The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
How would you rate episode 1 of
Grimgar, Ashes and Illusions ?
What is this?
"Awaken!" At the sound of this call, Haruhiro and a bunch of other strange kids awoke to find their memories missing in the quiet town of Ortana, within the world of Grimgar. Before they had any time to panic, a suspicious-looking officer of the "Borderland Brigade" informed them that they would be the organization's newest recruits if they wanted to not only uncover the mysteries behind their memory loss, but also make enough coin to earn a decent meal. Left on his own to find a guild and learn a useful trade for combat, Haruhiro became a thief and joined a few other misfits to try and survive. Moguzo the warrior, Ranta the dark knight, Yume the hunter, Shihoru the magician, and Manato the priest aren't the strongest party members around, though. In fact, their awkward group can barely manage to escape from Grimgar's weakest breed of goblins. Life in this fantasy kingdom is a desperate bid for survival, not some silly game, but every once in a while, Haruhiro feels like maybe it was a game that he somehow forgot about. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is based on a series of light novels and can be found streaming on Funimation, Sundays at 11:30 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
To put all my biases on the table here, if there's one genre I almost never get tired of, it's where people from our reality get transported to a fantasy realm. With that said, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash's first episode is something of a mixed bag. The premise, hackneyed though it may be at this point in anime history, is very appealing, and the backgrounds and color scheme are gorgeous. Everything that doesn't move looks as if it has been painted in watercolors, and that fits the with almost classical music that forms the soundtrack, sort of fantasy-folk music and very atmospheric. It's almost worth watching for that, even if the plot doesn't sound like your thing.
In many ways, this is similar to the YA novel User Unfriendly by Vivian Vande Velde, albeit without the game conceit, or so it appears at this point. The characters are thrown into what essentially feels like an RPG of the Forgotten Realms variety with no memories of their previous lives, though it is obvious from their clothes and some vocabulary that they no longer understand that they're modern Japanese teens. It also seems highly plausible that they've been brought to Grimgar via game, as the speech made by Bri (an unfortunately stereotypical transvestite) sounds suspiciously like a scripted tavern speech. Regardless, one of the more appealing aspects of this episode is that none of the characters have any skill whatsoever in this fantasy world – no magical ability to kick ass has materialized for them, so they have to start at the beginning. In fact, the episode opens with them all doing a miserable job of fighting goblins, and this may be my favorite scene in the whole episode, largely because we never see it. Even in a show like Log Horizon, which this also feels similar to, we don't see anyone struggling at the absolute base level where they're picking their class and slowly mastering skills, making Grimgar stand out from its genre brethren. It helps to make the characters more human, although none of them are particularly relatable at this point. The closest we come on that front is the quiet and anxious Shihoru, who clearly suffers from low self-esteem at best. Yume, the other girl on the team we're following, also makes a comment about how she always eats quickly, which could imply something about her previous life, while Ranta just comes off as an overconfident jackass...again, possibly saying something about what his life was like before. No one else is standing out as yet, though Manato's choice of the priest class is very unsurprising given the way he holds everyone together, and one of this episode's flaws is not giving us a very good grasp on Haruhiro, the nominal protagonist.
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is probably a show I'd keep watching regardless (see aforementioned bias), but even if I take my blinders off, I do think that this has potential. It has a tendency to actually sound as if the characters are reading from the original light novels rather than acting like people, but there's still enough here to make it worth giving a chance.
Rating: 4 (2.5 for story, 5+ for style)
After watching the premieres of both shows one after the other, I think Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash and Dimension W are accidental opposites. Where Dimension W weakens its strong material with unsteady execution, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash has those strengths and weaknesses flipped.
The amount of story in Grimgar's first episode is so slight you could probably fit it in a ten-second blurb before the show's opening theme. After the dirt-simple premise is established, long periods of time are spent on lackadaisical conversations between the characters in service of very little, and the episode ends with our heroes in the same place they started: hungry, confused, and not getting along too great. We get to know everyone a little better, but they're all just chill kids sharing the same motivation, so the end result is a featherweight plot that feels like it hasn't really started yet.
