Record of Lodoss War

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

We don’t see nearly enough fantasy in anime. Sure, there are countless isekai shows where someone gets reincarnated in a fantasy JRPG, but there’s not a lot in terms of pure high-fantasy epics like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. Except, there already was a definitive high-fantasy epic a decade before Peter Jackson debuted his seminal trilogy — Record of Lodoss War.

A ’90s OVA (Original Video Animation) that began as transcripts of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, Record of Lodoss War chronicles the story of a band of six heroes, including Parn the fighter, Deedlit the elf, Ghim the dwarf, Slayn the wizard, Etoh the cleric, and Woodchuck the thief, as they get swept into a war for the island continent of Lodoss. What begins as a simple adventure quickly evolves into a bigger conflict that includes vast nations, dragons, and even a god or two, all part of a conflict threatening to destroy the world.

Whether you’re waiting for the next Game of Thrones spin-off to get announced, need a break from rewatching the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or want some inspiration for your next D&D campaign, this is a show worth watching. Grab your dice, and have your most loyal friends pledge their sword, bow, and axe to you, because we’re going on an adventure. Huzzah!

What Makes It Great

Record of Lodoss War perfectly encapsulates what it feels like to sit at a table with a bunch of friends and roll dice while a DM paints a picture of a fantasy world. It starts out simple enough, with a group of diverse adventurers deciding to band up together after a goblin skirmish, each of them with a unique reason to stick around. Like most classic D&D stories, there are kobolds and goblins attacking villages, evil sorcerers planning dark rituals, massive armies marching on other nations, a dragon or two, and of course, a big-ass dungeon.

Modern audiences may find some of this derivative because we’ve seen it be done over and over again — for one, the main party of characters could not be more of a traditional idea of a D&D dungeoning party — but the show earns being old-fashioned because of how earnest it is and how seriously it treats even the more outlandish parts of the plot. Also, veteran D&D players or those interested in the history of the RPG should watch out for some of the ways in which Lodoss War reflects the early editions of the game, like how kobolds look more like dogs than like lizards, or how elf and dwarf are basically used interchangeably with character classes.

A lot of what makes Lodoss War special comes down to its art style. Because it’s an OVA, the show has an obviously smaller budget than other contemporary shows that aired on TV, and studio Madhouse (One Punch Man, Paprika, Hunter x Hunter) goes for that hyper-violent yet grounded realism of ’80s fantasy animation like Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings movie. But when it comes to animation quality, this is not Demon Slayer. There is a lot of limited animation used to save time and money, which makes the actual fight scenes lack movement fluidity. And yet, individual frames look absolutely stunning, thanks in no small part to Hidetoshi Kaneko’s art direction, which makes the vast landscapes of Lodoss and the detail-rich environments like the dungeons and the castles come to life like they’re a painting.

Yutaka Izubuchi’s character designs also help distinguish Lodoss War from many fantasy properties by giving the characters ridiculously big shoulder pads, and giving the elves overly elongated pointed ears, a look that would influence Japanese fantasy for decades. The dragons look distinct from other fantasy dragons, but also from each other. One dragon has two sets of wings and looks more like a huge bird, while another has an alligator-like elongated snout full of teeth, and another has more fish-like qualities, including gills.

What It Brings to the Conversation

Lodoss War essentially follows an entire RPG campaign, and it’s fascinating to see how the show portrays the characters leveling up across episodes. Take the main character of Parn, who starts out as a weak and naive kid wearing his father’s oversized armor and having no clue how to swing a sword or fight a kobold. By the end of the OVA, he’s a seasoned warrior who has seen the horrors of war and is capable of going toe-to-toe with dragons or ancient sorcerers wielding magical weapons. Though some may find the number of characters and the references to past events in the show’s history a bit overwhelming — new heroes and villains pop in and out like it’s a Whac-A-Mole — the anime has incredible worldbuilding.

Though the opening sequence voiceover does most of the heavy-lifting when it comes to introducing the world of Lodoss and its history of endless war and death, the rest of the 13 episodes do a good job painting a picture of a bigger world we’re not seeing. Older characters mention battles long-forgotten by the general population, and the losses that came with them. Like in Lord of the Rings, you get the sense that this is just the latest chapter in a story that began eons ago. This is best exemplified in the antagonistic Karla, the Grey Witch. Throughout the show, we get small tidbits of Karla’s backstory and her connection to the kings whose armies are clashing across Lodoss. Her story is fascinating enough to leave you wanting a prequel. And while most of the villains are fairly one-dimensional, that’s not the case with Karla, a villain who often confronts the heroes face-to-face, and has more complex motivations than just seeking power or glory.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

The story of Lodoss War is epic in scope, and the characters are simple enough that the audience can project their own fantasies onto them, while still allowing them to be memorable on their own. Even if the animation is limited, the show still has a beautiful and distinct look that’s unlike any other fantasy show or film out there.

Even if the fantasy genre’s influence can be felt on plenty of animated shows (both in Japan and in the West), there are criminally few animes that actually feel like proper high-fantasy adventures. If you’ve ever wanted to see a Legend of Zelda game being animated, but are still mad they canceled the Netflix show, Record of Lodoss War may be the anime for you.

Watch This If You Like: Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Legend of Zelda.

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Record of Lodoss War is streaming on Funimation.

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