After twelve weeks of guilt, grief and gratuitous gluteus maximus, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash has come to an end. Our coverage ended a few weeks earlier; not because we got tired of it, but because Grimgar, contrarian as it is, has remained the exact same show throughout its entire run. This was both its biggest draw and its gravest flaw. While it is a show that deserves to have a lot be said about it, there’s only so much to be said if you’re stuck singing in the same tune. On the other hand, Grimgar‘s consistency has made it into an anime rarity: a show with a clear, singular artistic vision. Director Ryousuke Nakamura cut out large chunks of Ao Jumonji’s original light novel, culling most of the clichés and grimdark excess in favour of the grounded realism that sets the story apart from its many competitors. Yet if you’ve been reading our coverage these past few weeks, you know all that already. Grimgar‘s definitive strengths, as well as its biggest flaws, have been apparent from episode one, and have remained steady ever since. Let’s go over all of them one more time, to see if this show deserves to stand as the one “trapped in a video game” anime to trump them all, or if it will go down in history as little more than a curiosity.
Its not a power fantasy
Anime based on light novels in which an ordinary dude ends up trapped in a video game inevitably all turn into power fantasies, because they inevitably all exist to pander to nerds who wish the real world was more like a video game — a world they can control, where they have power and purpose, where their skills actually matter and where girls act like one-dimensional stereotypes who all want to jump their bones for some inexplicable reason. Except Grimgar. From episode one onwards, Grimgar drives home the point that a life like a video game would be hell. In a world where might makes right, those without it are left aimlessly clinging to dehumanizing grind and strugling for survival, if they don’t end up killing each other first. Rather than venerating video games as the lifeblood of all that is good and pure in this world, Grimgar exposes MMORPGs for the boring slogs they are, elaborate cons that erode players’ morality, force them to sacrifice their well-being for trivial rewards and rely on manipulative slogging to keep them occupied with mind-numbing busywork. Fun fun fun!
Less is more
Paired with this grounded, cynical take on some of anime’s most annoying traits is a nuanced approach to characterization. While Grimgar doesn’t shy away from the clichés, behind its seemingly one-dimensional cast lurks a rag-tag bunch of lovable losers. Generic as Haruhiro may be, he’s at the very least a credible everyman with credible everyman struggles, as opposed to an insufferably perfect blank slate. Through meaningful little conversations and shared tragedy, Grimgar does a heck of a lot with what little personality its characters have. When Ranta acts like a complete asshole, Yume is nice, Shihoru is shy or Mary acts standoffish, you’ll believe they are actual people with these easily identifiable traits, rather than actors behaving in a certain way because the plot demands they do so. It’s surprising how much Grimgar can make us care about its ostensibly cardboard cutout cast simply by slowing down and allowing its characters to just be; to hang out together and properly dwell on the things that happened to them. The memorable character designs, neat animation quirks and excellent performances — especially from Mikako Komatsu as Yume and Hiroyuki Yoshino as Ranta — certainly do help, but in the end it’s the excellent script that made us fall in love with Grimgar‘s cast.
I mean, look at it
Suffice to say, Grimgar is a gorgeous show. While its animation quality takes a bit of a nosedive in the second half, the beautiful, watercolour backgrounds, atmospheric establishing shots and strong character animation remain a sight to behold. Yet in spite of its idyllic looks, the world of Grimgar is a cruel, harsh place. Compared to its pastoral, pastel colours, the action in Grimgar is brutal and dirty, with weapons cleaving through flesh and crushing bones with tangible weight. Fights are visceral, messy and generally bereft of flashy choreographies and fancy special effects. Grimgar never shies away from letting its visuals tell its story. Usually, this leads to wonderful results, from the nerve-wrecking battles to the warm, quiet slice-of-life intermezzos and subtle body language quirks that tell us more about the characters and their relationships than any cavalcade of exposition ever could. Yet, sometimes, it… doesn’t.
Buy our singles!
