Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Harem

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Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata is an anime all otaku can resonate with. Season 1 follows the ups and downs of a high school indie game development group, with a mix of humour, harem hijinks and character interplay. Season 2 exchanges the humour for drama, with interpersonal tension and conflict threatening to tear the group apart. With its mix of superb voice acting, characterisation and production values, Saekano is an excellent piece of entertainment – if you don’t think too hard about the relationships.

This is not a review. There are plenty of reviewers who can do a better job than me. Instead, I’m going to write how Saekano is emblematic of everything wrong with modern harem anime.

The Boring Harem

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Just a high school boy and his groupies, nothing to see here

Saekano is centred on Aki Tomoya, a Japanese high schooler who happens to be a diehard otaku. Right off the bat, you can tell who the anime is aimed at: like many high school otaku of his breed, Aki is the audience stand-in, distinguished by his undying love for all things otaku—light novels, anime, manga, video games—and his utter obliviousness to emotions.

One fine day, while Aki is cycling home, he sees a beret floating down a slope. As cherry blossoms swirl around him, he looks up to see a girl at the top of the slope. The encounter inspires him to create the perfect dating sim. Returning to school, he discovers to his complete shock that his classmate, Kato Megumi, was the girl he met.

Aki ropes Kato into his project, and quickly enlists his friends (naturally, all girls) to help out. The team artist is Sawamura Spencer Eriri, Aki’s half-English childhood friend, who also creates adult-themed art for a famous doujin group Egoistic Lily. Third-year student Kasumigaoka Utaha, in reality a bestselling author who writes light novels under the pen name Kasumi Utako, handles the script. Later in the first season, the anime introduces Hyodo Michiru, Aki’s cousin-cum-other childhood friend who plays in the band Icy Tail, as the music composer. Together, they form the doujin circle Blessing Software.

We see here the essential ingredients of a Japanese high school harem anime. First, there is a male otaku main character with the emotional intelligence of a rock. Second, a bunch of girls who for some inexplicable reason are attracted to him. Third, a joint endeavour that demands all of them to work together.

If Aki resolves the romantic conflict by choosing any of the girls, it would end the primary source of tension, humour and drama within the series – and, quite likely, end his life. Every girl except Kato (maybe) is motivated by romantic intentions, so if any of them are forced to give up on him, it’s quite likely they will quit the group. Thus, the story demands that the harem situation be strung out indefinitely, even well past the point of unrealism.

This is the primary pitfall of harem-type fiction where the harem members are motivated primarily by amorous intent: the second the romantic conflict is resolved the whole cast, and thus the story, must fall apart. To keep the story going, the MC must remain an idiot into eternity and the harem’s character development must centre on their relationship with the MC.

Of Stereotypes and Romance

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Go on, guess who’s the normal one

Saekano sets itself apart from other harem stories by making half of the female cast otaku. When placed side-by-side with the non-otaku, the audience can see a sharp contrast in their personalities and how their hobbies and lifestyles influence their behaviours.

Unfortunately, the show confines these characters to their archetypes instead of doing much about them.

Sawamura is the classic tsundere: blonde, twin-tailed, slightly shorter, zettai ryouki stockings, and prone to violently abusing Aki at the drop of the hat. She defined her entire relationship with him based on being childhood friends, having gone to the same elementary school as him. They fell in love with the same works together, be they dating sims, light novels or anime. However, their elementary school classmates started insulting and shunning Aki for being an otaku, and fearing the same treatment, she began to hide her otaku self and distance herself from Aki. Even though they still talk otaku stuff, their relationship is clearly strained. This becomes the focal point of her story arc in the anime.

Kasumigaoka is a yandere without the murderous intent…probably. They first met at a book signing, when Aki recognised her as his senior. Eventually they started talking intensely about her books, with him praising them to high heaven and starting a fan site that single-handedly accounted for a significant fraction of its sales. While she acts cold, sarcastic and domineering most of the time, she is also highly obsessed with Aki and will manipulate everyone around her to get time alone with him. She is the most aggressive among the girls, and can match Sawamura for jealousy. Many of the show’s comedic beats come from her verbal sparring with Sawamura and her cutting remarks, but her arc is focused on her trying to express how she feels about Aki through her work.

Through their portrayals, Saekano displays a stunning lack of understanding about romance. Shared hobbies are the basis for friendship. It can graduate to romance, but it needs more than what is portrayed on-screen.

In Kasumigaoka’s case, we see Aki chatting excitedly about her work and later helping her with her writing. This is functionally no different than the relationship between superfan and author, and then editor and author. As a bestselling author, Kasumigaoka would have received similar praise from other fans, and she works with an editor to produce new stories. Aki doesn’t offer anything beyond that.

As for Sawamura, it’s shown that she and Aki spent lots of time together reading the same books, playing the same games and discussing the same fiction. But nothing else. They don’t do much more than that, and we don’t see them trying to talk about stuff other than the otaku culture. Sure, Aki may celebrate and promote her work enthusiastically—but that is simply who he is, and as an artist of a renowned doujin circle she would also receive similar praise for her work from her other fans.

To be perfectly cynical about this, the girls’ feelings for Aki reflect a distorted image of romance: that obsessing over common hobbies and interests will lead to someone falling for you. That is simply not true. You need trust, emotional intimacy and overall compatibility, and throughout the show there are no indications of any of this between Aki and the girls.

Why would Sawamura and Kasumigaoka fall for him and act the way they do? Just because he is a superfan? Because they have similar interests? This is the basis for friendship, not romance. Romance demands both sides to get closer than that, and that emotional closeness is simply lacking.

