Grimgar: Ashes and Illusions was one of the more middling titles on the Winter 2016 slate and up against some pretty stiff competition in Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, Erased and Ajin. But it’s the earlier Sword Art Online that tends to overshadow the series. While both were produced by A-1 Pictures, the similarities all but end there. While SAO was concerned with teens trapped in a video game, Grimgar is pure isekai.
Though mention of that trope alone is enough to get eyes rolling, Grimgar mixes things up by having its characters forget their earlier lives. Before they know it, they’ve assimilated into this pretty but superficial fantasy land. There’s no denying that Grimgar is gorgeous to look at, with its painterly backdrops and fluid character movements that reminded me more of Unlimited Blade Works than SAO. Clearly, director Ryosuke Nakamura knew what he was doing when it came to adapting Ao Jumonji’s light novels. But like its animation, almost everything is surface deep, with little sense of societal or political intrigue to get the audience invested in the setting. Its characters rely on archetypes for predictable beats and a never-ending barrage of boob jokes (flat chested, yes, we get it!).
Far from the overpowered Kirito who scowled his way through Aincrad, Grimgar’s central band of adventurers arrived as strangers but are forced together by circumstance. They end up enlisting in the Reserve Army, which is about the only gig going. Basically, they’re tasked with offing any baddies that threaten the status quo and loot the booty. The trouble is, the group is useless and haven’t even managed to knock off one goblin between them. You’d better get used to seeing goblins, too, because they’re the principle enemy for about two thirds of these twelve episodes.
As with SAO, pacing is a major issue as the plot, such as it is, unfurls with little consistency. An early episode even has a five-minute musical number, as its characters wistfully while away their time with one asinine task or another. There are slice of life shows with more narrative direction than this. But hidden beneath its impressive visuals are some genuine and hard-hitting moments of human emotion and character study.
Watching the characters, especially the boob-obsessed dark knight Ranta, deal with the reality of killing provides some emotionally raw scenes. Stronger still is when one of the main party are killed during a raid. Although this happens early on, meaning the actual event had limited impact, it’s the characters’ subsequent reactions which resonated. This is no quick resolution either, the pain of that death lingers all through to the end. And for this earnest and genuine look at grief, the series should be commended. Add to that its artful visuals and Grimgar’s a competent if ultimately unfulfilled series.
Extras: English dub; trailers