If you like high fantasy, do yourself a favor and watch Record of Lodoss War, the original 13-episode OVA from the early ‘90s. For a while it was the most notable fantasy anime, though the years have seen its acclaim diminish. Thankfully, the years have also provided a more varied amount of fantasy within the anime medium. Back in the day, the first three episodes were on constant rotation on SciFi Channel’s “Saturday Anime.”
I first watched it when I was a boy and it left a large impression. Character designs were by the great Nobuteru Yuuki, who did the legendary Vision of Escaflowne and the legendarily awful Angel Cop. Out of all anime designers, he gets the idea of weight. The characters’ armor looks heavy to wear, even painful. Their clothing is wrinkled and creased. Books are coated in dust, staffs are gnarled, elves have rabbit-sized ears, and oh LORD the dragons!
Each dragon has an individual design. So lovely. The show is worth it for the frog pouch dragon in episode one alone. Anime is filled with protagonists who look like a strong breath could blow them over. Yuuki’s characters have presence. Besides the designs, Lodoss is a perfectly executed epic fantasy, with all the beautiful settings and heroism and atmosphere. But it also taught me the importance of setting up the audience’s expectations… then tearing them down.
The plot is, as they say, so Dungeons & Dragons you can hear the dice roll: a knight, wizard, cleric, thief, high elf, and dwarf set out to save their world from the dark lord trying to conquer it. They join up with the good king (who, naturally, used to be friends with said dark lord) and go to war against the trolls, goblins, and dark elves. There’s daring-do and nature-loving elves and the gruff old dwarves who talk trash about them. The bad guys all wear black leather vests, which makes me wonder about the Dark Tailor employed to make these uniforms. Anyways, high fantasy tra la la. Open and shut, right?
Record of Lodoss War, on closer glance, is a series that delights in not doing what you expect it to do. Let’s look at the villains. Beld, emperor of the dark island of Marmo, wants to conquer Lodoss. He is held up as the mirror opposite on his old buddy Fahn, who wants to unify Lodoss. Nazis or the EU? Hmm. In this world, consolidation of power is always wrong. Then there’s Ashram, the black knight who leads Beld’s armies. Thoroughly evil, yet he loves his emperor. He loves the dark elf Pirotess. Wagnard the wizard, the series’ resident mustache-twirler, is really just a pawn for forces more powerful than himself. There’s Karla, the Grey Witch, who at first appears to be another member of Team Evil, but her character turns out to be more compelling, both in her goals and the lengths she goes to achieve them. Her desire for balance provides the thematic linchpin for the whole series. A lot of thought went into making these characters human, and it shows.
One thing that sticks out on rewatch: the D&D party in Lodoss kind of sucks. Parn (aka Anime Hero #268) is always getting beat up and knocked on his butt. The thief Woodchuck rarely does anything. And the elf Deedlit’s “spirit of the water” summoning never works. If the world of Lodoss operated purely on might, these guys would be goners.
Yes, Parn gets better at fighting. By the last episode, he’s even earned the Billowy Cape of Awesomeness. But the series has a point that it is their loyalty and love for each other that wins the day, not simply their fighting skills.
Every time you think you know what’s going to happen, the series throws you a curve ball. Oh, hey, here’s a bad guy who just redeemed himself! He’s going to join forces with Parn in the end, right? How about, the black knight is set up as his nemesis, so of course they have a fight to the death in the last episode, right? Even little stuff throws a wrench in the epic fantasy cogs. There’s a character named Orson who is a berserker: he is possessed by a demon spirit that makes him go berserk when he sees his loved ones threatened. He’s going to do that in the final battle, right? RIGHT?
No, there’s none of that predictable fanservice. The writers of Lodoss War are too busy telling an honest to god story.
A lot of high fantasy has comedy sidekicks. How often do these sidekicks get possessed by a grey (not evil, *grey*) witch halfway through the series and become her new vessel? You may say, “His friends rescue him right? Like they rescued Han Solo.” Wrong. That’s part of the beauty of Lodoss. The party changes over the course of the tale. Old friends depart, new friends arrive. Some heroes die. Some get abducted. The table changes over the course of this brief yet spectacular anime. No one is safe.