But I was basically enthralled from start to finish, because the entire non-adventure had some of the most exceptional, lifelike, and meticulous character animation I have ever seen in a TV anime. Every single character has a distinct body type and physical mannerisms from all the others, something you don't realize is so rare in anime until you see Grimgar where everyone moves so differently and has such unique little postures and gestures to accompany every line they deliver. It is true that exceptional character animation can give more life to characters even when a script is lacking, just like an amazing live-action performance can elevate a lesser role. It's just that I almost never see character animation of that caliber in TV-budget anime, but the attention to detail, sensory immersion, and subtle expressions in Grimgar are just that good. Other critics have already made note of the incredible painted backgrounds in this show, so I won't go on and on about them, but every aspect of this anime's visual aesthetic is just outstanding, and it really makes me want to check out more of director Ryosuke Nakamura's work. (Apparently he was an insanely talented Studio Madhouse veteran who's just been off the radar for a while, but I hope this means he's getting more work now.)
So if the story is disposable but the production work is astounding, should you check out Grimgar or not? Well, I think if you enjoyed Log Horizon, you should definitely be watching Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, because it echoes that show's low-key charms while looking drop-dead gorgeous. One of the biggest pitfalls for me in the rapidly expanding "you're inside the RPG!" genre is how blandly video-gamey the actual experience for the trapped players tends to be. Characters in Sword Art Online, Overlord, or Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? talk about HP and stats using the kind of placid, explanatory tone you would hear from nerds tapping away at their keyboards during a LAN party, which takes all the wonder and fear out of the premise for me and makes it feel synthetic and calculated instead. (And Girls in a Dungeon wasn't even supposed to be inside a game! But it still felt like characters were rolling a die for results instead of learning how to swing a sword through their own blood, sweat, and tears.) Just like Log Horizon, Grimgar makes the wonder and fear of navigating a living video game world feel tangible and relatable, so even though not much has happened yet, I appreciate the story's desire to immerse us in the way its world would look, feel, smell, and sound.
If you're still intrigued by the possibilities of a "trapped in a game world" story, but want a more earthy and human take on the idea, Grimgar might be right up your alley. Just don't expect any heart-pounding thrills and maybe set an alarm if its atmosphere manages to lull you to sleep.
I really thought we were going to make it a whole season without a “trapped in the game” fantasy series. If you aren't tired of it yet, here comes Grimgar with its amnesia-stricken kids thrust into a Final Fantasy Tactics-like scenario. Each member fills one of the staple role-playing party roles and equally sucks at it. This particular choice illustrates that there really is a happy medium in a fantasy series between having a character be immediately awesome at everything (Kirito) and flail miserably at defeating a goblin. An audience wants to watch a hero struggle, celebrate small victories, and grow. Watching a group of six barely succeed at defeating a single, small-time monster is just frustrating.
When the characters aren't failing at earning a living, the writers attempt to build a sense of group dynamic and camaraderie between Haruhiro and his party. There are plenty of topics for the show's writers to choose from, be it differences between each members’ class skills, adjusting to this new world, or the really obvious questions about where they came from and why they each keep having a sense of de ja vu. Color me shocked when instead the focus is Shihoru and Yume's breast sizes and weight. One scene that far outstays its welcome devolves into Ranta explaining to Shihoru that other girls won't like her because he thinks she's feigning concern over her weight. Yume breaks up the situation and comforts her with yuri fanservice teasing. The entire scene is eyeroll inducing.
In the midst of the show's many info dumps (this is a light novel adaptation, after all), one is spoken by a stereotypically threatening gay tavern owner named “Brittany.” The characters are rambling on about purchasing coin-like badges to earn money and move up as mercenaries but the technicalities hardly seem important. Instead, I caught myself focusing on the show's beautiful background artwork. This is the show's strongest trait and I would, without fail, fork out the money for the show's artbooks. Each setting is illustrated in beautiful watercolor, whether it's a village still asleep in the early morning hours or grey, rocky cliffs dotted with scraggly underbrush. Unfortunately, Grimgar wasn't created with the intention of turning subtitles off and muting it.
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash suffers from dialogue that's either bland or juvenile and a premise that has become all too familiar in the last five years. Not even the looming reveal of the truth and gorgeous backgrounds are enough to make this show worth sticking through.
