Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
Here we are again with this season’s variation on the trapped in the game genre (Or arrrrre they? Wink wink!). Ok, technically there’s also that God’s Blessing one and whatever Phantasy Star Online 2 is supposed to be once you get past the ps2-era cutscenes, but let’s happily ignore those.
If there’s any new show that has immediately impressed me with its world-building and presentation, this would be it. Whether in the gentle, watercolour backgrounds which evoke the feel of old sprite based rpgs like Secret of Mana, or in the conversations about classes and attributes, you can tell real thought has been put into trying to recreate the nostalgia and tropes of an adventure story. Many shows attempt this, but usually get bogged down in needlessly complicated battle menus or stat/buff wankery, so pleased by their own in-world jargon that little attention is given to how any of it works in a visual medium outside of long drawn out speeches and flashy effects. Grimgar on the other hand assumes you know the very basics and just lets your mind run wild with the specifics. I greatly appreciate the naturalistic approach; anything that isn’t Fate S–requisite inflammatory Type Moon bashing redacted.
On the other hand, the first episode didn’t really give me the sense that the plot would be presented significantly different than your typical adventure narrative, so I didn’t really get where people were coming from in claiming it would have a bolder approach. Sure, there were some nice little touches towards game-specific references, while the focus on creating your own pseudo-family in the vein of DanMachi was also apparent, but the characters on a whole felt a little rote and unwilling to stray far from their rudimentary class boundaries. The shouty, repetitive dialogue certainly didn’t help either. If anything I felt this was going to be a lighter and more simplistic take on the likes of SAO or Overlord.
In a sense episode two proves this to be true, with the general tone remaining roughly the same. However, it also starts to move into Madoka Magica territory, introducing a cast of characters typical to the genre, only to make the world far more difficult to navigate than their archetypes would normally be used to, slowly adding pressure until they start to break under the strain. Both also deal extremely well with the notion of consequences. In Madoka it was in how seemingly positive choices could lead to disastrous outcomes, while in Grimgar you see the reality of simple rpg tropes, in which the process of farming monsters and gaining wealth suddenly proves both a physical and mental challenge.
The attack on the lone goblin serve as the centrepiece of episode two and perfectly shows this rationale in action. Rather than the simple ‘two button clicks and dead’ visualisation of a game, we’re witness to a visceral and violent act of butchery as the cornered monster lashes out in blind desperation while the equally panicked hunters scramble and fall about, hesitant to land the killing blow as the reality of their actions is brought home. It’s not exploitative or indulgent in the way so-called ‘edgy’ shows relying on explicit blood and gore tend to be, with the shock and horror focused purely on the physical movements and expressions of everyone involved. When the deed is finally done every member of the cast appears less than what they were, retreating inwardly to help deal with the consequences of their actions. The world suddenly appears bleaker; where the joy of finally being able to buy delicious food turns into a monotonous act of distraction, while the starving hunters huddled in corners are suddenly noticeable behind the cheerful merchants. It isn’t a deconstruction just like Madoka wasn’t; both shows remain completely true to their genre, but by adding this element of cause and effect, every simple action comes with an attached burden.
The battle is obviously the lynchpin to the episode, but if anything the opening segment involving Haruhiro and Manata chatting in the early hours was even more powerful, feeling more like a natural conversation than an excuse to list traits and motivations. Both are clearly comfortable in one another’s presence, but they’re also strangers forced to live together, and so are trying to get a handle of who exactly they’re talking to. It’s very reminiscent of living with new roommates at a university or house share, where everyone is part of the same team, but lacking the shared histories or experiences to be totally at ease. The breather scenes after the fight are equally effective, showing how everyone deals with the aftermath, while also hinting at a few possible fracture points within the party as sides and relationship are formed.
So yeah, two episodes in and I’m extremely impressed by the way Grimgar is combining simplicity with substance. There’s still a few niggles here and there, such as pervert jokes coming across as school boy level humour (although that might be a deliberate point it’s building up to: at the very least it hasn’t currently become scandalous or gross in the way fantasy stories tend to go), but this has probably surpassed Rakugo in my eyes as the most impressive start to the season. I can’t wait for more.