Disclaimer: Enzo and I will be covering this show together, working to bring you double coverage of Sousou no Frieren. Similar to our work with Made in Abyss, we will try to do so in a timely manner. This post took longer than expected because Sousou no Frieren premiered as a 94-minute special. Thanks for understanding.
OP: 「勇者」 (Yuusha) by (YOASOBI)
EP – 01
「冒険の終わり」 (Bōken no Owari)
“The Journey’s End”
EP – 02
「別に魔法じゃなくたって…」 (Betsuni Mahō Janakutatte…)
“It Didn’t Have to Be Magic…”
EP – 03
「人を殺す魔法」 (Hito o Korosu Mahō)
EP – 04
「魂の眠る地」 (Tamashii no Nemuru Chi)
“”The Land Where Souls Rest”
Fall kicks off as seasons often do these days, with one of its biggest premiere. Sousou no Frieren leads the LiA preview poll at the moment, in one of the closest races yet. And with good reason. It’s a hugely-lauded manga adapted by a legendary studio, with a striking staff. Another trend these days is four-episode premieres, effectively kicking your series off with a movie. I have decidedly mixed feelings on this, though I admit that’s mostly from my perspective as the sitemaster here. Because, frankly, they’re a pain in the ass to cover. There’s the straight-up time commitment, and all the variables. Should I watch all of them and then write? Watch and write an ep at a time? And the problem of post length and screencap counts getting out of hand.
As I write this I’ve only watched the first ep. That’s mainly because I wanted to get my gut reactions down while they were fresh (we’ll see how I deal with the other three). One thing I will say is that, typically, when a series uses this approach it betrays a lot of confidence in its opening act. Vinland Saga and Oshi no Ko both clearly knew they would bowl audiences over with their introduction, and there’s no evidence that Frieren won’t do the same (indeed, early reviews are stellar). I do wonder whether this means we’ll get some kind of weird 28-29 episode count (it’s running two uninterrupted cours), or whether it will end early. Or, as Vinland did, take three weeks off after the premiere (that doesn’t seem to be the case).
My initial take is that yes, there is “there” there. For me the MVP of the premiere is actually Evan Call, whose soundtrack is both gorgeous and completely on-point (as you’d expect). But it’s all good. There’s nothing in the visuals that stands out as stunning in itself, but the overall package is lovely – “dignified” is a word that kept popping into my head as I was watching. “Reflective” would be another one, as that’s what this series seems basically to be – a reflection on life, death, and the elastic nature of time. That’s all focused through the vehicle of Frieren (Tanazaki Atsumi), an elf mage and member of the heroic party of four that vanquished the demon lord and became legends.
Frieren is either immortal of just incredibly long-lived (it isn’t specified yet). Two of the party are humans – warrior Himmel (Okamoto Nobuhiko, an odd casting choice), and hard-drinking priest Heiter (Touchi Hiroki). Also along is dwarf warrior Eisen (Ueda Youji). Maybe I’m projecting but starting the story after the party vanquish the maoyuu (the subtitle is “Beyond Journey’s End) seems like a wry dig at the innumerable generic series that dwell on that theme – that it’s not even interesting enough to show on-screen. Frieren clearly has little sense of the value of time, because for her time is basically a limitless resource. For her mortal companions, the story is obviously very different.
Frieren does learn – primarily though the aging and death of Himmel. Framing that through the 50-year meteor shower is unsubtle but certainly effective. I sense that part of the story is Frieren coming to realize that even for her, time is a precious resource – she may have gobs of it, but what’s gone she can never get back. Heiter is an interesting one. Despite his drinking he seems to age much more slowly than Himmel. And while he professes to have no fear of death (appropriately for his job), when Frieren visits him 20 years after Himmel’s death – expecting to offer a drink at his grave – he asks her to try and translate a grimoire supposedly full of spells on immortality and life extension.
Moving on to the second episode, the reflective tone continues. Heiter has taken in a war orphan named Fern (Ichinose Kana), who he initially asks Frieren (who refuses) to take her along on her journeys as an apprentice. That having failed, he then asks that Frieren to train the girl in magic. The grimoire, of course, is just a ruse – a means of keeping Frieren around until Fern is old and strong enough to accompany her when she leaves. Because Heiter is going to die soon, and he knows this. As humans are wont to do, he’s trying to take care of the ones closest to him even after he’s gone.