With the new year comes the new “trapped in a videogame” anime, one in a long and uneven line of such shows. At this point, the subgenre is established enough that you have to immediately ask what each new show brings to the table, and in Grimgar's case, it seems like the answer is “it's really, really pretty.”
Grimgar is just a beautiful show, from its overall art design through its lovely character animation. The backgrounds are the first and most obvious standout, a strength that was clear even in the first previews. They come across like loosely sketched drawings painted over in beautiful watercolors, full of rough personality and each possessing a distinctive and well-chosen color palette. The character designs integrate smoothly with these backgrounds, but more impressive than their base design is the buffet of character animation used to bring them to life. Even in the episode's first battle scene, animation often expresses personality more than action, and later scenes of the cast cooking meals and discussing their fortunes are elevated through endless tiny details of character acting. Grimgar's characters feel like they actually possess real bodies, and thus are constantly fidgeting, shifting expressions, and generally engaging in all kinds of tiny visual acts that make them feel alive.
It's very good that Grimgar looks so nice, because this first episode doesn't really give you much else to hold onto. Grimgar's pacing is extremely slow so far, and this episode basically just introduces the premise - an MMO world where the characters don't realize they're in an MMO, and are thus stuck grinding monsters for cash without ever knowing anything else. Instead of narrative hooks, this episode mainly offers long, languorous scenes of the characters fiddling around and slowly being lectured about the rules of this world. I initially appreciated the way the slow pacing created a sense of atmosphere and space, but by the time the episode got to indulging in boob size jokes at that same glacial pace, I'd somewhat cooled on the tempo.
But the fact that this episode is so slow also makes its potential quality something of an open question. We're still just beginning to learn about this world, and pacing aside, the kind of storytelling presented here actually does find a worthwhile position in a crowded genre space. Grimgar feels more slice of life than most MMO shows, with an emphasis on how the characters live and engage with each other on a day-to-day basis. That could ultimately make it a pretty enjoyable show, and its aesthetic strengths are undeniable, but it's not there yet.
Review: Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash seems to be this season's installment of the “teenagers trapped in a game/fantasy world” scenario, but it is a very, very different take on that well-worn gimmick, enough so that it's worth a look even if you're tired of such stories. In this case the youths don't even remember that they are from a different, world – or, for that matter, anything beyond their names about who they were before they all woke up together in the fantasy setting of Grimgar – though them having woken up in modern-day street clothes and their propensity to occasionally mention things like “cell phones” that they no longer recognize indicates to viewers, at least, that they have somehow been transported here from a modern-day setting. Hence their origin into this setting is and underlying mystery rather than a starting point.
The even more unusual aspect is that none of the group of four boys and two girls that the series is apparently going to focus on are special. In fact, they're the lowest of the low, the weak leftovers from the original group of a dozen, who after a week's training in their chosen skill areas cannot even defeat a pair of goblins (the weakest monsters in the area). By the end of the episode that is putting the group in serious jeopardy of not even being able to support themselves. That peril is definitely not played for comedy value, either; in fact, the sense that the whole group is in real trouble. This is not a tale about heroism (at least not at this stage), but base survival, and that is something that series like these hardly ever do because it's not flashy or fun enough. However, this first episode actually makes it intriguing.
One of the keys to the episode working is the musical score, which remains understated when present at all, and the way it actually complements background art done in water colors. The net effect curtails the sense of grand adventure these kind of series are normally built upon and gives it the grounding necessary for its mostly-subdued tone to work. Contrasting that are sharp character designs and a pretty good animation effort, one which fully conveys how uncertain and underskilled the characters are. The first episode's two concessions to typical anime fantasy are the styling of the clothes worn once they take on their fantasy roles and some mild bits of fan service; the lady who trains narrator Haruhiro as a Thief is quite well-built and not shy about showing it, for instance, and one late conversation involves the Sorceress's ample breast size, something which she is very clearly not comfortable having acknowledged and for reasons apparently beyond just being embarrassed; that she tries to pass it off as her being fat (when she's clearly not) is indicative of a bigger issue.
That conversation goes on much longer than it needed to, but the only other significant flaw to the first episode is the clumsy way it handles portraying the personality of the talkative boy; his dialog a bit too often feels forced. Otherwise this is an intriguing start, one which gives hope that it will not go down well-trod paths. That's enough to get me enthusiastic about it.
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