The Winter 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Record of Grancrest War
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Record of Grancrest War ?
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How was the first episode?
Record of Grancrest War is a good reminder of how important storyboarding and direction can be to an anime's pacing. While this isn't the most generic fantasy-light-novel premise I've seen dragged out to the small screen (it leans slightly more on D&D cliches than magic high school ones), it's pretty high up there. Record of Lodoss War is often seen as the forebear of Tolkien-tabletop-style anime, but that's kind of a nice way of saying it's extremely dated and formulaic; people mostly remember the really well-animated parts of the OVAs and numerous cosplays of Deedlit. So I got exactly what I was expecting from creator Ryo Mizuno's more modern effort at RPG derring-do: blocks upon blocks of monologues about fantasy world quests and politicking that might briefly hold your interest before you realize you've heard all this nonsense before in dozens of other fantasy campaigns.
What I wasn't expecting was the episode's breezy editing, some nice touches of character animation, and a dynamic shift in eye-catching angles on each scene to put us firmly in the action and emotion of the moment (even if we weren't being given much of those to work with). My point is that director Mamoru Hatakeyama is definitely trying, never content to let all the proper names and expositional screeds just sit onscreen without trying to draw your eye to the most interesting thing in the frame without overdoing it into SHAFT-esque stylistic excess either. I guess "subtle" is the word for it? It's not direction that calls attention to itself, it's just brisk and thoughtful enough to keep a very boring story from being boring to watch. The way all these fantasy monologues were paired with a specific choice of shot, whether it was establishing a setting, emphasizing a sense of distance and distrust between parties before closing it on important lines of dialogue, or cutting sharply on the sound of a giant hissing spider to drive home what the "Chaos" our heroes are so concerned about looks like in terms of real-world threats. This sounds like a bunch of simple stuff, but so many anime get them wrong, and to its credit, this episode was never telling its story on autopilot, even if I'm not sure that story is worth telling.
Basically, if you have significant patience for D&D fantasy war stuff, you'll probably appreciate the care being taken with the storyboarding on this one. (The animation is okay. There's some nice cuts in there, but they're fleeting, which doesn't bode well for the long run.) If you don't normally go for this sort of thing though, the staff's admirable efforts won't be enough to save this generic material. My hat's off to you, Hatakeyama-san and crew! At least you're trying.
Today has not been a good day for me and anime. After seeing one of my favorite directors Masaaki Yuasa work on material I pretty much can't enjoy, followed by one of my favorite mangaka Junji Ito adapted into a series that drains his work of all its power, I'm finishing up with a boilerplate light novel adaptation directed by Shinichi Omata, the guy who was one year ago dazzling us with Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. Please anime, try and arrange your material-staff pairings in a way that offers me at least a little joy.
All right, that may not be entirely fair to Record of Grancrest War. The show certainly doesn't start off on a strong foot, though - its first major sequence is basically a series of Proper Noun Soups intermixed with incoherent action, as a botched wedding reignites a war between two fantasy kingdoms. We're treated to choice lines like “no way… Chaos Convergence” and “the archduke's seal! It has such a massive, complex glow!”, basically confirming for me that we're starting in bargain bin light novel land (in spite of this author's Record of Lodoss War pedigree). The scene possesses no meaningful tension, the characters act as they're being prodded from behind to speak their lines, and the overall sequence seemed more concerned with establishing meaningless worldbuilding variables than actually giving us a reason to watch.
The rest of the episode didn't exactly stomp out that uncharitable assessment, and the heroine Siluca's belly shirt-slash-miniskirt “uniform” made it hard to take the following events seriously, but it was at least decently paced and appealingly executed. There are some reasonably animated action highlights throughout this episode, and the direction is indeed a cut above par, though nowhere near the level of Rakugo. Storywise, the biggest issue here is that this world feels very transparently like a half-cooked worldbuilding exercise based on videogame logic. “Lords” literally power up their Crests to gain levels, acquiring the ability to partner with more Mages along the way. At the end of this episode, new Lord Theo drains a competing Lord's Crest and then just adopts his kingdom, because apparently beating bosses in this world gives you all their cool stuff. All of the underlying variables of this world work to undercut any feeling that this is a place that could actually exist.
But bad writing is almost a given in the fantasy light novel subgenre, and this one at least possesses characters who've already established vague personalities. Perhaps my favorite element of this show's writing was how Siluca's brash, commanding nature seemed to inherently and intentionally undercut the expected nature of the master/mage relationship. It might be interesting to see how her and Theo's relationship develops, but everything else here was just too poor for me to really stick with. If you're looking for a standard fantasy adventure, this one seems a little below par, but still passable. Otherwise, you're not missing much.
Is Record of Grancrest War more Record of Lodoss War or Chaos Dragon? I think the answer is somewhere in between. The story starts out at very weird pace during a royal wedding that turns bloody when a demonic entity is summoned for no real understandable reason, and slaughters both heads of opposing royal states. This ends any chance at peace and seems to jade our mage protagonist Siluca. The latter half of the episode is a sequence of conveniences that levels up the knight she browbeats into a contract.
It's kind of dull with the exception of some dynamically animated fight sequences between Theo (the knight) and a two-headed Cerberus. I couldn't really care much for the world building that was shoe-horned in. Like a lot of series set in other worlds, sometimes less is more. The technical babble about Crests and contracts seems directly translated from the paper and pen role-playing sessions and while this information would be useful to someone playing the RPG, the “at this level you get THIS many mages” needs reworked for a visual medium.