Hyodo’s motivation is even more suspect. She and Aki were born on the same day at the same hospital, and they played together a lot as children. Eventually she moved away, enrolling in an all-girls’ school and joining a band. When she meets him again, though, she acts overly-familiar with him, deliberately dressing skimpily and clinging to him whenever she can. She is not herself an otaku, so she doesn’t even have the excuse of having a similar hobby, and they aren’t so close that Aki immediately thinks of her when putting together his circle. She is flighty and whimsical, but it’s hinted that she has feelings for him.

But why?

Her presence in the show basically serves two purposes: to throw Sawamura’s identity as Aki’s childhood friend into disarray, and to satisfy the disturbing Japanese obsession with cousin romances. There is neither rhyme nor reason for her to act the way she does with Aki, unless she were either toying with him or genuinely interested in him, and the show doesn’t make it clear either way. While they were close as children, such childhood experiences do not translate into shared intimacy as teenagers; indeed, after she moved away, Aki doesn’t even mention her until her it’s time for her arc. Throughout both seasons, Hyodo enjoys the least character development among the main cast, and her feelings for Aki remain as nebulous as her heart.

Throughout both seasons of Saekano, there’s only one character with whom Aki shares a quantum of emotional development: Kato Megumi, the titular boring girlfriend. It’s clear from the start that she’s meant to win his affections. As a non-otaku she isn’t read into the culture, but she begins to enjoy the process of making games. As the heart of the circle, she helps to mediate conflicts and keep everyone on task. True to her epithet, she is very reserved and has little outward expression. This sets her apart from the rest of the cast’s exuberance, and when she finally displays a wider range of emotional affect in Season 2 you can tell she is warming up to Aki. She is the only normie in the entire cast and, in a realistic setting, quite likely the only person for whom he would even have a snowball’s chance in hell of having anything resembling a romantic relationship with.

Our Hero, the Masochistic Idiot

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Otaku intensifies

Aki is an idiot.

Let’s examine his relationships with Sawamura, Kasumigaoka and Hyodo. What do they have in common?

Violence.

Again and again and again, the girls’ first response whenever they feel jealous or angry or embarrassed is to take it out on Aki. Sawamura smacks him all the time. Kasumigaoka alternates between acting scary and acting out. Hyodo reveals her secret passion for wrestling. Somehow, this is supposed to be hilarious.

It’s not.

Firstly, it’s predictable. Casual female on male abuse has been an anime and manga staple since well before I got into the scene. Whenever Aki trips up (read: all the time), you can expect a girl to lash out at him. The outcome is already guaranteed; the only question is how she, or they, will do it. By being predictable, it becomes eye-rollingly stale.

Secondly, why doesn’t Aki walk away? The violence is always out of proportion to what he did. He may simply be a high schooler, but why would he consider girls who routinely abuse him as his friends and co-workers? We don’t see the violence affecting him or his relationships with the girls; it’s almost as if it’s just some kind of harmless quirk that can be laughed off.
I can’t buy this. Abuse and violence poisons relationships, and a show that aspires to be a drama must capture this.

Abuse aside, I find it unbelievable that Aki can be so oblivious to emotions. He isn’t some random otaku; he is explicitly portrayed as a fan of dating games and romance novels. Instead of learning from them, however, he plays out the dense protagonist stereotype to a T, and continues to do it even though associating with the girls leads to emotional and physical violence. That makes him completely predictable and utterly boring—the only difference between him and other similar otaku MCs is his over-the-top reactions. It takes Aki most of two seasons before he finally wises up.

Despite his lack of emotional maturity, the girls still flock to him anyway. Because, well, harem. He doesn’t display any sign of romantic interest in the girls, nor does he display any attractive qualities. Only in Season 2 do we finally see Aki coming to grips with his immaturity…and even so, there will still be a harem if Season 3 ever comes around.

A Foundation of Sand

This isn’t to say that Saekao is unsalvageable. If anything, it’s remarkable how well the anime played out in spite of its shaky foundations. It remains true to the tenets of storytelling, marked by steady character development and its insights into the doujin industry. However, it asks the audience to accept as given the girls’ feelings towards Aki instead of diving in depth into them, and this as a creator I cannot do.

Giving every girl a romantic interest in the MC, and thus a personal stake in events, is an extremely tricky situation. If I were the creator, I would have gone on a different tack, even changing sexes if necessary.

The artist would be motivated by a desire to heal the rift between her and the MC once and for all, and take the opportunity to create work more meaningful than mere pornography. The writer joins the circle because she feels obligated to the MC for her success, and from a professional perspective, she wonders if she can do more than just light novels. The musician may not be an otaku like the MC, but she thinks it’s a chance to reconnect with her long-distant cousin and for her band to hit the big time.

By taking away romance and combining professional ambitions and personal motivations, Saekano becomes more than a high school harem. It becomes the story of young creators seeking to be greater than they are while grappling with puberty and emotions, with Aki providing the spark and the platform for their future. In this light, even if Aki picks any of the girls, the story can still proceed apace. In fact, other than the titular boring girlfriend, they don’t even need to be girls.

And, done right, you won’t need a boring harem.

Anime Retrospective: Record of Lodoss War

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Record of Lodoss War belongs to a different era of Japanese anime, and indeed of storytelling. There are no obligatory fanservice moments, no in-jokes aimed at the audience, no audience surrogates in the form of bland high school otaku protagonists, no injections of unnecessary modern political messaging. Record of Lodoss War does one thing, and one thing only: tell a story.

