Writers from all over the world have made a stable income employing the “classic fantasy” formula in all sorts of media- be they novels, games or even anime, the story of a young boy and his sword banding together with a bunch of eclectic allies to defeat the Lord of Darkness has been used over and over again. Unfortunately, what was entertaining and enjoyable in the old days becomes more clichéd and worn in modern times, and so it is that the classical fantasy has suffered in particular. Exploring the entire genre would take a whole series of blog posts, so in order to keep things relevant, I’ll be covering only anime’s contribution to classic fantasy tales.
Record of Lodoss War OVA
The Lodoss War OVA is generally regarded as THE classic fantasy OVA, complete with six heroic warriors and forces of evil determined on bringing chaos and destruction to the island of Lodoss for no apparent reason. It can hardly be said to be complex or thought-provoking, but it’s good entertainment and ultimately, it encapsulates all the key elements of a typical fantasy series, from dwarves and elves to magical swords and enchanted sceptres. With this in mind, can any other series do any more than be a copy of the original- and can that possibly be enough in these days of more sophisticated storytelling? In other words, since Lodoss War adequately fills the niche of classic fantasy, surely only the most dedicated of fans could want to watch more series that do exactly the same thing.
Even so, even Lodoss War itself had a sequel, in the form of the Lodoss War TV series- a further twenty-seven episodes that packed in even more dragons, heroes, enchanted objects and misguided villains than ever before. There’s no doubt that the TV series was a case of taking things too far- after all, what was entertaining once only shows its cracks the more you go over the same old ground. With this in mind, there were only two ways to approach the series- you could either let yourself be disappointed that the classic formula wasn’t really up to being tested to destruction, or you could take a step back and let it be a mixture of mild entertainment and unintentional amusement. With even the writers poking fun at the storyline with the comedic “Welcome to Lodoss Island” skits at the end of the episode, you wouldn’t be alone in laughing at some of the more implausible aspect of Lodoss War TV, such as the villain being saved from a fall into lava through a last minute teleportation spell, or random commoners being considered suitable to become a king just because they happen to be named characters.
Ultimately, then, Lodoss War TV seemed to mark the start of a new era for the classical fantasy formula- one where laughing at the clichés, inconsistencies and well-known plot holes made for just as entertaining an experience as taking it seriously had once done. And, unsurprisingly, the apparent gap in the market for comedic fantasy had already been exploited.
Don’t take yourself too seriously
Although it came before Lodoss War, the long-running Slayers franchise already knew the pitfalls of playing it with a straight face, and refreshingly chose a light approach. Slayers was the answer to everyone who had wondered why the posturing swordsman didn’t get blown away with a fireball before he has a chance to swing his blade, or why it wasn’t a good idea to spend ages standing motionless in order to complete a lengthy incantation. Yes, it could get a bit tiresome and predictable (see the Premium movie for an example of when even a thirty minute movie can seem too long), but it also knew how to get the laughs.
In more recent years, the highly entertaining Rune Soldier once again exploited the fusion of fantasy and comedy with amusing results, following the adventures of an inept sorcerer after he becomes the resident magic user on a previously all-female group of adventurers. Ironically penned by the creator of Lodoss War and set in the same universe, Rune Soldier was the easygoing younger sibling of the fantasy giant, offering another much needed dose of hilarity that did not outstay its welcome.
Nonetheless, whilst poking fun at something can extend its lifespan somewhat, it cannot keep it going indefinitely. Intentional or not, the amusement can only last until the jokes start getting old, and ultimately this too will feel clichéd and stale.
Wearing a bit thin
Whether you try to take it seriously or find the funny side of a classic fantasy series, there are plenty of examples that indicate that the genre has had its day. Straight RPG adaptations such as Arc the Lad are notorious for being generally mediocre, with the added sting that there is no battle system or exploration to distract you from an average storyline- all you can do is sit and watch.
In more recent times, however, the greatest offender of them all must surely be Deltora Quest, the anime adaptation of an Australian series of fantasy novels. At first, it seemed as if Deltora would at least weigh in heavily on the amusement scale, with scenes such as the one in which the main character’s parents claim they had always been waiting for the moment when their untrained son would set out to save the world. Sadly, even this vestige of hope withered away as fast as the series’ animation budget when our hero’s confrontation with Seven Evil Men proved to be as slow-paced and boring as they come.
It seems clear that the traditional fantasy has long since had its day- no longer is its simplistic storytelling enough to satisfy demanding modern audiences, and even those who feel a degree of nostalgia can simply delve into the existing catalogue of such titles. If fantasy wants to continue to attract viewers, it must start building more complex worlds in which to tell its stories, abandoning tired convention in favour of exploring the largely untapped potential of a fully realised alternate world.
In an upcoming follow-up to this article, we take a look at the effect of revealing a fantasy world to be sci-fi driven, discuss the success of the enjoyable Scrapped Princess and examine how Utawarerumono could have been a great, but was merely average.