Initial Run: June 30th, 1990 to November 20th, 1991
Running Time: 23-30 mins per episode
No. of Episodes: 13
Age Rating: 14+
It’s a bit of a moot point to suggest that a number of fantasy publications - good, bad or awful - owe a lot of their inspiration to Dungeons and Dragons. After all, who hasn’t had the urge - especially after a fun D&D campaign - to just sit down and write the whole thing out? Chances are it might even land you a book deal. And that’s no joke either - plenty of badly-written fantasy has come from a few dice rolls gone awry. ‘Badly-written’ probably isn’t a criticism you could level at Record of Lodoss War however. Generic? Certainly. But you don’t get to become one of Japan’s best-known fantasy franchises without at least possessing something decent to work with. In this case, a love for D&D spawned an entire legacy of works that now covers multiple novels and animated productions. And if you find yourself within circles of the anime fandom - especially those with a love for the old-school - you may have even heard of it too!
It’s true that Record of Lodoss War (perhaps better translated as Chronicles of the Lodoss War, but the name’s stuck now) may not be much of a name in the West. But the entire franchise once commanded a solid following, especially among anime fans. Back in the 90s and early 2000s, the Stateside release of the animated TV series was one of a number of titles that marked a rise in quality for anime released in these parts. The OVA series, revisited here, is also often regarded a definitive classic. Clearly its reputation has lasted well, because Funimation deemed it worthwhile to re-release the OVAs on Bluray late last year. Not bad for a world that, amusingly, started life as a wildly successful D&D campaign.
In the age of the 70s and 80s, Dungeons and Dragons was a phenomenon. It had its own magazine (the now-defunct Dragon), it had its own cartoon, and it was terrifying Christian fundamentalists left, right and center. And when RPG nuts didn’t have time to go tabletop adventuring back in the day, they’d read about the exploits of other players’ sessions in the roleplaying publications of the time. These transcripts - or ‘replays’ - proved to be exceptionally popular reading among its intended audience. Japanese computer magazine Comptiq was one of a few that would carry serials on such, and in 1986, one such campaign from a D&D club (formed by members of gaming company SNE Group) would really catch readers’ imagination. Comptiq’s transcribing of their campaign - titled the same as the franchise it birthed - was such a runaway success that its Dungeon Master, Ryo Mizuno, ended up using the entire thing as groundwork for a couple of novels. Imagine that - most Dungeon Masters would kill just to get their lovingly-created worlds taken seriously by just the players, let alone a whole readership.
By 1988, Mizuno would complete and successfully publish The Grey Witch, the first of Record of Lodoss’ numerous novels. Why do the books matter? Because without the first two, we probably wouldn’t have this here OVA series, which many fans regard as the franchise’s high point. With animation studio Madhouse (Perfect Blue, Wolf Children, One-Punch Man) behind its creation, the pedigree of its production team is also a good indication of such. At its time, it was even considered by some to be the best on-screen adaptation of a fantasy story yet produced. Since then, we now have masterpieces in the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. To say those towering franchises overshadow this series (which is now very twee in comparison) is an understatement. But even if the magic has dulled, there’s still something to enjoy here for most fans of swords, sorcery and everything in-between - especially if they pine for this genre’s more antiquated themes.
The ‘Lodoss’ of Record of Lodoss War’s title actually stems from Lodoss Island, a location within its fictional (duh) world of Forcelia that provides the stage for much of this OVA series’ storyline. Apparently, Lodoss itself was created in the aftermath of a giant battle between the gods of this world: the final act being a battle between the Goddess of Light, Marfa, and the Goddess of Darkness, Kardis. This final blow of this fight apparently split Lodoss, as well as another island called Marmo, off from its main landmass (a continent named Alecrast). This might seem like an inconsequential detail, if not for the fact that as a result of this epic encounter, both goddesses were forced into a state of eternal rest, their life-forces lying dormant under the islands of Marmo and Lodoss respectively. Powers of an ancient goddess of darkness up for a grabs - who might be interested in that? Maybe an ambitious, evil wizard? Perhaps a morally ambiguous witch capable of possessing any mortal she chooses? Well, turns out Record of Lodoss War provides both - because sometimes, just the one fantasy trope won’t do.
If you think that’s cliche though (and boy, I hope nobody invented a drinking game for this series), just wait til you meet the good guys. Episode by episode, a menagerie of all the big races and classes ripped from the D&D rulebook rise up to challenge these villainous threats. The main hero is Parn, a swordsman from a small farming community, who - surprise, surprise - is really the son of a disgraced but skilled former knight of the realm. He’s joined by his best friend, a good-natured cleric named Etoh, as well as Slayn, a noble magician. Add to this party a wise-cracking thief named Woodchuck, a mystical high elf girl named Deedlit and a stour dwarf called Ghim (they didn’t even try with this dude’s name), and you have yourself quite the RPG session - sorry, fantasy saga - to kick off. If you listen loud enough, you can almost hear someone mumbling the words ‘lawful good’ somewhere around here, too.
In essence, they’re also not taking on one big quest, but two. The entirety of this series’ 13 episodes could actually be broken into two separate stories, with a fairly loose (and rickety) bridge between the two. After a one-off ‘teaser’ intro episode, the first arc officially starts off with Ghim setting out on a mission to rescue Leylia, the daughter of Neese (a Marfan priestess), who has been possessed by the spirit of Karla - the fabled and feared Grey Witch. While Karla’s ultimate goal is unclear, her use of Leylia as a vessel enables her to reach the empire of Marmo and lend its bloodthirsty ruler, Emperor Beld, a hand in his planned conquest of Lodoss. Backed by his military aides, a black-armour clad badass knight by the name of Lord Ashram, and Wagnard (a powerful sorcerer), Beld’s desire for rule over Lodoss may or may not have been instilled in him by Karla herself. But the purpose of her manipulation in sending Marmo into war with Lodoss’ kingdoms does grow beyond merely ‘being evil’ as the series wears on. In the outset though, it means a lot of goblin invasions for the good people of Lodoss to fend off - which is exactly how Ghim, Parn and all the other heroes of this piece get acquainted in the first few episodes.
Garden-variety as it may seem, it’s still an outset that packs plenty of action from the get-go. The series wastes no time in delivering plenty of fantasy action and sustains this level throughout - from its excellent intro episode to the climactic all-or-nothing battle that this series signs off with. There’s plenty of swords and magic spells flying, and also a moderate amount of blood too, making this a show you probably shouldn’t be letting the little kiddies watch. But while the mature themes do continue with a couple of brief moments of nudity, it’s really the complexity of the series’ first arc that deems it for an older audience. This arc covers the first seven episodes and is definitely Record of Lodoss War at its strongest, introducing both its characters and its setting with swift, comprehensive story-telling, and pitting them against a villain whose vagueness only adds to her mystique. It might also feel like a roll call for all of fantasy’s greatest tropes too, for all the goblins, elves and dragons that suddenly appear without warning. But it’s still lots of fun and, perhaps helped by its swooping orchestral score, definitely nails that epic atmosphere all old-school fantasies seem to revel in.
Another thing that keeps this series’ lack of originality from sinking it into the swamp of bland fantasy fiction is in how great it undoubtedly still looks. The animation is definitely rough and dated (one particular fight scene with a bunch of monsters rushing out of a fog looks hilariously bad), but the artwork itself is frequently impressive. It’s more of a triumph of distinctness than timelessness - this is still a series that is 30 years old, after all. But under this remaster (and especially on the Bluray version), the ornate, whimsical style present in the line art and shading is there in every detail. What it means is that all of Record of Lodoss War’s fantasy elements - regurgitated from other works as they are - come to life with far more energy than their well-worn stereotypes would suggest. Its characters become larger than their D&D cookie-cutter beginnings; the dragons and beasts they’re up against feel suitably more wild, and the castles and fortresses of Lodoss’ sprawling landscape deliver genuine gravitas. Anime largely depends on its visual aspects to deliver its storytelling - and often, to even make some characters engaging. Record of Lodoss War succeeds in taking a leaf out of this book, but tellingly, does so with a style that doesn’t match its contemporary counterparts, or anything after it. It’s unremittingly unique - and often, beautifully so.
It also means that its protagonists retain a memorability and charisma that make it easy to root for them from the beginning. Even if his story is the regular ‘Hero’s Journey’ stuff, Parn makes for an entertaining lead character - heroic and courageous to a fault (even beyond his own abilities with a sword), and everything you’d expect in that traditional male fantasy hero role. Across from him, too, is one of anime’s true milestone heroines: Deedlit, a character who combines ethereally enchanting ‘magical elf’ virtues with an ability to kick ass with a blade when needed - making it barely any wonder she was so popular with anime fans of the 90s. Together, this pair’s relationship grows into a romance as the series goes on, not only adding a sensitive touch in amongst all the clashing swords, but also setting up a critical component in the series’ final climax. Sure - and again - it’s a human-elf love story blatantly lifted from elsewhere (Lord of the Rings in this case), but it’s just another well-executed element of a decent fantasy animation.
The rest of their fellow heroes also carry genuine likeability. It should be noted though that much of this comes via the original Japanese voice track: not the English one, which is unfortunately rather cheesy. There are still a handful of good performances: Lisa Ortiz steals the show as Deedlit, Greg Wolfe captures Ghim’s dwarven gruffness well, and Karen Smith’s overly dramatic performance as Shiris (a female mercenary who joins the party with her berserker friend, Orson, later in the series) actually really works for her character. But it’s nowhere near enough for this to be worth persevering with to the end. It does lead to the slight juxtaposition of having to watch a distinctly Western fantasy story get told via the Japanese language, but it’s a small distraction to pay to get the most out of these OVAs.
Curiously, the English translation does have one thing going for it, and that’s in its own, surprisingly well-done version of the opening theme. I might not be a fan of the song itself (Celine Dion-meets-Enya really ain't my jam), and dubbed versions of anime songs are usually terrible. All the same, the quality is indeed there, and it suits the whimsical side of the show well.
For all of its strengths then, why does Record of Lodoss War only get a 6? Well, for starters, even if it does make the best of its generic fantasy setting, it’s still ultimately generic fantasy. Yes, some of these characters are great, but avid readers of fantasy will realise that their own path and motives in this story will feel very familiar - diluting the excitement somewhat. Aside from that, the second half of this OVA series drops considerably in narrative quality. The good work done by the first half (involving the party’s conflict with Karla) is hampered by a closing arc which opts to have Beld’s wizard, Wagnard, seizing power for himself, and resolve with a bland ‘save the damsel’ (in this case, Deedlit) climax. Traversing between the two arcs is also done in disjointed fashion, doing the development of these characters a bit of a disservice. And while it might carry some impressive final battle sequences (did someone mention good dragons vs. evil dragons?), it’s still all been done before - and in some cases, better.
Disappointing as Record of Lodoss War’s second half might be though, there’s no denying that it’s still a fantastically well-produced fantasy drama for its time: one that takes its Dungeons and Dragons trappings and actually spins something impressive with it in the early stages. It might culminate in a win for style over substance, but the style itself is still timeless enough to be more than enjoyable. In fact, this could well be a case of your own mileage varying. If you’re completely fine with a bog-standard fantasy story being told via some luscious anime artwork, add a point. And hell, if you’re one of those D&D lunatics who cannot accept a fantasy story getting set up via anything other than the mechanics of your beloved roleplaying game, stop the press - this is the anime for you, no question.
Record of Lodoss War is available for streaming on Funimation, as well as via the Bluray / DVD box set from all major retailers.
Media utilized in article is property of: Madhouse / Funimation / Kadokawa