where we’ll be reviewing:
Hai to Gensou no Grimgar
Disclaimer: if you haven’t seen this show before, please skip the sections marked with spoilers.
During the summer of 2012, anime was ruined saved by what was to become one of the most popular shows of all time: Sword Art Online. From the very first episode, the show hit the ground running with top-tier animation, heart-pounding fight choreography, and the thrillingly perilous premise of being stuck in a game. It kept going at a recklessly lightspeed pace all the way up to the fervent climax of the show’s first arc. Then, as the show continued on from there into the second arc and the second season, the pacing slowed down, and the sense of immediate danger was lost. Without any high stakes to distract the viewers, the weaker aspects of the show became much more apparent. The harem formula, shameless fanservice, weak romance, flat characters, cookie-cutter antagonists, and lack of RPG mechanics became typical subjects of criticism. So, disembarking from the train wreck of failed potential that was SAO, many hipsters critics sought a new show that could do justice to the “stuck-in-a-game” premise.
And in fall of 2013, their prayers were answered with the true armageddon savior of anime: Log Horizon. As if to directly oppose SAO’s high-quality animation and action-oriented plot, LH boasted bare-bones visuals and featured a plot that seemingly went out of its way to deprive the viewers of action. Riveting! Indeed, it was “mature” and had none of the “gimmicks” and “contrivances” that its predecessor had thrived upon. But most important of all, it was “a more accurate incorporation of game mechanics”, and it would serve as the undeservingly eternal antithesis to everything that was SAO. It might be easier to picture it like this: if SAO were that tease of an ex you just dumped last night, then LH would be the cheap hussy rebound you picked up at that sketchy bar after three too many drinks. But I digress. In the midst of all this havoc of parading about, each show peacocking itself as being the best of the “game” genre, a certain anime came quietly tiptoeing onto the scene this winter of 2016. That show would be none other than Hai to Gensou no Grimgar.
Awaken. This is the first word our protagonists hear as they wake up in a tower and enter the world of Grimgar. Upon entry, they realize that all their memories prior to their entrance have been erased. After some time, we learn that Grimgar operates much like an RPG would: with classes, skills, and monster bounties. However, it is never explicitly stated that Grimgar is itself a game. Piecing together these elements, we get an interesting picture. First of all, our protagonists have little to no awareness of any world outside of Grimgar, so they feel no pressure to “return to their own world” – a common trope in game anime. Secondly, Grimgar does not admit itself to being a game, almost as if that fact is unimportant and easily dismissable. Putting these elements together, we find that Hai to Gensou no Grimgar gives us a casual and leisurely portrayal of the game setting. And this leisurely portrayal of the setting is reflected in how the show structures its plot, with immense chunks of time spent on the characters engaging in leisurely activities. But wait. This is a game anime, right? Where’s the action? The adrenaline? The fights? The overt pandering to game culture? All of the things we come to expect from the game genre is thrown out the window as Hai to Gensou no Grimgar teaches us that game anime doesn’t always have to be a flashy spectacle of smoke and mirrors.
Hai to Gensou no Grimgar continues its trend of implementing unique elements to its story with its background art. The backdrops of every scene are drawn in a gorgeous watercolor with mouthwatering textures and meandering lines that artfully outline the setting. A similar effect was done in Studio Wit’s Owari no Seraph of 2015, where pastel backgrounds were incorporated to depict a gritty post-apocalypic world. In contrast, the backdrops of Grimgar evoke a feeling of utopian serenity to accompany the leisurely feel of the show. As for the foreground, the movement of the goblins and other monsters are animated with great fluidity, which gives them an element of unpredictability and intelligence. The actual human characters are animated using a sizable number of still shots, as is the standard for the medium. Their character designs are also very basic with minimal detail, but that design choice meshes well with the smudged coloring of the backdrops.
(clicking links will redirect to spoilers)
The sound design in Hai to Gensou no Grimgar is simply phenomenal. When you’re in the forest, you can hear the varying warbles of different species of birds, the croak of frogs, the hum of insects, and the crumpling of leaves. When you’re at the pub, you can hear the distant murmur of the rowdy customers. When you’re by the fireside, you can hear the flames crackle and murmur. And when you’re in the rain, you can hear the water droplets bouncing off the stone slabs on the buildings. In general, the ambient sound in this show is very detailed and makes the entire experience more immersive.
