“Sky Dancing with Ash”/”Crying Doesn’t Mean You’re Weak. Enduring Doesn’t Mean You’re Strong”
Sundays at 11:30 am EST on Funimation
Finally getting the hang of their chosen vocations, the party starts to venture deeper into the goblin stronghold… Until an inevitable disaster tears their fragile alliance apart.
Even in the magical power fantasy world of anime, death isn’t a rarity. Usually, the bright, innocent childhood friend gets offed somewhere halfway through, or if the writers aren’t too keen on culling the harem, you can be sure there’ll be a “one he couldn’t save” in our brooding hero’s backstory. Furthermore, it’s not like Manato wasn’t wearing a gigantic target on his back from the moment he showed up. Grimgar loved to highlight his maturity, charisma and importance to the party just a tad bit too much, which made him about as obviously marked for death as Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Of course, this wouldn’t be Grimgar if it didn’t deliver a trite, expected twist with the utmost care and dedication. Manato’s death is sudden and shocking without being overly dragged out, and his body isn’t even cold before Grimgar starts twisting the knife.
In spite of the obvious foreshadowing, Manato doesn’t exactly go out in a blaze of glory. He kicks the bucket during a mundane mission, only slightly after the halfway point of episode 4, almost immediately after a bunch of romance clichés and a lousy bit of exposition that made us roll our eyes and wonder why Grimgar can’t just let go of that clinical, immersion-breaking video game terminology altogether — without any grand reveal pertaining to his tragic past, sudden appearance of a powerful villain or well-considered heroic sacrifice. Manato is no Kamina, he falls victim to a cheap, unglamorous and almost unwarranted accident that almost spits in the face of conventional narrative. There’s an unwritten rule in fiction stating that the death of a character has to be some sort of grand turning point in the narrative, a climax of sorts. Yet Grimgar doesn’t really have that narrative. Manato died only to confront the other characters with a very real, almost banal aspect of everyday life. He could have been in a random car crash, or slipped and fallen off a cliff, and the script could have remained the exact same. There are no bittersweet victories or vows of revenge; he’s just dead. And death is hardly ever as exciting or spectacular as fiction likes to think it is.
These tragic events and their slow, gut-punching fallout segue into the utterly brilliant episode Grimgar set loose this week, a quiet, introverted character piece centered almost entirely around grief. For the very first time, Grimgar abandons its light novel roots entirely — with the exception of an actually charming, appropriately awkward misunderstanding at the very end, episode 5 contains close to zero fanservice, pervy shenanigans and video game technobabble — in favour of meaningful, heart-wrenching character interactions, excellent reflections on guilt and moving on, and a welcome dash of wry humour humanizing the frankly rather overwhelming bitterness. Nevertheless, the occasional moments of levity don’t harm the effectiveness of this episode’s heavy subject matter in the slightest. Humour is as human as grief, and in this episode filled with nuanced drama, there is no better scene that better illustrates the various facets of mourning, including the funny ones you wish weren’t there, than the bar scene.
Within a single scene, Grimgar organically segues from a look at Ranta’s fragile psyche over an emotional argument that excels in its complete dearth of melodrama to an intervention by a very inconsiderate, very drunk friend of our party’s so inappropriately awkward you’ll be ashamed of laughing. It’s an excellent script backed by excellent directing, as Ryousuke Nakamura’s subtle facial animations and tangible silences convey a million shades of intensity more than any dialog could. While Grimgar acknowledging the consequences of Ranta’s perversion two episodes ago was already surprising, this episode’s musings on the guys’ general behaviour towards Yume and Shihoru was an even more welcome road for its deconstructive approach to stock anime tropes to take. By almost completely excluding the girls from the mourning process, Grimgar neatly shows off how flawed the party’s dynamic has always been. As Manato’s death has finally made them realize that the world is not a video game, Ranta and Haruhiro decide to stop treating Yume and Shihoru like one-dimensional lust objects — in other words, like video game characters — and start caring about them as friends.
And lo and behold, the next time Haruhiro sees Yume after he’s have sworn his silent vow, she’s magically evolved from “that tsundere girl who likes to grope the other girl” into a fully-fledged human being. A human being who mourns her friend in her own way, and who interacts with other human beings the way that actual human beings do. It needn’t even be said, but Haruhiro and Yume had more chemistry in the few minutes they were on screen together this episode than Kirito and Asuna had throughout two whole seasons of Sword Art Online. It’s positively refreshing to see two friends in anime care about each other so intensely without any perviness or implications of romance, and I’d like Grimgar to keep things that way between the two. There have been more than enough cases of a seemingly lesbian girl falling head over heels for the main protagonist in anime, though I must admit that Yume and Haruhiro’s mutual tenderness seems a lot healthier than Yume’s rather out-of-character ‘affection’ for Shihoru.
Of course, with all this talk of death and grief and treating women like people I haven’t even mentioned what is arguably the most important plot point of episode 5: the addition of Mary to the party. She couldn’t be any more different from St. Manato if she tried, but her non-nonsense attitude might just be what the party needs in order to survive without him. After all, there has to be a reason why she managed to hold out for so long on her own. While her appearances in this episode were mostly limited to some comic relief to shake up the relentless mourning, I am hoping there’ll be a bit more to her character on display in the episodes to come. With the past two episodes showing some surprising depth to the initially rather flat cast, there’s bound to be some hidden depths to her. That, or she turns out to be a griefer who will plunge our party even further into utter despair. Fun fun fun!
- To my surprise, these two episodes were actually a rather faithful adaptation of the light novel — with one major difference. In the light novel, Haruhiro never cries in Yume’s chest like he does in the anime, only the other way around. Instead, he just freaks out about a ‘soft’ girls hugging him and tries ‘not to lose it’ a lot. Sigh.
- Episode 5 aired without opening sequence, which is both thematically appropriate and a possible indication that they’re working on a new opening with Mary and without Manato. Given how the old one still consisted mainly of stock footage, this would be a welcome change.
- Though completely unrelated to the plot and themes of these two episodes, I really liked Yume’s little exposé on her guild’s religious beliefs in episode 4. Religion isn’t exactly a theme anime treats with any sort of seriousness, and it would make perfect sense for an amnesiac trapped in a mysterious world to search for answers in religion. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be much more than an interesting piece of world building.
- Renji looks like the lovechild of Archer and Kaito from Kamen Rider Gaim, and acts like it as well. Still, kind of a poor decision of Haruhiro’s to turn down the money he offered the party. Sometimes you gotta let go of your pride, dude.