Grimgar & Re:Zero | Genre’s Arbitrary Formulas And Narratives That Challenge Them

Note: Spoilers for both Grimgar and Re:Zero are aplenty.

I appreciated Grimgar Of Fantasy and Ash after watching it to completion recently as a semi-marathon. For the most part, its character studies and the evident focus on atmosphere and a sense of place; rather than the much more often tread adventure fantasy with a clearly defined end goal of saving the world, has given the series a muted presence that ironically made its voice project louder amongst all the background noise. Similar things can be said about Re:Zero, now that it has finished its prolific rampage across the fandom’s collective stream of consciousness…though the reasons behind its highly resonant dual-season run were in complete contrast to Grimgar, as it projects its agenda of social commentary with unrelenting shamelessness and sincerity. In the end, while both series has no doubt invited significant viewership, and inevitable controversy on their respective handling of narrative delivery, I found myself once again standing right in the middle of the crossfire: appreciating what both shows have so admirably achieved, while also contemplating about their various failings.

Genre is a tricky piece of the puzzle when it comes to discussions such as these: am I judging these shows based on my own values of storytelling and presentation, or has the externally enforced confinements of genre already influenced my weighings? As long as we are still engaging in this specific discourse: what genres do Grimgar and Re:Zero occupy and present their ideas in? How are they confined by their genres; for better or worse, and how do they challenge and subvert them? And why?

Grimgar | Understanding Nuance: Focusing on What’s Not in Focus

Take this analogy-of-sorts: Grimgar’s achievements and shortcomings can be perfectly understood just by discussing its background art style: Impressionistic (we will be getting back to this one later), transparent, achieving meaning without resorting to overly complicated texturing and shading, and not concerning itself with minute details: the essence of the atmosphere is being conveyed, and that’s all it needed.

Adopting a watercolour aesthetic that expresses itself through the subtle relationships between different shades of colour and lighting, Grimgar’s background art achieves the sense of fantastical idealism: from afar, it looks like a land of mystical wonders. The show also spends much of its screen time with slow pans of the world’s various vistas and town streets, establishing a grounded sense of presence. However, it avoids establishing a more personal route for the audience to ground themselves in Grimgar’s world, evident from the art’s lack of focus on detailing the world’s personality, such as impressionable architecture a la Lord of the Rings monuments, tavern signs, insignias on uniforms or even showing the street vendors’ stock in close-up. In other words, the show acts as an impersonal art gallery that is willing to show off its world, but unwilling to allow you to reach forward to touch or smell the paint.

I would argue that the choices of focus decided upon by the art team, were deliberately made to maintain the interpersonal focus on the main characters’ situation as outsiders, thrusted into an alien world with little memory of their previous selves. Upon arriving at a new environment, one always takes in the most visually impressionable elements first: the landmarks, horizon outlines and the main geographical personalities are what one remembers first, and forgets last. Grimgar is a character drama: its development energies are directed with the intention of painting a piece that aims to understand its characters’ inner selves. As a result, the background art portrays the world from their perspective: they remember the sunsets as cathartic visual experiences and the general outlines of the towns’ streets as their livelihood, but why would they care about shop signs and what the fabric stands are carrying, when all they are trying to do is survive in a world they barely knew? In contrast to the atmospheric detailing that The Ancient Magus’ Bride managed to achieve in one OVA episode, it is clear in the framing compositions that Grimgar only allows the audience to catch a glimpse of its world. At this point in time, at least.

Defining Artistic Impressionism: Painting To One’s Senses

To further my dialogue on how Grimgar’s background art informs its narrative, I do believe that context is needed for my use of the term ‘Impressionistic’ earlier, as I used it deliberately as a reference to a 1800’s artistic movement, since it directly informs the creative inspiration that no doubt defined (or at least influenced) the vision of the series’ eventual look.

As an abrupt but relevant tangent, allow yourself a few seconds to observe Monet’s painting ‘Impression, Sunrise‘.

Impression, Sunrise – Claude Monet (1872)

Needless to say, in an era where idealised realism (and…a suspiciously keen interest in female nudes amongst the mostly male-controlled competition judge panels and audience) are dominating the European art scene, daftly controlled by a centralised organisation that dictates what is ‘good art’, Monet’s piece was not well-received at the time. The painting doesn’t try to capture life-like details, no attempts were made to hide the brush strokes and the entire frame is covered with just…impressions of a scene that’s barely recognisable.