The Japanese voice acting is also performed very well. A lot of the characterization is done through the tone in which the lines are delivered, and the voice actors did a great job of nuancing their speech to reflect each character’s personality and team dynamics.
The OP「Knew Day」and ED「Harvest」are done by (K)NoW_NAME. The songs are decent; they’re not too annoying but at the same time not too spectacular either. However, what really stands out is the grand total of eleven insert songs by (K)NoW_NAME that are featured within the show itself. Practically every episode has one, and they’re often played for an unusually extended period of time, sometimes even in their entirety. In a 24 minute episode, you will occasionally be able to listen to a 5 minute insert song from beginning to end. Some episodes even dedicate montages of dialogue-less clips to accompany these inserts. Although this stays true to the leisurely feel of the anime, the show sometimes overdoes it. I’ll admit it, the montage in episode two set to「Seeds」nearly put me to sleep. That being said, there’s also a significant number of insert songs that are quite impressive. Some notable ones are:
- episode three’s「Stand on the Ground」,
- episode four’s「Rainy Tone」,
- episode seven’s「Nutrient」,
- episode eight’s「Growing」,
- episode nine’s「Sun Will Rise」,
- episode eleven’s「Sudden Storm」,
- and episode twelve’s「Cultivate」.
As you can tell from the sheer number of titles I’ve mentioned, the majority of the insert songs were implemented extremely well. They made tense scenes exponentially more dire; melancholy scenes more touching; and upbeat scenes more exciting.
Plot Structure & Pacing
Although I’ve been ranting about how “leisurely” this show is, that descriptor is not entirely accurate. Hai to Gensou no Grimgar can also be thrilling or even heart-wrenchingly devastating at times. If I had to point out a flaw in the show, this pacing would be where I would start. The show tries to balance leisurely slice-of-life with adrenaline-pumping life-or-death action, and it’s hard to say that it succeeds. I enjoyed the slice-of-life for being a refreshing break from the usual pretentious take on being “stuck in a game”. At the same time, I enjoyed the action because it pushed the characters beyond their comfort zones and set them up for meaningful development. Since I enjoyed both tones of the show, it’s difficult to make an unbiased judgment of whether the two tones were balanced or not. What I can say is that the distribution of the two tones across the twelve episode run of the show is a bit wonky and may be unsettling for viewers at the times when they shift.
In addition to this show’s startlingly leisurely interpretation of the game genre, Hai to Gensou no Grimgar has a number of other perspectives to express regarding gaming. Firstly, it critiques the formulaic “living off monster bounties” that many RPG’s glorify. In Grimgar, this is portrayed as a way of life that is difficult, tiring, uncomfortable, and unglamorous. As well, the show humanizes the goblins that our protagonists are forced to hunt in order to make a living, critiquing the similarly glorified genocide that many games involve. Furthermore, the show critiques the “stuck in a game” fantasy by portraying how dangerous that would be if it were to actually happen. The extremely human reaction to character’s deaths and complex emotions that are felt after the loss of a comrade really hit home the terror of such a situation. Finally, the show does an amazing job of stressing the importance of party formation and class roles as an integral part of fighting in Grimgar. This element is exemplified when managing energy as a healer becomes a major plot point; or when organizing the tank, DPS, utility support, and healer roles become necessary in the raid on the goblin hideout.
The true focus and main appeal of this show lies within its characters. Because none of the characters have any backstories, viewers are forced to learn who they are through how they interact. Noticing how these characters speak, what they choose to say, how they react, and other such subtleties allows the viewer to embark on an engaging and rewarding journey to get to know the Volunteer Soldier trainees of Grimgar.
