The Legend of the Legendary Heroes is the most unsatisfying fantasy anime that I have ever encountered. It strives to tell a sweeping tale yet never feels epic. Its plot meanders. It alternates between a comedic and deadly serious tone to the point that it portrays Takaya Kagami’s successful light novel series as a work suffering from a profound identity crisis.
Once upon a time, the kingdom of Roland was ruled by a tyrant king until he was overthrown by Sion, an idealist and would-be reformer. We don’t get to see that story, though; instead we witness Sion’s reign and some select moments from the past where he befriends Ryner, an exceptionally talented magician, at military academy. Ryner is more than a mage, though: he’s a bearer of the Alpha Stigma: “cursed” eyes that allow him to analyze magic and attack any caster with his or her own spell. Unfortunately, Alpha Stigma bearers are known for losing control and going berserk before they die at a young age, and those few with such ocular abilities are persecuted as monsters. But Sion doesn’t care and keeps Ryner’s Alpha Stigma a secret, and when he becomes king Ryner is at his service. The present day plot begins with Ryner undertaking a journey to find “hero relics,” artifacts of great power from a prior age. Joining him is Ferris, a formidable swordswoman with a penchant for teasing or bullying our hapless hero. As the duo embark on their quest Sion labors to consolidate his position, but it’s not easy. Those under his command have different agendas and ideas about how to best serve their king and the realm, and Sion soon finds himself constantly challenged on whether ends can justify the means.
Unfortunately, Sion’s machinations and the quest of Ryner and Ferris come off as two stories told in parallel rather than interwoven parts of the same tapestry. In fact the quest appears to be rather superfluous to the plot, being there mainly to establish the relationship between Ryner and Ferris and to help introduce additional characters, of which there are far too many. There is Lucile, Ferris’ brother, the seemingly invincible head of the king’s guard and a man of enigmatic goals. There is a rival duo from another kingdom to challenge the pair, a small Roland squad led by a childhood friend of Ryner’s, other Alpha Stigma users, an old flame from Ryner’s past, and more. Few beyond the core three and Sion’s inner circle at court get significant attention. Making matters worse, Ryner and Ferris simply aren’t very interesting. Ryner comes off as lazy and unmotivated and rarely applies himself unless circumstances truly force his hand, in no small part because he laments his identity and refuses to risk killing anyone with his overwhelming powers. Ferris’s best moments come when she’s actively comforting her friend and reminding him of his self-worth, but most of the time she’s inflicting comedic physical abuse on him, making tongue-in-cheek jokes about his being a lecherous pervert in front of other people, and running to death a joke about how much she likes dango.
The best thing about the show by far is Sion’s character arc. This is a man straining to reconcile his conscience with pragmatism, someone who seriously envisions a completely peaceful and idyllic future. But, too often, something happens on his watch or he makes a decision that drives him to doubt himself and wonder if it’s really all worth it. His inner conflict is embodied by his right-hand man, Claugh, a straightforward and honest warrior, and the brilliant Miran, magician who is both intensely loyal and ruthless. For Miran, Sion’s kindheartedness is mostly a barrier to true greatness, and he works behind the scenes to get dirty work done–not always with Sion’s consent. As the show goes on, Sion’s many compromises clearly begin to take their toll, and it’s particularly frustrating to see it mostly happen while Ryner and Ferris, two of his closest friends, are not around. If the story had fixed on this theme it might have been very compelling, but instead it is regrettably crowded out by other aspects of a too-complex plot.
At best, Legendary Heroes aspires to resonate by eliciting genuine sympathy for its characters. That’s the natural thing to feel for Sion, and while Ryner indulges in plenty of angst his friendships and experiences have palpably made him a stronger person by the end. It’s easy to feel sorry for them. The trouble is, this the only trick it knows. The action here too often regresses to tasteless violence where people are brutally slaughtered and blood gushes everywhere. At least in a dark fantasy like Berserk or Claymore people know what they’re getting into, but this is severe mood whiplash for a show that also has plenty of ridiculous dialogue and physical humor that wouldn’t be out of place in a comedy show. More importantly, characters major and minor constantly turn out to either have terrible pasts or have something truly awful happen to them. A lost arm here, an attempted rape there, scores of murders one character or another is powerless to prevent, and on and on. The series commits the grave error of mistaking ham-fisted tragedy for effective drama and severely overdoes it, taking things uncomfortably close to the point of absurdity.
Speaking of tragedies, the ending is an abrupt and depressing game changer that offers minimal closure. It’s anybody’s guess whether we will ever see more episodes.