The World and the Characters

An adaptation of replays of Dungeons and Dragons gameplay sessions, Record of Lodoss Waris richly steeped in the traditional Western fantasy canon. The land of Lodoss is vast and mysterious, the magic is fantastic and frightening, the monsters are evil and deadly. The story also makes a sharp ethical delineation, with the heroes suitably heroic and the villains clearly villainous. The art direction reinforces this attitude: civilised areas tend to be bright and colourful, while places controlled by monsters and enemies are dark and bleak; heroic characters dress in vivid, distinctive clothing while villains favour black.

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The star of the story is Parn, the son of a dishonoured knight, who knows little of his father save for the sword and armour he left behind. Driven out from his village, he seeks to investigate the evil befalling the land. He is brave but reckless, often needing rescue from the rest of his party, until he learns to balance offense and defense. Accompanying him is his childhood best friend, Etoh, who is a priest of the supreme god Fallis. Their paths intersect with Ghim, a veteran dwarf adventurer looking for the missing daughter of a priestess who saved his life; his friend Slayn, a powerful wizard; and Deedlit, a female high elf who is learning about the world outside of her homeland. Rounding off the cast is Woodchuck, a thief they found imprisoned in a dungeon.

You can clearly see the D&D influences in the party. Parn is the fighter-cum-party leader. Ghim is the party’s frontline combatant, and serves as Parn’s mentor. Etoh is the party cleric, Slayn the wizard, and Woodchuck the rogue. Deedlit is a shaman with some knowledge of swordplay, and doubles as the obligatory love interest.

What isn’t present are modern-day anime archetypes. There are no tsunderes or yanderes in sight, no fanservice characters, and most definitely no high schoolers. Instead of drawing on the same exhausted well of tropes and behaviours, the creators strove to grant each character their own personas and histories, influencing their words and deeds. Parn always rushes into the thick of things, and always gets beaten back; Etoh is the emotional and spiritual heart of the group; Ghim dispenses advice and handles the fiercest foes; and Woodchuck is driven by his criminal impulses, which blows back on the entire party. Instead of attempting to appeal to the audience, the characters stay true to themselves, the story and the setting.

Simple Story, Well-Told

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From the opening narration to the closing credits, every moment of the anime is shot through with earnestness. There is no attempt to snark at or with the audience, no enforced awareness of the fourth wall, no contrived situations leading to predictable ecchi moments. Every scene is played straight, driving the story forward.

True to the genre, the story has an epic scope, covering the entire continent. There is intrigue and high adventure, battles large and small, epic quests to save the world, and an undercurrent of romance. Among the principal cast are warrior kings driven by honour and justice, a dark emperor and his knight corrupted by the powers of darkness, ancient dragons of terrifying power, a sorceress manipulating events behind the scenes, and an evil goddess waiting to be reborn.

This isn’t to say the story is perfect. There are moments of cheesiness and predictability and the major battle scenes recycle stock footage. The anime itself begins in media res, and it’s unclear which episode is the transition point between the true beginning and the first episode. It packs too much story into too few episodes, requiring a second season to complete Parn’s tale. And Parn, of course, is utterly oblivious to love, always repeats the same failed offensive tactics, and always loses his sword in battle against humans.

Nevertheless, Record of Lodoss War is a simple story, well told. It possesses a clear moral compass and unambiguously heroic protagonists always ready to do the right thing, contrasted powerfully against vicious villains and the horrors of war. Instead of scoring cheap points with the audience with predictable tricks, it places the audience front and centre through its focus on the story. Its sweeping scale, diverse cast, exotic locations and powerful magic exemplifies the breadth and depth of imagination that is the hallmark of the genre. Most of all, it is refreshingly free of the stale tropes that weigh down modern anime.

Record of Lodoss War is the progenitor of all sword and sorcery anime. Its skillful employment of the storyteller’s craft enables it to hold its own against many modern anime. It is a hallmark of the fantasy genre, tracing its lineage to the seminal Dungeons and DragonsRPG, itself inspired by the great pulp masters of the previous century. Record of Lodoss Wardemonstrates that modern stories don’t need flashy visuals, otaku appeal or fanservice moments; they just need to be simple stories, well told.

Anime Analysis: GATE – Thus the JSDF Fought There!

 

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GATE – Thus the JSDF Fought There had all the ingredients for awesomeness: modern military technology, high fantasy setting, magic, politics, war.

And squandered everything.

The anime started promisingly enough. A mysterious gateway opens in Ginza. An army of legionnaires, orcs and dragons pours out. The Japanese Self Defense Force responds decisively, defeating the invasion. The government declares the region beyond the Gate the Special Region, and sends the JSDF to explore the world that lies beyond the gate. The Japanese encounter the Romanesque Empire, setting the stage for a

Then it fell flat on its face.

I wanted to like the anime. But shortly after beginning the series, I couldn’t muster the interest to watch it regularly. I couldn’t bear to watch more than one episode at a time, and as the story progressed I found myself reaching for books instead of following the story. I was, quite simply, bored. And here is why.

Itami Youji is Boring

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Slacker.

Second (later First) Lieutenant Itami Youji’s claim is the very model of a modern major otaku. He is a slacker, obsessed with his hobbies, and has a penchant for being extremely friendly with his male subordinates.

He is also Ranger-qualified and a trained Special Forces operator.

First reaction:

It’s hard to believe that Itami has what it takes to be a Ranger or an S. These individuals are unmistakable. SOF selection screens for people with specific traits. As described by SOFREP, among these traits are stress resistance, extreme competitiveness, self-reliance, self-criticism and stoicism. Other traits include confidence, adaptability, resilience, and others useful to their mission set.