What I really like about this section is the way Heiter’s situation isn’t glossed over (well, not much). His statement that the fear of death is “immeasurable” is indisputably the key point of the episode. It’s what’s driven most developments in recorded human history, frankly. Heiter is terrified, but also resigned – and Frieren can’t help him in this sense. All she can do is help Fern, which at least can set Heiter’s mind at rest on that one point. I also liked the fact that Frieren called him out on his scheme to get Fern out of harm’s way so he can die alone. She’s earned more than that. Frieren can’t understand Heiter’s fear of dying – not really – but she’s developing an understanding of the web of emotions that tie humans together.
The bit with Himmel’s statue is pure fantasy slice-of-life, but very effective. Watching this, I wondered if Himmel was actually in love with Frieren (and in fact possibly her with him, though without realizing it) but too kind to attempt to burden her with the pain of loving someone with a mayfly’s span of time. Frieren’s quest for the blue moon weed flower for his statue was indeed, “for herself”- but her need to do it is a reflection of the impact Himmel and the others had on her. Frieren also displays a growing understanding here when she realizes that it’s not only her time she’s burning on this personal obsession, but Fern’s – and that the latter doesn’t have as much of it in her account.
Finally, we have the last two of this batch of episodes, which I watched as a set. The fourth was better than the third, maybe the best since the first. One thing that strikes me is that I seem to get more out of this series when it’s about something than when it slips fully into idyll mode. I recognize that the latter is a big part of its identity, and that’s fine. But I never really got the appeal of stuff like (for example)) Kino no Tabi – or rather I did, but it never quite engaged me fully. Frankly I found a lot of that sequence with the sweets shop and the demon mage Qual kind of dull, though I did appreciate the tragic irony of Qual’s demise and how much the world changed while he was sealed.
Thematically, there’s a lot of very interesting stuff happening here. You even have a bit of reflection on the social breakdown of rural Japan in all these villages needing Frieren and Fern to help because of depopulation (though the causes are not delved into in a social commentary sort of way). Frieren is not a gripping character on a moment-by-moment basis – indeed, she and Fern are the least engaging among the main cast, which may or may not prove to be a problem. But her situation is fascinating. I was quite taken by the sunrise-New Year’s festival thing, where Frieren says that although she’s not interested, the reason she wants to experience it is because she’s not. She’s trying to understand who she is, and how the short-lived fixtures in her life experience the world differently.
I find that a lot of the most interesting elements so far came by way of Heiter, who has a way of saying what other people only think (and sometimes don’t even realize that). Heaven is “convenient”, he says, because all the good people who lived and died trying to do their best “deserve” something more than nothingness. Again, if there’s a central theme to Frieren at the Funeral I think this is it – this fundamental terror of the void and our need to explain the consummate unfairness of existence. As an immortal, Frieren in a particularly apt device through which to explore that.
I also find it very touching that her old companions always held her in their thoughts and worried about her (not without good reason). Even her original master, Flamme (Tanaka Atsuko), apparently quite mortal although the most powerful mage on record, worried about her disciple a thousand years ago. All of them – Flamme, Eisen, Heiter, Himmel – understood that Frieren would come to regret not valuing the time of her companions more than she did. This provides the seed of the series’ apparent MacGuffiin, Flamme’s tome which details the existence of Aureole – the mysterious northern land where the souls of the dead gather for eternity. Flamme set the wheels in motion for Frieren to discover it one day, and Eisen is the one who gives her the push she needs.
I suspect this is one of those “it’s the journey, not the destination” sort of stories. Nevertheless, I’m quite intrigued to find out what mangaka Yamada Kanehito has in store with Aureole. It strikes me as a little too convenient (that word again) for it to be a literal Heaven on Earth where one can go and chat with the departed. That would frankly undercut the messages the series seems to be sending. But then again this is a fantasy to be sure, and high fantasy at that – it’d surely be a mistake to jump to that conclusion after a mere four episodes.
All in all, Sousou no Frieren comfortably met my expectations without quite blowing me away (apart from a few very poignant moments). The tone is very different from what we’re used to in anime, and the least effective elements of the series are the one where it feels most conventional. It is both dignified and reflective, and clearly interested in exploring the deeper existential conundrums of existence. It’s that exploration which drives this “movie” more than the plot or characters, though the latter are kind of a slow burn – they get more interesting the more we learn about them. This series was one you could fully expect to be one of the best of the season, and these episodes do nothing to suggest it won’t be.
From the very beginning, you can already tell Sousou no Frieren is something special. Among the more common anime that ask and beg for your attention, clamoring to be the one who can be the loudest, the most visually stunning, and the most entertaining. Like walking into an arcade cabinet, every machine firing on all cylinders beckoning for your attention to look even just one second at them, let alone spend your quarters. Quarters serve as time in this analogy.
At the time of this writing – I’ve already watched all four episodes, and my love for this series simply increased with every single one. I love how little by little Frieren is introduced and she goes from being this serious character to a more human-like one, that we can empathize. It helps that she’s a little bit of a sleepy head. That aside, Frieren is not afraid to be itself, take it slow, and show who it is. Sousou no Frieren asks, to hold its hand, and jump into the adventure – with a little bit of a twist.
But before all that – let’s talk about this OP. Quite a banger if I do say so myself. The suppressed vocals add a mystery to it and then the opening card drops, and we are treated to what I can only describe as melodic fantasy interludes. This drop gives a melancholic vibe while at the same time sounding incredibly fantasy-fulfilling. The song crescendos into an all-out instrumental warfare between the incredible vocals and singing chorus that suit perfectly the style and vibe of Sousou no Frieren. And invokes that sense of epicness that constitutes a human life. The visuals of this opening are outstanding, and I’m not even mad they used 3D in that first segment. However, we never see those models again – so it’s safe to assume that they were modeled just for that 3-second bit. Holy hell, the pedigree and effort behind this show is already showing. Let’s just say my jaw DROPPED when I saw YOASOBI in the song title card. If you’re itching for more there’s an official animated MV on their official YouTube channel. We must not forget that YOASOBI is behind incredible bangers of incredible shows such as Oshi no Ko, Beastars, and Kidou Senshi Gundam: Suisei no Majo. The song is also available on Spotify if you care to listen to it on repeat.
Oh, must I not forget to mention, that the BGM is probably one of the best I’ve ever heard and requires special mention as well. Evan Call once again masterfully arranges tracks that both feel melancholic and fresh at the same time while maintaining that fantasy feel.
All right – now that’s out of the way, we can start talking about the first four episodes. The show heavily utilizes the use of montages to describe the passage of time, and because of the nature of its story, there’s an overly reliance on them. Montage – City over here, and why wouldn’t they? It’s the most natural way of conveying the passage of time in the language of filmmaking.
I won’t delve too deeply into the actual story of what’s happening, as I’m sure Enzo will do a much better job at that. Instead, I’ll focus on the things I like, and there are a lot. Let’s just say the first episode had me bawling. Frieren (Tanezaki, Atsumi) is an elf, and in this world, elves live for a very long time. We find her with a party of adventurers as they just finished a 10-year adventure defeating the demon lord and returning peace to the land. The party consists of Himmel (Okamoto, Nobuhiko) you’re typical shonen protagonist, except he has blue hair! He is the mold that keeps the party together. Heiter (Touchi, Hiroki) is a priest and probably the healer of the party, however, he drinks a lot. Frieren calls him a corrupt priest. And there’s Eisen (Ueda, Youji) a silent dwarf guy, who also seems to have lived a long time like Frieren.
With that said instantly the show gets to the point, of how frail and tiny human mortality is – as an elf I wonder how many friends Frieren has had to say goodbye to. As it almost seems like the blink of an eye but 50 years go by. And Himmel has become an old man who lives his daily life in peace. Soon after he meets his demise and the show fills itself with emotion, the hard-hitting kind that brings you forward and reminds you we are all indeed heading in the same direction. It’s not about the destination, but about how you lived your journey. Excitement and joy sprinkled in between segments of gratuity.
I couldn’t help but bawl my eyes out first episode and all.
From there the anime delves into a sort of adventure of the week but still, there’s an overarching plot that threads through the show. As Frieren adventures through the land and the years pass, she meets up again with Heiter now an old man with a little girl by his side, her name is Fern (Ichinose, Kana) turns out they sort of saved each other and now he has taken her under his wing. Sort of an adopted daughter situation. She asks Frieren to also take her under her wing as an apprentice, Fern has some affinity for magic and it’s Frieren who trains her until Heiter dies of old age, it almost seems he was hanging on to see Fern become a teenager where she could take her care of herself, and wouldn’t need an adult’s protection.
Oh that’s another thing I like that took me by surprise is just how bombastic the magic is in this show, I very much appreciate that it goes out of it’s way to make it a spectacle.
Nevertheless, I think those are my first impressions of Sousou no Frieren, hopefully, you enjoyed this premiere as much as I did and hopefully, Enzo had some good things to say about it. I’m very much in love and looking forward to the next episodes. Sousou no Frieren contends in my book for AOTY. From the animation, to sound design, to a banger OP, to it’s heartfelt characters, this show has it all. Hopefully, the RC community agrees in tandem.
ED: 「」 (Anytime Anywhere) by (milet)