Length: 13 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Action, drama, mecha
Year of release: 2019
There’s a certain gravitas that an anime original can command during their initial run, and Granbelm definitely abused that. The story isn’t a given; nobody can tell you where it’s going to go. As a battle royale about young girls fighting to unlock the seal on magic, the Magiaconatus, Granbelm has even more need to abuse the fact that anything could happen. No, not everybody is given a fair chance in the narrative at winning Granbelm (the name of the battle itself), but until the final handful of episodes, the endgame isn’t quite clear – the themes could be pulled in several directions. And that’s exciting.
Far more exciting than the conclusion it eventually makes, but we’ll get there in a second.
Granbelm might not feel like it’s treading particularly new ground in its genre. We follow Mangetsu, an average girl with a painstakingly helpful attitude, who gets wrapped up in Granbelm without any understanding what’s going on. Shingetsu, in her odd sense of benevolence, takes Mangetsu under her wing rather than see her ‘rival’, Anna, destroy her for no reason. This might seem like Mangetsu’s being used as a device to focus the dialogue on much-needed explanations, but Granbelm would rather dive headfirst into crackingly animated action and knee-deep character drama and explain it all later.
With much needed introductions for half its cast postponed until the middle of the series, and the narrative hopping around into these new viewpoints without good reason, the entire emotional core of the series relies on how much you like Mangetsu’s half-shelved introspection and Shingetsu’s reveries towards the world (and Anna). Because of how front-loaded the series is with its bombastic battles, the leading ladies of Granbelm don’t really get a chance to build much chemistry; their shared conversations are either exposition on the magical/mecha systems, or a bit of personal angst framed as vague monologues. As a screenplay, Granbelm is quite weak.
And that’s a shame, because there is some good drama here once the series gets to it. Anna’s entire arc is focused around the injustice of magic, which in itself contains important world-building and magical-system-explanations, as well as a compelling demonstration of a relationship breakdown. There’s some real stakes to this, essentially, mini-arc, and that kind of tension is lacking in the main storyline, because the other character arcs in this battle royale are befriending events, tutorials or the finale. Make no mistake – the character development got there, but it felt a little too late for many characters, and not strong enough for the leads. And that, annoyingly, results in a story without much grab outside of the magical plot.
It’s also a shame, because Granbelm has some great funny moments… albeit, only once or twice an episode. With sharp direction, expressive faces and top voice acting, Granbelm picks all the right times for a gag. During the more intense slice-of-life sequences, when the series drops its philosophical facade and embraces its cheesiness, there’s some funny or even powerful moments. While the animation of battles is terrific, Granbelm is at its best during the lighter episodes, because it gets closest to its developments and moves the story forward into its dilemmas. That story can feel lopsided, and even delayed, around intense action scenes.
Despite all the animation prowess, Granbelm is very happy to spend episodes at a time with nothing but action scenes. This is a problem in itself as there’s no great battle narratives other than the major emotional confrontation between Anna and Shingetsu- which has enough adrenaline and dopamine for a lifetime, and one of the best performances of the year – however, that spectacle is consistently awe-inspiring. The odd mech designs are very indistinguishable, but I was still constantly surprised by Studio Nexus’ work here.
Towards the end, the storytelling really got a bit more interesting. Some eye-opening revelations put a spark in Granbelm’s step as it prepared for the final battle. Sadly, the afterword felt too simple, and didn’t have strong enough relationship, or really general character development to hit the bittersweet notes the epilogue was after. The subtextual romance between its leads never amounted to anything substantial; because their rather-close friendship didn’t really have anything more to it than sideways glances, weak platitudes and pork cutlets, Granbelm’s finale was ineffectual, unmoving, and largely forgettable. The week-to-week excitement wasn’t capitalised on.