Review for Grimgar Ashes and Illusions
I never thought that I’d feel for advertisers, but the sales pitch for Grimgar: Ashes and Illusions (or Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash if you prefer) suddenly had me feeling sorry for whoever came up with it. The idea of advertising is to sell a product as succinctly as possible, and one way is to establish its pedigree. Like many anime sold to us these days, that’s easily done by referencing the creators and what else they might have made. Of course you have to hope that the target audience is aware of those references, and more importantly like them too. That’s usually a good thing, but once in a while you’ll hit a target who responds diametrically opposite to what you hope. Grimgar is being sold as created by the studio behind Sword Art Online. I hate it already. Grimgar is another Isekai anime, that genre that features protagonists spirited away to a fantasy world, these days usually connected with MMORPGs and virtual reality. It’s a genre that has grown to rival giant robot anime when it comes to my disdain. Frankly, I think after Escaflowne, they should have just left a note for everyone else, advising them to not bother trying to compete. Grimgar will have its work cut out trying to impress me.
They wake up in the dark, with no memories of who they are, and only the vaguest impressions of a past life. They walk into the strange, fantastical world of Grimgar, and in the town of Ortona they’re inducted into their new lives as Trainee Volunteer Soldiers. Their job is to hunt down and kill monsters, starting with the ‘weak’ goblins and working their way up, the only way to earn enough money to thrive, to gain skills, and to eat in this world. But for Haruhiro and his party, even fighting mere goblins is a lethal challenge.
Twelve episodes of Grimgar: Ashes and Illusions are presented across two Blu-rays in this Collector’s Edition. You can also get the show on standard edition DVD.
1. Whisper, Chant, Prayer, Awaken
2. Long Day of the Trainee Volunteer Soldier
3. Are Goblin Pouches Filled With Our Dreams
4. Sky Dancing with Ash
5. Crying Doesn’t Mean You’re Weak, Enduring Doesn’t Mean You’re Strong
6. Her Circumstances
7. They Were Called Goblin Slayers
8. In My Memories With You
9. How to Rest
10. I’m Not Fit to Be a Leader
11. Between Life and Death
12. See You Tomorrow...
Grimgar gets a 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on these discs, offering an image that is clear and sharp, free of compression, aliasing or even digital banding. Colours are strong and consistent, and the animation is smooth and fluid. A flawless transfer is just what a show like Grimgar needs, as its animation is a cut above the usual anime offering. The character designs are appealing and memorable, and in motion they are given detailed and thoughtful animation. The costume designs are equally well thought out, suggesting a theatrical level of investment into the show. When placed against the wonderfully rich and effective watercolour backgrounds, and enhanced by the atmospheric lighting effects, you can see that Grimgar is more than just your average fantasy animation.
You have the choice between Dolby TrueHD 5.1Surround English, and 2.0 Stereo Japanese, and in a rarity these days, the subtitles and signs tracks are truly optional. I was happy with the original Japanese track, the dialogue is clear throughout, the action comes across well, and the strongest selling point of this series, the music, is served well by the audio track. From 60 seconds exposure, I found the English dub to be fine, although volume levels are significantly higher. The subtitles are accurately timed and are free of typos.
The discs boot to animated menus, and each episode is followed by a few pages of translated English credits.
Disc 1 autoplays with a trailer for Dragon Ball Z Kai.
Disc 2 autoplays with a trailer for Divine Gate and has the rest of the extras.
The OVA 2.5, Staking Our Youths on the Bath Wall – One More Centimeter lasts 11:58, and documents Ranta’s quest, and moral quandary in trying to peek at the girls while they are bathing.
The Video Commentary on episode 4 features three of the production and promotional bods behind the US release of Grimgar.
There are trailers on this disc for My Hero Academia, One Piece: Film Gold, Gangsta, and Aria the Scarlet Ammo AA.
I haven’t seen the physical extras that come with this Collector’s Edition to comment.
This turned out to be one of the better shows I’ve seen in this particular genre, the spirited away to an ‘online game’ world scenario, although it didn’t seem that way at first. Grimgar is a slow grower of an anime, one which for the first few episodes had me wistfully nostalgic for old episodes of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, before it established its own identity and tone, and it became clear in which way the story was developing.
Grimgar’s thing is realism, helped in no small part by the artistic visuals, but mostly in terms of the story. It looks at how people face adversity when they wake up in a strange world, with strange rules to follow. Thrown in at the deep end, they’re expected to fight monsters, obtain treasure, gain skills and level up. They have the added hindrance of amnesia, so they lack the referents to easily understand their new world. On top of that, our protagonists are the ‘losers’, the ones that didn’t get picked for teams in school, and aren’t picked for the most skilled adventurer parties here. They lack the skills, certainly have no experience, and are hard pressed to deal with even the lowest level monsters, which in this case are goblins.
We have leader (priest) Manato, protagonist and narrator (thief) Haruhiro, (warrior) Moguzo, (dark knight) Ranta, (mage) Shigoru, and (hunter) Yume, and later the group is joined by another priest, Mary. They have a hard time at first coming to terms with their new world, and an even harder time learning to work together, made all the more difficult given their general lack of competence in dealing even with goblins. It takes them quite a while before they are able to kill one, and even thereafter it’s more a matter of luck than skill when it comes to their battles.
It’s overconfidence in their luck that results in a tragedy that overshadows their adventures for most of the series, and makes them re-evaluate how they work together. When Mary joins them, she too has been marked by a tragedy that has left her closed off and uncommunicative. She just wants to do the work and not get involved. The process of helping Mary through her grief helps the group heal as well, and that is the arc that carries through to the end of the series.
It does take a while to get going, but the quality of Grimgar’s writing, and especially its characterisations really does come through, and make this a memorable and must see show. It isn’t perfect however. Grimgar could just be a normal fantasy world, but instead the adherence to ‘game’ rules is an unwelcome distraction. When we learn that while thieves can be sneaky, warriors can only attack head on, it’s stated with the certainty of a physical law, but in terms of the story it doesn’t really matter.
The second thing is that despite its more serious tone, the realistic approach to its characters, Grimgar can’t help but throw in the usual anime tropes that modern audiences come to expect, odd moments of wacky humour, and the usual clichés. Thankfully, the worst of it is excised and presented in the OVA half-episode, the traditional ‘sneak a peek on the girls bathing’ anime storyline, but there is still the odd jarring wake-up call once or twice each episode that didn’t really need to be there.
Grimgar: Ashes and Illusions is a really strong fantasy outing that excels both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of its writing. To think, an association with Sword Art Online would have made me dismiss it out of hand were I not sent a review copy!