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

Martial Analysis: The Knife

Knives are brutally effective at killing people and terribly ineffective for self-defence. To understand this conundrum, we need to understand the properties of a knife.

First, the pros. Knives puncture and sever. With a properly sharpened knife, it doesn’t take a lot of force to penetrate flesh and open veins. Smaller knives can be easily concealed on your person, under a thin layer of clothing. The blade of a knife adds a few inches to your reach when held in a forward grip; held in the reverse grip, the blade can be used to hook and clear the opponent’s limbs. As a short and light weapon, it can be used freely in the clinch and at grappling range, allowing for multiple rapid strikes. Many commercial knife designs are adequately sharp, cheap and utterly disposable — which lend themselves to specific applications by certain professions.

Now the cons. Knives do not usually impart kinetic energy into a target. They cannot break bones or shock the nervous system; when the adrenaline is going, the opponent won’t know he’s been cut. Most modern knives have little mass behind them, so unlike their larger classical cousins they cannot cut off limbs. Cutting a threat will spray blood all over you. A blade offers only a few inches of extra reach — against a longer weapon like a stick or a chair, a knife wielder is at a clear disadvantage. Folding knives require greater fine motor manipulation — and training — to properly deploy, and there’s a not insignificant risk of messing up the deployment under pressure. Fixed knives, while easier to draw, are harder to conceal. And in the First World, it can be a tad inconvenient if the police ask you why you’re carrying a blade — especially if you do not live in a blade culture.

Forget what you see in Hollywood and most pop fiction: a single lethal strike is not enough. There is no such thing as an immediate kill with a knife. It takes between one to two minutes (usually on the longer side) for someone to bleed to death from a single severed major blood vessel. Up to an hour if you’re unlucky.

In combat every minute is an eternity. If you can’t intimidate the threat after pulling the knife, things will get very ugly, very quick. On the other hand, knives are ubiquitous, cheap, disposable, easy to handle and easy to conceal. Sneaking up on someone and stabbing him to death is depressingly easy. It’s not a clean death: it’s hard and messy and noisy — and that’s if everything goes your way.

This is the reality of the knife. It is an excellent offensive weapon. If you have the initiative, you can overcome its drawbacks through stealth and violence of action, filleting your target without ever giving him a chance to retaliate. And when you’re done if you have a cheap blade, you can simply toss it and get a new one. On the other hand, knives are poor defensiveweapons: they’re not going to quickly stop a threat — at least, not without proper training.

Before You Take Up the Blade

I am not a self-defence instructor. I’ve studied martial arts for a mere three years. Do not count on my words as gospel; if you want to dive deeper, seek out the knowledge of qualified teachers, many of whom I will link to at the end of this post. All I will do here is summarise what I have learned over the years.

In a court of law, a knife is a deadly force implement. It is illegal to use one if your life is not at risk. In many places, it is illegal to use one, period. In my own country, it is illegal for civilians to carry weapons for self-defence. If you choose to carry a knife as a weapon, you must understand your local law and the penalties for breaking it.

If you do carry a knife for the express purpose of combat, you must be psychologically prepared.

Extend your arm to the fullest. This plus the length of the blade is the maximum range of knife combat. More often than not, it will take place closer than that, so close you can smell the threat’s breath. You will be pumped full of adrenaline, your senses will be simultaneously sharper and duller than usual. Through the blade you will feel flesh parting and blood gushing. You will hear the grunts and screams and cries of a dying man. The stench of his fear and blood and waste will fill your nostrils. He will thrash and buck and flail and fight and you have to hold on. You must stitch the threat over and over and over and over again, working the target until the moments a viciously violent living being becomes an inanimate lump of meat and bone.

When it’s over, you will be covered in blood and filth. If the threat had a bloodborne disease, you’ve just exposed yourself. If you’re lucky, you will merely suffer long, agonizing weeks of pain, fever and vomiting. If not, you will suffer long, agonizing months of pain, fever, vomiting, intensive medical treatment — and then you will die. HIV and Hepatitis B and C are the primary pathogens of concern; using a knife on a threat with one is a fine way to catch it.

And even if you manage to walk away clean, you will never, ever, forget. All you can do is make peace with what you’ve done. Be ready.

Targets and Tactics

Different knife arts have different targeting methodology. In Pekiti Tirsia Kali, there are three primary targets: the guts (or groin), the underarm and the throat. There are five secondary targets: the eyes, the hands, the inner forearm, the biceps and the thigh. The primary targets are for killing, the secondary targets are for degrading the threat’s ability to fight.

To defeat a threat with a knife, you must achieve at least one of the following:

  • Psychological stop: Intimidate the threat into running away, or to give you enough space to deploy another option
  • Exsanguination: Puncture so many holes in the threat he bleeds out
  • Structural stop: Sever the muscles, nerves and/or tendons that allow him to move

A psychological stop is simple. When a threat accosts you, pull out a great big knife with a great big smile. If the threat persists, cut at his hands, eyes or face. Humans are hardwired to instinctively protect the head. The flickering blade, the spray of blood and (hopefully) a sudden pain combine to terrify the threat. The idea is to give him something else to think about and to convince him that you aren’t an easy mark.

But this only works against an uncommitted attacker. This is for the mugger, the woofer, the punk with more mouth than brains. Against someone whose blood is up and hell-bent on killing you, you can’t count on it. He may not even register the blade’s existence. Also, in many jurisdictions, this is a crime. You clearly didn’t feel threatened enough to carve up the threat, so it clearly wasn’t a life or death situation, so clearly the use of a lethal weapon is not justified. Use this tactic at your own risk.

Exsanguination is easy. Puncture the major blood bearing organs, sever the arteries and wait for him to bleed out. It doesn’t take a lot of training to do this; you just need to will to do the ugly, dirty job of manslaughter.

