There’s something to be said about formulas. Just think about all of the complex mathematics you had to take (or are currently taking). Formulas are there for a good reason: They help solve a large number of problems by applying consistency. And really, while most movie, film, television and book critics praise anything that tries to distance itself from a formula, the most popular forms of entertainment media are always the ones that start with a certain accepted standard, and then figure out a way to apply that standard differently. We’re not talking about the “cookie cutter” style that one might find. We’re talking about innovation. Think Apple. Think Nintendo. Think Dyson (you know, the people that make those futuristic looking vacuums and fans).
Is A-1 Pictures an Apple? A Nintendo? A Dyson? Perhaps. At least, they are when it comes to Hai to Gensou no Grimgar. If you didn’t take a chance on the anime last season, do yourself a favor: watch it. Right now. Especially if you’re a fan of the budding RPG genre of anime. Hai to Gensou no Grimgar is formulaic exactly where it needs to be and innovative everywhere else. It's not without its faults, of course, but it’s one of many other anime that exist as a “proof of concept” of sorts. This applies not only to the RPG genre, but to why anime studios are so good at storytelling.
Breaking Down the Formula
Let’s start with the idea of its formulaic nature. Normally, one does not apply that term as if it was a good thing. But in reality, it is. Story formulas give the viewer a sense of place. We like comfort more than confusion. We like a bit of familiarity. Hai to Gensou no Grimgar gives us that. We recognize the initial setting of characters waking up in a strange world with little to no memory. We recognize the RPG elements that are applied (magic, skills, guilds). We recognize the idea of raids, however loosely applied. It’s familiar. It helps ground us. One may even call it a launching pad.
Therein lies the problem with anime that try to be too artsy, too different. It’s a bit of a high risk, high reward venture. Far too often, they fail to connect with fans. Think Sekkou Boys from the Winter 2015 season. You have to give LINDENFILMS credit for trying something different, but while it resonates strongly with a vocal minority, it certainly has limited mainstream appeal (as evidenced by its MAL score).
Bucking the Trend
Hai to Gensou no Grimgar bucks the trend for its genre in all the right ways. It’s extremely gritty. You could hardly apply a better word for it. It’s packed with all of the same emotional drama you find in other anime of the genre, such as Sword Art Online or Log Horizon. However, the feces hits fan real quick, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that A-1 studios has a point to make when it comes to these types of stories.
In the effort to avoid spoilers as best as possible, we’ll say this: Emotional connection to main characters is important. And with the exception of, perhaps, Sword Art Online or .hack*, death in most RPG anime is often either temporary or minimal. When characters do die, it’s usually ones we don’t care about too much, or that we were never meant to care about anyway. A-1 pictures rudely awakens us to the fact that no one is beyond death, even in a fantasy world.
Death on Display
How A-1 Pictures deals with the concept of death is exactly what makes Hai to Gensou no Grimgar a great example of innovative storytelling in anime done right. The RPG genre in general has been hesitant to dip its toes into those waters. And most anime (and stories) in general hold sacred the idea that the main characters are beyond death. In that respect, A-1 Pictures is following a general trend seen today that hints at a more realistic approach to character development. Death happens -- sometimes unexpectedly -- and often to the ones we love. The “no character is sacred” idea can been seen beyond anime as well. Just ask any fan of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. Hai to Gensou no Grimgar similarly places that hideous reality right at our feet and tells us, rather pointedly, “Deal with it.”