And here we go with the final part of my Winter 2016 top picks countdown.
1. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
Writing these end-of-season posts, I’m beginning to see a recent trend of gravitating towards mood pieces over more narrative-heavy shows, preferring SNAFU S2 to Blood Blockade Battlefront and Sound Euphonium back in spring 2015, while summer saw me rate Non Non Biyori over School Live or Rokka (although with that ending…). Hell, the best anime I’ve seen so far this year is Mamoru Oshii’s 1985 ova Angel’s Egg and I barely have a clue what it was even about. This time around every objective bone I possess is telling me that Rakugo was easily the most impressive series to air in winter, and yet I’ve ultimately come down to preferring light novel adaptation about a group of kids stuck in a fantasy world. The apocalypse is here.
I’ve never made my general disinterest towards mmo-themed stories much of a secret, finding their reliance on super nerd wish-fulfilment, meta-humour and pedantry an unholy combination of dodgy tropes and tedious statistical wankery disguised as world-building. Overlord did occasionally deal with the social impact these types of games have on their audience while Log Horizon was more interested in managing the world itself, but neither particularly gelled with me beyond the most cursory of interest. Fortunately Grimgar isn’t so much interested in any of that than it is exploring how the cast react to both their environment and one other, an approach which helps set the tone once the first major plot twist occurs.
Those looking for flashy action set-pieces or a variety of locales may find themselves disappointed, with the majority of the season effectively covering the unskilled and disorganised new raiding party taking on low level enemies in an attempt to progress. What the show lacks in spectacle it makes up for in pure visceral desperation, with every move being a life or death gamble rather than an excuse to pull off stylish poses.
Episode two’s attack on the lone goblin is the epitome of this, with the six inept adventurers wearing down and bludgeoning their foe to death in a sustained and frenzied assault. This scene not only shows that Grimgar’s interest lies acknowledging the grind of a typical mmo adaptation as more than a collection of montage scenes, but that the focus is internally centred on the cast rather than the world in general. It isn’t so much concerned about telling a grand narrative about villains carrying out evil schemes than it is showing how people react to the situations they’re forced into. Whether you can handle this is an inherently personal question, although as someone who generally finds the Tolkien-esque good vs evil stories of most fantasy anime underwhelming or half-assed, I’m more than happy for a story to abandon its sense of scale in favour of emotional substance.
This issue is firmly brought to the forefront by the eventual tragic turn, at which point the tale morphs into, for lack of a better word, a healing show. I’m honestly loathed to use that descriptor due to its connotation with either tranquil slice of slice fluff (eg Tamayura) or mawkish tragedy porn (most definitely Ano Hana), but it’s an honest account of how the series progresses, with both the surviving core group and newcomer Mary dealing with their respective pain in varying ways. Grimgar excels in the quiet moments between dramatic beats, addressing the subject of forgiveness and letting go extremely gracefully (barring the slight overuse of music during a few key scenes), keeping the themes the core focus without marinating in them for cheap sympathy points.
The chief reason behind Grimgar’s success seems to be Ryosuke Nakamura, who in addition to directing the show, was also in charge of the sound, script and composition, effectively turning the adaptation into his own pet project. I can’t say I’ve seen any of his previous works, but despite only having a few previous directorial credits, his input in elevating the source material above what could be traditionally expected is obvious. Particular credit also needs to go to the luscious watercolour style character models and backgrounds, which bring to mind the feel of an old fashioned rpg world, in addition to several other renowned introspective shows from the past decade (Usagi Drop, Wandering Son).
Of course that’s not to say Grimgar gets a complete pass in every regard, with the first episode having a number of clunky conversations that might give the viewer the wrong impression as to what the show’s priorities are (enough of the friggin’ boob size conversations already, anime), while the fanservice, despite being infrequent and low-key, is poorly inserted and doesn’t mesh with the overall tone, often bringing me out of the moment. Occasionally it gets put to good use, such the off-screen attempt by Ranta to peep on the girls in episode two actually having ramifications beyond a cheap attempt at humour, with the follow episodes depicting them as more wary and uncomfortable around the guys, however mostly it just feels forced and out of place.
Additionally the cast, while generally likeable (bar Ranta) and possessing unique perspectives and attitudes, never completely escape the moulds of their archetypes, often feeling a little simplified. It’s basically the opposite of my issue with the cast in Rakugo, proving I’m impossible to please. We do get to spend a lot of time with these characters, but the focus towards internal debates takes forefront over active interests outside the raids. Also Shihoru and Moguzo generally aren’t up to much, although at least the former eventually manages to speak in complete sentences by the end rather than simply blush and mutter.
Overall though, these issues never really registered with me as anything but minor annoyances and had little impact with my appreciation of what the adaptation set out to achieve. Fans wanting a simple hack and slash adventure might be slightly put out, but for those interested in an contemplative drama that takes cues from series ranging from SNAFU to Haibane Renmei, Grimgar is definitely worth checking out.