I’m starting to develop a general theory that no anime that possesses the words “Record of…” or even just “Records” in general will be very good. Twice now I’ve been treated to anime possessing that word in the title and have been either overwhelmingly nauseated or underwhelmingly disappointed by what I’ve been subjected to (I did a video on how much I disdained Akashic Record of Bastard Magical Instructor, and even applied to do a panel on the subject at a local comic-con). Fascinatingly, however, even though I’ve been perpetually disappointed by this series, I continue to watch it. It’s become something of a morbid fascination for me, as of late: the train wreck title is a little more than just symbolic in this sense.
As a matter of comparison: my friend and I enjoy watching a bad anime just as much as the next person, myself doubly so. I have a soft spot in my heart for war-time anime that try a little too hard to be taken seriously, but inevitably fall flat in one category or another. Pumpkin Scissors initially comes to mind as a great example of a terrible show with bad directing and poor scripting; Strike Witches shortly to follow. Even Izetta: the Last Witch was an ambitious if ultimately anti-climactic attempt at instilling anime-sensibilities into a western genre (the parallel here being those three aforementioned titles focus on First and Second World War Euro-centric topics, and the subject of this blog focuses on classic western Euro-centric pseudo-medieval fantasy). As a writer, you can glean a great deal from a badly composed show: where the pacing falls through, stipulations on poor actor choice, et alia. But in the specific case of Grancrest, it almost becomes impossible to deduce what, precisely, is going so horribly wrong with the show.
The common opinion is that the series is progressing far too quickly. No single plot point is given near enough time to develop organically and in a convincing way. There is credit to this belief: each episode includes at least one “high-stakes” battle that’ll decide the fate of an entire kingdom, introduces anywhere between 1-3 new noble houses/families/individuals and summarily purges said individual or other miscellaneous supporting characters. Not to mention that there is actually enough plot material to have filled several seasons of this series and still have had plenty of room to explore things in fascinating and original ways. To prove the point, I’ll list the primary plot topics as we’ve been presented, but listed in no particular order:
- Theo (later adding Coranao as his surname) wishes to return to his homelands once he’s powerful enough to overthrow the ruling family, the Rossinis
- The Factory Alliance is at high-tension odds with the Fantasy Union over a botched marriage spurred by unknown individuals
- “Vlad-but-Totally-not-a-Copy” the Vampire Lord and Knockoff-Bellatrix conspire to continue the Era of Chaos because they do not wish to lose the power that the Chaos affords them
- The Earl of Villar, more commonly referred to as the Lustful Earl, is eager to expand his sphere of influence through careful manipulation of allied forces
- Lord Milze thirsts for bloodshed and violence, but ultimately seeks to be subservient to whomever he views as the more ambitious ruler, and conquers enemies with brutal efficiency
At the very least, these are simply the topics I can readily recall off top of my head: each one being complicated and involved enough to fill an entire 13 episode season all their own; perhaps even pushing to be a full double-season plot-arc without feeling too devoid of topics. However, because each of these plot arcs are being slammed together with reckless abandon, it does in fact beg the question as to why the writers felt the need to include so much.
The primary reason, I believe, comes from the writers’ unfamiliarity with the material they are actually writing about. It is a common, if ultimately incorrect, trope in the fantasy genre that a single battle will decide the fate of a nation. Indeed, looking back on a condensed history of your preferred war, it does indeed seem like all it takes is that one pivotal fight to change the course of history. Think about D-Day in the Eurpoean Theatre of World War 2, or the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil war (again, citing simple ones that come to mind readily). However, as very nearly every military historian can tell you: these might have been significant or even decisive battles in a military theatre, but they were far from the only ones. The writers of Grancrest seem to have misunderstood how traditional battles ebbed and flowed in a pseudo-medieval society. Yes, there were the big and dramatic clashes between armies at key military forts, but there were also frequent raids and skirmishes made by much smaller units to capture other key resources and strategic points in the landscape. A castle overlooking the sea is a great stronghold (-ish), but to effectively blockade it, you need to capture other costal cities surrounding it to ensure supplies can’t be ferried in or out of the castle. As well, a proper siege could last weeks of protracted bombardment and blockades: very few military commanders back then would elect to storm the gates right away since the soldiers inside would be in high-spirits and much more likely to put up a strong defence.
Of course, military misunderstandings aren’t the only area where the writers don’t understand the minor nuances of exchange: the dialogue surrounding the political discussion between not only enemies, but allies as well, is woefully lacking. The main problem with the dialogue isn’t so much what is being said (though even that part hurts), so much as what isn’t being said. What makes political intrigue so delightful is when you, as the audience, can sense that something is amiss. There’s just something about the way the character inflected upon a particular word, or chose how to phrase that retort, that just makes you feel like there’s more to it than just what’s being said. In a word: subtext. While I will admit that my understanding of the Japanese language is inept at best, ignorant at worst: I can’t speak for the quality of the voice actor’s attempts to instill that sense of subtext into their dialogue. However, I can make several inferences and assumptions based on what is being read out in the subtitles as well as how the director has chosen to block and stage each scene, action and shot. Instead, we’re treated to a high degree of static “talking heads” (a drama term translating to a bunch o’ people standing about just jabbering at each other) and characters saying what they mean in the most literal terms.
