Should You Watch Altair: A Record of Battles?

Should You Watch Altair: A Record of Battles?
altair a record of battles summer anime 2017 episode 1 review
Altair: A Record of Battles. (c) Studio MAPPA

Altair: A Record of Battles is setting up for major geopolitical and military machinations, which means episode 1 is a crammed, awkwardly-paced premiere that nevertheless offers a glimmer of promise not only in the scope of its ambition, but in its serious-minded young lead.

Music? Meh, it’s there. The animation, including CG animation? Functional. Character design marries anime ridiculousness to Ottoman flair for purple-haired Pashas and buxom dancers. The episode feels like it’s ticking through plot points efficiently, but not smoothly. Is this a character-driven show or a fantasy alternate history reskin of World War I? Altair: A Record of Battles doesn’t know yet, so it’s covering its bases, with the show’s first half devoted to establishing the main character and the second half zooming through a political conspiracy.

As for that main character, his name is Tugril Mahmut Pasha (“Pasha” being his title of “General”) and he's known as The Golden Eagle General thanks to his hawk, Iskander. A prodigy who passed the military exam at age 12, Mahmut doesn’t know what to do with himself when faced with a light-hearted dancer’s exhortations and is mortified by her teasing interest.

It's mortifying for me personally when the dancer sneaks into Mahmut’s house, rolls around breastily in the sheets of his bed, teases him for the book of poems he left behind and convinces him to let her stay in his bed. Altair: A Record of Battles opens with an explanation of how unusual Mahmut’s achievements are and how his new high rank is a historic achievement, so to immediately undermine this with some booby dancer treating him like a kid seems like it’s done for humor’s sake. But it’s not funny, it’s weird, and I’m relieved when the dancer’s out of the picture.

Next, we have a scene where Mahmut (who spent the night on the roof) goes after a random thief. His hawk mutilates the thief’s arm and Mahmut feeds the bird a meaty treat, eyes glimmering in a steely fashion. This establishes that on top of having a historic high rank, he deserves it because he is cool and just. Having established Mahmut’s character, we move straight into plot. And yes, the two halves of the episode do feel disjointed.

There’s some exposition about how the body of a powerful neighboring nation’s Prime Minister was discovered riddled with arrows bearing the Turkiyen crest, and that country, Balt-Rhein, has now demanded that Turkiye send a general to their capital within seven days or they’ll declare war. Two pashas argue: the purple-haired guy, Zaganos, wants war, while the old man, Halil, is still scarred by the horrors of the war from twelve years ago. Mahmut barges in, pleading for a third option based on investigating the other nation’s claims more thoroughly, but Zaganos scolds him like a child and more or less sends him out.

Frustrated, Mahmut has a little fit outside the council, and old Halil comes out to chat with him. Mahmut is mad at himself because he became a Pasha to stop war from ever happening again, so the general encourages him to keep moving and do what he can. Mahmut runs off to investigate Balt-Rhein's claims, but his investigation comes to naught until he realizes that the feathers on the arrow are styled like those of Balt-Rhein, not those of Turkiye.

This is not quite the trump card he hopes for, as Halil has already left as envoy to Balt-Rhein. Mahmut catches up with him, and we flash back to tiny Mahmut holding baby Iskander, overlooking the ashen remains of his village and scooping one of those embers into his locket. Or maybe it was a jewel? Poor tiny Mahmut.

Anyway, back in Balt-Rhein, the cartoonishly evil Minister Louis confirms that he’s framing Turkiye, sucking all the tension out of that plot because he’s a one-note trope we’ve seen many times before. Altair will need to do some real work on Minister Louis if he’s meant to be the series antagonist.

Meanwhile, in the carriage on the way to Balt-Rhein, Halil shares his regrets. In another flashback, we enjoy one of my least favorite anime tropes, the Tragically Dead Mom. Mahmut is struggling to carry his Tragically Dead Mom out of his Tragically Burning Village, then tragically tries to pour water into her Tragically Dead Mouth. There are plenty of still shots superimposed over other frames, not only in these flashbacks but in other parts of the episode, which feels both corny and old-fashioned.

Mahmut’s backstory is so over-the-top, it approaches parody, but we already know and like Mahmut, so this overly angsty yet generic backstory doesn’t kill our affection for our hero. Halil shows up to embrace the child and apologize for not being a good enough politician, I guess, and then takes Mahmut under his wing.  

Mahmut shares the news of the Balt-Rhein conspiracy with Halil, who notes that if their adversary is going to such twisty lengths to set them up for war, it must mean not everyone in Balt-Rhein is interested in war, since Balt-Rhein is big and powerful enough to just go for war if that’s what it wants to do. It’s an interesting bit of geopolitics. Just as they resolve to prepare for war, they’re waylaid by assassins, who kill the horses (I hate seeing horses die in anime, at least Titans don’t kill horses on purpose) and pepper the carriage with arrows.

Plot twist: the carriage is empty. The lead assassin grouses that they’ll have to report to Minister Louis. What kind of amateur assassin just drops his employer’s name like that? What kind of amateur political provocateur doesn’t cover his tracks with a trail of middlemen? Isn’t this show trying to do sophisticated political theatre? Anyway, Mahmut reveals himself from his hiding spot and captures the three assassins by splashing them with a bowl of mutton that calls a whole clan of hawks over. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the funniest thriller I’ve ever watched.

In short order, we wrap it all up: Mahmut arrives at Balt-Rhein and reveals Minister Louis’ machinations, forcing Balt-Rhein to acknowledge the Prime Minister’s death as an accident. Mahmut and Halil return home, and all seems well, but the closing narrative tells us that this was the start of “The Great Rumelania War,” a war that involved every nation on the continent. Whoops! The next episode preview promises more of mustache-twirlingly evil Minister Louis’ evil, evil plots.

The thing is, the whole Ottoman-inspired political war story narrative is polished to a gem by The Heroic Legend of Arslan. Altair: A Record of Battles is not a bad show by any means, with appealing character designs, plenty of color, an especially pleasant closing theme song and some nice background work, but its ambitions may overreach its limits.

If you’re starving for a crunchy geopolitical anime with an Ottoman-inspired feel and have run through all of Arslan, you may enjoy Altair: A Record of Battles, but not even its best efforts at tight plotting have me convinced yet. I may give this one a few more episodes to decide its own identity and polish its characters before I decide whether or not to keep this one in the queue.

Altair: A Record of Battles streams every Friday on Amazon’s Anime Strike. What do you think? Feel free to let us know in our comments section below.

 

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