Though the weak start, slow pacing and uncoordinated action scenes may prevent Grimgar from standing as a particularly strong action series, it nonetheless delivers a potently emotional, convincingly harrowing and well presented tale of Ash and Fantasy.
Plot synopsis: A group of noobs get stuck in a fantasy world with few memories and have to fight goblins to survive. World of Warcraft did such a better job at making this look fun.
Much to its detriment, Grimgar’s strengths are not well represented in the early episodes, with a first episode that consists largely of light novel tropes played without irony and a persisting aimlessness that will leave many viewers feeling patronised. Things do drastically improve very quickly, with a strong second episode that grounds the themes and tone of Grimgar, but it’s not until a decisive moment in the series when things go from cheery to ashen and the fantasy world of Grimgar becomes all too real that what makes the series stand out comes to the forefront. Of all Grimgar’s qualities, for all of its shortcomings and triumphs, it is its somber, almost morose tone and atmosphere that viewers will most remember it by.
Grimgar is plentiful in both positives and negatives, the latter of which unfortunately is the most prevalent as it makes its first impressions. For a start, character dialogue in the more casual settings has a tendency to venture into overbearingly tripe. Though Yume comes across as a fairly pleasant character, she’s the only one who really benefits from group interactions; Haruhiro rarely talks, Moguzo and Shihoru remain mostly silent (the former with stoicism, the latter with shyness) while Ranta comes off as a liability whom causes unnecessary friction among the group with seemingly little regard for the others and no grounding in explained, or sympathetic, problems. He could, to a degree, by seen as the poster boy for Grimgar‘s problematic dialogue, leveling such harsh insults at Haruhiro and Yume in particular, without any reasonably justifiable excuses, to the extent that some viewers will probably be more inclined to want him to die than mature.
Another stark con for Grimgar is its pacing, which alternates between blistering and glacial, the latter working reasonably well to establish the brutal reality its characters now find themselves confronted with in the face of tragedy, but the former leading to character growth feeling inconsistent in some areas. One episode, they may be struggling to hold their own against one goblin, and in the next they may be trumping a whole party of them. Logistically, Grimgar‘s presentation of the physical development of its cast is unsatisfactory in more than one case, and the mentors add precious little, outside of designs which cater to the most unusual fetishes imaginable. Much like the supporting cast, the narrative of Grimgar feels largely aimless in the latter half. After their objective has been accomplished, they seem to accidentally wander into their next (foreshadowed) opponent seemingly completely by accident. The confrontations are harrowing and dramatic, though the circumstances leading to them make them feel less like tragic, avoidable mistakes and more like the Blizzard administrators having too much fun for their own good.
It’s feasible that some will find these fundamental flaws in Grimgar’s storytelling too great to overcome, though much like Blast of Tempest and Angel Beats, the themes, tone and respective manner of their presentation makes Grimgar a series that brings something to the table that few other series can. While the “fantasy” element of Grimgar is a reason to enter its world, it is the “ash” that will prompt viewers to stay. Yes, Grimgar is a story about the short and long term consequences of having someone important, in many different ways, die. The blame, bitterness and a fragmented sense of community is palpable and well spread out, each character’s struggle with the said events appreciable without endless internal monologues as they try to hold their shattered team together. The dead cannot be replaced, and Grimgar, unlike so many series before it, does not try to. Grimgar understands that individuals serve more than one purpose in life, though at the same time it doesn’t treat the character doomed to die like it was his role in the story; death is meaningful in a narrative because it drastically alters character dynamics, changes the course of the plot, and isn’t something that a few scenes of superficial sadness can make feel genuine. After the death of a major player, nothing is ever the same again, and this can be most easily appreciated through the introduction of Mary.
Mary is an oddball among Grimgar‘s cast, one much more reserved in her style of combat and one whom makes no secret of emotionally distancing herself from others. Much like with some characters in Re:zero, the revelations exposed about her aren’t particularly groundbreaking or surprising, but they are nonetheless effective because of the build up and strong characterisation prior to her backstory reveal. She’s a slow progress character, and much like the others, the relatively static nature of her throughout the general course of the story allows her few moments of bravery and warmth to feel meaningful and driving. The rest of the cast also get better as the show goes along; Haruhiro learns that the team must work cohesively and understand one another so they can assemble effectively. Yume and Ranta don’t quite have the progression of the aforementioned two, though especially in the case of the latter there is some appreciable maturation. Moguzo and Shihoru get the short end of the stick, whose character development is largely limited to growth in not particularly compelling combative abilities.
