One of the best things about the fantasy genre is just how incredibly versatile it actually is. You can do literally anything you want with it, and as long as you remain consistent to the rules of the world you’ve created, it’s never so outlandish or absurd as to be story breaking.
More than that, however, is that you can tell any kind of story you want. Noble heroes, merciless villains, and even mortals rebelling against Gods are all with in the realm of possible in a fantasy story. It just depends on what variation on the theme you use.
Last week, when looking at DanMachi, we had a textbook example of the heroic fantasy story. This week, I want to look at a classic example of the epic fantasy story.
First, a bit of a distinction. Any fantasy story can be epic, but epic fantasy takes the epicness, and dials it to about six million. The epic nature of the story is front and center, and everything that happens is in service to that. With heroic fantasy, the characters perform epic deeds, but in epic fantasy, literally everything is epic, from the characters, to the world setting, to the stakes. All of it is so much larger than life, the word epic is the only thing that describes any of it.
This is a fine line, at times, I admit, but it does exist, and it’s important.
The Tower of Druaga, a 24 episode, 2008 series from studio Gonzo (Trinity Blood, Afro Samurai, a ton of other stuff) is probably the very best example in anime of an epic fantasy. At least, I’ve yet to come across one that can even come close to being as epic in every way.
Set primarily around the city of Meskia, which is located at the base of a massive tower, the story follows the young hero Jil, as he attempts to prove his worth as a climber, an adventurer that tackles the tower for fame and glory. The story begins as the Summer of Anu is approaching, a time when the monsters that roam the tower are weaker than usual, making it possible for climbers to reach even greater heights, and claim even grander treasure. Desperate to make a name for himself, Jil is devastated when his half brother Neeba kicks him out of the party for basically sucking at being a climber.
However, Jil’s desire to climb the tower goes beyond simple greed. On the very top floor awaits the evil God, Druaga. Eighty years ago, the great king Gilgamesh climbed Druaga’s previous tower and slew the God, but somehow, Druaga has returned with an even bigger tower, one that nobody has managed to reach the top of yet. More than riches or fame, Jil wants to reach the top, and kill Druaga, in order to be a hero, and save the world.
This goes rather poorly for him in most respects, by the way.
With no party, no money, and no way to get either, Jil is about to give up when he meets a young Priestess of the Goddess Ishtar, named Kaaya, who is forming a party to reach the top, and slay Druaga. Joining with Kaaya, and the lancer she has already employed, the former solider Ahmey, the band soon recruits the lightning wizard Melt, and his sidekick, Coopa.
Climbing the tower, and defeating Druaga, however, soon proves to be far more than any of them bargained for, and only the first step on a much more epic journey that will challenge the Gods themselves.
Which is sort of the whole thing with epic fantasy. Everything starts simple. It always starts simple. Usually with a hero who either doesn’t want to be hero, or wants nothing more than to be a hero. The Tower of Druaga actually has both of these, as Gilgamesh himself is a major character, and Jil’s opposite. He never wanted to be a hero, much less a king. Jil, however, wants nothing more.
This is just the first of many ways that the Tower of Druaga lays the groundwork over the course of the first twelve episodes for the epic finale that arrives in the second half. Which is a nice way of saying, if you feel like the first half isn’t really going anywhere amazing, stay with it. You’ll get it once you get to the second half.
As a protagonist, Jil is pretty stock at first. Headstrong, determined, and noble, he wants to beat the tower for all the right, noble, and heroic reasons. However, in the way epic fantasy tends to do, those very convictions are what Jil has challenged the most as the story progresses, often leaving him uncertain, lost, and eventually, driving him to choose a path that is more personal. One that he follows because he must, for no reason other than he is who he is.
Like Jil, Kaaya has her own reasons for climbing the tower, which often conflict with what the Jil and the rest of the party want. At first manipulative and secretive, Kaaya is also forced to face what it is she is truly after, and make many choices that conflict with her original intentions. While never a villain in the story, Kaaya will do whatever she must to achieve her goal, or so she tells herself. Eventually, she must face what that really means, and decide if it is worth it.
Melt… is Melt. A sniveling coward, selfish, greedy, and constantly whining and complaining about everything, he’s still a capable wizard, so long as Coopa is around to make sure he doesn’t fuck it all up. Despite this, there are things even Melt won’t stand for, and as the story progresses, you see the changes that take place in him, as he comes to accept that despite his failings as a person, even he can be a hero when the need arises. One that is willing to be heroic, for the sake of doing what is right.
Usually, Coopa has to kick his ass a bit to get him motivated, though.
Then, there’s Ahmey. I’ll leave you to discover the wonders of that character on your own. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Neeba, Jil’s half brother, continues to play a major role, as he and his party of Fatina the fire mage, Utu the warrior, and Kally the Rogue, are also racing to reach the top of the tower, for reasons far different than Jil and his group. For Neeba, those reasons are even far different from his party’s, though they don’t know it until it’s far too late.
Nor are they the only ones. Pazuzu, an evil wizard is trying to get there first for reasons of his own, as is the army, lead by General Kelb and his second in command, Ethana. Many other climbers are racing for the top, as well, but as the Summer of Anu quickly begins to wind down, most are forced to retreat, or killed outright, leaving only a small handful to face Druaga, and discover what it is Neeba and Kaaya are both really after.