Parn’s victory is not realizing his place as the chosen one (by the end of the series, he’s not even that good a swordfighter). It is in accepting the balance and following his personal code. The series always comes back to the idea of individuality. The terms “light” and “darkness” get thrown around a lot, but this is because Lodoss is a serious look at the concept of good and evil. How the characters embrace or defy this dichotomy of absolutes in turn defines them. In the end, the idea of a “crusade” or a “jihad” against their enemies is not what motivates the characters to be heroes. When Parn and Co. storm Marmo in the last episode, it is as much to rescue their friend Deedlit as it is to save the world.
The one major complaint against Lodoss is the animation. There are a lot of repeated cells. Some frames, it’s obvious the animators are simply moving a static image instead of animating it. Like those old Mercer Mayer videos from my childhood. Lodoss taught me that animation isn’t everything. The quality of character design and storytelling trump the cheapness of the production.
The story of Lodoss’s creation closely mirrors that of the Dragonlance Chronicles. Started as a role-playing campaign, turned into a series of novels, then expanded to other media. It’s hard to believe there was no influence of one on the other, but they developed around the same time in two separate areas of the world. I think this is indicative of an overall wave in the high fantasy genre, maybe inspired by the emergence of RPGs. These games got new voices involved in fantasy writing, many of whom wanted to tell epics in different ways.
Dragonlance gets unfairly slagged for being a Tolkien knockoff, primarily by people who never read the books. Other authors were jealous because these books became NY Times bestsellers when “anybody could write them.’ No, anybody could not write them. Not anybody could conceive a character like Raistlin. Not anybody could write the Battle of the High Clerist’s Tower. Not anybody could come up with characters that are so flawed yet so sympathetic. Dragonlance did not become popular because it was a story about saving the world from evil. It wasn’t even the Larry Elmore cheesecake that made it popular. DL was a story about conquering personal demons. That’s where things started, then veered into darker territory with the Legends series. When the indisputable hero of your piece will kill innocents, lovers, and family to get what he wants, you are playing way outside the Tolkien sandbox. One only need read the final book in the Legends series to know that, in this series, peace does not come without cost. Man, that was a depressing novel.
One key aspect of Dragonlance is sympathy. Every character, from Tanis to Raistlin to Kitiara to Goldmoon, is doing what personally feels right to them. Each one could be the sympathetic protagonist of their own novel. The same goes for Lodoss.
From what I am told, the 1998 Lodoss TV series Chronicles of the Heroic Knight follows the novels more closely. If so, this is a shame. The show is much more typical fantasy, with extended quests and chosen ones and predictable plot points. The good guys are all great fighters. There’s some kid who wants to be a hero and zzzzzz. The show is also way longer than the OVA. The latter cuts decades from the timeline and leaves an army of characters by the wayside. Plot developments that occur in the last half of the show simply never happen in the OVA. Really, the only thing of any worth that is lost is worldbuilding. Chronicles’ supposed fidelity to the source material makes me guess that much of the OVA’s subversion came from trying to truncate the narrative. If so, Lodoss War may be one of the few times in genre history that not an adaptation, but a bastardization, is better than the original.
The economy also means that no scene feels wasted. In this age of 10+ volume book series, a lot can be said for trimming the fat. Parn’s maturation feels natural because you can track it scene by scene. On top of everything, the series is romantic. That opening monologue, “The final battle between Light and Darkness . . .” is still a clarion call to adventure, twenty years later. Sweeping and epic, dealing with huge themes while still retaining its optimism. Lodoss does not have to dwell in nihilism in order to break the high fantasy formula; the creators recognize how generic the set-up is and tweak it to make the story surprising. Subtle subversions. George R.R. Martin gets credit for taking high fantasy in a gritty direction, and deservedly so. But the groundwork for the de-Tolkienization of the sub-genre was already taking place in the 80s, through properties like Dragonlance and Lodoss. They may not have completely flipped the script, but the tide was turning toward a more nuanced approach.