If any anime can be called an epic, Legend of the Galactic Heroes (LoGH) certainly qualifies. Not only is the story itself epic, the actual OAV series is the longest one ever, with over 100 installments. Be prepared to see massive space battles, not fought man-to-man or even mecha-to-mecha, but warship-to-warship, in the fully three-dimensional battlefield that only space can provide. Furthermore, get ready to experience rousing classical music, giving the huge battlefleet movements a dance-like quality as they position their guns and move in for the kill. The number of ships involved in these battles forces us to view only small parts of the fleet at a time, with the rest of the ships often represented merely as bright dots in the background of space. Yet, this is totally convincing, and one cannot help but to get a thrill as the battles progress, sort of like watching a fast-moving sports event where both players or teams are pitting their quick thinking and physical skills against each other. The best sci-fi battles I can think of which are similar to the battles in LoGH are the fleet battles portrayed in Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card and the Lensman series by E.E. Doc Smith.
However, LoGH is not merely a dance of ships amongst the stars, gracefully blowing each other away. More than that, it is a story about two men, geniuses at war -- and it is they who will shape the universe, either by intention or by circumstance. These two men are Yang Wenli of the Free Planets Alliance and Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Galactic Empire. Though they are master tacticians, both men are hindered in their efforts by the incompetence and corruption of their respective government and military structures, long decayed after a vastly prolonged interstellar war.
Yang and Reinhard, though linked by their genius, face totally different circumstances as military officers. Yang, an aspiring historian, was forced to become a soldier and has to deal with higher-ranking officers who will not listen to him, are more concerned with "total victories" than proper strategy, and are willing to sacrifice men to achieve their lofty goals, whereas Yang seeks to save men wherever possible.
Reinhard was a low noble until the Emperor took his sister as a concubine, immediately giving him status as an aristocrat. Many of the fleet officers of the Empire are aristocrats themselves. They resent Reinhard's rise through the military ranks, and they spread rumors that it was his sister's influence that garnered him special treatment, when, in fact, he is a remarkably capable commander who understands proper strategy and does not waste his men needlessly. Reinhard must prove himself as the man who would conquer all of known space. Luckily for the Free Planets Alliance, the reluctant soldier, Yang Wenli, was starting to make a name for himself at just about the same time Reinhard was.
In addition to these two men, there are other great heroes, as well as cowards, as you would expect in an epic story. The sheer number of secondary characters in LoGH makes it difficult to keep track of who's who at times, but you get used to it, and they often die off, so that's less people to remember.
LoGH consists of 4 series, making up a total of 110 episodes, plus special OAVs and two theatrically-released movies, the first being My Conquest is the Sea of Stars (1988). The movie is a perfect introduction to LoGH because it takes place just before the first episode of the OAV series. It also works well as a stand-alone feature, but if you enjoy the movie, you will definitely want to see the OAV series as well. LoGH was intended for an older Japanese audience who had the buying power to purchase the entire series, although video rental would be the choice of poor otaku like myself. On a side note, LoGH was based on a ten-novel series written by Yoshiki Tanaka, the author of the Arislan novels. LoGH also has a large female following. Supposedly, Tanaka single-handedly corrected the imbalance of males to females reading science fiction in Japan. Tanaka reportedly receives boxloads of chocolates every year on Valentine's Day from devoted fans. LoGH was directed by anime veteran Noboru Ishiguro, the president of Artland. Ishiguro has worked on Yamato, Megazone 23, and (along with Shouji Kawamori) is considered the driving force behind the original Macross series.
So set sail, and make sure you're never heard saying "Total (or complete) Victory!"
[12/16/04 Update: For further articles by Lawrence Eng, see his anime page.]