this quote from an interview with him: "First, I started by
doing research, before the director, Mr. Kanemori, told me to quit the
research and only use my imagination... if [the director and writer]
didn't like something, they said so, and I'd change it."

And change it they did. Alexander's tutor and mentor, Aristotle (yes,
that Aristotle) ends up looking like a fugitive from a Cockatoo
farm. In a major battle fought in the second episode, where Alexander
disobeys direct orders to brilliantly win the day, I found myself
reminded of a Civil War Battle re-enactment as presented by Cirque du
Soleil
. Colorful, yes, but also distracting, if you know more than a
little about the period.

The parlor pieces also have that jarring quality, like watching Imago or
Burmese shadow puppets presenting Hedda Gabbler. While I could go
on with the jarring images and obscure references to other culturally
puzzling phenomena, I hope you get the gist. It's fun to poke fun, but
enough is enough.

I've deliberately stayed away from the details of the story in this
column, not because it is hard to tell what is going on (the official
website
has some excellent information, synopses and character
descriptions) but because I think the substance of the show
should be experienced by each of you. It is certainly worth the
investment of an hour or two to watch the first two episodes. Personally
I intend to watch more, since I am interested in the evolution of
the relationships among the characters, invented and historical, who
have been introduced thus far.

But I felt it was only fair to prepare the path, as it were, on this
journey, by letting you know what was discordant about the show. If you
approach it as a purely fantastic creation in the typical anime vein (I
found myself thinking of Yotoden more than once while watching),
or if you are woefully ignorant of history (and there is no reason why
you shouldn't be, where ancient Greece and Persia are concerned), then
Alexander will seem a peculiar and rich brew.

Posted by dpwakefield at October 25, 2000 04:54 PM

Comments

what is the actual title of the original novel, that Alexander is based on? i've seen the entire series. i would now like to read the actual book. i keep finding reviews and descriptions of the characters, but i can't find the title of the actual novel. PLEASE E-MAIL ME THE TITLE I CAN'T FIND IT ANYWHERE!!!!!!

Posted by: veronica smokes at August 5, 2003 01:03 PM

Veronica:

I wish I could help, but I can't. I've seen dozens of attributions to Hiroshi Aramata, but not one of them actually states the title of the novel. Searching for his works directly, I've never found anything which seems it might be the work in question.

Good luck in your search!

Posted by: Don Wakefield at August 7, 2003 12:17 PM

I've been looking for the novel as well. It's called "Alexander's War Chronicles." I've also seen it referred to as "Alexander Tenki," which I guess is the Japanese title. Looking for the novel (actually, I think it's a series of novels) was how I found this site!

Diana

Posted by: Diana at November 23, 2003 08:11 PM