The Spring 2017 Anime Preview Guide
Grimoire of Zero
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Grimoire of Zero ?
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When people talk about "crappy light novel fantasy," they usually mean one of two things: isekai stories where some dork gets transported to a fantasy world full of cute girls or magic high school stories where some dork transfers to an academy full of cute girls. Of course, even if those two genres dominate most anime adaptations, there's another kind of fantasy light novel that seems to find far more cachet with critics. So in the spirit of Chaika the Coffin Princess and Spice and Wolf, this season gives us Grimoire of Zero, whose earthier take on fantasy is just different enough to be memorable but familiar enough to make for lackadaisical entertainment.
The other thing Grimoire shares with Chaika and S&W is an immediate focus on building chemistry between its little cast of magical misfits above all else. Apart from mediocre (but by no means poor) production values, the episode's only real stumbling point is a couple minutes of lore-dumping at the beginning and end. Those are the only moments where it starts to resemble "fantasy light novel" in a negative sense, because the dialogue otherwise is incredibly adorable. Zero mostly leads her tiger-man liege around by the nose with her bold, goal-driven personality, but Mercenary's refreshingly candid sad backstory and moments of vulnerability put Zero just off her guard enough to give them terrific chemistry from the first moment they meet. If those heartwarming early interactions between Lawrence&Holo or Chaika&Toru drew you into their stories, you should definitely check out Grimoire of Zero for more of that flavor.
While it's definitely a humble fantasy playing with familiar ideas from prejudice against beastmen to ideological differences between sorcery and magic, Grimoire of Zero sinks its hooks in early by keeping the focus entirely on the feelings and motivations of its central duo. I was surprised by how touching I found the moment where Mercenary tears up Zero's blood contract in favor of gently pressing his bloodied thumb against hers to seal their promise. I get the feeling this idea of quiet bonds of the heart being stronger than grand oaths of fealty will be echoed by the sorcery vs. magic thing, providing just enough thoughtful sweetness for me to anticipate more from this story. It's not going to set the otaku world on fire or anything, but if you loved Spice and Wolf or Chaika the Coffin Princess, Grimoire of Zero should be appointment viewing for you this season.
Grimoire of Zero is the second series I've previewed this season that I'd describe as a “fantasy road trip,” with Granblue Fantasy being the other. If you were to line their opening episodes up side by side, I'd say that Grimoire of Zero loses out when it comes to capturing the sweeping feeling of setting out on a grand adventure. On the other hand, it boasts a clear advantage when it comes to the chemistry between its main characters, and that's enough to give it the early lead over Granblue Fantasy in my book.
The two protagonists in Grimoire of Zero have been around longer and seen more than the average fresh-faced adventurer, and that works in their favor. Mercenary and Zero both feel like they have real personalities, balancing strengths and weaknesses in a way that makes them easy to like. Mercenary is easily flustered despite his street smarts, while Zero is smart and cunning despite her questionable social skills. Put them together and you get a dynamic that reminds me a little of Spice and Wolf, albeit with a fuzzy cat guy instead of a shape-shifting wolf girl. Their vastly different backgrounds also mean they can deliver some expository dialogue without completely breaking the atmosphere of the show.
The world building in this episode isn't quite as good as its initial character development. The premise of a religious authority cracking down on outsiders is nothing new, and it feels like the series is using that familiarity as an excuse to make the audience fill in a lot of the blanks. Mercenary's exact position within society is still a little foggy, as is Zero's relation to the witch uprising that's supposedly going on. The visuals aren't much to write home about either, and it's not surprising that this episode spends most of its time out in the dark and lonely forest instead of in an elaborate fantasy town. All the better to save on background art, my dear.
If Grimoire of Zero can sort out its setting in a more convincing manner, it should be able to expand on its relatively simple story along the way. I'm willing to give it some time to do that, as long as the chemistry between Zero and Mercenary remains strong. If you're more interested in the people who inhabit a fantasy world than in the world itself, this show's balance of priorities should work for you. With the characters supposedly headed out of the woods and into civilization, we might even get some of the big battles and eye-catching locations that are missing in action at the moment.
