Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash [Episodes 1-12 Streaming]
Haruhiro awakens to find himself among many strangers in a dark room. Brought out into a glimmering night, he finds he has been transported to a fantastical world of rogues and wizards - but though he knows this is not his home, he cannot remember anything from the world before. And so he will be forced to take up arms and find companions in this strange place, gathering a party and hunting to earn his keep. But fighting does not come naturally to Haruhiro, and as the limited supplies of his friends dwindle away, it starts to feel like Haruhiro's adventure will end before it begins.
Grimgar's premise is probably one you've heard before: “boy from our world finds himself waking up in a strange, medieval fantasy world. In this world, players must choose classes and then fight monsters, acquiring gold and new skills over time. And so the boy gathers together a party of adventurers, and goes out seeking fame and fortune.”
So yes, Grimgar is indeed more or less another “trapped in a videogame world” show. But upon closer look, it's clear that Grimgar is a very different show from Sword Art Online or Log Horizon or Overlord, for a variety of reasons.
First, Grimgar largely takes its own world for granted. The characters don't remember their original world, and so they're really just fighting to survive and succeed in this one, similar to something like Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon.
Secondly, Grimgar takes that “fighting to survive” idea very seriously. The characters in this show aren't actually good at fighting - in fact, early on, the six leads can't even handle a single goblin between them. Fights are quick and brutal and scary in this show, and it's a hard road just achieving competence, much less confidence or mastery. Grimgar really makes you feel the fear of its heroes.
And finally, Grimgar has an ace up its sleeve - its excellent director, Ryosuke Nakamura. Nakamura isn't known for handling action-adventure shows - in fact, most of his catalog consists of slice of life shows and various arthouse projects. Grimgar's genre assumptions are far outside of his general wheelhouse, and the alchemy that results from this base material combining with his unique gifts is something that needs to be seen. Nakamura didn't just direct this project; he handled series composition and every single episode script, too. Grimgar is as much his project as the original author's, a stirring demonstration of how far this genre can really be pushed.
The sum of all these unique variables is that Grimgar as a show is distinctive, slow-burning, and surprisingly thoughtful. After its somewhat clumsy first episode, it establishes a group of six core adventurers who really aren't that good at adventuring, and also aren't even sure they like each other. We don't just see them barely surviving simple encounters with goblins - we live with them, witnessing their day-to-day lives as they manage conflicting personalities and make do with dwindling funds and and slowly come to terms with the difficulties of their lives. Grimgar quickly establishes a vivid sense of atmosphere through these sequences; in fact, the show's frequent insert songs often make the show feel like a slow montage trip through this world.
Things don't get easier for Grimgar's haggard heroes. Their attempts to fight goblins eventually bear fruit, and they slowly move on towards more ambitious enemies - but near the show's halfway point, they overstep their abilities, and tragedy strikes. One of their core members ends up dying in a botched ambush, and that's when the show reveals its full nature.
Nearly the entire second half of Grimgar is focused on the grieving process, as the group struggles to come together and move on in the wake of losing someone who felt irreplaceable. Grimgar is almost unique in how much attention it affords this process; it becomes more melancholy slice of life than fantasy, stretching out this coming to terms over quiet scenes and uncomfortable conversations. There are moments of real emotional honesty here, and when the group acquires a new member to fill the role that's missing, there are understandable frictions that result. Grimgar takes the emotional lives of its characters seriously, and is much richer for it.
It's not all sunshine and roses on the storytelling front, though. The show's pacing is intentionally slow, but sometimes feels drawn out even for the material it's trying to cover. And there's also still a decent bit of crappy light novel comedy here (boob jokes, etc), likely courtesy of the show's source material. Though in the end, even this ends up playing into one of the show's strengths. The show's standard abrasive pervert character, Ranta, is a fundamentally disagreeable person - but he doesn't end up being “fixed” by character growth. Instead, the group has to actually learn how to deal with someone they find disagreeable, and grow themselves in the process.
The show's other biggest fault would likely be its overreliance on insert songs, which often end up consigning full minutes of the show to wordless montage. These songs are generally quite good (the music overall is excellent, a strong mix of pop-rock tunes and melancholy orchestral strings), and are often used well, but at other times it seems clear that the show is being forced to advertise music instead of actually tell its story. In total, the large number of insert songs ends up occasionally taking you out of the experience.
Grimgar's aesthetics are generally excellent. The character designs are appealing, and though the animation gets a lot weaker in the second half (culminating in a final battle that actually lacks in-betweens, something I have to assume will be fixed on bluray), the early episodes are chock full of great bits of incidental character animation. Even passive conversations are brought to life early on, as characters absentmindedly flick their hair or shift their weight in small ways that make them seem that much more real. The show's backgrounds are legitimately gorgeous, and at its best, the fight scenes demonstrate a desperation and kineticism of a type you rarely see in anime. The battles don't look “awesome,” and are more engaging for it - they're life-or-death scrambles, not performances.
Unfortunately, the direction of those fight scenes can be fairly messy. Nakamura's inexperience with action shows comes through most clearly in the framing of the battle scenes, which often fail to convey coherent drama and keep the viewer abreast of what's actually happening. Processions of shots will sometimes be framed in such a way that it's difficult to keep track of characters within a larger space, making for fights that are confusing in a way which doesn't foster viewer tension.
The one other issue that should be mentioned is the show's fanservice. Nakamura seems to be a real fan of legs and butts, and so you get all kinds of skeevily angled, lingering shots aimed at the female characters. There's fortunately some gender parity here, but on both sides, the fanservice works somewhat at cross-purposes with the rest of the show, making it just a little harder to take the characters seriously.
Numerous as those issues may be, in the end, they fail to bring down what's overall a very compelling and unique adventure. Grimgar is certainly much slower-paced than your average fantasy series, but the show feels more fully realized and emotionally fulfilling for it. It's definitely worth a look.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Offers a uniquely thoughtful take on fantasy adventures, hiding a story about companionship and grief within an enjoyable genre shell. Art and music are excellent.
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