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The single biggest problem with Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is that Grimgar is reaching for something beyond the creator’s artistic grasp.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it is after all better to try for something special than settle for being just another generic show.

This does mean that much of my interest lies in working out what Grimgar is trying for, where it falls short of the mark, and why it fails.

There will be major spoilers ahead.

The Setup

Episode 1 Whisper, Chant, Prayer, Awaken introduces the main characters locked in desperate combat with a couple of goblins. These are not powerful heroes by any stretch of the imagination.

A series of flashbacks establishes that the basic set up is more or less Log Horizon crossed with Haibane Renmei: Haruhiro (the thief), Yume (the hunter), Shihoru (the mage), Ranta (the dark knight), Moguzo (the fighter), and Manato (the priest and leader) don’t remember how they got to this world, or even who they really are.

With minimal funds they join their respective guilds, get basic training, and try to survive as essentially zeroth level characters in a nasty world as “trainee volunteer soldiers”[1].

The Look

Grimgar is a beautiful show to look at.

Here’s a few examples from episode 2 Long Day of the Trainee Volunteer Soldier.

Episode 2 Background

Episode 2 Background

First up is one of the city background shots. This is pretty typical of the standard of background art for Grimgar. It is richly realised, beautifully drawn, and that painted, almost pastel[2], feel is just lovely.

But there’s also a sense that the backgrounds are just out of focus; that the eye should be somewhere else.

That the viewer should be paying attention to something, or more precisely, someone else.

This puts the second screenshot of Ranta into context. The background still has that slightly out of focus look, but Ranta is in crisp focus, dealing with the sudden aftermath of a brutal fight: your eyes should be on him.

Ranta After Combat

Ranta After Combat

Similarly this other shot of Haruhiro trying to peel his hand off his dagger as his muscles lock in shock after the adrenaline drains away has that same focus: Haruhiro rather than the background.

I'd like to drop this now. Please?

I’d like to drop this now. Please?

Again there’s a reason for this, but there’s one other piece of the general Grimgar aesthetic that I need to discuss first.

The Pacing

The episodes of Grimgar can be appear to be rather oddly paced. Critical events like battles will be resolved quickly. Almost half of Long Day of the Trainee Volunteer Soldier is dedicated to the party relaxing and celebrating their first victory, complete with musical interlude.

Long Day of the Trainee Volunteer Soldier ends with a mostly heard but not seen[3] cliché of Ranta trying to spy on Yume and Shihoru in the bath. Haruhiro, Manato, and Moguzo try to stop him but wind up in the mess. This incident is basically less than a minute at the end of episode 2.

When I first saw that sequence I thought it was, essentially, a cheap shot and part of the unnecessary fanservice seen earlier.

Then I saw episode 3 Are Goblin Pouches Filled With Our Dreams? and it changed everything.

NOT HAPPY!

NOT HAPPY!

The bath incident reverberates through the entire episode. It has consequences.

Yume and Shihoru aren’t sure that they can trust the boys, and the better of the boys[4] are desperately trying to apologise, and make amends. All this whilst trying to tackle goblins to get enough money to eat and maybe buy some new underpants.

Grimgar Episode 3 Screenshot 2

Again this is putting the focus on the characters, on how they interact, on how they relate to each other.

The Focus

The key to appreciating Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is to understand what it’s trying to do, the type of story that Grimgar is trying to tell.

Grimgar is not about power, glory, riches, or going home, which are the usual forms that “winning” takes in a trapped in a game world setting.

Grimgar is about survival of the self. About how to remain who you are, or discover who you are, and to discover your friends along the way.

The party is formed out of desperation, but slowly starts to become a team, to become friends[5].

For the most part Grimgar is managing to tell that story, and it’s one I’m really enjoying when Grimgar gets it right. Now we come to the part where Grimgar stumbled and didn’t quite manage the effect it was aiming for, although I need to talk about some other examples to set the context first.

Handling Character Deaths and Other Key Events

Character deaths (or other traumatic events) need to be carefully handled to achieve the intended effect, particularly if the story is as heavily character focussed as Grimgar.

If there hasn’t been enough time to truly establish the connection to the character, then it needs to be suddenly, and sharply executed. The story has to use the shock, the surprise, to substitute for the emotional connection. For those that have seen it, episode 3 of Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a classic example of this: the shock value is what hammers Madoka, and by extension the viewer.

