Thanks to Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, Overlord et al, we haven’t exactly been starved of ‘trapped in another world’ anime of late, but A-1 Pictures’ good-looking fantasy series Grimgar: Ashes & Illusions is different enough from its fellows to make us sit up and take notice.
Known outside the UK as Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, the 12-episode show sounds conventional enough in outline, following an archetypical adventuring party fighting fantasy staples such as goblins and kobolds. Protagonist Haruhiro is a fleet-footed thief; party leader Manato a priest; cheerful Yume a ranger; shy Shihoru a mage; hot-headed Ranta a dark knight and placid Moguzo a warrior who acts as the group’s tank. Later they’re joined by another priest, the aloof Mary.
However, while characters such as Sword Art Online’s Kirito or Log Horizon’s Shiroe soon soar to hero status thanks to their gaming experience and expertise, Haruhiro and friends start out clueless, stony broke and outmatched by a handful of low level greenskins. Transported to Grimgar’s fantasy world with no memories of their former lives – anime’s overused amnesia trope actually pays dividends, for once – they’re at the bottom of the pile and they know it.
While it’s easy to sympathise with our hard-up heroes’ quest for loot – “My goal for tomorrow is to defeat a goblin and buy new underwear,” says Haruhiro – the series also invites us to empathise with their targets. Goblins are shown relaxing around a campfire and playing chess; kobolds mind their own business and tend their underground fields. The party’s first success is the ambush of a lone gobbo; a squalid, visceral, panicky affair with nary a whiff of heroism.
As well as deconstructing the RPG genre, Grimgar feels like a slice-of-life show done fantasy style. While the fight scenes are important, they feel like just the day job for Haruhiro and his fellow adventurers; deadly flurries of violence that are over almost as soon as they start. Then it’s back to town to live the rest of their lives – cooking meals, mending clothes, shopping in the market and having a pint down the pub when there’s a spot of cash to spare.
That’s not to say there isn’t an overarching storyline – there is, and we don’t want to spoil it – but there’s no denying that Grimgar can be a slow-paced affair. Viewers expecting an all-action, hi-octane adventure might justifiably get antsy, but we were won over by the series’ domestic take on a harsh fantasy world, rendered almost elegiac by scenic montages (allegedly stripped of dialogue so that the show’s record company sponsor could get more playtime for its songs!).
Along with some on-point character development, our willingness to go along with Grimgar’s relaxed pacing is aided in no small measure by the fact that it looks absolutely gorgeous, with stonework and vegetation given eye-catching watercolour tones. We were less enamoured of the surprising sprinklings of fanservice – director Ryosuke Nakamura is especially keen to remind us that Yume’s got great legs – but it’s all harmless enough, if slightly out of place.
Overall, though, we were very much taken with Grimgar’s bittersweet tale of loss, friendship and ordinary people trying to survive in an extraordinary land. Despite the languid pace, each episode of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash seemed to pass in a blink of eye, and the series itself – while reaching a satisfying conclusion – was over all too soon.
That’s probably a good sign, right?