New Anime

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End – Episode 1

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today we’re setting off on a new journey, or more precisely beyond a journey’s end, as we check out the first episode of the recent and much-loved Frieren. There was a great deal of buzz surrounding Frieren prior to its release, and it’s not hard to see why; in this era of modern otaku being constantly flung into Dragon Quest-reminiscent worlds, an honest-to-god committed fantasy drama is an inherent and very welcome change of pace. And beyond that, Frieren’s novel twist on genre convention provides an additional pull: the allure of a more somber, reflective story, one primarily concerned with finding value and beauty in life after the great adventures are over.

That’s a hook that holds a great deal of appeal to me! It feels adjacent to my beloved “apocalyptic travelog” subgenre (think Girls’ Last Tour or Kemurikusa), stories where the chance for transformative, world-shifting change has already passed, wherein the great challenge lies in coming to a happier understanding of our place in a land at peace. It’s so appealing that I actually wrote a long-form variation of it back in high school, though no, I am not showing you my high school fiction. Anyway, Frieren is also directed by Bocchi the Rock’s fast-rising Keiichirō Saitō, and from what I’ve told, the production is a lush spectacle from start to finish. That’s a fine stack of reasons to be optimistic, so let’s see what we’ve got in the first episode of Frieren!

Episode 1

Oh god, why did they use this Vocaloid-style song for a goddamn high fantasy anime? An ugly clash of tone and content right from the start, particularly frustrating since this was a perfect opportunity for one of those folk songs that frequently end up standing among the best of anisongs – both of Spice & Wolf’s OPs, the Kino’s Journey OP, the Mushishi OPs. The music of an OP can be a powerful tool in establishing tone and getting the audience in the right mindset for the show to come; the fact that OP selection generally comes down to whatever record label is on the show’s production committee is a terrible shame

The imagery at least is quite strong – I appreciate this overall pastel color design, as well as the employment of both soft focus and forms lacking lineart in order to create a sense of distance, like we’re actually looking at a memory that’s only partially recalled

Gosh this song is bad, though. Like many Vocaloid-adjacent songs, it doesn’t really care about the sounds of words in the mouth, only that they’re spoken at the right pitch, meaning it’s just sort of a steady line of rambling without much impact or anything resembling a hook

After that jarring opening, Frieren immediately works hard to console me by offering a faded regional fantasy map. Nothing like a good fantasy map to sooth my temper

A mage named Flamme (I think I can guess what sort of magic they use) speaks of their journey to Aureole, the “land where souls rest,” where they plan on speaking with old allies

The first shots of the episode proper feel like a statement of purpose, as a beam of sunlight flickers under lovingly rendered tree leaves. The show’s theme seems contained even in this brief flourish; the world’s beauty is persistent but ephemeral, easily missed if you’re not paying attention

And then we introduce our titular elf, her head smooshed in a book. The contrast is clear; Frieren is the sort who is always focused on her immediate task, never stopping to smell the roses

It is her friend Himmel who draws her focus up, calling her attention to the city in the distance

“Our adventure’s over, but we have our whole lives ahead of us.” It’s an interesting job transition, to be sure. What daily labors do you set yourself to when you’ve already saved the world?

“Frieren, the life ahead of you will surely be much longer than we can imagine.” Basically laying all its cards on the table right from the start. A risky gambit, but also an intriguing one – if the show’s going to articulate its whole “appreciation for time’s passage” theme right from the start, I have to assume it has other thematic places it plans to be going

More excellent uses of the show’s limited lineart – as the party enters the city, we see colored papers flutter past them, and crowds articulated as a blend of differently colored shapes. This is one of the best ways I’ve seen to handle a crowd scene without resorting to CG or copy-pasting

Himmel the Hero, Eisen the Warrior, Heiter the Priest, and Frieren the Mage. Quite close to your classic DnD party, though “hero” isn’t an actual class – he’d be a rogue, though that doesn’t really fit his role here

Ooh, so much lively crowd action in these scenes of celebration! Also excellent pacing of the cuts between them, further bolstering the sense of raucous partying. This show couldn’t be more different from Bocchi, and yet Saitō seems to understand its intended tone just as well – in fact, from what I’ve heard, Saitō actually improved on the source material with both adaptations so far. Eager to see where his career leads

Fluid character acting, beautifully painted backgrounds; this show really is a visual marvel

The group reminisce on their ten years adventuring together. Frieren’s head stuck in a mimic is indeed a good gag

“I’m glad I got to adventure with all of you.” Himmel clearly the heart of the group

And of course, Frieren doesn’t see a decade as any time at all

Then the Era Meteor Shower begins, which apparently comes every fifty years

I appreciate this show’s willingness to be quiet and still, as well as to just let conversations dawdle their way along. The pacing echoes the show’s thematic prioritization of precious incidental moments

The sound design is also key in this, of course. It’d be easy to accompany this declaration to meet again in fifty years with swooping, emotive melodies, but leaving it silent makes the scene feel genuinely intimate, allowing the strength of the dramatic material to speak for itself

These backgrounds in the town are so lovely! Once again, the lack of lineart really helps sell the whole atmosphere of the scene, creating a soft textured look, a roughness that seems lived-in

Frieren departs, saying she’s off to collect spells, and that she’ll be traveling around the central lands “for the next hundred years or so.” Even by elf standards, it feels like she really doesn’t value her time highly; I imagine any elves involved in government, or who simply live within a larger community, would have a significantly different impression of time’s passage

“To her, fifty or even a hundred year’s passage might be a trifling thing.” They’re laying on the disconnect a little thick, I have to say. I feel like they could have cut more of this repetitive dialogue, Saitō’s production is more than capable of expressing this theme visually