Itami is a slacker and a coward who runs away from tough assignments and difficult emotional decisions. He doesn’t show any particular tactical acumen, and in fact allows his subordinates to endanger each other (more on that later). He doesn’t pick up on his inter-team friction or the dynamics of the girls surrounding him. He isn’t seen training as hard as an SOF-qualified soldier would. He doesn’t demonstrate the hyper-competitiveness, self-motivation or stoicism needed for long-term operations. He has heart and treats the people of the Special Region with compassion, and occasionally demonstrates a grasp of politics and insight, but otherwise there is nothing that marks him as an SOF-trained soldier. In his own words, he’s a soldier only because he wants money to support his hobbies. (And, really, there are better and safer ways to do that.)

The key issue is that Itami is an otaku first and an S second. Itami perfectly fits the otaku stereotype, except that he is a bit more social and happens to be a soldier. He is a Potato Protagonist, allowing the otaku in the audience to insert themselves into his shoes. Itami is an S only because the creators needed to justify how he has the skills he displayed in the series — and to create the fantasy that otaku can also be heroes. The creators of the franchise elected to pander to the audience, and in doing so created a dull and unbelievable character.

What they should have done is to make him an S first and an otaku second. They should have either explained why he’s with a conventional unit, or made him an S performing special missions inside the Special Region. By giving Itami the character traits of a special operator, he would immediately stand out from the other generic protagonists that populate Japanese media. Making him an otaku would be the icing on the cake: nobody really expects an S to be an otaku, but since everybody needs hobbies, this little detail would humanise him.

Itami the S could have been amazing. Itami the otaku is flat.

So is his harem.

The Harem is Boring

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10000% zanier than their actual portrayal.

For a harem series to work, every female in the harem has to leave an impact on the other characters and on the world. Their characters need to be memorable, their interactions hilarious, and their presence significant. If a harem character doesn’t leave a mark on the world, and thus on the viewer, she is a flat character and can be erased. When everyone in the harem fails to leave an impact, the story has failed.

Lelei La Lalena is a 15-year-old sorceress with a knack for learning and for magic. She is among the first named characters from the Special Region to become fluent in Japanese, and to apply modern scientific principles to her studies. She could have been a major player in shaping the world beyond the Gate. However, she spends most of the anime as an interpreter and casts the odd sleep spell. While interpreters serve a vital role, they do not merely translate: they explain and smooth over cultural differences, facilitate transactions, develop a network of vital contacts and help both parties get what they want. Lelei does none of this. Likewise, in the major combat scenes, Lelei doesn’t provide magical support until the plot demands it. (Which is another knock against Itami: an S would want to know what the people under his command can do, and deploy them appropriately.) Aside from translating conversations, Lelei leaves little impact on most of the anime.

Rory Mercury is an immortal demigoddess with the body of a 13-year old and carries a massive halberd. She has a penchant for gothic lolita wear, and is inexplicably attracted to Itami. She is allegedly the Apostle of the war god Emroy, but she serves no religious functions or duties in-story. Rory is seen slaughtering soldiers of the Empire, but nobody contemplates the full implications of an Apostle of Emroy siding with the JSDF. There is no discussion of how, exactly, she became an Apostle. Aside from fanservice moments, Rory doesn’t add much to the story.

Tuka Luna Marceau is a High Elf who happens to be the Team Load. Prowess in archery aside, her sole contribution to the story is her mental breakdown and subsequent treatment of Itami as her father. This catalyses the Fire Dragon arc. Otherwise, she essentially fades into the background for most of the story.

Yao is a Dark Elf who is the other catalyst of the Fire Dragon arc. Other than being marginally less incompetent than Tuka, she leaves little impression. Which is a shame. She was chosen by her people to recruit the JSDF to destroy the dragon, and demonstrated some ability in psychological manipulation to force Itami to come to her aid. But after the arc is complete, that part of her personality goes out the window and she becomes Generic Battle Harem member #1847.

None of the harem members in GATE have a sense of personality or history, none of them employ their full range of skills, and indeed none of them serve any major purpose other than fanservice. While an action-oriented story with poor characters can be salvaged if the action makes sense, the action also fails.

Action Scenes are Boring

The signature of GATE is the clash between a modern military and a fantasy Roman Empire. Every major combat scene ends in a curbstomp — but the curbstomps are unsatisfying to the educated viewer.

Observe the following scene.

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It’s one thing for an immortal demigoddess to recklessly enter the fray. It’s quite another for a mere human to do so.

The JSDF’s chief advantage is their technology. If Itami were an S, he’d immediately understand that the best tactic is to maintain distance and gun down the attackers. Instead, he allows Kuribayashi to perform a suicide charge on the enemy with her bayonet.

And somehow, she wins.

Modern infantry barely spend time training for close combat. They have to be proficient in an array of skills, such as marksmanship, signals or first aid, and martial arts is the least important among them. The primary purpose of bayonet and martial arts training for line infantry is to develop aggression. After basic training, bayonets in most militaries are kept permanently scabbarded. For regular troops, the utility of hand-to-hand training lies in capturing people when it is too inconvenient to kill them, or to fight off a close-range ambush. Kuribayashi is a recon trooper: her training would be focused on reconnaissance and breaking contact. She isn’t an SOF type who may have to eliminate threats in close quarters, so she wouldn’t receive the kind intensive training needed to become a true human weapon.

Contrast this with the brigands. They are deserters of the Imperial army, which are based on the Roman legions. They would have spent their entire careers training to fight in close quarters in tight formation. Team tactics and melee combat would be second nature to them. They may not know what a rifle is, but with a bayonet a rifle resembles a spear, and these brigands would know how to handle spears. The enemy would have far more training and experience with melee combat than Kuribayashi would ever have.