In terms of aesthetics and overall animation quality, Grimgar is something of a mixed bag. The water-coloured background scenery is an indisputable visual marvel, allowing the towns and forests to not only look beautiful, but original. The way in which these various sites are constantly revisited in (arguably overly long) montages of the main cast going about their daily life, with the kitchen and workshops being common areas of reflection for Haruhiro, sells the town as a quiet, yet comfortable dwelling that the viewer grows accustomed to alongside the characters. The characters themselves are less memorable in design, though this is largely redeemed by the fitting use of colour to each of them. The calm greenish-brown texture of Manato‘s hair blends with his white cloak communicates the image of him as a kind, calm individual, while Mary‘s cold blue eyes and similar blue-and-White robe express a reserved, distant individual constantly lost in reflection. The biggest problem with the designs of Grimgar is how the characters don’t seem to blend naturally into their surroundings and how the pleasant water-pastel scenery doesn’t quite mesh with the grim tone of the latter episodes of the anime, the soft tones feeling much too therapeutic to reflect the life-or-death circumstances the characters find themselves in.
The problems with the characters in Grimgar extends beyond the way in which they interact with their surroundings. Quality character animation, unfortunately, is noticeably front loaded, dropping from excellent in the beginning of the series to rigid near the end, and this is despite the middle episodes having scarcely any action scenes. The fights and various dialogue in the first two episodes showcase some stellar character acting, from the slight shifting of weight character’s posture to a minor softening or hardening of their expression, the cast of Grimgar started out on a very expressive note. The gritty tone that the series was going for with its confrontations were pulled off stunningly, communicating the low stamina of Moguzo, Yume’s terrible aim and Manato’s juxtaposing competence and calmness in mere seconds. With all due consideration, the fight in episode 2 of Grimgar may well be one of the most impressive feats of animation many will see among the anime of 2016, not only as a visceral spectacle, but a psychological one as well.
One of the most polarising features of Grimgar would have to be its use of insert songs from the band (K)Now_Name. The Opening song is a powerful fantasy ballad with a strong vocal performance and pop instrumentation which makes strong use of high tempo guitar and violin. It isn’t quite as strong visually, largely borrowing character animation from within the episodes and eventually being downgraded to pans over the characters in black like a model shoot, which sadly leaves it skippable for most viewers. Despite only playing over panning still images, the ending theme is also worthy of note, potently emotional despite, or perhaps even because of, the minimalistic visual accompaniment. However, the band also contributes an insert song to nearly every single episode of the series, a large portion of which play out in full, leaving shopping montages bordering on comically long. It works well in action, when in the background, but when in the foreground it feels as though Grimgar has been downgraded from a harrowing tale about loss and trust to an advertisement for a band. The songs are very good, certainly, and the band’s innovate blending of jazz, rock and folk are well worth a listen, though it’s a shame that they weren’t integrated better.
Both the English dub (which was simulcast by Funimation alongside Dagashi Kashi and Prince of Stride in Winter 2016) and Japanese cast do a solid job bringing their characters of life, with Mary and Ranta being the standout for both languages. Though the English cast seems to play up the “mature” aspect of Grimgar more than the Japanese cast, lending the occasionally overplayed somber moments the gravitas needed for them to make an impact. This does lead to some of the few fan service scenes feeling even more forced, though as someone who can understand both English and Japanese, I hardly noticed when I changed languages. Of the English cast, Jad Saxton shines in her restrained and nuanced portrayal of tortured-soul Mary, successfully treaded the line between excessively sentimental and wooden, while the generally more restrained direction given to the English cast alleviates Grimgar’s occasional over-reliance on tropes.
Grimgar is a flawed series about flawed individuals trying to survive and find happiness in a world where they could face the death of an ally, or even their own, at any moment, and it presents this rather well. While in terms of pacing, character interaction, visual and audio presentation it has both notable dips and peaks, some of which will be more than enough to alienate some potential viewers, it was a pleasant experience that exceeded expectations and is worthy of being, if not celebrated, then at least remembered.
Overall (English + Japanese): B
Grimgar of Ash and Fantasy is available in both English and Japanese on Animelab.