The Spring 2017 Manga Guide
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash Vol. 1
What's It About?
When Haruhiro opens his eyes, he's in a new world. He's not sure how he and eleven other people ended up in a tower in a medieval land, knowing nothing more than their own names – in fact, he can feel his memories slipping away from him. Haruhiro and his companions quickly learn that they've arrived in Grimgar, and that their only real option is to become volunteer soldiers, working for the town by killing the monsters that seek to overthrow humanity. Along with four other stragglers, Haruhiro is taken under the wing of Manato, the gentle, put-together young man willing to look out for the less fortunate of the group. Under Manato's guidance, Haruhiro, Yume, Moguzo, Ranta, and Shihoru all form a party and begin their new lives. But Grimgar is no bloodless, beautiful world, and the group must come to terms with the fact that their jobs involve actively killing creatures who don't want to die. Can they truly survive in this harsh new environment? Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is based on the light novels of the same name by Ao Jumonji. The novels are available in English digitally from J-Novel Club and in print from Seven Seas, and a 2014 anime adaptation is available on disc or streaming on both Funimation and Crunchyroll. The manga will be published in June by Yen Press and retails for $13.
Is It Worth Reading?
Manga about modern day teenagers getting transported to a swords-and-sorcery fantasy world are currently a dime a dozen. Grimgar really needs something unique to offer in order for it to be worth reading, and instead it dives headlong into generic, clichéd territory. Haruhiro's group consists of characters who are so standard, their names are hardly worth remembering. Big quiet guy, energetic girl, cool leader, shy girl, dull protagonist. Only loudmouthed, impulsive Ranta does anything to distinguish himself throughout the volume, and he's the lone source of funny or cool moments. Haruhiro is too busy thinking the least insightful things imaginable – a consequence of his being the main point-of-view character in the original light novel – to ever do anything except mope about how weak he is.
It's a testament to how by-the-book and predictable Grimgar is that you can tell where the story is going even when so little information is given to the characters or the reader. The ‘normal’ teens just show up with no memory of who they are, beyond their names, and are offered so little explanation as to why they should be taking the most dangerous career imaginable that it seems illogical for all of them to just go for it. Other careers pay next to nothing, they're told exactly once, so it makes much more sense to run off into the woods to try to make money hunting deadly goblins. Which seems like it should be a fiercely competitive market, given that anyone can pay a few pieces of silver to join a guild, which will teach you how to shoot fireballs, summon demons, or call on the healing power of a deity over the course of an apprenticeship that lasts a whole seven days. I understand that there's video game rpg logic at play here, but there's absolutely no acknowledgement from the cast about how bizarre this world is. Beyond Manato, the characters come off as aimless and easily controlled. How the characters arrived in the world, who they were before, and why their recruiters knew when and where to find them are all topics that Haruhiro and his friends barely even spend a moment wondering about.
To give the manga some credit, when it's not bogged down by its thin excuse for a setup, the combat scenes are decently done. The characters really feel as though they're buckling under the pressure of the desperate situation that they've been thrown into, and when things go south in the end of the volume, that pressure becomes appropriately overwhelming. It's a feeling that the story probably should've reached for all throughout, a sense of near hopelessness for these scared, confused young people with no idea of how they arrived in this world or how they could possibly survive in it. If nothing else, it would've given Grimgar a distinct identity, instead of just being a forgettable example of an increasingly swollen subgenre.
Although modern-world-young-adults-transported-to-fantasy-setting stories are a dime a dozen in anime, manga, and light novels these days, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash volume 1 has enough to make it one of the more memorable of the genres. First, there's the fact that there are multiple people (likely) transported from the real world, not just one perverted and/or bland young man who's like honey to the fantasy bishojo bees. Then there are the darker moments, like when a goblin the party attacks fights to the last breath, demonstrating just how badly it wants to live. The theme of how the average person might feel when tasked with attacking magical creatures makes the reader really think about the actual stakes that would be involved with the fantasy RPG-type life. This theme is especially relevant during last few pages, where the manga takes a dark, serious turn à la Game of Thrones. It lends a real sense of danger and stakes to the series despite the constant attempt at humor. “Attempt” is the key word, as there are few comedic (mostly fanservice) moments that haven't been done to death in other series, like a girl fondling another girl's boobs to “test” the size and a guy sneaking into a woman's bath to get a peek. Then there's the cross-dressing “jokes” at the expense of Britney, the chief of the Volunteer Corps Office that all of the expats join to earn a living.
For the most part, this volume is paced well and manages to take the cast from confused wanderers to fledgling warriors by the end. However, it still feels lacking because the characters don't remember anything about their lives before they woke up in Grimgar other than their names. Most of the characters come across as one-dimensional this early on in the series, and there are too many to keep track of, particularly before they split off into smaller parties.
Okubashi's art paints a vivid picture of Grimgar, particularly the forest scenes when the party engages in their first few battles. However, the gentle character designs (based on Eiri Shirai's original art for the light novels) don't quite fit in seamlessly with the fantasy setting—though that does punctuate that these are visitors to this fantasy land. Though some of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash volume 1 rings shallow, the darker moments make for a weightier and more worthwhile read than initially expected.
I am an omnivore when it comes to stories I like; I'll read the novel and the manga and watch the anime, and even play the game if I can. This manga marks the third iteration of Ao Jumonji's Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash that I've experienced, and thus far it is my least favorite. In part that's because I'm starting to feel like the character who dies is basically Batman's parents at this point because I've seen him die so many times, but also because this is the least innovative of the bunch.
While isekai stories are dime-a-dozen at the moment, Grimgar’s original novel (this manga volume covers about half of the first book) made an effort to base its world on something darker and grittier than many of its contemporaries. The anime took that a step farther by turning it into an exploration of mourning and grief. The manga, however, is much more rote. Rather than allowing Haruhiro any time to feel lost, it moves him right along into joining the Thieves’ Guild and then out into the field. It glosses over the basic personalities of Yume, Shihoru, and Moguzo in favor of pointing out Ranta's inescapable obnoxiousness and Manato's bland kindness, and while we hear Haruhiro tell us that he's lost, confused, and scared, we don't really see or feel it. Likewise we know most of the other characters through what Haruhiro tells us – there's no chance to experience it for ourselves.
Partly this is due to the fact that the manga feels very rushed. From an adaptation standpoint, scenes of Manato planning, the group exploring the town, or the introduction of the tavern are all eliminated in favor of reaching the major death at the end of the book. While I can appreciate that goal, because really, that's the pivotal moment for the story's first part, it also robs us of the chance to fully appreciate it when it happens. Cutting down on the amount of time the party spends in the ruined city also takes away from the moment – we need to really appreciate how much better they're getting before the rug gets ripped out from under everyone in order to truly get the impact of the event.
Artistically, there's a lot less fanservice than the manga, with only two scenes of note. (No one loves Yume's ass like the anime version.) Mutsumi Okubashi does a good job at making all of the characters look distinct in more than just their hairstyles and pays decent attention to each person's body language, which is nice. Unfortunately the anatomy and perspective is often not quite right (one scene of Yume jumping gives her what looks to be someone else's arm) and some of the faces Manato makes don't work. This could be deliberate, of course – he does say that he doesn't think he's as good as he's acting – but it still comes off as distracting in the moment. There's also an odd lack of backgrounds for a fantasy series, which doesn't help to ground us as readers.
On the whole, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash’s first manga volume feels like the story in its simplest form. It isn't bad, but it lacks the impact of the original novels and the pathos of the anime. While that could change going forward, I'm inclined to advise you to read the prose books instead.
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