The following article will feature spoilers for Legend of the Galactic Heroes (1984) and Death Note.
A strong rivalry has been a key component in many a story. Those of use who grew up playing Pokémon may well remember how those games set you up with an age-appropriate rival on the same quest as you, who’d pop up from time to time and present a beefier challenge than the random trainers met along the roads. We also all probably remember naming him something ridiculous or insulting for a laugh, because Assface might wipe your team when unexpectedly showing up, but he can’t stop you during character creation.
Many stories frame a rivalry as that between the series protagonist and his nemesis. I am tempted to list off some examples here, but where do you even start? Rivalries such as these have been in anime for decades and surpass the usual boundaries of demographics. Whether it’s long-running shounen, edgy anime for teens, beautiful shoujo series, or a mature seinen, chances are you’ll find plenty of shows that feature such iconic duos. I wouldn’t even dare try to make a top 10 of these, but I do know that Legend of the Galactic Heroes would rank at the top if I did.
Yang Wen-Li and Reinhard von Lohengramm are more than just two admirals on opposite sides of a conflict. They are more than just two people who are angry with each other and determined to take the other down. They are both sympathetic, well-developed characters that undergo a lot of personal growth throughout the story. They don’t even dislike each other; they are complete opposites in ideology, beliefs, personality, and ambitions, yet harbor mutual respect for one another, even as their respective paths lead them into conflict. A very mature angle for a rivalry.
Yang and Reinhard are also both the protagonists of this story even though they are on opposite sides of the conflict. Legend of the Galactic Heroes provides both these fantastic characters a roughly equal amount of screen-time and their stories and supporting cast are both excellent, giving viewers plenty of reasons to grow attached to them and care about their ambitions, even if those are wholly incompatible with one another.
This battle between two ideologically opposed geniuses might remind viewers of another anime darling: 2006’s Death Note. This anime gave us Light Yagami, a young man who is given a notebook that can kill anybody whose name is written into it, and the enigmatic detective “L” who is tasked with discovering his identity and bringing him in. Light wants to create a world without criminals and thus begins a fierce campaign of executing miscreants, which L and traditional law enforcement forces disapprove of. On top of that, Light’s morals begin to shift over time, and he uses the power of the Death Note to kill those who oppose him. Sacrifices for the greater good?
This is another such anime that had people picking sides and binging through episodes to see which of these two would claim the upper-hand. Their battles of wits are as intense as the space battles of Galactic Heroes, but one aspect in which Galactic Heroes most certainly outwitted Death Note is in how it handled the death of a main character.
Both Reinhard and Light Yagami ultimately outlive their rivals, albeit under different circumstances. Light finally claims the upper hand and kills L, whereas Reinhard is devastated to learn that Yang was assassinated by an extremist third party. Both stories also follow a similar thread where the deceased hero is replaced by a protegé of theirs, who carries on the fight all the way to a climactic finale. A thread that was well-received and cheered on for Galactic Heroes, while it left many feeling sour in the wake of Death Note.
The differences between Julian and Near can vary from person to person, but I personally felt that Julian stepping up to take Yang’s place was the better plot twist for the following reasons:
- Julian has always been there at Yang’s side. We were aware that he was being tutored and was a fervent believer in Yang’s world view, so it makes sense that he’d step up to complete his friend’s dream. Near isn’t introduced until after L’s death, after what feels like a conclusive ending to the story. As a result, it feels like a cheap twist that comes out of nowhere to prolong the story.
- Julian is inspired by Yang, but the characters are very different, whereas Near feels too much like L. It really takes away from the shock of killing your main character when you just introduce a new one that is so similar in mannerisms and appearance.
- Julian is just generally more likable. We have gotten to know him well throughout the story and he’s one of the better characters of the series, especially among the young’uns. Near and Mello are not without redeeming factors, but they set low first impressions and that doesn’t make it any easier for the audience to accept them as replacements for a character as beloved as L.
Either way, it takes serious balls to kill off one character in a rivalry like this and carry on. I can’t blame Death Note for stumbling in this regard, but I do hope future anime looking to create a similar dynamic between two characters take note of both series and learn from how they handled their excellent rivalries.