Grimoire of Zero takes the cake for exposition-stuffed dialogue this season, cramming way too much in way to little screen time. The episode opens with a narrative introducing us to a world plagued by witches and religious-fueled mobs, the latter now uprising against their oppressors. There's also some technical and semantic differences between “sorcery” and “magic,” both of which include demons in different respects but it was probably during Zero's rambling about the differences between the two that my eyes glazed over. I'm not allergic to world-building but when it becomes obvious that technicalities exist for nothing more than the sake of appearing nuanced that I start to mentally check out.
This isn't the only bit that episode gets hung up on. When Zero isn't describing the differences between sorcery and magic, she's explaining the origins of her beastly mercenary and how a tigerkin can result from two entirely human parents. Then there's also the explanation about a magic book and a guy named Thirteen and suddenly, the runtime is nearly over and that's a lot of conversation over soup. It sure would have been nice to spend more time in the world's setting instead of having it all spoon-fed to me.
I'm also at a loss as to whether the Mercenary's appearance is to the show's betterment or hindrance. On the one hand, he's supposed to be this intimidating guy that causes shock wherever he goes. In that scenario, I think his design fails to capture the scarier, animal-like features that would warrant that reaction. On the other hand, he's super cute in a Disney, snuggly kind of way. He definitely rouses up my latent need to pet all cats. I get the impression that the story calls for something in between the two but failed. It's not the show's only art-related problem, the characters aren't very expressive in general leading to a lot of flapping head moments.
Grimoire of Zero has all the makings to be a serviceable fantasy adventure, but it could certainly do with streamlining its narrative instead of bombarding the audience with world-building. Stick to your strengths, including more fuzzy lumpkin mercenaries.
Somewhere in the fantasy realm between Guin Saga and Spice and Wolf lies Grimoire of Zero. It resembles the former in that a feline-themed warrior falls into protecting what looks like a wayward girl and it somewhat resembles the latter in the personality dynamic developing between the two leads, where the female lead is the sly, knowledgeable, and powerful one running circles around the male lead. Since the female lead is a powerful witch and witches are actively being persecuted in the story, you could probably throw Maria the Virgin Witch into that mix, too.
And yet saying that this series is merely a blending of those other three doesn't feel quite accurate. Rather than there being a distinct power imbalance in the central relationship, this is much more a partnership of equals and complements. Sure, Zero's pairing of magical might and physical fragility is nicely counterbalanced by Mercenary's physical prowess and magical naïveté, but there's more to it than that. While Mercenary may be much more worldly, both are decidedly outsiders whom many would earnestly prefer to see dead, and that gives them an instant connection beyond just Zero's promise to turn him into a human. The personality dynamic forming between the two is already quite promising, and kudos to the writing for the first episode allowing ample time for that to develop. Especially nice was the scene were Zero explains that Mercenary smelling like a cellar to her is nostalgic to her, while it has entirely different and less pleasant meaning to Mercenary. The personalities on display so far are also involving, whether it's the smarmy arrogance of Zero (and how unperturbed she is by showing weaknesses like hunger) or Mercenary's mix of caution and irritation (the way he jumped behind a stump for cover when Zero started using sorcery was a nice touch).
The other attracting factor here is the plot twist at the end of the episode which suggests that Zero might be more than just an ordinary witch. The series certainly isn't going to sell itself on its visuals, as while it doesn't look horrible, neither is it one of White Fox's sharper-looking visual efforts. Still, first-time director Tetsuo Hirakawa is already showing a fair talent for constructing the story in an enticing fashion and getting crucial setting details across without much info-dumping. This may not end up being one of the season's best, but it definitely looks watchable.
The traditional fantasy series just keep stacking up this season. After the so-so Granblue Fantasy and the excellent Rage of Bahamut, we've now got the promising Grimoire of Zero as well.
Grimoire of Zero's first episode offers a variety of strong selling points. First off, the show's first protagonist, a beastman we know only as Mercenary, is a ton of fun to follow. Our beastman lead is expressive, endearing, and multifaceted, already expressing both a strong core personality and the emotional scars of growing up in a world that hates him. He's competent without coming across as arrogant, funny without drifting into buffoonish, and generally just a solid protagonist in all respects. A strong lead character is a great start.
