Reviewby Theron Martin,
Grimgar: Ashes and Illusions
BD+DVD - Complete Series [Limited Edition]
They all woke up in a strange place akin to Medieval Europe, knowing nothing but their names and a vague sense that they weren't in their original world. Told that they had no choice but to become Volunteer Soldiers to help protect the nearby town on the borderlands, they enlisted for training from guilds and formed parties between themselves. This story follows the party led by Manato the Priest, consisting of Haruhiro the Thief, Ranta the Dark Knight, Yume the Hunter, Moguzo the Warrior, and Shihoru the Wizard. They quickly discovered that even hunting goblins was challenging for newcomers with limited talents, and even supporting themselves became difficult. In an occupation driven by life-and-death struggles, tragedy is always only a step away.
This 12-episode series from the Winter 2016 season debuted just three days before fellow isekai light novel adaptation KONOSUBA. These two series were diametrically opposed in their differing approaches to the same basic concept as they possibly could be. Both featured characters who struggle mightily upon being transported to a fantasy world, but whereas KONOSUBA played things for laughs, Grimgar approaches the subject with absolute seriousness. The result is an utterly different style of show from any other isekai series out there. Whether or not that ends up being a point in its favor will depend on your personal taste, though.
KONOSUBA built its success on a cast populated with ridiculous characters in an unfair system for all, parodying fantasy RPG adventure gaming. Grimgar instead imagines a group of very ordinary individuals who have been thrown together and must learn to cope with each other's idiosyncrasies. The story doesn't go out of its way to be cruel to its characters; that just happens naturally as events progress. The result is a much more character-driven story that advances only in measured increments and takes its sweet time to explore issues as they come up. Adventures do happen, but they're usually framed as central to character development rather than wild events for their own sake.
On the plus side, this results in some deeper characterizations. Ranta is brash and abrasive, obsessed with being edgy, and at times seems to go out of his way to be a jerk. However, his tenacity can be a benefit at times, and he can surprise with his perceptiveness and talent for thinking things through. Certain moments suggest that his harsh behavior may be a coping mechanism for his own insecurities and fears. Narrator Haruhiro has an ongoing struggle with confidence and inadequacy, while later addition Mary's standoffishness covers for deep-seeded issues tied to the loss of former comrades. The rest are much less developed, with Shihoru mostly defined by being timid and self-conscious about her weight (a problem that doesn't come across in her character design), Moguzo being the soft-spoken and soft-mannered giant, Manato being the team leader and cheerleader, and Yume being a bit flighty but also protective of Shihoru. Whether intentional or not, the depth of our understanding of each character correlates almost exactly with how well viewpoint character Haruhiro understands them.
On the minus side, the character emphasis results in very languid pacing that sometimes dwells too long on specific moments. This isn't a constant problem, but the effort to evoke a reflective style bogs the storytelling down. The series is also prone to distracting character choices, such as the provocative way that Haruhiro's Thief trainer dresses and acts or the flamboyant Volunteer Soldier recruiter encountered at the beginning and end of the series. The most egregious example is the way one major foe is defeated single-handedly in a situation that's so far outside of the character's normal ability range that it feels like deus ex machina, attempts to set it up in a previous episode notwithstanding.
For all of the emphasis on character development and little details (like the party not even being able to afford extra underwear), the series does also feature regular doses of action. These are mostly not high-powered affairs, with the incompetence of the adventurers being downright cringe-worthy early on, but what the battles lack in flashiness, they more than make up for with their grittiness and authentic sense of life-or-death struggle; it's hard to appreciate how unrealistic superpowered RPG battles usually are until you see scenes like the group's early struggles against goblins. The gradual progression of the adventurers' competence in battle is also more convincingly portrayed than in most series, and the supporting animation creates either a good battle flow or a realistically haphazard one, depending on the goal of a particular scene. Animation quality drops off a bit later in the series, however.
Beyond the animation, the visuals create a stark contrast between finely-detailed character designs and the much less defined watercolor paintings of the background. That rougher style is not one that I find appealing at all, though the fascinating design of a multi-level city nestled on hillsides overlooking a sea isn't hampered much by that choice; I would be very curious to know if it was modeled off of any real-world European location. Character designs are clean, distinctive, and uniformly attractive; even the annoying Ranta seems dashing when seen without his armor in the opener. Graphic content can be fairly intense, but the overt fan service is minimal. That being said, the camera seems to have a fascination with Yume's butt and isn't averse to lingering on Shihoru's chest or Mary's legs. It's not quite a full-blown exercise in voyeurism, but the goal definitely seems to be sneaking extra fanservice into a very serious story, in ways that may not work for everyone.
The musical score for the series varies its sound more than most, using a wide variety of styles and instrumentation. Sometimes these themes can come across heavily enough that they obscure the dialogue somewhat, but most of the selections are very fitting. Three-quarters of the episodes have at least one insert song, all performed by [K]NoW_NAME, the multimedia group that includes the series' soundtrack composer and performs both the theme songs; one of them is even completely in English. While these songs can promote the mood quite well, they are overused to the point that scenes sometimes seem designed to highlight the songs rather than the songs highlighting the scene.
Funimation simuldubbed the series when it was originally airing, and the result came out quite well. The strongest casting choice and performance is Orion Pitts as Ranta, but Ricco Fajardo's rendition of Haruhiro may actually be an improvement over the original Yoshimasa Hosoya performance, which I never felt sounded entirely right for the character. Justin Briner also makes a very fitting Manato. If there's a weak performance, it's Sarah Weidenheft's rendition of Shihoru, but admittedly she didn't have much to work with there. The English script is on the loose side even by Funimation standards, with broader interpretations for some scenes.
Funimation is releasing the series in both regular and Limited Edition DVD/Blu-Ray combo packs. Both offer a video commentary for episode 4 involving Funimation production and promotion staffers (but significantly, not anyone involved with ADR production) and OVA episode 2.5, a very forgettable 11 minutes that greatly expands the scene from an early episode where Ranta tries to peek on the girls and the wall collapses on him. While it is dubbed and does have the series' most concentrated dose of fanservice, it fails to impress either as a lighthearted diversion or fanservice bonus. Interestingly, this is one of the rare recent Funimation releases where the Blu-Ray isn't locked so that the English dub and subtitles can't play at the same time. The Limited Edition version adds a sturdy artbox and a box inside containing an 18x24 inch (45x60 cm) poster, featuring the artwork from the closer and a set of six art cards, each of which features one or more core characters mostly in action poses.
The main place where Grimgar: Ashes and Illusion stumbles is in not distancing itself more from the game-mechanics feel of its world. KONOSUBA also incorporates game mechanics into its story, but everything is so ridiculous in that world anyway that it actually makes sense for that setting. It doesn't here, unless the whole goal was to realistically portray a literal game world rather than a fantasy world peppered with RPG mechanics. For all of the series' little flaws, it's still effective at presenting an entirely different take on a very ordinary premise, successfully delving into examinations of coping with loss in an unusual choice of setting.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Presents a starkly different approach to isekai stories, strong English dub
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