Siluca though, is a treat. Her dynamic with Theo is enough to stir things up enough to keep me interested. The show could have very easily gone the harem route, what with Theo upgrading his crest and adding new mage girls in semi-skimpy outfits to his entourage, but I'm not entirely convinced Theo is the show's main character. It's made clear that Siluca is pulling most of the strings, strategically, and Theo is more of a vessel for her to manipulate. The fact that they have matching goals is just a bonus.
I'm cautiously hoping the show moves into a more engaging direction after this set-up episode. It looks crisp and the battle sequences were fun. To cap it off, the ending animation suggests we're going to see more of estranged royals for some demon-fueled politicking. I'd give this one at least another two episodes to see where it's heading.
Though we had series involving fantasy RPGs over the past couple of seasons, this is the first RPG-influenced high fantasy series we've had that isn't also an isekai series since the Spring 2017 season. The result is a very traditional-looking and feeling take on the genre, one which has a similar vibe to recent fare like Tales of Zestiria the X and Chain Chronicle or older titles like Tales of Phantasia the Animation. If you found series like those to be to your tastes then this one probably will be, too. And if the title sounds suspiciously like Record of Lodoss War, well, it does have the same original creator.
This one offers a potentially intriguing twist on a very standard set-up, though: a distinctly different base power dynamic than normal. Even though Alisha from Tales of Zestiria was a fairly strong character as the female co-protagonist, she still ultimately let her male co-star take the lead. That doesn't look like that will be the case here. In fact, even though Siluca is contracting with Theo, which thus technically makes him the master, every indication so far is that she is going to be the one controlling the relationship and hapless Theo is just going to get pushed along at her whim. Depending on how cynically you want to look at the situation, Siluca could just be opting for the more dashing young guy over the perverted Lord she was going to contract with, but her character more suggests that she's found in Theo a horse she can ride (proverbially speaking) and thus work the system through him. Whether or not her motives are anywhere near as altruistic as Theo's remains to be seen, but her sharp wit and clearly-strong magical ability already shows that she's a forced to be reckoned with. I almost pity Theo but will absolutely follow this series just to see what she does. Theo, by comparison, is as bland as can be so far.
The look of the series so far is a very standard one for fantasy RPG adaptations, with Siluca getting a sexy-but-not-distractingly-so outfit; I do have to wonder about the harness on her back, though, which seems designed to hold a hood in place and absolutely should not be able to be hidden under the cloak she wears at first. (Magic, I guess.) Coloring is sharp, as are some of the shot selections, and the animation – even including the CG effects – is a slight grade above the norm in the action scenes. A strong musical score is also promising.
Interestingly, this series is being directed by Mamoru Hatakeyama, the same man who helmed the much-lauded Showa Genroku Rekugo Shinju franchise. That's a pretty big departure in storytelling style from this, but at least we know that he's competent. I will be curious to see what he can do with fare like this.
Would a Parn by any other name have the same overdeveloped sense of justice and ambition that got the first hero in trouble? According to Record of Grancrest War, from the same author as Record of Lodoss War, the answer is unequivocally yes. That's not to say that this is a carbon copy of Ryo Mizuno's earlier success – at this point the most striking similarity is between Lodoss’ Parn and Grancrest’s Theo, who are cut from the same would-be hero cloth. In terms of D & D-inspired fantasy, that's not terribly unusual; after all heroes we want to root for have to come from somewhere. Theo's come from a town with a major Chaos problem, “Chaos” being the in-world name for demonic power. He's a self-taught Crest wielder, meaning that rather than being granted a magical sigil to help him fight, he made his himself – no mean feat, judging from presumable heroine Siluca's reaction to the news. Theo's got goals to rid the world of Chaos and more specifically to save his hometown, and he's had the misfortune to run into Siluca in an ill-advised attempt to save her from thugs, a mistake that's going to cost him.
That's because Siluca is nothing if not ambitious. She's clearly smarting from having failed to stop the assassination of two formerly warring archdukes at the hands of a demon, and sees Theo as a way to make up for that failure. Whether she sees the deaths of the archdukes (who, let's face it, were doomed from the moment they were “archdukes” in a show with “war” in the title) as being her fault or the faults of those who wouldn't listen to her, she's obviously someone with a lot of pride in both her skills and her judgement, and one who does not take kindly to being questioned. Essentially she bullies Theo into forming a contract with her once she gets him up to her standards, and the poor guy seems to be envisioning a future controlled by Siluca's whims.
Hopefully this dynamic will iron out somewhat as the story progresses, because it's not a whole lot of fun to watch someone get dragged around by his nose. Theo's made it clear from the moment Siluca refused to thank him that he doesn't like her, and at this point he seems to be going along with her because he's not sure what else to do. Siluca, meanwhile, is treating him like her perfect patsy, assuming that he's going to keep on doing as she says. It's a relationship that badly needs to change, and presumably will as the characters get to know each other better.
That's what this series is hinging on – the world building is set to be clear and interesting, the fantasy landscapes are lovely, and if Siluca's ridiculously attached cape has the potential to carry her off in the first stiff breeze, at least there's some creativity at play in the character designs. But if Siluca and Theo (and possibly Irvin) can't develop a better relationship, this could get annoying really fast. It'll be worth a few episodes to find out.
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