Speaking of which, the following montage is also a delight, offering more beautiful scenery and charming flourishes of character movement

Even without the “beyond journey’s end” pitch, simply enjoying a committed fantasy adventure in a world that feels foreign yet fully realized is a refreshing experience. High fantasy is seriously underrepresented in anime; apparently modern audiences prefer worlds based on familiar videogames, but I’d be delighted to see a shift towards worlds with some actual thought put into them, where exploring new realms can be a thrill all by itself

Of course, this would likely necessitate a shift away from the current system of amateur writers sharing their work online, being “vetted” only by the popularity of those works, and then racing through the publishing and adaptation timeline. As a collective, fans don’t really care about prose quality or thematic weight; when their desires define the market, with no barriers like professional editors or other discerning readers, the entire art form suffers

Nice unstated articulation of time’s passage here, as the merchant Frieren encountered as a young man now stoops under the weight of age

“It’s nearly time for the Era Meteor Shower. I’ll pick it up when I meet him.” A convincing articulation of her thought process, and how casually she considers this time’s passage

Himmel is now an old bald man with an impressive mustache

This idle passing of Frieren’s days has to Himmel been the work of a lifetime – he speaks in terms of eternity, recalling how the meteor shower “brings back memories,” and how he’s been diligently protecting Frieren’s dragon horn

“You should’ve stashed it in a shed or something.” “I couldn’t do that. You may not have thought much of leaving it with me, but to me, it was a treasure entrusted to me by a dear friend.” Another thing Frieren’s lack of appreciation for the world caused her to miss: Himmel’s clear love for her

We catch a moment of Himmel alone, staring at his reflection in the now-empty cabinet. A lifetime of waiting, but he isn’t bitter, merely nostalgic. This is the good shit – a moment of articulating life’s funny injustices, the things we can’t change and eventually learn to live with. So much of adolescent storytelling is about fixing everything, but I like stories like this, or perhaps like Rilakkuma and Kaoru – stories about coming to peace with the world as it exists

Our drunk priest has become a distinguished bishop

Of course, Eisen the dwarf hasn’t changed much

“We journeyed to so many places. Everything seemed so brilliant and new.” The world is always brimming with opportunity; to the young, it strikes as opportunity yet to be seized, but to the old, it seems more like opportunity missed

The actual in-show music is some perfectly suited string arrangements, making that OP seem all the more out of place

“Because of you, I had this delightful adventure at the very end.” An incidental reunion to Frieren is a bookend to Himmel, the proper culmination of his life story

The silence of the following morning, and this brief glance at Himmel’s cabinet, tell us what has happened before it is visually revealed. Himmel has passed away

Bocchi was already excellent, but seeing Saitō put his talents to work on this subtler drama is making me think he could become one of the greats. His understanding of visual storytelling and restraint, as well as his appreciation for this tale of the world’s natural beauty, actually remind me of Isao Takahata

His death doesn’t really register until it all arrives in a flash; excellent cut here, from her silent gasp to the finality of the ringing bell

Once again, very purposeful and restrained sound design. As Frieren reflects on how little she knew about Himmel, we hear only the shovel burying him, emphasizing the opportunity for learning more about him has passed

Also good boarding, largely hiding her face except for this one reveal of her tears

Heiter says his goodbyes, confident he’ll never see them again

And Frieren’s objectives have changed – she’s now actually curious about humans, who live so briefly yet can touch her so deeply

She is surprised to learn even Eisen is now too old for adventures, though he may look much the same. She was the odd one out all along

Twenty years later, Frieren stands in the outskirts of the holy city, and is discovered by a purple-haired girl

Heiter is still alive. The girl Fern is a war orphan, and appears to be his ward

Heiter asks Frieren to take Fern on as an apprentice, but Frieren declines, alluding to how frequently apprentice mages end up killed

He then asks her to decipher a grimoire alleged to contain spells of resurrection and immortality

“Even if I can’t achieve immortality, I’d like a bit more time.” We all hope that when our time comes, we will react with grace, feeling we’ve accomplished all we set out to do. In truth, there is always more to do, always more mountains we could hope to climb, and never enough time to achieve it all. Again, I like stories that embrace this ambiguity – that understand we cannot “solve” life, that every solution is an imperfect one, and that the true challenge of living is coming to a peaceful relationship with the inherent disappointments and small injustices of a long and wandering life

Not all lives form as clean a narrative as Himmel’s; Heiter only ran into Fern as an old man, twenty years past the point where he could serve as a lasting father to her

“Mr. Heiter tells me I’m practically invisible. It’s a very good thing, yes?” Fern’s pragmatic line of thinking speaks to how deeply she was impacted by the war. Being noticed is always dangerous, so being invisible is a valuable thing

“Do you like magic?” “Somewhat.” It is a tool, not necessarily a calling

And Done

Whew, that was quite a lot of ground to cover for a first episode! And though I felt the writing was a touch on the nose regarding the theme of time’s passage, I cannot deny that it’s a profoundly compelling subject, or that Frieren found a variety of poignant ways to articulate both the beauty and the tragedy of our brief time in the world. A story about learning to appreciate the time you have left, furnished with such a clear understanding of mortality, is a rare and welcome thing in the overwhelmingly adolescence-focused anime sphere. And in Saitō and his team’s hands, the complexity and poignancy of these feelings is captured even more clearly in visuals and sound than in spoken dialogue. Saitō is a star rising towards unknown heavens, and Frieren seems a worthy vehicle for his ascent. I’m not sure how this story will continue to extrapolate on these ideas, but I’m eager to find out!

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