by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 1 of
How would you rate episode 2 of
How would you rate episode 3 of
It's always nice to get a pleasant surprise. Most of the highly-anticipated anime in this packed summer season were based on well-regarded source material, so they got a lot of built-in hype coming in. Granbelm seemingly caught everyone off-guard as an original project from a relatively low-key studio, which delivered an entertainingly original mix of elements that was a load of fun to watch. The first episode of this series deftly blends magical girls with mecha in a big blow-out fight that caught my attention right out of the gate, but it was the second episode that cemented Granbelm for me as a show that shouldn't be slept on.
I'm kind of a sucker for when a story's central themes mirror its own existence on a meta level. In the case of Granbelm, the themes espoused in the second episode are rooted in main heroine Mangetsu's feeling that she is nothing special, yearning to distinguish and prove herself any way she can. This kind of character motivation is par for the course in anime storytelling, appearing typical on the surface is also why Granbelm's strong execution caught many viewers off-guard. Its magical-girl battle-royale premise is immediately comparable to any number of Madoka-derivatives that have come and gone in recent years. The mecha elements are an interesting addition, but that genre is also hardly new ground for the medium. And thus far, the story of the inexperienced Mangetsu falling into conflict to be mentored by the more experienced and stoic Shingetsu follows the beats we expect from this kind of story. Even the villains fit into expectations, with the haughty Anna Fugo feeling like exactly the kind of starter enemy our heroes should prove themselves against at the beginning.
But even as she's lamenting her lack of specialness in the second episode, it's immediately apparent to the audience that Mangetsu actually has more going on than she gives herself credit for. And similarly, there's obviously more to Granbelm than its familiar foundational concepts. Sure, we've all seen mecha, but the magical suits of armor known as ARMANOX opt for an atypical chibified look that sets them apart, while they still move and fight in hard-hitting ways. A lot of these magical girl battle shows trade on character designs marketed as cute, but with demonstrably deadly fighting ability, and it's fun to see Granbelm apply that philosophy when the girls are using big robots to fight.
But these battles make their impact at least partially because it seems they'll be spaced out evenly. In-story, they only happen when a full moon rolls around, so just a couple times a month. Whether that's a concession to the abilities of the studio on this production or purely by story design, I can't say, but it does mean that Granbelm immediately gets comfortable with advancing the story in a more character-based manner. As with the other unassuming elements of this show, this works better in execution than it sounds. The second episode really stretches its legs by letting Mangetsu question her role in the otherworldly wizard tournament, demonstrating her self-sacrificing complex fueled by her desire not to be disregarded by the world. It's an intensely relatable personal motivation, with Mangetsu's flagging sense of self-worth notably not being spurred by any bullying or cruelty.
The third episode balances these approaches, giving us more character development for players besides Mangetsu before skipping to another full-moon battle. If the second episode gave me reason to think this show might be conserving its resources, this one brought my expectations right back up. It's a showcase for more hard-hitting chibi-robot action, but even the preceding character bits that you would expect to be more low-key go extremely hard on stylization and emotive character animation. We're three episodes into Granbelm building its world and showing off cool robot fights, and it's already layering those elements with an experienced hand. Shingetsu's story so far is based off well-worn tropes about jealous adopted siblings in prestigious families, but the way she's chosen to handle her detachment from that situation is another distinctive choice. For all Anna's posturing as a deposed noble with something to prove against her adoptive sister, Shingetsu recognizing and blaming herself for that strife gives us a different facet to that conflict, and we immediately understand her motivation to win the Granbelm tournament, simply so she can put an end to it.
If there's anything to fault Grandbelm for at the outset, it would be an overambitious desire to accomplish too much. These core characters I've discussed are just at the spoke of a very large wheel of new faces. The show just can't contain itself in detailing these girls on the fringes, from an acquaintance of Mangetsu's sister who seems to be an older girl reduced to a younger body, to a silver-haired girl who just barely got involved in the battle after Mangetsu. All these characters, in one way or the other, seem to be intended to embody a facet of Granbelm's surprisingly grandiose storytelling style. However, while it may make sense in terms of getting the audience to latch onto different potential faves, it can often come across as overwhelming. This fleet of characters might do better having backstories paced out over the course of the show, that are encountered in their own arcs. As-is, it makes it too easy for us to lose track of all the players in this brand-new franchise.
Having too many intriguing characters is ultimately not that bad a problem for a show like this, though. The most remarkable thing about Granbelm is that it still feels remarkably confident in its storytelling, and that's a testament to the strength of its ideas. It's not just that cute magical girls battling in rad robots are cool, it's that there are through-lines to take us beyond its appealing presentation to exploring the depths of its characters. This is the kind of show that makes me want to see how far its ambitions can go.
Granbelm is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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