Instead of utilising the Japanese firepower advantage, Kobayashi insists on trying to fight the enemy at their own game — in the process entering everybody else’s arcs of fire. This is, again, suicidal: if the JSDF troops needed to bring on the hate, she would be hit in the back.

Warriors fight alone, but soldiers fight in teams. Combined arms, teamwork and discipline are hallmarks of modern small unit tactics. They spell the difference betwene life and death. Kuribayashi’s impulsiveness jeapordised her own survival, and with that the rest of her team, simply to satisfy her ego.

Watch this scene in the Imperial Palace, where you see the same dynamic playing out.

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In both action scenes, when Kuribayashi shows up, the enemy conveniently forgets their armor, their weapons and tactics. Instead of swarming her from all sides, they fight her one-on-one. When the guns come out, the enemies just stand still and let themselves be massacred. They don’t take advantage of reload times and won’t attack until Kuribayashi has finished mounting her bayonet. Kuribayashi, in turn, does the biologically impossible: she is seen bulldozing a massive brigand out of the way, manhandling larger and stronger opponents with single blows, and moving much faster than trained swordsmen who aren’t laden down with gear.

The action scenes are unbelievable because they follow story logic. In stories, you begin with small scenes and build up the intensity to hit the climax. Likewise, the action scenes start with Kuribayashi engaging the enemy in single combat, then escalating into massacres.

In combat, you want to do the opposite. Start with maximum firepower to shock and overwhelm the enemy, then dial down the violence to finish off the survivors. Doing it the other way around, like Itami’s team, would give the enemy time and space to react. Worse, by allowing Rory and/or Kuribayashi to charge ahead of the group, the team is guaranteeing fratricide. Once again, this tells me that Itami is an idiot.

The action scenes are all about Girl Power, undercutting the pseudo-realistic tone the anime is going for. By employing Strong Female Action Characters instead of proper military tactics, the anime continues to pander to the lowest common denominator.

This is a shame, because there is an easy fix to the situation that satisfies both story andmilitary logic.

Start with firepower. Have Itami and the team mow down the enemy with automatic fire. Nonetheless, the enemy continues to hurl themselves at the Japanese, closing in to melee range. They let their rookies and new meat eat the bullets, allowing the veterans to engage the Japanese at their preferred range. The combat quickly descends into a desperate life-or-death struggle at close quarters. Of course, in a realistic setting it means Itami and his team will face the real risk of severe injury or death, and that would be a bit inconvenient.

With his poor tactics and inability to control his subordinate, Itami should have died at the Battle of Italica. His survival tells us something critical: the enemy is incompetent.

The Enemy is Boring

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Overconfident inflexible goons in Roman dress, proudly sponsored by TropeCo

The Empire is supposed to be a powerful human polity whose influence is felt across the Special Region, boasting the most powerful military and richest treasury among the known powers. But their actions tell a different story.

Whenever the Empire encounters the JSDF, they are soundly defeated. Yet the Empire continues to adopt the same strategies and tactics, sending armies to the meatgrinder with hardly an eyeblink. Other factions that know of the JSDF do the same thing, with the same results.

This is the definition of insanity. And incompetence.

The Japanese are not invincible.

Magic is not unknown to the people of the world, so why doesn’t the Empire have magicians? Why aren’t these sorcerers being put to work reinforcing body armor, destroying the JSDF from a distance, studying the Japanese technology or otherwise nullifying their firepower advantage? Since everybody knows you can’t face the JSDF in a stand-up fight, why won’t the Empire send spies, terrorists and assassins to wreak havoc at the Japanese base-cum-refugee camp in Alnus? If regular troops can’t kill dragons easily, why won’t the Empire investigate how to tame them?

Sure, the Emperor is supposed to be arrogant and stubborn, but one does not become an Emperor of a vast Empire by being a military idiot. At the very least, he’d have advisors and generals who would suggest and test other strategems, making full use of the Empire’s resources instead of attempting conventional battle.

This stupidity isn’t limited to the Empire either. When the harem visits Japan, nations jealous of Japan’s access to the Special Region attempt to kidnap the harem. They begin by disrupting the travel schedule, then deploy wetwork teams to kidnap them at a hot spring.

Once again, this sequence follows story logic instead of military logic. In a story you’ll want ominous foreshadowing and brief tastes of the adversary’s power to set the stage. In GATE, the enemy does this by shutting down trains and sending a thief to steal Rory’s halberd. In reality, you do not want the target of a deniable operation to know that you’re coming for him. Demonstrations of power aren’t merely wasted effort; they tell the target that he is on a hitlist. It’s far better to gather in secrecy and strike only when the time is right.

Of course, if GATE did that, it wouldn’t have an excuse to reveal Itami’s ex-wife.

It gets worse. The battle at the hot springs begins with Japanese Special Forces taking out threats with suppressed weapons. But suppressed weapons aren’t whisper-quiet. They eliminate muzzle noise and dampen the report. Threats downrange can still hear you; they just can’t tell where the shots are coming from. The wetwork teams would have heard the gunfire and reacted accordingly. Instead, they continued blundering about in the dark. Later, the survivors run into each other, in the open, in front of the bathhouse, completely violating all military tactics.

They are supposed to be hardened SOF troops, but all I see are rookie airsofters playing with guns.

The adversaries in GATE do not pose any significant threat to the Japanese. Not tactically or strategically. Their sheer ineptitude is the only reason the JSDF is unchallenged and, more to the point, why Itami continues to draw breath.

What Could Have Been

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The greatest knock against GATE is that it could have been awesome.

