I’ve spent the last week thinking a lot about what I want to say where this show is concerned. Mostly because there’s no shortage of discussion to be had, but also because I keep coming back to the same thought over and over again.
It was never what I expected it to be.
Which is a good thing, really. I like being surprised. So far, it seems to be sort of my thing to end up recapping anime that surprises me. The emotional depth of Gakkou Garashi, the boundless wonder of One Punch Man, and now, the quiet dignity of Grimgar.
Which is what this show really had going for it. There was always a soft, unspoken dignity to it, brought forth primarily by the characters, who suffered and struggled, yet never gave up. That would have been the easy thing to do, possibly even the sane thing to do, but they kept going, even when it seemed there was no real point in it.
Beyond just that, however, was the way it handled a fantasy world setting. Generally, when anime does fantasy, there are epic battles around every corner, but Grimgar shied away from those, giving us only one, at the very end. Instead, every fight scene was intense, brutal, painful, and ugly. Instead of heroics, we got actual combat.
Now, I’ll grant that I’m a sucker for an epic battle when it comes to the fantasy genre. I’ve even talked about it a bit now and then. I’ve also mentioned how I’m not a terribly big fan of gritty realism when it comes to the genre. Still, when a piece of fiction nails it, I’ve got to give credit, and Grimgar nailed it, all without falling into the grimdark feel at any point.
Even when the show was grim, it was never dark. The bright color palette, the almost watercolor backgrounds, at every turn the animation was designed to highlight the brighter aspects. A very quiet declaration that there was hope around every corner.
Which is one of the more interesting things about this series. Even the backgrounds are designed to help tell the story. Subtext was a huge part of Grimgar, and in every shot, you can feel the beauty and peace. Despite how harsh it can be, Grimgar is still a world you can’t help but feel like you’d want to visit.
Really, the show is just gorgeously animated from week to week. That alone makes it a real standout, as any budget constraints the studio may have been under never showed at any point. Nor did it ever let the occasionally heavy subject matter change how it chose to present the world of Grimgar as beautiful, vibrant, and full of possibility. Just excellent decision making at every turn.
Above all else, it was the choice to keep the story character focused that I think made it such a strong series. There are no big, mythic story arcs, just the characters as they approach their new lives the best they can, grow and change, and deal with events. All of it happens so naturally, with a casual ease, that nothing ever feels forced, rushed, or as if it is happening purely for the sake of the plot.
Which is really something when you look at how many montages this show had.
Each character got an arc, to a greater or lesser degree, and all of them came to a good close by the end. Hell, even the secondary characters had a little bit of a story arc, which is really something. It was interesting to see Renji go from such a brash, almost aggressive person in the beginning, to a more measured and respectful person by the end. One must wonder what his time in Grimgar was like.
Haru had grown into his role as a leader, learned to stop second guessing himself, and most of all, discovered he didn’t need to become Manato in order to be a proper leader. As much as he was our narrator and main character, Haru was also sort of the audience surrogate, helping us navigate this strange new world with all the missteps and fears that come from that. His journey was easily the most memorable of any fantasy character I’ve seen in a while.
Naturally, we must touch on Ranta one last time. For all his arrogance, bluster, and well deserved dislike, he is still one of the more interesting characters I’ve seen presented in an anime in a long time. There was no “come to Jesus” moment for him, as he remained an obnoxious ass to the very end. Yet, there was those moments when we saw another side to him, as he struggled with his own fears, doubts, and his place in this world. To say he was a multifaceted character would be an understatement, and as much as I wanted to see him get hit in the head with something heavy, I enjoyed watching him.
Shihoru grew into a confidant young mage, able to decimate a battlefield with her magic. Yume, ever adorable, became a fine archer, sniper, and capable fighter. Moguzo… well, he was there. I can’t help feeling his character was often underused, and of them all, he was the one I felt we got to know the least. Should there be a second season, I do hope this gets rectified, as I found him likeable, if underdeveloped.
Of course, there was Mary, and her tragic tale. I admit, I found myself very invested in her character as the series progressed, and the moment when she laid her former friends to rest was powerful. Of them all, her emotional journey had to be the most satisfying.
There was a surprising lack of plot twists, as well. Those have become pretty common place in fantasy animes, so not having one every couple episodes was surprising, and rather pleasant. Of course, there was Manato’s death, but that had been pretty heavily foreshadowed, so I’m not sure it counts. The arrival of Mary’s dead friends as zombies was probably the best, as I didn’t ever really expect that. In hindsight, it was obvious, but I never considered it something that might happen, so even when the show did have some big plot twist, it was pretty well executed.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on one of the bigger complaints I’ve seen levied against the show, namely the way the ladies are often put in an over sexualized light. It did happen, and at times, it was even pretty distracting. On a scale of one to ten, however, I’d have to rate Grimgar’s fan service a solid two. I’ve seen way worse out there, and for the most part, I always had the feeling that the animation team would rather not be doing it. Most of the time, they did their best to make it as unobtrusive as possible, which leaves me with the sense they felt the show was strong enough to do without it.
Fan service is a sticky mess of a conversation to get into. There’s always going to be those who defend it, and those who oppose it. Rarely is either side going to accept that there are varying degrees of use to it, much less that anime studios see it as everything from a great idea, to a necessary evil. Here, though, I’d say it falls into the studio viewing as a way to boost dvd sales, while the animation team treated it as a necessary evil.
Regardless, the fact that it was kept to a minimum, and that they did all they could to make it seem naturally occurring, rather than force it in, or highlight it at every turn, says a lot, and I give them credit for doing the best they could.
While part of me would be happy to return to these characters and this world, I can’t help feeling as if they closed the series out on a perfect note. Never drive a good thing into the ground. Which leaves me torn on whether or not I’m hoping for a second season. I’d love to spend more time with this bunch, but I don’t feel it’s needed. They told a good story, and sometimes, it’s better to just leave it at that.
Of particular interest on that note, was the set up and resolution of one of the bigger mysteries the show had going. How did these teenagers, so obviously from our world, end up in Grimgar to begin with? Rather than actually tell us, the show closed with Haru admitting that it just didn’t matter. This was his world now, his life, and his home. How and why they came to be here is irrelevant in the face of that, and to be honest, I find that a rather profound closing statement.
It doesn’t matter how you got to be where you are. It only matters what you do with your life now.
If Grimgar was to have any kid of a moral, that’s a pretty good one.
Now, of course, I find myself with no anime series to recap. The spring season is upon us, though, and while the list of new shows debuting didn’t feel me with any kind of awe, I may yet be pleasantly surprised. So far, I’m three for three, after all, so here’s to hoping I’ll get a fourth.
Thanks for joining me, and I hope to see you all again soon with a new, exciting, and surprising anime to talk about.