Again, it seems the writers are working way outside their comfort levels on this. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge advocate for writers pushing the boundries of what they’re comfortable with writing. My NaNoWriMo project pushed me outside of writing what I specifically knew and it was to great effect. However, even though it was different than what I was familiar with, I still made sure to understand what I was writing about. A bit of research into specific historical aspects, discussions with people who did have more familiarity with some of the subject matter I covered and pulling inspiration from other sources that have handled the material well (not, to clarify, redefined the genre: as a rule, I don’t encourage writers to take too much away from works that are sold on the premise on how it’s so unlike anything else in that genre. By its very nature, it’s unique and deals with matter in unconventional ways. To mimic that is to miss the point, but more on that another time). This, of course, brings me to another unusual aspect of the anime: the extensive size of the cast.
For the first four episodes, we were given two main characters. It was around them and their experiences the whole series was based around. Theo had a goal; flimsy and vague, granted, but one none-the-less. Siluca had a goal as well, and it seemed that her goal was veiled beneath the guise of helping Theo achieve his goals. At the time, I suspected that her true ambitions was to prove her worth and amass her own power while using Theo as a means to her end. While this has, by episode 13 (14, technically) not been the case and all but debunked, it made for an interesting dynamic between the two. Then, come midway through episode four, the gears abruptly shifted and our two main characters were relegated to the sidelines to make way for an even more generic and uninteresting character: Lord Villar. Poorly written as a stock regal and graceful character (who, unfortunately, comes off as more creepy and abusive than intended), this character is suddenly thrown in the audience’s face and it’s all but clear that the writers preferred this character to the ones we started with. Begin the countdown, mind you: it’s abundantly clear from the amount of awkward exposition about his backstory, motivations and relations with his estranged cousin (of whom he basically declared war on, but then promptly gives up when asked to actually step up or shut up) that he’s all but dead by the time we’re introduced to him. Frankly, every time the character strutted into frame, it was like the writers were screaming “Look how cool this character is! Isn’t he cool and awesome and amazing and cool? It’d sure be a shame if something bad were to happen to so cool a character!”
In a way, the anime almost became a fan-fiction just as soon as it started. It was weird.
However, more pressingly irritating than this weird diversion of protagonist focus is the sheer size of the cast. The number of characters zipping on and off camera is staggering; very nearly to a point where you can keep up with them. And, just as soon as they show up, they die or leave just as abruptly in the most awkward “clichéd overly-dramatic death” that the writers can contrive. We don’t have enough time, not just in minutes, but in meaningful interactions, to become invested in the characters or to learn of their desires, fears, goals or even their favourite colour. Hell, the same thing can even be said of the characters who are the main focus of the series most of the time. And it’s not like throwing in a character profile on-screen would solve the issue. The main issue is that the plot is the main focus of the series. The characters are only there to advance the plot.
This was a writing technique I had mastered back in high school: write a really cool plot, write some really cool characters, then put them together. The intention is to hit the audience with a double whammy of cool2, but what your instead get is two mismatched components that don’t add up to a compelling story. I’m presently reading a book titled “Damn Fine Story”, and it’s helped bring to light several shortcomings in my own abilities to tell a compelling narrative. One of the things emphasized in the book is that it’s the people, not the things, that make for a great story. Flashy set-pieces and high stakes are all well and fine, but it’s what the people standing before these trappings that make us invested and make us care. With some of the characters in this story, I want to care; I want to actually give a fuck. But I don’t. Amidst all the negative reviews of the show I read, the common complaint is pacing. It’s too fast; things move too quickly.
It’s worse than that. The show isn’t moving too fast (well, it also is, but…), rather the show itself has no soul. There’s no life behind the narrative we’ve been handled. The characters are little more than standard tropes without depth or drive, the settings are the same castle and the same army over and over, and the plot is one we’ve all seen before. This isn’t to say that a story we’ve all seen before can’t be good, or can’t be incredible. For those who’ve played Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. That story is hardly the most original one out there: mercenary happens along defenceless princess and vows to protect her because he’s a good and loyal civilian, but their journey leads them around the continent fighting off the droves of villains from the enemy nation. You can almost point-for-point predict every twist and turn in the story, but it’s still a great story. Why? Because the characters are vivid and interesting. You catch their quirks and personality ticks based on how they talk to one another and based on their behaviours in combat (or, at least, their combat dialogue since it’s a Gamecube game and not exactly the most revolutionary mechanics out there). Even the princess, whose about as tropey as they come, is still fascinating and more alive than all the characters in Grancrest mushed together.
And there’s more to rip apart from this series, but this blog is already surpassed 2,200 words and I’ve still got a lot to go. So, I shall leave it here for now, with the intention of picking up in another piece where I’ll analyse the medium of the anime itself: the shortcomings in the animation, the poor framing choices and need we even mention how bad the second OP was? You don’t just make an OP recapping the first half of your season: the OP is supposed to get you wondering about what’s to come, not what already happened. That’s just bad form.
I would also like to apologize for being so absent from this blog for so long: I’ve started a new day job a while back and it’s quite physically demanding of me. It doesn’t leave me much energy to commit to writing, but I’m finding ways to change that around so that I miss uploads less frequently. Sorry again, m’bad!