Anime Reviews: Record of Lodoss War
It is a bit spotty and cliché, but Record of Lodoss War is a worthy fantasy anime that reminds us old-school fans why we came to love the medium to begin with.
Title: Record of Lodoss War a.k.a. Lodoss Tou Senki
Production: Kadokawa Shoten
Series Length: 13 OVA
Air Dates: 6/30/1990 to 1/24/1992
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence, brief partial nudity)
Summary: A dark shadow looms over the island continent of Lodoss. Formed from the aftermath of a great battle between the Goddess of Creation and the Goddess of Destruction, Lodoss has since borne the scars of chaos and warfare. Now largely united, the nations of Lodoss face a threat from the southern island of Marmo, who seek to claim Lodoss for themselves. In the midst of it all, six heroes--Parn, an inexperienced swordsman who strives to do good; Deedlit, a beautiful elven warrior skilled in the art of magic; Etoh, a devoted cleric who serves the Goddess of Creation; Ghim, a stalwart dwarf looking for a close friend; Slayn, a wise wizard who seeks to quell the darkness; and Woodchuck, a carefree thief who's just along for the ride--make their way to find Moss, a great sage who once fought against the evil plaguing Lodoss, and who may hold the answers to vanquishing it once and for all.
The Good: Classic fantasy setting; old-school aesthetic still holds up; interesting story with attaching characters
The Bad: Comes across as a bit cliché; inconsistent animation; a few questionable writing decisions
The Ugly: The fact that solid fantasy anime such as this are no longer being made
I'm not sure how, but for the longest time, this series has eluded me. I mean, Record of Lodoss War is a staple of old-school anime, and I've known about it for almost as long as I've been an anime fan, but it's taken me until this year to finally sit down and watch it. I don't know if it's because I was afraid it wouldn't have aged well, or because it looked dry and boring, but for whatever reason, I've always given this a pass. And that's even including the fact that I have seen the Chronicles of the Heroic Knight TV series that followed, which makes this question even more baffling. So, was I right to skip out on Record of Lodoss War, or was I proven to be a blithering idiot? Well, let's take a look.
The first thing that struck me was how immediately familiar yet mystifying and unknown the world of Lodoss was--we've all seen fantasy settings of dwarves and elves and dragons before, but the backstory about warring gods and the setting being a continent created from that war was something new and interesting. We're treated to all kinds of trope-y fantasy settings, from dark caves, lavish castles, and foreboding magic forests, but the detail put into them is impressive and helps to set this world apart from the cookie-cutter Dungeons & Dragons imagery we've seen time and time again. The detail in the artwork creates an atmosphere of actual tension inside the deadly tunnels, instead of just having them be a 40x15 rectangle room with 2d4 number of kobolds wielding short swords with a treasure chest in the back.
On the subject of artwork, it's quite incredible how appealing the art style of Record of Lodoss War still manages to be, even after 24 years. The designs are very much in the style of early 90s fantasy anime, but they are largely sensible and are creative enough to elude being a time capsule (I'm looking at you, Ruin Explorers), and the colors used in both the character art and the backgrounds can range from bright and vibrant in the outdoors segments, to dark and earthy while underground or on unhallowed ground. The character designs themselves are surprisingly distinct, too; even Parn, who is supposed to just be your average young adult with average features, is instantly recognizable. All in all, despite being practically ancient, Record of Lodoss War has aged quite gracefully.
But what good would a fantasy anime be without, y'know, the fantasy? Luckily, we're treated to a very interesting and, at times, complex plot that rewards your paying attention to the backstory, but it isn't so dense that it will lose you. It does pit obvious good guys versus obvious bad guys, but there are multiple factions on both sides, and their motivations are all different and with the exception of Kardis, the Goddess of Destruction, and her faithful servant, the villains are given enough justification in their actions to be relatable while still being nasty enough to pose a threat to our heroes. Now, at first, it does seem a little confusing as to where the multitude of plot threads are heading, but if you stick with it (the series really isn't that long), everything ties together nicely for a satisfying, succinct ending.
Of course, Record of Lodoss War is not without its faults. First off, there are a number of clichés present throughout: Sir Ashram, the dark knight of Marmo, is your typical brooding honorable villain who's not as evil as the ominous music and black armor leads us to believe; the Goddess of Destruction wants to gain ultimate power to destroy the world, because of course she does; Parn starts off as the worst swordsman ever, but by the end is able to duel equally with the skilled Ashram. And so on. It might just be the result of living in a more savvy period of time and being surrounded by other media, but this series gets very predictable and been-there-done-that. Now, a good story is a good story regardless, but just don't expect many surprises here (unless you've never seen a fantasy story or even played D&D, in which case this entire paragraph will mean nothing to you and you'll enjoy yourself all throughout).
Secondly, the animation is very inconsistent. Like, it's almost schizophrenic. To give an example: During one of the later action sequences, Parn and Ashram are having a one-on-one sword fight in an underground ruin while two armies and two dragons are duking it out above-ground. The fight between Parn and Ashram is intense, well-animated, and generally very impressive, the stuff with the two armies is likewise gripping, but the dragon fight consists of two still-frame dragons hovering across the screen. And then we get close-ups of the dragons' faces while their mouths open (in a single frame of animation) and some fire is animated inside. We suddenly go from movie-quality action sequences to Baby's First Mario Paint Animation, and the result is every bit as jarring as it sounds.
Lastly, there are just a few questionable decisions made during the writing process that weigh the series down. For example (here be spoilers, by the way): About halfway through the series, the Grey Witch is defeated and her hold on the priestess Leylia ends, and so that story arc comes to an end. Whoo-hoo! But as the group is celebrating, Woodchuck notices the Grey Witch's circlet floating harmlessly in the water nearby. And then it suddenly possesses him and whoops! The Grey Witch is still around, everybody! It comes out of nowhere (though it's not nonsensical), and it just serves to punt one character out of the script so that another could enter. And it kinda sucks. There are a few more examples throughout, and they're just as frustrating, but I think I've spoiled enough for today.
Despite its flaws, I'd say Record of Lodoss War is still a pretty darn good series. In fact, if you're just looking for a quick example of why some anime fans cling to the old-school and will fight you tooth-and-nail to defend it, this series will give you a good idea of why they feel that way. In spite of its odd moments, there is a genuinely good story here and the characters are deep enough to become attached to, and the aesthetics clearly have a lot of staying power (most of the time). So if you're just looking for a bit of insight, or maybe you're like me and just want to spend your time watching a straight-up good anime, here's a title worth taking a look at. You could most certainly do worse.
Final Score: 8 out of 10. Record of Lodoss War is a great example of old-school anime that delivers an intriguing narrative while managing to age gracefully, despite a few rough spots in its writing and some inconsistent animation here and there.