Pile of Shame
Grandeek: The Alternative

by Justin Sevakis,

Grandeek: The Alternative

When visiting Japan, one of my favorite things to do is explore the DVD sections of every Book Off location I can find. Usually I can identify and easily dismiss pretty much everything on the shelf, but every once in a while I happen upon something that I have absolutely no idea what it is. The last time this happened, I believe I was in Ikebukuro, and the disc I stumbled across was a one-shot OAV called Grandeek. I knew absolutely nothing about it.

Grandeek is an odd duck. Produced by SPE Visual Works and animated by Animate Film and Group TAC, the show is written and directed by either a total newbie, or someone working under a pseudonym; the name 外山草 appears absolutely nowhere else in the anime world (I'm guessing it's read Sotoyama Shige, but who knows). Based on what was, at the time, a one-book graphic novel by Koihime Ohse, it's a fantasy story with some surprising weight to it, but seemingly zero budget. It's perplexing, but I like it, despite having some pretty major issues.

As one would expect, the show looks pretty rough, being not only low budget but also an early digipaint show. Garish colors, jerky camera movement, jaggy edges, and blurred out crappy 3D backgrounds are everywhere. Worse, the creators were clearly working with an incredibly low cel count restriction, forcing the show to take as many shortcuts as possible. Whole conversations are had where the camera keeps cutting to the same shot of whoever isn't talking, as that person sits motionless. A frustrating amount of action happens off-camera. Most anime resorts to these cheap tricks occasionally, but Grandeek knows no other mode.

Also problematic is the show's penchant for oblique storytelling and odd narration. The opening few minutes feature a girl (Tiia, one of the main characters) speaking to a disembodied voice in a way that SEEMS to be setting up the story, but the entire conversation is a riddle, requiring some amount of effort to parse into something understandable. With little context to go on, the entire setup for the show is more than a little hard to grasp.

Here's what I was able to piece together. In ye olde medieval times, swords have spirits attached to them, which not everyone can see. In a tiny island country that specializes in weapon crafting, a warrior girl named Tiia arrives in search of the legendary sword Aihorn, which is apparently on a quest to avenge its beloved old master, who was betrayed by the other islanders fifty years ago. As it's only a sword, it obviously can't go kill people on its own, but rather it will possess someone who picks it up.

A vigilante is dispatched to kill the woman who now wields the Aihorn, the master's fiancee, before she murders the few remaining islanders. This proves to be a challenge: the sword has unheard-of magical abilities, and the woman is already on a murder spree. People are dying left and right. And what of Tiia, who arrives with the unique ability to speak to spirits? Will she be able to let Aihorn rest in peace?

That's a LOT of story for a single 45-minute OAV. For better or worse, the show doesn't try to cram in all the details -- knowing that the OAV likely only had an audience of people already familiar with the manga, it foregoes exposition and instead aims for mood and emotion, and despite the visual limitations, it succeeds at this wildly. There is no sense of adventure to the proceedings in Grandeek, but only a sense of foreboding. Forget the sense of juvenile excitement that so often accompanies Tolkien fantasy worlds: people are getting killed by forces that are unpredictable and hard to understand. It's unsettling and scary.

This is in no small part due to the musical score by, of all people, Taku Iwasaki. Best known for his work in the Rurouni Kenshin OAVs; Now and Then, Here and There; and more recently Gatchaman Crowds, Black Butler and Katanagatari, here Iwasaki works his moody orchestral muscle to quiet but haunting, unsettling effect. It's very similar to his work on Rurouni Kenshin, and carries a similar sense of pain and loss. It singlehandedly renders the OAV much more emotionally effective than it would've been otherwise.

Not much of Grandeek's materials have been translated, but it appears that somebody somewhere had dreams of making the work into a franchise: aside from the OAV, a drama CD was also released. The original single volume of manga came out in 1998, only for it to get rebooted 7 years later in Ultra Jump Magazine as Grandeek ReeL. I haven't read any of these, so I can't tell where the overlaps occur, story-wise, but I can't shake the feeling that if I had, the show would be a whole lot easier to watch.

I could've used a much stronger narrative hand in Grandeek, but I was surprised by its sense of mood, its weightiness, and its sense of importance. It takes a lot of chances and is downright experimental in places. The experiments don't always work. The already sparse and choppy narrative jumps around, making things unnecessarily hard to follow. Ultimately it's a compelling work, even though it might be very deeply flawed.

But compelling doesn't necessarily mean "good." Grandeek has the makings of something good, but it's so hampered by its low budget and awkward storytelling that I can't really call it that. Its storytelling limitations, and its impossible-to-follow narrative really restricts the amount of enjoyment I was able to get out of this show, and with some real meat to its story so clearly visible, it feels like a huge waste. I'm sure there's a pretty decent 13-episode series to be made from the completed Grandeek saga, but this OAV serves merely as a hint as to what could have been.

Japanese Name: GRANDEEK ~外伝~ (Grandeek - Gaiden)

Media Type: One-shot OAV

Length: 45 min.

Vintage: 2000

Genres: Fantasy, drama

Availability (Japan): The Japanese DVD release of Grandeek is out of print, but is going for very cheap on the used market.

Availability (English): A fansub is all we've got.

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