Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 12 of
Grimgar, Ashes and Illusions ?
It makes sense that the conclusion of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash should be the inverse of most of its early episodes. Where those early weeks gave us stories that started slow and built to a major event, this one picks up where we left off, in the tense battle with Death Spots where Ranta is currently fighting alone, before the episode quietly wanders off into the sunrise. As with nearly everything about this show, it is the underlying emotional symbolism that matters more than the physical action of the fight. Last week's battle with the undead brought Mary the closure she needed, and this week's battles force Ranta into admitting his own emotions, which he has carefully kept hidden, and Haruhiro's battle enables him to truly move into the position he inherited from Manato but has never really been able to accept.
In many ways, the entire series comes back to Manato. It may be a strange comparison, but fans of Natsuki Takaya's Fruits Basket may remember the way that the heroine Tohru's mother filled the story even though she wasn't technically present for it; the same is true of Manato in the episodes following his death. Once his support (both emotional and physical) is established and then taken away from Haruhiro, we can see a shift in the way the narrative flows. The first few episodes built up Haru's reliance on Manato so that his abrupt absence would shatter Haru's entire sense of safety, not only in the very real fact that people could die, but because it was Manato, the one person he felt safe following. Moreso than being transported to another world, it was the loss of that perceived safety net that shook Haruhiro, and that is ultimately what he had to fight against for the rest of the series. Last week, we saw Mary make a similar emotional journey – the post-zombie-fight healer is noticeably more confident and calm – and now in replicating Manato's sacrifice for the greater good of the group, Haruhiro is finally able to understand why he died while also proving to himself what Ranta told him: that Haruhiro is his own person.
That's the real heart of this episode – when after a way-too-easy escape (featuring pigworms, which are right up there with the aardvark-cats for weirdly adorable), the group finds that Death Spots didn't get his fearsome reputation by giving up easily, and Haruhiro, before he even realizes it, sends the rest of the group out of the mines while he takes on the kobold. Like Manato making sure he was the last out of the goblin attack, Haruhiro takes the captain's role to go down with the metaphorical vessel if it will save everyone else. When he realizes that he is not dead and somehow succeeded where his mentor failed, that's the moment when Haruhiro truly becomes both the leader and a denizen of this new world.
There are several places where the episode could have ended effectively – the welcome home meal, the tavern scene, or walking away from a visit to Manato's grave all would have worked well. By choosing to move beyond that, to end with the group walking out into the dawning day and showing that life goes on, the show tells us that there are no guarantees. They may not all make it home each day, Ranta may never manage to tell Yume how he feels, and Haruhiro will probably always carry a hollow place inside of him labeled “Manato.” But they'll keep going. Every day, they will walk out that door and try. After all, as Halina Poswiatowska wrote, “you live but for a while…a transparent pearl/filled with breath.” That's what Haruhiro and Mary learn, and that is the point of the story.
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is, on the whole, a surprising tale. Its fantasy setting and goblin battles ultimately only serve as window dressing for the emotional core story, and that makes it a show that isn't going to universally appeal to people. It drags in places, it leaves Yume, Shihoru, and Moguzo underdeveloped, and the fanservice usually feels kind of awkward. But all of this is outshone by what it does right: it tells a coming-of-age story focused on the emotions of growing up and learning to be self-sufficient, and that “self-sufficient” doesn't always mean “not accepting and giving help.” It is unflinching in its portrayal of grief and mourning, grounding it in a reality most fantasy shows don't have, and not since Sunday without God have I found myself tearing up so many times during a season. I'm not sure that I will watch it again, but it is a show that I'm not likely to forget, and while I hope there's another season (or that someone licenses the novels), I don't feel like I've been left hanging. This was never an easy story – but in the end, it is one worth watching.
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is currently streaming on Funimation.
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