Do yourself a favor and watch Record of Lodoss War, the original 13-episode OVA from the early '90s. For a while it was the most notable fantasy anime, though the years have seen its acclaim diminish. I first watched it when I was a boy and it left a large impression on me. It is a perfectly executed epic fantasy, with all the beautiful settings and heroism and atmosphere. But it also taught me the importance, in fantasy, of setting up the audience's expectations...then tearing them down.
The plot is, as they say, so Dungeons&Dragons you can hear the dice roll: a knight, wizard, cleric, thief, high elf and dwarf set out to save their world from the dark lord trying to conquer it. They join up with the good king (who, in true epic fashion, used to be friends with said dark lord) and go to war against the trolls, goblins and dark elves. There's daring-do and nature-loving elves and the gruff old dwarves who talk trash about them. The bad guys all wear black leather vests, which makes me wonder about the Dark Tailor employed to make these uniforms. Anyways, high fantast, elves and wizards, tra la la. Open and shut, right?
No. Record of Lodoss War, on closer glance, is a series that delights in not doing what you expect it to do. Let's look at the villains. Beld, emperor of the dark island of Marmo, wants to conquer Lodoss. But he is held up as the mirror opposite on his old buddy Fahn, who wants to unify Lodoss. Nazis or the EU? Hmm. Then there's Ashram, the badass black knight who leads Beld's armies. Thoroughly evil, yet capable of love. Wargnard the wizard, the series' resident mustache-twirler, is really just a pawn for forces more powerful than himself. Then there's Karla, the Grey Witch, who at first appears to be just another asshole helping in the Team Evil war effort, but her character turns out to be much more compelling, both in her goals and the lengths she goes to achieve them. A lot of thought has gone into making these characters human, and it shows.
Every time you think you know what's going to happen, the series throws you a curve ball. There's an epic fight at the end of episode 7. You think you know how it's going to go down. Oh, hey, here's a bad guy who just redeemed himself! He's going to join forces with the hero Parn in the end, right? And the evil black knight is set up as his nemesis, so of course they have a fight to the death in the last episode, right? Even little stuff throws a wrench in the cogs. There's a character named Orson who is a berserker: he is possessed by a demon spirit that makes him go crazypsychobadass when he sees his loved ones threatened. He's going to go berserk in the final battle, right? RIGHT? No, there's none of that predictable fanservice. The writers of Lodoss War are two busy telling an honest to god story.
A lot of high fantasy has comedy sidekicks. How often do these sidekicks get possessed by a grey (not evil, *grey*) witch halfway through the series, becoming her new vessel? You may say, "His friends rescue him right? Like they rescued Han Solo." Wrong. That's part of the beauty of Lodoss. The party changes over the course of the tale. Old friends depart, new friends arrive. Some heroes die. Some get abducted. The table changes over the course of this brief yet spectacular anime. No one is safe.
Parn's victory is not realizing his place as the chosen one (by the end of the series, he's not even that good a swordfighter). It is in accepting the balance and following his own personal code. The series always comes back to the idea of individuality. The terms "light" and "darkness" get thrown around a lot in this anime, but this is because Lodoss is a serious look at the very concept of good and evil. How the characters embrace or defy this dichotomy of absolutes in turn defines them. What is most important is that, in the end, the idea of a "crusade" or a "jihad" against their enemies is not what motivates the characters to be heroes. When Parn and Co. storm Marmo in the last episode, it is as much to rescue their beloved friend Deedlit as it is to save the world. That's some real shit.
The story of Lodoss' creation closely mirrors that of the Dragonlance Chronicles. Started out as some nerds' role-playing campaign, turned into a series of novels, then expanded to other media from there. Its hard to believe there was no influence of one on the other, but they developed around the same time in two separate areas of the world. I think this is indicative of an overall wave in the high fantasy genre, maybe inspired by the emergence of role playing games. Players wanted to go on quests, sure, but these games got a lot of new voices involved in fantasy writing, many of whom wanted to tell epic stories in new ways.
Dragonlance gets unfairly slagged for being a Tolkien knockoff, primarily by people who never read the books. Other authors were jealous because these books became NY Times bestsellers when "anybody could write them." No, anybody could not write them. Not just anybody could conceive a character like Raistlin. Not just anybody could write the Battle of the High Clerist's Tower. Not just anybody could come up with characters that are so flawed yet so sympathetic. Dragonlance did not become popular because it was a story about saving the world from evil. It was a story about conquering personal demons. That's where the story started, then veered into much darker territory with the Legends series. When the indisputable hero of your piece will literally kill innocents, lovers and family to get what he wants, you are playing way outside the Tokien sandbox. One only need read the final book in the Legends series to know that, in this series, peace doesn't come without cost. Man, that was a depressing novel.
One thing that marks Dragonlance is sympathy. Every character, from Tanis to Raistlin to Kitiara to Goldmoon, is doing what personally feels right to them. Everything is justifiable in their heads. Each one could be their sympathetic protagonist of their own novel. The same goes for Lodoss.
From what I am told, the Lodoss TV show Chronicles of the Heroic Knight follows the novels more closely. If so, this is a shame. The show is much more typical fantasy, with extended quests and chosen ones and predictable plot points. It's also way longer than the OVA. That makes me guess that a lot of the OVA's subversion came from trying to truncate the narrative. If so, +10 hit points for economy of stoytelling! Lodoss War may count as one of the few times in history that a bastardization is better than the original.
The economy also means that no scene feels wasted. In this age of 10+ volume book series, I think a lot can be said for trimming the fat. Parn's maturation feels natural because you can track it scene by scene through the show. Lodoss also has character designs by the great Nobuteru Yuki, who did the legendary Vision of Escaflowne and the legendarily awful Angel Cop. There's such a great detail and weight to his characters. Did I mention the dragons all have individual designs? Seriously, if you want some good fantasy, put it on your Netflix.
I've been thinking about Lodoss because the new George Martin book is coming out. He gets a ton of credit for taking high fantasy in a gritty direction, and deservedly so. One has only to look at authors like Scott Lynch or Daniel Abraham to see the ripple effect that A Game of Thrones had. But the groundwork for the de-Tolkienization of epic fantasy was already taking place in the 80s, through properties like Dragonlance and Lodoss. They may not have completely flipped the script, and for every subversive piece another Shannara book came out that same year. But the tide was turning toward a more nuanced approach.