All the ingredients were in place. An Empire divided between hawks and doves, complicated by the hawks using high magic and low tech to credibly challenge the JSDF, the doves being arrested as traitors, and the fence-sitters wondering how to preserve the Empire. A Japan that has to fend off the ambitions of rival nations and deal with domestic pressure as the casualties mount. Rory Mercury being used by the Japanese for anti-Empire propaganda. The JSDF learning the same lessons the Americans did, that technology is no guarantee of victory. An Imperial Sorcerer Corps and Dragon Force taking to the field in desperate battles against the JSDF, while Imperial spies and terrorists stalk Base Camp Alnus to study the Japanese, steal their weapons, incite the refugees, assassinate their leaders, and poison food and water. The JSDF struggling to adapt to new tactics. Cultural and religious clashes in Camp Alnus flaring into dissatisfaction, resentment and conflict. Lelei saving her people from Imperial conscription. Tuka and Yao trying to convince their respective races to take sides in the war. Itami and his battle harem fighting fires all over the Special Region, utilizing firepower and diplomacy to save the day and bridge both worlds.

The world of GATE was rich with potential, but it was all wasted. Instead of exploring the evolution of war, GATE had simple curbstomps. Magic became a curio. Religions and culture have little bearing until it’s time to trot out the gods. Politics is defined by simple dichotomies of peace/good and war/evil. Action scenes are about Girl Power instead of emphasizing the differences in technology, tactics and procedures.

GATE could have been great. But by pandering to otaku, GATE remarkable only for its fanservice and utter lack of depth.

Anime Analysis: Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

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Party wipe in the first five minutes.

If the anime adaptation of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash were set in a realistic and unforgiving world, the main cast would have been slaughtered in the first fight scene. Fortunately for them, they somehow blunder their way out and live to fight another die. Unfortunately, the sequence underscores the unreality of the series, placing Grimgar in that nebulous zone between fantasy and realism.

In contrast to most fantasy stories commonly seen in Japanese media, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash adopts a mundane approach. There are no grand quests or epic adventures, powerful villains or magical weapons, just a band of young people trying to make their way in a strange new world by hunting monsters. Driven more by character drama and interactions than by plot, the anime explores loss and grief and emotional bonds between people.

Alas, its attempts at emotional realism doesn’t translate to the realism in the rest of the story.

So-called Setting

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Pretty pastel colours won’t compensate for a lack of sense.

The setting makes no sense. The tiny slice of Grimgar that the characters inhabit do not exist independently of the characters. Once the party leaves town, it’s as if the town, and everything and everyone in it it, ceases to exist.

When the cast arrives in the world of Grimgar, they discover they have no memories of the past and no idea how they got there. They decide to serve as ‘Volunteer Soldiers’, the world’s equivalent of adventurers, to make a living. Starting as trainees, they must hunt monsters, sell their remains, and earn enough money to become full-fledged Volunteer Soldiers. This is where the setting runs into issues.

In true RPG fashion, the characters sign up at various Guilds to learn a job. After paying a membership fee, they enjoy seven days of training before being left to fend for themselves as trainee Volunteer Soldiers. The Guilds themselves serve no major purpose: they do not represent the interests of their members, they do not participate in politics, and they do not organise expeditions. It’s as if the only reason the Guilds exist is to make money off membership fees and provide skills training.

In such a setting, you’d think the Guilds would treat their members as investments instead of expendable spear fodder. Seven days isn’t anywhere near enough to turn someone into a competent fighter, and it shows. The cast of Grimgar are the leftovers people nobody else wants to party with. In their initial fight scenes they are hopelessly outmatched and utterly incapable of fighting. In a realistic setting, this means that the Guilds will be sending people off to die in droves. They aren’t going to make much money, if at all.

Likewise, while there are religions in Grimgar, they don’t seem to serve any purpose except being the functional equivalent of Guilds. The one time a temple is shown, it’s for a funeral. The priests do not seem to serve any religious purpose except for casting healing magic, in which case they might as well be white mages. There are no holy books, no divine teachings, nothing that marks them as religions as opposed to guilds with funny rituals.

Then comes the question of the economy. Volunteer Soldiers make money by hunting monsters and selling loot, including monster parts. Why are these parts useful? Why is there demand for these goods? Who uses these items and for what purpose? Ranta the Dark Knight offers monster parts in exchange for a Vice, but that is the only time a monster part is seen to have utility. There is no sense of a living economy in Grimgar; for all intents and purposes the scavenged monster parts might as well be vendor trash.

As for the monsters themselves, why are humans hunting them? Why are they roaming the world? What do they want? If they pose such a threat that humans are incentivised to kill them on sight, then why isn’t there a formal military hunting down and destroying these monsters? Why is the task of defending humans from monsters left to roaming packs of Volunteer Soldiers who lack skills and experience?

It becomes painfully obvious that the world of Grimgar runs on role playing game tropes to the exclusion of authenticity. Everything that exists serves the characters, and by extension, the viewer. The monsters create a sense of threat. The economy grinds down the party, forcing them to make tough financial choices. The Guilds teach skills, but nothing more. This is the kind of worldbuilding you expect from a game.

In a game, the player engages the mechanics first and story second. The player doesn’t need to worry the things that don’t concern his party; he just needs to breeze through the storyline and the world so he can get on with slaying monsters and picking up loot. While it would be nice if the game lore talks about monsters, politics and the economy, it is not necessary to enjoy the game or even run a game.

In a story, however, the setting must hold together as a coherent whole, as the characters will be doing more in the setting than just hunting monsters and picking up loot. Indeed, the Grimgar anime tries to show this by following characters in their off-time as they haggle in the marketplace, enjoy meals, and do other mundane things. Beyond the superficial level, though, you’ll quickly realise that Grimgar’s setting simply doesn’t hold together.