Our other protagonist Zero the witch is a bit more conventional, but still has a reasonable personality that bounces off Mercenary well. More intriguing to me is the fundamental context for their relationship. I really liked how Mercenary's attitude towards Zero reflected the oppressive nature of their overall world. Shows about hated minorities are pretty common, but we more rarely get to see shows about how multiple classes who are each oppressed in their own way interact with each other. There's a tragic complexity to Mercenary's hatred of witches, and I'm hopeful the show will continue to explore that.
Unique selling points aside, this is also just a solid fantasy premiere in general. The episode moves quickly through both action scenes and character building, and flashbacks that give us context for Mercenary's feelings are integrated gracefully throughout. The animation isn't great, but the overall art design is quite solid, and the backgrounds often beautiful. Mercenary in particular is given a wide expressive range in spite of his lion head.
My only major point of reservation came near the end, where the show spent a few tedious minutes over-explaining the precise differences between sorcery and magic. But overall, this was a solid fantasy premiere with strong fundamentals and a couple of intriguing hooks. If you're looking for an adventure, I'd check it out.
Welcome to another fantasy world where witches are persecuted and beastmen are misunderstood. That's not necessarily a dig at this series – more like a statement that Grimoire of Zero is fairly classic in its fantasy world building, drawing inspiration from Medieval Europe's distrust of anything that could be termed “unnatural” while also hinting that this discomfort could be more the result of a powerful religious force than history. There's nothing that shows that better than the race of hero Mercenary – he's a “beastfallen,” a type of animal person born on occasion to human parents. Beastfallen are reviled in general and hunted for their high bounties, so Mercenary himself seems to be living life on the run, although we're not sure yet how he went from being a mercenary to his present position of “fugitive.” Possibly he was in a different kingdom? In any event, when he meets up with a young witch calling herself Zero, she tells him that not only can she see his human face underneath his beast one, but she also calls him a “beastleaven,” which has a much more positive meaning. (“Leaven” as a verb simply means to permeate something to cause change, while as a noun it has a connotation of rising.) Zero tells him that beastleavens were created by witches to help out in battle; presumably they then went on to have kids and the “leaven” in their blood pops up now and then in their descendants like any other recessive gene. This is a major indication that the persecution of witches (and beastfallen) is relatively new in a historic sense, and perhaps that someone has been hiding some history books.
As far as introductory stories go, this one is a little mixed. While we do get a good sense of what Mercenary has been through, there's not a lot of emotional heft to it yet, possibly because the animation doesn't do a terrific job at showing emotions on his face. (Using his ears more would help.) There's a definite idea that he isn't as old as he looks while Zero isn't as young as she seems, which makes some of her racier comments a little more palatable, but beyond that we don't really have much to go on as far as their personalities go. Interestingly enough, Mercenary is going to have to overcome prejudices about witches while Zero harbors no such issues about beastfallen; either she's never been hunted like he has or she just knows so much more than the average joe that she can see through the cultural garbage. That should become more clear now that the young (male) witch who was hunting Mercenary, Albus, seems to have joined their party.
Apart from the fact that Albus looks completely anachronistic – seriously, I think he's wearing a sweatsuit – the most striking thing about him is his name. “Mercenary” isn't actually the beastfallen's given name; Zero simply refuses to hear what that real name is. This is drawn from an old folk belief that a person's name has power, and someone who knows your true name can use that power to curse you or otherwise force you to do something you don't want to. Zero (also not her name) doesn't want that power over Mercenary, which could indicate that she is sincere in her offer to help him if he helps her. Names aside, she really doesn't hold much back, explaining not only the beastleavens' history but also the difference between sorcery and magic, which you'd think would be a more closely guarded secret.
Despite not looking great, I'm kind of fascinated by Grimoire of Zero. The magic system looks interesting, the world has a history that I'd like to know more about, and I like the use of the old folk belief about names. I'm less sold on the art and animation (let's just say that Mercenary is no Guin) and I'm not getting a lot of emoting out of the voices either, but the story's interesting enough to make this worth a couple more episodes.
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