No matter how much of an auteur you’d like to be, when you’re an anime director, chances are likely there will be some aspects of your project you won’t have full creative control over. Sponsors can give you the money you need to make your show look as pretty as you want it to look, but they will end up asking something in return. When the sponsor in question is a record label, said demands will usually be limited to having one of their artists perform the theme song for your show. Unless said record label is a part of the very company producing your anime. For some reason, Toho Records decided that Grimgar would make an excellent commercial for their music, putting together a band named (K)NoW_NAME to record a bunch of image songs and pretty much demanding five minutes of every episode of Grimgar to serve as a music video for one of them; to a point where dialogue that had actually been recorded to liven up these drawn-out montages had to be removed to make way for the music. But here’s the thing: (K)NoW_NAME… kind of suck. Their generic, overproduced pop-rock just doesn’t fit Grimgar at all, leading to some of them most egregious soundtrack dissonance anime has seen since End of Evangelion. One montage set to a cheesy song is fine. Two is acceptable. But one almost once an episode? I don’t see in what universe that constitutes a good idea.
Butts, boobs and more butts
While it may have significantly toned down its gratuitous cheesecake in its back third, it’s not easy to forget just how egregiously skeevy this show could be when it tried. From cameras lingering on Yume’s buttocks or Shihoru’s breasts to the former groping the latter because that is totally what teenage girls act like, I swear, Grimgar spent a noticeable amount of its early runtime repeatedly shooting itself in the foot with lousy scenarios straight out of a third-rate dating sim. It never gets much worse than Haruhiro’s ridiculous rant about the girls ‘letting their guards down’ in front of the dudes in episode 3, but Grimgar usually fails to hide the fact that it was written by a close-minded geek with a tenuous grab on reality. While the high-larious sexcapades occasionally make for clever little character moments — the chemistry between Haruhiro and Yume is consistently excellent, even during trite rom-com moments — Grimgar never quite manages to convince with its attitude towards the fairer sex.
Have we mentioned that they’re in a video game already?
People tend to mistake Grimgar for a deconstruction, a study on what would happen if random people actually found themselves stuck in a video game. But, as I’ve stated before, it’s not quite that. Grimgar is closer to a strange, cynical attempt at live-action role-playing. It doesn’t actually subvert any tropes or gaming clichés, rather it plays all of these clichés straight; but treats them like facts of everyday life. Usually, this works out just fine, and the show is all the better for it. Yet sometimes, Grimgar refuses to acknowledge that some aspects of video games just don’t make a lick of sense on this plane of reality. And it is in these moments, when Grimgar pointlessly attempts to explain the ensuing events through video game logic, that it is at its very worst. Such clinical, mechanical writing is nothing new in the world of light novels. In fact, it’s usually what happens when hacks who let their entire lives revolve around video games try their hand at writing. Yet its especially egregious in Grimgar, because its word not being a video game is what the entire show thrives on. Every single time Grimgar talks about characters’ rankings and skills, it breaks that precious immersion a show like this needs to work.
This is what a production disaster looks like. Grimgar #12 pic.twitter.com/NkByn9w1Vj
— Raeed (@paeses) March 27, 2016
C’mon, guys. You’re pulling my leg here.
So is Grimgar good? Well, yeah. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it is the perfect antidote for the onslaught of tepid power fantasies using the incredibly limited frame of reference of video games as a poor excuse for making slightly sexist people feel good about themselves. Instead, it explores the consequences being trapped in a video game would have on the human psyche in a form the very same people can be comfortable with. Yet somehow, at its core, all of Grimgar‘s cleverness seems so… unintentional. It’s likely that Ao Jumonji is little more than a hack desperate to cash in on the hype with a slightly darker take on the genre. The odd forays into video gamey exposition and sloppy fanservice — the worst of which, as you may remember, was cut from the anime — pretty much give it away, which makes Ryosuke Nakamura’s treatment of his material even more exceptional. Without any reason to be as clever, as pretty, as poignant and as considered as it is, the Grimgar anime found its way to our hearts on the sheer power of honesty alone. And honesty in anime is something that should be cherished.