Impressionism as an art movement is characterised by artworks like this; a keen focus on capturing the essence of a subject, as well as depicting human emotional presence, perception of a landscape rather than the landscape itself, and a sense of movement and time. In this regard, the retreat away from photographic detail is very quickly linked to a common fear amongst painters at that time: the rise of photography and the convenience of capturing real life in significantly reduced time periods. As a result, creative touches that were deemed impossible to be replicated by a camera were explored by impressionist artists. Incidently, Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’ very much gave the movement its name.

Linking back to Grimgar: the personalities of such artistic intentions were definitive in the series’ attempt to bring an unique aesthetic to its artistic canvas: impersonal compositions soundly offset by an art style that is very much personal in their compositional process.

Water Lilies – Claude Monet (1902 – 1919) | One of more than 250 done by Monet, all of his garden pond.

Living the RPG Life | A Flawed Raid Party

In regards to the analogy that I introduced; comparing Grimgar’s strengths and weaknesses to its art style, the show’s thematic and narrative beats showcases the most glaring of its flaws.

Sold as a character drama situated in the genre of fantasy adventure, while also tinkering with the recent and controversially massive sub-genre of ‘trapped in a video game’, Grimgar proved to be eager to differentiate itself from its power trip cousins, going as far as establishing an instant switch of the usual power balance between the ‘player’ characters and the originally-presumed NPC’s. The early episodes already demonstrated the animalistic struggles of the main party, as they barely survive daily hunts for goblins, while Haruhiro also constantly narrates about their lodging, hygiene and nutrition woes.

Paraphrasing from my Winter 2016 impressions: Grimgar relishes in its level of grit and kinetic impact when it comes to demonstrating the primal desire to survive: in a mix of dirty, animalistic and brutal stabs, slashes and screams of horror, pain and agony, the show’s impeccably directed and framed actions scenes perfectly portrays the true implications of taking lives and the psychological complexities and scars of thrusting a blade into living flesh and bones, especially one that’s just as unwilling to die as you. Compounded with the snail-paced nature of the plot’s progression, the entire shows oozes with a sense of lived-in authenticity that are rare in wish-fulfilment genres such as this: though incidental ass shots and yuri teasing are still present and aplenty.

However, as much respect as I have for Grimgar’s attempt in such a slowly paced character story: the treatment of Manato’s death in particular was for the most part respectful, as it also melded well with Mary’s eventual completion of her arc, in regards to her former party members’ fate; Yume, Mogzo, Shihoru and in some ways even Ranta, were left with just outlines of their personalities, and little detail and substance. In other subjects, the geographic mapping of the various battle locations; such as the neighbouring town ruins where Manato was killed and the climactic mines, were set up as inorganic action set pieces (not unlike game level designs) with little resemblance of real-life authenticity. In fact, as much as the show likes to flaunt its characterisation of the goblins as creatures with speech and thought, Grimgar presents their locations in a manner that mimics the set up of a monster respawn area: the goblins were depicted as having extremely controlled patrolling routes, routes that doesn’t seem to change or get strengthened, despite being attacked multiple times by the party. The ‘boss’ characters were also narrated like chess pieces behind the tower (incidently, they were also constantly depicted as playing cards or chess).

In addition, the impression that Grimgar doesn’t attempt to characterise its setting beyond the bare minimum can also be viewed as a negative point. While it can be just considered the remnants of the RPG genre format, the guild and skill system of the show gave off the impression of just being ill-thought out world mechanics that doesn’t mesh well with the organic, realistically unforgiving world that Grimgar is trying to convey.

As a whole, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is an interesting experiment that subverts its genre’s assumed focus, by instead attempting a tone of self-reflection, while also counterbalancing it with kinetic action. Like its art style, the show as a whole is but an impression: its substance lies in subtly, but it also demonstrates weakness in not avoiding the lazy route of relying on old RPG mechanics as major plot points.

Re:Zero | A Mirror that Reflects One’s Own Flaws Is Often Despised

For the record, in no way do I consider the perceived judgement of a ‘well developed character’ as being the same as a ‘likeable character’. Subaru, in my opinion, is currently a definitive example of that distinction. To me, he’s an infinitely complex creation, evolved far beyond perhaps even the author’s original intentions. As a character acting as the mirror for nerds everywhere, Subaru’s characterisation is fuelled by the diverse opinions people has of him: he’s stubborn, egotistical, honest, stupid, noble, dishonourable, gutless, brave, intelligent, perceptive, clueless and sincere, all at the same time. And guess what…all humans are like that. I’m like that.

People like familiarity. There’s a certain sense of harmony and self-insurance that comes with it. This framework of norms has been subject to constant revisions by thousands of trends, culture shifts and art revolutions that dotted mankind’s history, but most individuals prefer to soak in the periods in between: where everything is where it should be.