In PTK, the throat is the ideal target. Here are the carotid arteries and the trachea. Slice these and blood will gush free and flow into the airways. The threat bleeds and chokes out simultaneously.

After the throat is the underarm. The rib cage protects the chest, but the armpit is undefended. A stab here will puncture the lung and, with a long enough blade, the heart. When you retract the blade, the muscle and tissue collapses. The target suffers a sharp shock to the chest. With every breath, his lung deflates.

The groin region should properly include the guts as well. Here is a wealth of blood vessels and organs: the intestines, liver, spleen, stomach, pancreas. Rapid, upward thrusts and swift horizontal cuts to the region leads to massive internal damage.

Pulling off an exsanguination stop is depressingly easy. Just watch this:

There is no dancing around, no fancy footwork, no posturing. Just four easy steps.

Get as close as you dare. Jam his primary arm. Crash him into a wall or floor. Stab until you or he blacks out.

What if the bad guy attacks you with a blade or stick ? Simple. Cut or stab the hand, clear it out of the way, then bum-rush the target and stitch him up until you or he blacks out. If you have a knife in the reverse grip, it is easier to hook and shear the enemy’s weapon away.

What if the threat is already grappling you? Draw knife, cut him until he lets go, then escape or use the above tactic.

This is the essence of knife ‘fighting’. It is less a two-way exchange of blows, more a sudden furious desperate blitz of steel and spit. Advanced knife tactics are all about creating an opportunity to close in so you can do this.

As discussed earlier, an exsanguination stop will take time. Long minutes of stabbing and slashing and cutting and piercing until the threat ceases to be one. And if he is in knife range, you are also in knife range. The threat may access hidden weapons and fight back even as you stab him. You won’t feel it until you grow weak and black out and die. Even as you work him over, you must deny him the ability to kill you. You need to move as he moves, keeping his arms tied up and jammed against obstacles, and if you sense him drawing a weapon you must respond. Similarly, if the threat has friends, you cannot let yourself be tied up taking one guy out. Otherwise, they will pull you off him and do unto you what you were doing unto him.

The structural stop is based on the concept of defanging the snake. If a threat cannot hold a weapon or cannot stand he is no longer a threat. This plays into the main strength of a blade, allowing you to rapidly incapacitate a threat without the inconvenience of waiting for him to bleed out. As a bonus, you are less likely to take a spray of blood to the face.

The weapon arm is the primary target. The inner forearm is rich with nerves that control the hand. The largest muscles that power the arm are on the upper arm. To attack the former, you need to perform what is known as a gunting or crossada: a scissoring motion that deflects the weapon hand with your secondary hand while simultaneously slashing with your primary. This requires a great deal of training: it is very easy to miss or, worse, catch the blade with your naked hand. Alternatively, you move to the inside of an incoming attack, blocking the weapon arm with your secondary arm and slashing the forearm. To take the biceps or triceps, go for a deep gunting or inside slash, or slip out and jam the opponent’s arm against his body and slash the exposed muscle.

The eye is a valuable target. If the threat can’t see he can’t fight. The goal is to thrust and run. After you stick the eye, the threat will be blind in that eye. Run past his blind spot. This should buy you enough time to flee the area.

The thigh is the other main target. Here, you target the quadriceps. If the threat can’t stand, he can’t slash or strike you. However, if the threat has a firearm, you must also disable the hand (or stomp him in the face) or risk being shot in the back.

While a structural stop may be quicker than bleeding out a threat, it requires training. You need to meet an incoming attack with your naked hand and a tiny blade without getting cut. This requires exquisite timing and bravery, developed only in the training ground. If your cuts don’t go deep enough, the threat will still be active, allowing him to harm you. Further, most FMAs were born in a time and place without heavy jackets or jeans — blades may simply slide off clothing or won’t go deep enough. You need to train the comma cut, and to stab andslash a target muscle. Michael Janich has more below.

Structural stops rest on the assumption that you have someplace to escape to and the threat will obligingly go down and stay down. If you’re attacked at home, or if you’re in a confined space like an elevator or stairwell, you have to fight until the threat stops. If the threat runs away or gives up after you cut his arm, great. But if your cuts are too shallow, if the threat simply picks up his weapon with his other arm or draws a backup, and is still able to harm you, the fight is still on.

Sayoc Kali teaches the concept of timers and switches. Timers are lethal attacks that will permanently end a target, but take time to bleed out. Switches are structural strikes that will permanently disable a target’s limb, but will not kill him. Learn to mix and match targets as the situation dictates. Against a single threat, flipping a switch or two may be enough to end the fight. Against a pack of enemies, you need to keep moving while defending against the possibility of hidden ranged weapons; you may have to employ a timer and a switch on every threat to stop them. A berserker or highly dedicated attacker may only stop when he runs out of blood and air.

With a knife, there is no clean distinction between lethal and less-lethal force. A quadriceps cut may non-lethally put down a target, but it can also sever the femoral artery and cause him to bleed to death. A cut throat is presumably lethal, but a shallow cut might not dissuade the threat. But to the courts, a knife is always a lethal weapon: even if you use a knife non-lethally you are only allowed to do so if your life is at risk.

Reading is no substitute for training and experience. If you dare to take up the blade, find a trainer and prepare for the worst. Study the human anatomy and psychology, understand the strengths and weaknesses of the blade, and be ready for a whirling maelstorm of steel and blood.

Further Reading

This is only a basic overview. There is much not covered here: psychology, anatomy, tactics, critical skills. For more information, please see below.

Other noteworthy instructors include Doug Mercaida, Terry Trahan, James A. Keating, Ed Calderon and Raymond Floro.