To create the feel of a living, breathing world, a fantasy setting must exist on its own, independent of the characters. The characters may change the society they live in, but the setting itself must justify and sustain its continued existence without the characters’ input. Otherwise, the society wouldn’t exist without them, which is ridiculous if the characters are newcomers to the world.

Contrast Grimgar’s setting with Danmachi. In this world, there is an enormous labyrinth under the town of Orario that spawns endless numbers of monsters, which possess magic stones at their cores. These magic stones are inherently valuable, as their stored magic can be used for cooking, water purification and other necessary activities. This generates demand for the stones, which justifies the existence of adventurers who brave the dungeon to kill monsters and recover stones, and the existence of an Adventurer’s Guild which trades these stones for money and regulates the activities of adventurers. The Guild can sell the recovered stones to merchants for a tidy profit, ensuring its continued existence, and the merchants can conduct commerce with these stones. Such wealth would naturally create the conditions for a dungeon-based economy to spring up around Orario. Orario itself doesn’t need a formal army to fight monsters, since the monsters are usually confined to the dungeon, some adventurers are one man or one woman armies, and the most powerful Familias are small armies unto themselves.

The setting of Danmachi feels more coherent than Grimgar because it is justified and self-sustaining in-story, much like real-world societies. While Grimgar deliberately poses many questions and leaves them unanswered, there must be a rational explanation for settings and institutions, even if they are implied instead of explicitly stated. Otherwise, what we have is a half-baked world, fit only for D&D games.

Empty Violence

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GOBLIN uses EYE POWER! It’s not very effective…

I don’t watch anime for action scenes. I’m invariably disappointed if I do. Grimgar is no different.

Grimgar tries to use many tricks to portray the party’s lack of skills and the impact of violence. Under the Scope talks specifically the use of weight, both physical and emotional. In my view, though, the weight makes the action scenes fail.

Let’s start with physical weight. Knife-wielding characters move and strike swiftly. Characters with swords move a tad slower and swing their weapons through large arcs. Moguzo with his oversized longsword swings his weapon with the awkwardness and authority you’d expect from a heavy weapon. It appears intuitive, but to people who practice weapon-based arts, this portrayal of weight falls flat.

As a rule, weapons are closer and faster than you expect. Watch this clip of a knife back cut. Blink and you will miss it. Likewise, when facing a sword cut thrown with full power and intent, you’ll only have fractions of a second to react. A polearm, wielded properly, isn’t much slower. As Metatron points out, great swords aren’t enormously heavy.

Contrary to anime portrayals, weapons can’t be clumsy and heavy: such weapons are hard to wield and will leave the user vulnerable. We see this in the early episodes, when Moguzo’s swings are clumsy and throw him off-balance. Weapons must be light enough to allow the user to recover and reorient after a swing. Heavy weapons will kill their users — they can only exist in a fantasy setting with superstrong users who can wield such weapons with ease or in a world where enemies that don’t know how to take advantage of awkward blows. Grimgar chooses the latter approach, degrading the perception of the threat the monsters pose.

Other tired tropes show up. Characters block sword blows with knives, never mind that the velocity, mass and inertia of a sword would batter the knife away. Limb shots don’t count: characters with wounded limbs can continue fighting with that limb. Characters clash swords and push away at each other, turning a contest of skill into one of plain brute force.

In visual media, viewers have to be able to see the action. This probably explains at least in part why the awkwardly heavy weapon trope has endured for so long. However, the knowledgeable creator doesn’t have to rely on imagined weight to pull off exciting fight scenes. Junketsu no Maria has accurate portrayals of Historical European Martial Arts, with characters using proper techniques and tactics to defeat their opponents.

The psychological aspects of combat in Grimgar are also lacking. On The Scope makes good points about how the camera work, character portrayals and the like feel like the party is in a life-or-death struggle, but life-or-death fights go beyond that.

Throughout the fight scenes, especially early on, characters stand around and yell encouragement, make speeches or banter with each other. They stare at wounds and weapons in the middle of a fight. The goblins in turn stand around and make noise or wait until the humans act. Occasionally, after dodging an attack, goblins actually jeer instead of counterattacking. There are huge gaps in the action and too much hesitation on both sides.

This may be fine if you want to portray a group of incompetent characters, but the monsters suffer from this too. Nobody exploits the speeches, the in-party arguments and other gaps in the action. In a realistic world the monsters would press the advantage — especially the combat veterans. Without anyone displaying a killer instinct or at least training, there is no perception of killing intent. These gaps are counterproductive: instead of emphasising the emotional impact of the fight scene, they suck intensity from it. Indeed, Minato’s early speech on fighting comes off as the producers trying too hard to convince the viewer that it’s a real fight.

Properly portraying incompetence requires knowledge of what it actually looks like. It’s more than just missed shots, awkward movements and bad plans. It’s clumsy footwork, resulting in trips and pratfalls and self-injury. It’s charging in recklessly and being flanked or surrounded by enemies. It’s falling for feints. It’s awkward body mechanics and poor posture, leading to reduced power, poor recovery, telegraphing and openings. Absolute newbies may even cut themselves with their own weapons.

Likewise, fights are governed by more than weight. They are about range, timing, footwork, beats, body mechanics, openings, lines and angles, teamwork, and avoiding fratricide and self-injury. Nobody — not the humans or the monsters — demonstrate more than a passing familiarity with these concepts, not even the more dangerous kobolds near the end of the series.