Alternatively a story needs to take the time to properly establish the rules of the universe, and connect the viewer to the characters. You have to have that emotional connection so that their reaction resonates. The best recent example of this is probably episode 9 Those Who Know Grief of Yuki Yuna is a Hero: Fu’s intense grief feels right and really kicks you in the guts.

The wrong way to do it is to send up death flags when the connection just hasn’t been established properly.

Manato

Which, unfortunately, brings us to the priest Manato and episode 4 Sky Dancing with Ash. Given the early focus on Haruhiro, Manato just didn’t get enough screen time to truly connect with.

His death was signalled in the trailer for Sky Dancing with Ash by a key screenshot at the end of Are Goblin Pouches Filled With Our Dreams?

Then there’s the conversation in Sky Dancing with Ash where Manato talks about how well things are going, and how everyone has a role to play in what is becoming a good party. Alas, Manato runs out of time as they have to move on to the next encounter, and doesn’t say anything about Haruhiro’s role.

At this point Haruhiro shrugs and thinks that he has all the time in the world to ask Manato what his role is.

Tempting Fate much?

This is unfortunately where Grimgar stumbles, at least for me. Manato’s death is too thoroughly telegraphed, with too little connection.

It means that the last half of Sky Dancing with Ash, and a large chunk of episode 5 Crying Doesn’t Mean You’re Weak. Enduring Doesn’t Mean You’re Strong loses its impact.

In essence, what you end up with is less Madoka Magica or YuYuYu and more The Pilot’s Love Song[6]. Hell, for that matter even KanColle handled a minor character death better[7].

That said, there is a lovely scene at the end of Crying etc when Haruhiro and Yume finally break down, talk to each other, and properly grieve for Manato. There is a switch from Haruhiro comforting Yume to Yume comforting Haruhiro that is just beautifully handled.

Moving On

Crying etc, and also episode 6 Her Circumstances have introduced a new priest, Mary, to take Manato’s place whilst Haruhiro is slowly stepping into the role of leader.

At this stage the pacing of Mary’s integration into the party indicates that she will be a permanent fixture, and that the theme of finding, or recovering, your self will be fully explored. Certainly the back story in the second half of Her Circumstances revealed that Mary has a long way to go, and that the party will have their work cut out to help her.

Other Bits and Pieces

There are some fanservice moments that some viewers will have problems with, even when they’re directly relevant to the plot. It isn’t too excessive, so I’m willing to let this slide.

A friend and I are also speculating about the horribly shy Shihoru[8], and specifically that Shihoru was physically altered when she was brought to the world of Grimgar. Her behaviour seems to indicate significant body image issues, specifically a belief that she’s fat, that don’t match the reactions of the other characters.

The idea we’re batting around is that Shihoru was overweight but lost the memory of that along with everything else, but not the underlying character traits. There’s no way to prove this either way, but it’s certainly making Shihoru a more interesting character.

There’s no real pairings in the group yet, although I’m starting to like Haruhiro and Yume as a couple, and an eventual Ranta / Mary pairing would be too funny for words.[9]

The Interim Verdict

Grimgar’s tightly focussed aesthetic really appeals to me.

The combination of the look, and the pacing, leading to that tight focus on characters and consequences is really quite novel. When it works, it’s fabulous. When it stumbles, as it did with Manato’s death, it’s frustrating to see Grimgar try so hard and fall just short.

That said, I’m still looking forward to the rest of the series, and will probably rate it fairly highly overall, especially if they can manage Mary’s integration and the inevitable Defrosting Ice Queen / Broken Bird [10] tropes correctly.

I recommend at least trying Grimgar, there’s a lot to like about what it’s trying to do.

[1] They are “volunteers” in the sense that they can fight or starve.

[2] Yes, yes, I know that pastel probably isn’t the right word here, but it carries the feeling that I get from the background work in Grimgar.

[3] It’s mostly off-screen, and effectively a Noodle Incident.

[4] In which number Ranta does not qualify. He’s essentially the Tarou of the season.

[5] Something that is sorely tested in Are Goblin Pouches Filled With Our Dreams?

[6] That’s a fairly harsh comparison to have to make.

[7] Also a harsh comparison to have to make.

[8] Who is often the target of the fanservice.

[9] Mary deserves better than that. Anyone deserves better than Ranta.

[10] Both tropes are thoroughly justified in this instance.