Haruhiro is our main protagonist and fights using the Thief class. He is meek, trusting, respectful, and a natural follower. He clashes with Ranta’s blunt and brash personality and gravitates more towards Manato’s paternal demeanor. After Manato dies, he pressures himself to become the new leader, but finds that he cannot replace Manato because he is too unlike him. He leads his comrades in a different way, one that is more empathetic, individualistic, and humble. The process of finding his own method of leading his comrades empowers him to accept the kind of person that he is.
Manato is the initial leader of the party and fights using the Priest class. He is kind, gentle, honest, and reliable. Despite this, he is somewhat mysterious and suspicious. When Manato ditributes the rewards from the monster bounties among the party members, the dividends don’t add up – some of the money keeps going missing, but no one says anything. Also, Haruhiro finds out that Manato’s been going out to the pub at night without telling anyone. Moreover, Haruhiro keeps trying to ask Manato something, but always stops himself before he does. With all this vague hinting at something bigger, Manato’s death comes way out of left field. The show did a great job of building up his plot armor only to completely demolish it in one fell swoop.
Ranta is easily the most complex character of the show and fights using the Dark Knight class. He’s loud, abrasive, stubborn, rude, and constantly sexually harasses the female members of his party. Despite his tough façade, Manato’s death hurts him deeply and serves as a wake up call for him to cherish his comrades while they’re still alive. He becomes noticeably more respectful and understanding. Despite this development, he tells Haruhiro in a heart-to-heart talk that he’ll never see the other party members as “buddies” – only as colleagues. Then, when he’s in a life-or-death encounter with the Death Spot, he complains about having not been able to grope Yume’s chest. But when he’s actually saved, he has a heartfelt outburst in tears about how he’s glad he got to see his party members again. Whether he actually cares about his party members or not is… ambiguous. He constantly contradicts himself and has a generally rocky relationship with the rest of the party. There is certainly some form of underlying insecurity that prevents Ranta from getting along with the others. It’s up to speculation as to what exactly that insecurity is.
Mogzo is the timid tank of the party and fights using the Warrior class. He likes to cook and enjoys carving wood sculptures when he has free time. After Manato’s death, he pushes himself to be more assertive in order to voice what he thinks is best for the party.
Yume is the clumsy archer of the group that can’t use a bow, fighting under the Hunter class. She speaks with a strange accent or dialect (I can’t tell which), and tends to adorably mispronounce words. She wears booty shorts as part of her class armor and the show likes to accenuate that fact by giving her a lot of ass shots. As a foil to Shihoru, she isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She voices her complaints whenever Ranta cat calls her. Similarly, after Manato’s death, she addresses the elephant in the room of there being a divide between the guys and girls in the party.
Shihoru is extremely shy and fights using the Mage class. She becomes traumatized after Ranta peeps at her while she’s bathing, and as a result, she suffers from severe androphobia for a period of time. Through her experiences, the show conveys the problems particular to a woman that need to be overcome in Grimgar.
Merry fights using the Priest class and is the replacement for Manato. With her previous party, she took the monsters of Grimgar too lightly and overextended her magic to heal her comrades unnecessarily. Thus, when her party unexpectedly encountered a very dangerous monster, she had no magic left and many of her comrades perished. Blaming herself for their deaths, she shuts off her emotions. When she joins Haruhiro’s group, she comes off as standoffish, rude, uncooperative, and cold. But at the same time, you can see that she acts very seriously and professionally in order to maximize the safety of the party. It takes a lot of time and effort for Haruhiro’s group to connect with her. But in the end, she becomes very emotionally attached to Haruhiro for having helped her overcome the burden of her past.
Hai to Gensou no Grimgar is unique in a number of ways. It features watercolor backgrounds, intricate sound design, lengthy insert songs, thought-provoking gaming themes, and nuanced characterization. However, no show is without its flaws. The anime stumbles when it comes to distributing its plot structure and balancing its pacing. That being said, a perfect score is not reserved for “flawless” anime. In my books, a show will get a perfect score if it’s unreservedly enjoyable with no parts that are genuinely bothersome. For me, Hai to Gensou no Grimgar fits that bill.
Final Verdict: 10/10
Disclaimer: I don’t use decimals in scoring because it’s impractical to quantify a show to that degree of precision.