Still dazzled by Berserk, I went back and had a closer look at the other major example of an anime that draws on Western-style fantasy. And it’s funny how Record of Lodoss War, or Lodoss as it’s more commonly simplified, is in many ways a lesser parallel to Berserk. Both deal with the idea of human life in the arena of grand ambitions, about whether or not any of us are truly in control of our destinies, and how that affects the fates of nations. Berserk takes these ideas seriously and sees them through to the bitter end. Lodoss uses them for window dressing, a way to spice up a fundamentally routine story that isn’t motivated by anything bigger than the need to touch all the bases on the way home. For most people this isn’t a bad thing, but I wanted more.
The Lodoss mythology was derived from a tabletop roleplaying game setting created in Japan, later adapted into a series of novels and a manga (also published in English). If memory serves it might even have been the very first fan-subbed anime I ever saw: someone loaned me a rather blurry VHS tape with the first four episodes on it, with English titles added by hand courtesy of the then-cutting-edge Amiga’s video compositing system. I enjoyed it, but at the same time I felt like I was watching a missed opportunity in some ways. Now, over a decade later, I think I can put my finger on what went wrong: there’s no greater purpose in the story that isn’t already part of the genre it’s in. It can’t help but be a retread.
The story is, as with most fantasy written in the past fifty years has become, strongly redolent of many conceits popularized through Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I suspect there’s no getting away from that, sadly. The Lodoss of the title is an “accursed island”, plagued by endless war and turmoil as various factions have all tried to conquer or unite it over the centuries and failed. A young man named Parn is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a knight in the service of his king—even if, as it turns out, he’s not all that good a fighter at first. The show does not do a very good job of illustrating his progress as a fighter: he spends three-fourths of the series fumbling around with his sword, and then in the last few episodes he becomes a killing machine as the plot demands.
He has spirit from the start, though, and the help of a few friends: Etoh, a priest, and Parn’s childhood friend from his village; Slayn, a magic-user concerned about the powers being unleashed all around them; Ghim, a dwarf concealing a sad secret or two; and the wood elf Deedlit, alternately amused and irritated by Parn. There are others who come and go as well, some of whom play unexpectedly pivotal roles—like the petty thief Woodchuck, who goes from being comic relief to having his body hijacked for thoroughly nefarious ends by the sorceress Karla. Karla is in fact one of the story’s prime movers, centuries old and determined to keep the balance of power across the island by literally any means.
There are a great many good things about Lodoss—it’s well-paced and has a lot of action, and it keeps us involved all the way through. The animation is painterly and detailed, thanks to Nobuteru Yuuki’s striking character design, even if they cheat a few too many of the shots involving combat (especially the dragons at the end, which are horribly static). But the main flaws of Lodoss are endemic to most other fantasy fiction as well—problems that Berserk was able to avoid or compensate for. To wit:The Designated Hero. A common mistake in fiction, where the narrator pushes a character at us as the hero, when his actions say otherwise. I understand that part of the point of the story is that Parn is headstrong and impulsive, but he’s headstrong and impulsive far more than he’s ever actually doing anything worthy of the hero label. Worse, Parn is the hero-by-default for too much of the time —even when there are other characters who are far more interesting than him getting markedly less screen time.
Deedlit isn’t much better. In the same way, the first few episodes make us wonder openly how she managed not to get killed before she ever came into this story: she wanders off on her own, stupidly sets off traps, and is pretty insufferable to just about anyone except Parn himself. On the plus side, she matures enormously in the later episodes—although that seems to come at the cost of her ever actually doing anything. By the climax, she’s been reduced to a passive sacrificial victim—something that’s likely to irk both the girls and the guys in the audience. Little else saps the fun of a show like watching a potentially strong heroine get turned into set dressing.RPG Redundancy. Lodoss’s RPG origins show through constantly, from the construction of the plot to the character mix. That said, the format for the standard-issue adventuring party has been around for decades and was inspired more or less directly by Tolkien in the first place. (The [deservedly] short-lived Dragon Pink actually got most of its meager laughs out of deliberately calling attention to this fact.) The bigger problem is that a role-playing game does not follow the same beats and nuances as fiction. You can’t simply take a transcript of a campaign and map it into a story as-is, and I speak as someone who tried to do just that and failed miserably.
The good news is that Lodoss has relatively little of that—at least up until the end, anyway, when we have a mad wizard trying to resurrect a dead god to establish dominion over the whole of Lodoss. Up until that point the story makes it clear that without all the power in any one person’s hands, the island is “safe”—although the balance enforced by Karla in this fashion comes at the cost of people being manipulated and dying unwittingly. And there are many moments when the show throws off the dead weight of cliché and predictability, and simply works as a great adventure—it’s just a shame that they come and go, and are buried by the story’s more lockstep behaviors.
According to people more familiar with the original novels, the 13 episodes of the show cover only about half of the actual story: a great many characters and story arcs were thrown out or simplified to make the whole thing fit into the needed space. Whether that caused the problems I’ve identified here, I’m not sure. Sometimes even the butchered version of a story is strong enough to capture an audience. With Lodoss I suspect the flaws were there from the beginning, taking what could have been a really captivating story and making it into a merely interesting one.
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