To err is human, but to survive is divine.
Record of Ragnarok is a show of extremes. Both within the text and beyond it, this is an anime that rapidly oscillates between highs and lows in every respect. I feel that in so many ways it says a lot about the state of the industry as it currently stands, while simultaneously providing a window into the works of the past.
Addressing the show itself, we’re dealing with a series that wears its heart on its sle- er, well, on its bare bristling forearms. There’s very little in the way of introduction before the audience is thrown into the pit and watching gods and mortals square off for the fate of humanity. Much of the show’s energy is akin to the theoretical schoolyard arguments of our youth and random youtube death battle content of our present. “Could Lu Bu beat Thor?” and “How sick would it be if a swordsman wielding a magical sentient katana fought Poseidon?” are the questions of the day and the answers are long,bloody affairs. In some respects this is the modern action fighting formula in its purest form – toss two fighters in a ring, have them say and do outlandish things, and interrupt the action with dramatic flashbacks to heighten tension between turns of fate. If you have enjoyed a series with a tournament arc from anywhere in the past, say, four decades or so, you’ll probably be right at home here.
Everything about the show is heavy and light at the same time. The battle is for the literal fate of billions of human souls and the contestants are wielding weapons that can commit deicide on an errant backswing. What could be more Epic™ than that? At the same time, we are given almost nothing to work with regarding the characters other than what knowledge of these figures we bring to the table, and the work relies heavily on you knowing who they are so that it can meet or subvert your expectations. As a viewer, I was engrossed by the Thor versus Lu Bu bout because both figures loom large in my mind – but the show had to work to build up Sasaki Kojiro, someone I was only familiar with in passing. Kojiro’s arc won me over in time, but I can see how one fighter’s story falling flat might leave a viewer disconnected or uninvested.
The writing does much of the heavy lifting for the show. There is a sense that the audience gets – from the premise to the tone to the dialogue – that this is the grandest spectacle of all time. And certainly, there is a lot of conceptual spectacle at play here. Few works date to ask the question, “What if Zeus went full Master Roshi and fought the Biblical Adam who is a sharingan eyed wife guy?” There is a boisterous, boundless sense of creativity and energy to everything that is occurring. It is hard not to get caught up in the excitement of it all. The masterful way the series uses flashbacks to not only deliver on character motivation but to reinvent and reinterpret the myths and legends of our collective past is really impressive. These flashbacks are at once familiar and surprising, and each manages to add weight behind the blows that exposition shouted by ringside announcers just cannot quite capture.
But then, much of this presumably comes from the source material. So what does the anime adaptation add to the mix? Well, there’s the rub…
The visuals are, simply put, not up to the same bar set by the text.
In fact, going into Record of Ragnarok all I knew was a few of the clips I’d seen online. They were derided as “slideshows” and rightfully so, particularly a sequence during the aforementioned Zeus and Adam fight. But to be frank, that is not indicative of the rest of the show. To be certain there are lots of long pauses, slow pans, reaction shots from the crowd, scenes of shouting announcers… but then, none of this is new for a fighting anime in my experience. Record of Ragnorak is a perfectly run of the mill series, with a few moments of exciting movement here and there, largely resting on the conceptual spectacle of the underlying source material. Given that the fitghts are the focus, it is rather funny (or ironic) that some of the best animation sequences are Zeus dancing about like a goofball or Aphrodite’s aherm Divinely Blessed Chest™ flopping up into her face from an explosive shockwave. Most of the fighting looks like it is at or around the caliber of just about any other weekly fighting anime of the past decade.
Then again, that seems to be the rub. The source material is clearly full of a unique, passionate vivacity, and the anime adaptation is… just okay, I guess? There’s a few brief glimmers of unique cinematography, and a few moments of exciting fighting, but much of the visual samaness – the fact that it looks and feels like any other series – is a let down compared to the source material being adapted. And in many ways, though I grew up on far far rougher looking series as a young man over 30 years ago, perhaps to newer fans this kind of thing simply does not cut it any more. People expect more these days, and when a series is “Kinda okay, punctuated by powerpoint presentations” it is hard not to blame them. It quite frankly does not achieve what the source material really needs it to, and ends up detracting from the viewing experience.
Record of Ragnarok is nowhere near as bad as what I was told to expect, yet at the same time it’s clear that the work is simply not to the caliber that the source material (and fans) are so clearly crying out for. It’s not bad enough to revile, nor good enough to recommend. Perhaps, then, mediocrity is the greatest sin of all.
Although, it does have me eager to check out the manga, and isn’t that the goal of an anime adaptation after all?