In anime, one of these grandstanding medium familiarities is the classic combination of a resident Japanese otaku, who is seemingly ‘misplaced’ in an alternate fantasy world, where cat girls, dragons and medieval taverns dotted the landscape. Armed with the pre-disposed knowledge of the world, collected tirelessly by the real-world shut-in, through hundreds of hours of gameplay, merchandise collecting and…general fantasising, the hero otaku of the story is able to defeat the evil that haunts this fantastical land, and thus saving the world. The alternate wish-fulfilment storyline.

Re:Zero likes to lure people of this ilk to it, with an all-too-familiar setting: a shut-in N.E.E.T being transported into another world, destined to be its hero in shining armour, before pulling the rug from under them. And as every viewer who has watched past the show’s extremely uncanny and sadistically brutal mid-section may know, the shock can be considered to be the show’s main selling point, but also its biggest draw-back.

From very early on into the show, when I try to uncover the reasons why Subaru finds levity and a sense of relief in utilising real-world gamer/otaku knowledge for self-amusement and self-insurance, I already began to suspect that it was all part of a self-applied coping mechanism: gaming and alternate world fantasising are his most familiar pastimes, so it would be natural for him to jab on and on about how his misfortunes in this unforgiving world, are so alike his experiences in RPGs. Of course, there are instances where Subaru completely breaks the fourth wall for the sole purpose of the writers having some low-swinging fun, but those moments did not break immersion when it comes to Subaru’s personality.

Regarding White Knights and Princesses | Who’s the Real Hero?

Episode 13 – 18 lies at the forefront of the tonal debates that rages between the arguments, considering it either overly indulgent torture porn or brutal honesty. Subaru navigates through multiple respawns, repeatedly failing at multiple crucial points that builds an eventual bigger picture. Subaru’s self-glorified expectation for the world to already see him as the hero is an interesting angle that I mused over during the weeks while these episodes aired (I avoided the social media discussions surrounding these episodes, for the safety of my mental health): he loses Emilia because of it (as it portrayed Subaru as being untrustworthy and dishonest), he gets killed by Rem (twice) because of it (since he constantly forgets, that his progress in the game are not auto-saved, per say) and he failed three simultaneous political negotiations because of it (one because he didn’t care for his honour, two because he assumed goodwill, and three…because he assumed Crusch will help without wanting personal gain, and working under an unproven theory). Therefore, as a whole, Re:Zero sets out to completely uproot the mindset established by the genre: the main characters’ perceived paradigm is far too removed from the rest of the narrative world to be considered realistic or creatively impactful to the story. Of course, the real life social implications of this message are also clear.

Rem’s place in the narrative is an interesting one to consider, even without paying attention to the fuss the fandom is going through regarding her apparent perfection (Oh, I’m not disagreeing here. Not agreeing either, though). As the first person to be truly saved by Subaru’s actions (Giving someone a new sense of purpose argubly rings far louder than keeping one out of danger), it is brutally ironic that Subaru failed to see it until Rem practically confesses her love for him in episode 18 (the series was considerate enough to also show Rem sacrifice herself multiple times beforehand, to get the point across). The emotional core shared by Subaru and Rem is consistently strong, compared to what he has with Emilia, though that’s an observation made with lingering concern, since the relationship between Subaru and the latter were mostly established off-screen (extended interactions in the mansion, the off-screen date at the village, etc). As the main couple, the series doesn’t spend much time on them until the final episode aired. Subaru’s final act of saving Emilia once again brings up little new information about the two’s relationship: Subaru is head over heels in love with her, and she detests herself based on external perceptions from others. In many ways, Subaru’s effect on Emilia mirrored that of Rem: he acted as an external influence that breathed back purpose in their lives. However, it would be fair to conclude that while the show has done the ‘main’ relationship justice in the end, Rem’s story and its eventual development captivated me far more; despite the familiar territories that it occupied in the narrative sense.

Also…as a fan of John Woo, one must have realised why I found Rem’s confession scene more captivating.

Overall, as a piece of entertainment (well…in my opinion it certainly does need to relearn the definition of ‘entertainment’…the midsection were certainly meaningful, but by no means was it fun to watch), Re:Zero’s political landscape is better established than the collective average of its genre, its world solidly grounded in a visual and narrative language that has already established some intriguing mythos, as well as having a very clear message to convey; one which it conveyed with loud confidence. As for its method of expression…one better be prepared to agree to disagree.

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