I grew up obsessed with fantasy novels but, in my twenties, I’ve struggled to be enamored with fantasy anime. The plots generally feel re-hashed, characters carbon copies of each other and there’s generally not much to surprise. Depending on your view, the number of ‘isekai’ (transported to a fantasy world)-type anime series around today could mean there’s even less reason to expect to find a fresh and ‘proper’ fantasy anime series.
However, I was intrigued by Grimgar: Ashes and Illusions, from All the Anime, because I’d heard it was different from many other isekai series out there. The protagonists start off small and have to build up their strengths, and the setting looks much more ‘classic fantasy’; all things that tick boxes for me when looking for a good fantasy book.
A group of people wake up in the world of Grimgar, with no memory of where they were or their lives before. Five strangers, with no prior knowledge of how to fight, are forced to unite together and work as soldiers-for-hire. Our first episode opens with five people struggling to defeat one lone goblin or shoot an arrow straight. While not a revolutionary concept in itself, the idea of characters having to start from the beginning and building up skills before progressing to bigger enemies is more rewarding than one over-powered person wandering in at the first episode, leaving no room for them to progress.
Let’s start off with what separates Grimgar from the likes of Sword Art Online or Log Horizon, two fairly ‘recent’ isekai series most anime fans will be familiar with. Death is a genuine threat – if you get stabbed it can actually be dangerous and you aren’t just reincarnated at a check-point. Throughout the series, we’re reminded that people can die and leave friends behind, so the battles have to be fought extra carefully. Secondly, the characters look more realistic in their classic fantasy setting. Yes, there are a few crazy coats and wacky hairstyles, but the vast majority of people are dressed in the drab medieval browns.
While it might not be a big difference to most, Grimgar has a more old-school Dungeons and Dragons feel as opposed to the Final Fantasy-esque RPG. The backgrounds seem very intricately drawn, almost hand-painted in parts, which is probably why we’re treated to quite a few long shots of characters simply walking around. It doesn’t feel as swish and modern as a lot of contemporary fantasy anime series, which is probably why I have the image of five people sat around a D&D board rolling some dice.
Grimgar does suffer some of the pitfalls of other isekai anime series. Our five characters (Haruhiro the thief, Manato the priest, Yume the archer, Shihoru the mage, Ranta the dark knight and Moguzo the warrior) could probably have been dropped into any other fantasy series. While there is some character development and inter-personal relationships, they still felt very stereotyped to me. What kept me watching was the overall setting of Grimgar and the animation, rather than a particular fondness for any particular character. Yume has promise as a strong female character but regrettably falls victim to one too many objectifying camera shots of her backside.
The producer is A-1 Pictures (who are behind so many great anime series it’s hard to list them here), so that usually stands a series in good stead. Grimgar: Ashes and Illusions is an enjoyable watch if you’re a fan of the isekai and fantasy genres. There are a few things that set it apart from other series and it is visually stunning, although it’s not quite the revolution I thought it might be.