In a realistic world, a single mistake in combat is fatal. Yet characters keep recovering from these mistakes without penalty. This makes the major fight scenes feel fake. It’s as if both sides are just taking turns to exchange blows instead of actively trying to kill each other. This in turn makes the fight scenes feel artificial: the human characters aren’t actually at risk since they’re fighting unskilled threats, so whenever they are wounded it becomes a plot contrivance instead of an organic consequence of fighting skilled foes. Likewise, there is no sense that the characters actually improve their fighting skills, instead relying on planning and sheer luck to compensate for poor combat ability.

At the strategic level, the monsters show their stupidity. While they eventually adapt to human tactics, they have no grasp of higher-level strategy or even basic security. Early on, when the heroes are observing a party of goblins, the goblins are busy drinking without anyone pulling security. The goblins know that humans are hunting them, but some insist on traveling alone. When the humans raid a ruin occupied by goblins, the goblins don’t increase security, hunt for intruder or even react to assassinations of their kind until a significant plot point–making that point feel artificial instead of an organic consequence. Likewise, when the humans go hunting in a mine filled with kobolds, the kobolds have no security measures in place, no quick response force, and instead of stationing their elites near the entrance so they can efficiently fight off invaders, they are positioned deep inside the mine because…reasons.

You’d expect this from a game. Game designers need to give the player a chance to win and explore interesting settings in depth. To this end, game designers have to create a difficulty curve for the player, and create moments of drama only when the player is familiar enough with the setting and the monsters to be victorious. But in a story, this makes the monsters appear no smarter than a pack of dogs.

The characters are bad at fighting, and the monsters are only slightly worse. It’s the only reason there wasn’t a party wipe in the first five minutes.

Alleged Characters

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Band of LARPers

It’s clear why the main characters of Grimgar are at the bottom of the heap. The real wonder is how they are still alive.

The anime is marked by its slow-paced character-development. This might make sense if the story takes place under ordinary circumstances. But venturing into monster-infested ruins and forests to kill goblins for money is not ordinary, and the anime fails to account for this.

The characters lack curiosity about the world. They don’t research the world, they don’t investigate how society works, they don’t even talk to other Volunteer Soldiers to discuss the monsters. Even the notion of going to a pub to socialise with other Volunteer Soldiers is an alien concept to most of the party until halfway through the first arc of the series.

The party also lacks imagination. When funds are low, the party decides to take risks to hunt more monsters. Never mind that the party has a hunter, a thief, and a warrior talented in cooking or sculpting. The hunter doesn’t hunt game animals to ease their food expenses. The thief won’t engage in thievery, not even stealing from goblins instead of humans. Nobody talks about scavenging the monsters’ equipment, or at least explain why they won’t or can’t use them — and nobody discusses selling the monsters’ gear as well. Likewise, nobody pressures Moguzo to sell his carvings for spare cash, or at least to not waste time and money buying and carving up wood when they don’t any money to spare. You’d think that people who are desperate for money would rack their brains to think of how to make more money and reduce expenses — but our party is evidently too stupid to do so.

Beyond their intellectual failings, it’s clear the party isn’t serious about their profession. Many scenes in the anime involve the characters talking about mundane, everyday things. The party is never shown practicing with their weapons, rehearsing new tactics or discussing how to defeat the monsters. They get better at planning, to be sure, but planning alone isn’t enough. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and if the party isn’t familiar with each other’s roles and actions on target they will trip up each other and die. They are counting on live battle experience to get better at execution, which is pretty stupid: you always practice new tactics, weapons and ideas in a safe environment so that when you make mistakes people won’t die and you can correct them without having to adjust on the fly.

Somehow, the party outlives their mistakes and gains battle experience, but they are not changed by the violence they have inflicted. Veterans quickly learn how to adapt to war. It’s in the little things: readjusting their gear for better fit and speedier deployment, taking up tactical formation while travelling to better respond to ambushes, warily scanning for threats everywhere they go. None of this happens. The characters don’t even suffer any lasting psychological stress or trauma from killing or from being wounded. They do experience grief, but after the initial episodes they themselves are not affected by the violence they personally deliver.

The characters treat combat lightly. They approach it like a job or a game instead of desperate life-or-death struggles that don’t seem to serve any larger purpose. The first couple of episodes tries to lend emotional weight to combat, but this tone is not maintained throughout the series. The party is incredibly casual about violence, not caring about training or rehearsals — because in a world of poorly-choreographed action scenes, there are no penalties for ill-preparedness until the plot demands it. This lack of seriousness contrasts sharply with the earnestness of the emotional scenes delivered throughout the anime. Instead of sympathizing with the characters, I felt myself wondering why they care so little about their own lives.

Once again, these aspects can be overlooked in a game, since players want to get on to the exciting bits and skip the boring parts. But in a story, where characters have to appear authentic, the main cast of Grimgar come off less as Volunteer Soldiers and more like teen LARPers.

Conclusion

Grimgar tries to be realistic, but it’s too heavily wedded to unjustified and inexplicable RPG tropes. Instead of being a hybrid RPG / fantasy story like *Saga of the Shield Heroes * or an outright RPG-esque or fantasy story, it occupies a nebulous middle ground with the worst of both worlds.

If a story world is meant to be realistic, and if characters don’t respect the laws of the world, then the characters must be severely punished. It is simply cause and effect. Failure to uphold this law of storytelling undermines the perception of realism, and with it, the entire story. Conversely, if a story world runs on casual gaming tropes, then this must be made explicitly clear as early and as often as possible, so that the consumer will apply game logic instead of real world logic to the story. If a story wants to walk the middle ground between realistic fantasy and RPG fantasy, then it must strike a delicate balance while remaining internally coherent and believable.

If Grimgar were a video game, none of these issues would have mattered. But since Grimgar is a story, the clash between realism and RPG tropes fatally undermines it.

All images from the anime Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash