Do you like anime? If so, what exactly draws you to it? If you’re on this blog, you at least have a passing interest in it, if not an obsession, so why do these peculiar cartoons have this sort of draw? Maybe it’s the escapist fantasy, an appreciation for the artistry that goes into their creation, or high-concept stories you really can’t get in media with a basis in reality. But, to begin this review, let me tell you what I love about anime.
Gurren Lagann is an anime about a boy who pilots a giant robot, a robot that is powered by the human spirit and loud, confident declarations about drilling. The final battle is between a hive mind, a fundamentally inhuman force, and the embodiment of how humans fight tooth and nail just because we’re drawn to that kind of individualism. Every time it seems like this omnipotent godlike being has our hero on the ropes, he rallies purely by hyping himself up.
The sheer spectacle of two action figures clashing in an epic duel, with crazy flashing lights and triumphant music. Is this type of anime the most emotionally compelling, or the best written? No, not really, but I think we too often put down the power of something that is just pure anime. It’s loud, colorful, and you can best believe it is over-the-top.
There is this ineffable quality to that kind of storytelling, an intangible effect that elevates silly ideas and simple plots into something greater. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure didn’t become an icon ad one of the best-selling manga ever because of its grounded and realistic characters, I can tell you that.
Today, I’m not here to tell you about an anime that changed my life, or had some deep, profound meaning. No, today, I’m talking about Record of Ragnarok, the Netflix adaptation of the phenomenal manga written by Shinya Umemura and Takumi Fukui, and illustrated by Ajichika. It is one of the strangest anime I’ve ever seen, and that’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a good thing either.
To explain that odd and near contradictory statement, I’m going to have to dissect this crude adaptation with a fine scalpel.
I’m a lover of tournament arcs; they’re a simple but incredibly effective tool to showcase the strength of yoir characters, the strengths of your characters, and provide an easy setup for fascinating fights. I’ve already written extensively about why I love them, and how they can be done differently, which you can read here. However, you’re probably already familiar with tournament arcs if you’e interested in Record of Ragnarok, so let’s just jump into that.
I’m also interested in how different anime can portray world mythologies. Many anime prefer to utilize Japanese mythology and folklore in their monsters, like Dororo and Mononoke. Other anime prefer to get fun and creative with myths across the globe, like Danmachi. Others, like Fate, are contect to pluck the greatest heroes and villains in history and legend to fight for our amusement. Record of Ragnarok, however, is in a category all its own.
The pantheons of world religions have been assembled into a great council to vote on whether or not they should eradicate the human race. The gods unanimously decide in favor, but they’re stopped short of the apocalypse by Brunhilde, eldest of the Nordic Valkyries. She invokes the archaic Ragnarok clause, which gives humans the opportunity to defend their survival in a death battle with the gods who would wipe them out.
With a total of 26 combatants each in a one-on-one fight, humanity has to win seven of their matches in order to escape annihilation. They’re not likely to win against the wraith of the gods, so Brunhilde has to devise ways to even the odds.
The most noticeable thing about Record of Ragnarok is that it is ugly. That’s not even an insult, because the entire art style is purposefully constructed to be grotesque. Detailed, emphasizing the musculature of these godlike physiques, as well as the certain, ahem, endowments of goddesses like Aphrodite. It’s not even fair to call it the “art style”, because that implies a cohesive aesthetic. No, every character kind of looks like they came out of a different anime.
And then the second most noticeable thing about Record of Ragnarok is, well, that it’s ugly. I know the Netflix adaptation of Way of the Househusband got a lock of flack for being a motion comic, but I can accept that it was a conscious decision. Record of Ragnarok is one of the stiffest and clunkiest anime I’ve ever seen.
It’s hobbled by the excessive detail of the character design, but the production is sloppy throughout. The studio, Graphinica, has done very little of note outside a mobile game adaptation and a couple episodes of Hellsing, and the lack of experience is stark. I can only assume there has to have been some poor decisions made by Netflix and the production committee. For a project with a lot of publicity like this, it would have been a tall task even with a generous schedule and an experienced studio.
This results in epic battles that are encumbered with slidshow-like action, which kills most of the hype. That doesn’t mean the fights are drained of fun, but it does severely weaken the impact of what should be the main draw. However, Record of Ragnarok hasn’t completely failed in its presentation; if it isn’t obvious, the character design is phenomenal. It’s strangey reminiscent of the grisly violence that was common in a lot of shone in the 1980s, namely Fist of the North Star and JoJo. Brunhilde could have walked out of Part Five.
The music is competently performed, and the sound design is sufficiently crunchy for this king of action. It’s just a shame that most of this isn’t going to get noticed because the CGI is startling and they use motion lines on static images and choppy run cycles just to give the appearance of movement.
However, there is more to anime than whether or not it looks good. That’s a large part, but it doesn’t completely sink a series. Anime is a visual medium, and considering you hve to stare at this stuff for several hours, it’s important that they get it riht. However, if an anime has other things going for it, you can forgive whether or not it moves smoothly.
To illustrate what else Record ofRagnarok has going for it, I’m going to break down part of the first fight, between the god of thunder, Thor, and the legendary Chinese general, Lu Bu. I normally wouldn’t do this to avoid spoilers, but it’s important to understanding the appeal of the series, and there’s honestly not enough of a story that I worry about spoiling it.
Record of Ragnarok is, and I’m going to say it yet again, very similar to JoJo. Mostly in the way fights seem like they’re going to turn out to be clashes of brute force, only to unfurl the true complexity of each participant and their powers. A Stand battle is never as rudimentary as who can punch the hardest (except most Part Three fights involving Jotaro). You might think this tournament will be decided by whoever hits real good the best, and you’re right, but the framing is just as important.
The most intense moment in this fight is not the exchange of blows, or finding out who wins. It is instead when Brunhilde explains to her younger Valkyrie sister that her strategy was to give Lu Bu the means to shatter Thor’s gauntlets, which allow him to wield his hammer with no recoil. This is immediately followed by Zeus’ smug reply that the gloves are not to protect Thor from the hammer, but the opposite Thor tosses his gauntlets aside, leaving a crater where they fell.
This kind of insane and almost brain-dead back and forth is how Record of Ragnarok produces its peaks and valleys of energy. Even if the presentation is lacking, this is a perfect encapsulation of what I like about anime.
I didn’t speak on many of the other factors, like how the voice performances in both Japanese and English are pretty solid, or how the opening is a banger. This was mostly contrasting the weakness of the visuals and the hype of the fights, trying to compensate for its faults. Despite everything, I think it mostly succeeds.
I usually don’t have mixed feelings like this when reviewing an anime, but series like this are exactly why I stopped giving out 10-point scores. Those scores force you to either religiously adhere to an arbitrary standard and make false equivalences, or to just admit that what you’re doing is arbitrary. With that in mind, Record of Ragnarok has earned the acclaimed title of Entertainingly Egregious.
Record of Ragnarok is terribly drawn and lazily produced, but it’s also one of the most brutally entertaining anime I’ve seen in awhile. There is a crudeness to that which you just kind of have to admire, and I hope that if it gets a second season that Graphinica and the production committee have learned from their mistakes. Maybe I just kind of hope they switch studios, but if they aren’t willing to give their animators enough time to create a polished final product, they need to learn that they’re never going to get it.
So that kicks off Summer 2021, a little earlier than I intended, but the good part about Netflix’s bundle release schedule is that I can watch an entire show and get out a review before the day is done. I’ll tell you now that I’m not going to do as many as last season, the workload of keeping up with so many shows nearly put me in an early grave.
So if you want to send words of encouragement, the best way to do that is to like this review, to follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I fight my own type of tournament arc trying to not get canceled for my terrible anime takes.