The Tower of Druaga is actually based on a video game franchise that first appeared in the way back of 1984. Which, yes, I can remember, thank you very much. Freaking kids.
Known as the Babylonian Castle Saga, from legendary maker Namco, the original arcade game featured Gilgamesh and his attempt to climb Druaga’s first tower, which Gonzo used as the world history of the anime. The original arcade game also gets to make an appearance in the anime as a major plot element part way through season one.
It’s also referenced in the first episode, as Jil has a dream of being Gilgamesh, and living out the adventure of the first arcade game, though this is largely done to comedic effect. Much of what Gonzo did with the first episode was to make a point that they were aware of all the cliches inherent in the epic fantasy genre, as well as make a bit of a promise not to fall into the same trap most anime does when trying to tackle this specific genre. If you pay attention to the first episode, really close, you’ll catch their screaming criticism of most anime that try to be epic fantasy.
I’m kidding. You don’t have to look close. They really do make it impossible to miss. Especially the part where Jil defeats Druaga with the power of friendship.
The sacrifice of that old innkeeper will never be forgotten. *sob*
The world building done for this one is pretty solid, and there’s a strong feel of history to it all. Everything works in a consistent fashion, though some of the more absurd conventions of epic fantasy do still manage to appear. Such as most all the female characters running across broken, and uneven ground, in high heels.
I don’t bat an eye at women wearing weird armor in fantasy, but high heels? Yeah, that’s kinda weird. They must have some powerful fucking ankles. Still, if that’s the only real complaint I can come up with, the show, and Gonzo, does pretty good for itself. And besides, it is fantasy, so what the hell, ya know?
One last point of mention, as Tower of Druaga does deserve to be recognized for this. It was one of the very first animes to ever be simulcast on the internet by Gonzo, marking a new era in anime accessibility, and helping pretty much save Gonzo from bankruptcy, as well as assisting the fledgling Cruncyroll to get off the ground, and become the go to site for anime it is today. Not too shabby a claim to fame, that.
In terms of animation, Druaga is starting to show its age a bit, at nearly ten years old. The CG is pretty obvious, though still blends better than some recent shows I’ve seen. The battle with the dragon is good, but not great. That aside, the backgrounds are always beautiful, the action is pretty fluid, and the character designs are mostly solid.
Until the last couple of episodes, when the animation quality gets major upgrade for the big finale, it isn’t going to melt your eyeballs with how awesome it is, but it is solid, and rarely dips in quality. It also succeeds at one really important thing. You never wonder what’s going on. At no point, does it get confusing, or cluttered. That’s still a big deal, and while the animation may not be the best ever put to screen, that it holds up as well as it does, conveys the story as clearly as it does, and doesn’t get in its own way, is still something for Gonzo to be proud of to this day.
The series was directed by Koichi Chigira, the man behind Full Metal Panic, Last Exile, and Rurouni Kenshin. While not someone I would label legendary, he is a solid director, and knows his stuff. A show like Druaga is easy to get wrong, with the epic scope of the story, and the massive number of characters to keep up with. Chigira does a solid job of keeping everything in order, moving forward, and the story on track. In other hands, Druaga would easily have been a disaster.
The writing was handled by Shoji Gatoh, the creator of Full Metal Panic and Amagi Brilliant Park, and here, I am less hesitant to throw around the legendary title. Gatoh is an incredibly talented writer, and with Druaga, he took a pretty threadbare and cliched story, and turned it into a grand , sweeping epic that is both world changing, and personal at the same time, while also pleasing Namco by managing to work in references to the original game, and make it believable within the world of the anime.
That’s some skill, right there.
The music was handled by Hitoshi Sakimoto, and really, if ever the word legendary was warranted, it’s this guy. I mean, he was the composer for Final Fantasy XII, and Final Fantasy Tactics, as well as over forty other video games, including Breath of Fire titles, and even some Dungeons & Dragons titles.
When it comes to anime, he was the composer for Romeo x Juliet, and this. That’s all the anime he’s done. The music here, while excellent fora video game, is only decent for an anime. Held in comparison to DanMachi, it’s just serviceable, which is a real shame, as Sakimoto is capable of way better, and Druaga certainly deserved it. Which isn’t to say the music is bad or anything, it just isn’t as grand and epic as the story and visuals that Satoh and Chigira put together are.
Still, it’s pretty darn good. Not DanMachi good, but good.
Which is more or less really the only major flaw in Druaga. It’s starting to show it’s age, and the influences that drove it. It’s still the best example of an epic fantasy anime I’ve found, with all other attempts falling short by a mile, but it is aging now, and while it’s still a hell of a good watch, younger viewers may find the kind of dazzle and spectacle they are use to absent, and give up on it too soon.
Fuck ’em, I say. Damn kids don’t know good from shit anyway.
Much as DanMachi is a textbook example of heroic fantasy, The Tower of Druaga is a textbook example of epic fantasy. It’s one of the few animes out there that can make that claim, and the only one worthy of it.
Next week, we take a look at a really original fantasy series, that definitely got the memo about fantasy doing whatever it wanted.