Media Review — Reign: the Conqueror

There is good media, which is sometimes good enough to be worth consuming.  There is bad media, which is sometimes bad enough to be worth consuming.  And then there’s media where you can’t possibly tell whether it’s good or bad, and by the same token you know in your gut that its goodness or badness doesn’t matter, that its quality is totally orthogonal to its value.  The sort of media that deserves your time and attention simply by virtue of existing, because there is absolutely nothing else like it.

*****

In 1996, a prominent Japanese occultist — well-known, inter alia, for his work translating the writings of people like Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson — decided to put together a biography of Alexander the Great in the form of a light novel.

In 1999, an animation studio called “Madhouse” determined that this light novel would make a good cartoon series.  The guy they got to spearhead this project was Peter Chung, best known for being the mastermind behind the brain-breakingly weird animation and visual design of Aeon Flux. 

The thing that came out was…exactly what you’d expect, I suppose.  A miniseries-format biopic of Alexander, filtered through the creative genius of two famous lunatics.

*****

I am now just going to list a random assortment of true facts about Reign: The Conqueror.

Hephaestion, Alexander’s best friend and lover, is depicted as a ninja harpist.

The Macedonian phalanx, the military formation central to Alexander’s conquests, is depicted as some kind of cybernetic centipede.  Individual infantrymen form into phalanxes by combining Voltron-style.

Alexander’s final confrontation — the “boss fight” of the series, the absolute climax of drama and revelation — is a conversation with the otherworldly shade of Pythagoras.

In fact, the Pythagoreans are the main antagonists of the show.  They want to stop Alexander at all costs, and they put a lot of effort into doing so, mostly through use of their magical combat-geometry powers.  Later on, as Alexander moves east, we learn that they’re in cahoots with the Zoroastrian Magi and the Brahmins of India, forming some kind of ancient international Illuminati of math-oriented priests.

Most of the characters wear what I can describe only as “pantsless plate mail.”  It is possibly the most uncomfortable-looking variety of fetish gear that I have ever seen.

There is a much-coveted magical widget called the “Platohedron.”

Almost an entire episode takes place inside Diogenes’s barrel.

One character is subjected to the classic old “uncomfortably-close bladed pendulum” torture…except that, instead of lying under the pendulum, he is for some reason held spread-eagle by chains over an enormous rotating axe blade.

Darius III goes into battle on something that very much appears to be an Eldar grav-tank from Warhammer 40K.

*****

Also, one episode contains the following exchange:

STUDENT: “It can’t be you!  You’re…you’re dead!”

MASTER: “Don’t you understand?  This is my ghost.”

STUDENT: “That’s impossible!  There is no such thing as a ghost!”

MASTER: “Then how can you explain what you see before you, using the system of your science?”

…except that the Master is Plato, the Student is Aristotle, and instead of “ghost” you should read in “Form.”  And suddenly that last line becomes a lot more interesting.

*****

So yeah.  That’s the kind of thing you get in Reign.  If that’s not enough to sell you…well, you’re not very much like me.

In broader terms —

The visuals alone are worth the price of admission, even though they’re not so much “pretty” as “fascinatingly ugly.”  The world of Reign is some kind of surrealist Iron Age cyberpunk wonderland, where random things are super-high-tech, but in a bizarre organic way that doesn’t actually look like any technological aesthetic that’s ever existed.

The characterization, sadly, is mostly bland and generic.  Alexander’s various military companions (whom I really want to call “the members of his nakama”) are all kind of one-note, and you get the sense that only the author’s sense of shame is preventing them from being totally interchangeable.  Everyone else important — Aristotle, Darius, Philip, Olympias, etc. — is either (a) a stock character or (b) too distant and enigmatic for you to care very much about him as a person.  The big exception is Alexander himself, a complicated guy with a lot of thoughts about being a Leader of Men and a Figure of Destiny, which develop over the course of the show.  I should note that, if you’re expecting the jovially philosophical Alexander of Fate/zero, you’ll be thrown a bit — this King of Conquerors is strange and often broody, stretched taut by his need to encompass more than any one human can possibly be, alien and frightening as well as charmingly charismatic.

The plot is bugfuck nuts, but I’m of the opinion that it mostly works very well.  There are really two stories here — the military/political/adventure story of the great eastward conquest, which focuses on the “nakama,” and a murky metaphysical struggle involving Aristotle and Diogenes and the Pythagoreans and other in-the-know types — which are in fact deeply intertwined, but in a way that’s only accessible through the figure of Alexander.  This oddball construction has the effect of giving the viewer two parallel sets of feelings about the progress of Alexander’s ambitions.  On the one hand, it’s an exciting story of genuinely heroic accomplishment, and you do in fact feel excited for the heroes who are pulling it off.  On the other hand…the smart people, the people who are actually thinking about large-scale effects and consequences, are fucking terrified.  And they seem right to be.  It’s hard not to sympathize with the Pythagoreans and their allies, with all the people who think that something dreadful is brewing.  Alexander’s only dedicated supporter on the metaphysical side is his mother Olympias, a demonic snake cultist whose motives do not seem savory.  Aristotle is conflicted and ineffectual.  The conqueror himself grows increasingly hard and implacable, in a way that seems narrative-bound to lead to disaster.

And then we get to the end of the road, and the nature of everything is revealed, and the metaphysical plot — the plot that the show actually cares about — ties together in a curious but satisfying way.

The biggest problem (from my perspective) is that the “real” plot is, by the end, totally sacrificed to the metaphysical plot.  The story just kind of ends abruptly after Alexander’s last great military victory, because that’s where it makes sense to put the conceptual stinger, and the things that come afterwards don’t fit neatly into the show’s favorite themes.  But, given the power and pathos of Alexander’s true ending…his own men turning against him, his abandonment of the quest, his death of bored excess in Babylon…it feels dishonest to excise all that for the sake of theme.  Especially since it could have been worked into the plot in a coherent, meaningful way.

*****

Even so, I sincerely hope you go watch it.  It’s short — just thirteen episodes, each less than half an hour.  It’s easily findable.  And, as previously intimated, there is really nothing else like it.

[A hat tip to my beloved friend who introduced me to this show.  I’m not going to identify her in any way, because I don’t know a sufficiently-pseudonymous way to do so, but I owe her much for this and for all manner of other crazy media that I’ve consumed at her behest.]

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Media Review — Reign: the Conqueror

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