「村の英雄」 (Mura no Eiyū)
“The Hero of the Village”
Sousou no Frieren is an interesting and somewhat difficult series for me to nail down. I don’t madly love it (I do like it, and quite a lot), and on paper it was one of the very rare shows where that seemed like a realistic possibility. But it’s very nature is such that that might just be unavoidable. It’s not one that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands that you kneel in awe of its majesty. It’s more of a brainworm, something that slowly draws you into its worldview and slowly imparts its effects. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of cold water that’s set on the stove (that’s not actually true, by the way).
The big news story here is the addition of Stark to the recipe. I didn’t find Frieren and Fern super riveting as a pair in and of themselves, so in theory this is a good thing. And in practice too, I think. Their three-way chemistry is more engaging than the two-way was, and it allows the character side of the story to go in a few new directions. Many will immediately go the shipping lanes, of course, but I don’t get the vibe the story will follow that course much (and not because of the x-ray vision spell, either). I’m fine either way to be honest.
In some sense I think Stark most closely mirrors the Himmel role in the party despite being Eisen’s student. But he’s quite different from Himmel personality-wise (in some respects anyway). Everyone keeps calling him a coward but I don’t see him that way – he’s just a guy with the sense enough to be terrified of terrifying things (as is the dragon, as it turns out). As Eisen says, fear is not something to be ashamed of – we’re wired with it for a reason. It keeps you alive, especially in a medieval world full of dangers like this one. Stark never abdicated his responsibility to the village (which he never asked for in the first place), and Fern is right that he would never have run and abandoned it when the shit hit the fan.
Eisen too was terrified – of dragons, and of Stark too, which should tell you how powerful Stark (potentially) is. While they “parted in anger” it’s clear that there was affection between them, and the flashbacks bear that out (they also bear out that the barkeep is full of it). Stark sees himself as Eisen’s surrogate in traveling with Frieren, since the dwarf himself is too old now (and I think he’s right). The “fun and ridiculous” times were the highlight of Eisen’s life, and they had a bigger impact on Frieren than she’s willing to admit.
As for the dragon, in the end it’s kind of a non-event (am I the only one who feels a little sorry for the dragon?). If Stark is already strong enough to kill a dragon without any help from Frieren his potential is truly formidable. For now, though, it’s a return to the road – and to the same town where the heroes’ party departed for the northern lands all those years earlier. This time around the checkpoint to the north is closed because of monsters and war running havoc there, and Fern overseas a couple of merchants saying it might stay that way for two years.
That would be fine with Frieren, who just wants to wander the back alley magic shops and study grimoires. But Fern and Stark and not only mortal, but young – the sound of their ticking clocks is deafening in their years. There’a already kind of an interesting dynamic between them, in part I think because Fern resents having to share her mother figure with anyone else. But their circumstances make them allies here – two years is not an option, especially for Stark as he wants to make it back in time to entertain the aging Eisen with tales of his ridiculous and fun adventures. In the end Frieren is undone by her own reputation rather than anything the kids are able to accomplish on their own.
None of this is especially riveting in a vacuum. But this is a show where the whole often seems more than the sum of its parts, helped along by Evan Call’s outstanding score. By nature Sousou no Frieren is observational rather than participatory, as if one is eavesdropping on the lives of the characters. It doesn’t reward patience so much as demand it, and the more the viewer surrenders themselves to it the more these often mundane and seemingly incidental moments impact them. My hope is that will become easier and easier to do as the story progresses…
「おとぎ話のようなもの」 (Otogibanashi no Yō na Mono)
“Like a Fairy Tale”
There were definitely some forks in the road here I didn’t expect. More like twists and turns than the usual meanders that Sousou no Frieren has favored up to this point. It’s always interesting to see what happens when a slice of life series switches to plot-driven mode – some can handle it and some can’t. It’ll also be interesting to see how long it lasts – whether this amounts to a transition or (more likely) an exception. And if the latter, how frequent they are going forward.
We do start out in Frieren-y fashion, with Fern squeeing over Frieren waking up on her own, and a tussle between she and Stark over how she should address him. He scolds her that “Stark-sama” sounds off given that he’s but a couple of years older, so she switches over to abject disrespect. It seems pretty obvious that Fern resents having to share her mother figure with another kid, though I doubt she sees it on that level. How that will impact the seemingly inevitable romantic tension between the two remains to be seen.
Frieren talking about the elves is really the first background we’ve gotten about them, though it raises as many questions as it answers. They’re rare, perhaps dying out, generally disinterested in reproduction or love (which begs the question of how they’ve lasted this long). Frieren even says she hasn’t seen another of her kind for 400 years. When they reach the next town it’s in the midst of yet another festival celebrating the heroes’ party, with yet more statues of them. The reason for this is rather touching – Himmel wanted to leave as many statues behind as possible so Frieren wouldn’t be alone in the future.
It’s with their arrival in the next major city to the north, however, that the aforementioned hairpins start to happen. Frieren immediately goes into Defcon 1 as they enter, sensing the presence of demons. There are indeed demons – three of them, walking with the leader of the city, Graf Granat (Sakuya Shunsuke). These are peace envoys, and Frieren’s reaction gets her tossed into a cell for a projected “two or three years”. She’s seemingly fine with that as long as she has something to read, but utterly dismissive of the idea of negotiating with demons.
This is a very interesting turn indeed, and a very interesting take on demons – Helck this isn’t. Frieren tells the kids the story of an encounter the heroes’ party had with a young demon girl, who killed and ate a village child. Himmel prepares to kill her, hesitates – Frieren steps in. But the village chief steps in too when the demon says “Mom, it hurts” and opines that as humans they’re better than this. He takes the demon child into his home, cares for it for what seems to be a good while, and then pays the price when it kills he and his wife and presents their daughter as a replacement for the one she ate.
Again, this is a pretty novel twist on demons. Not evil per se, but totally amoral – literally incapable of seeing things through a human moral lens. Frieren says they’re descended from beasts that lured humans in with cries of “Help!”, and their entire evolution of human speech and (more or less) appearance is to help them prey on humans. Their “negotiator” Lügner (Suwabe Junichi) is only interested in getting Granat to lower the city’s defenses so Aura the Guillotine can lead her army in and slaughter them. This is their ultimate evolution as Frieren told it – mimicking human speech and custom to play on their sense of obligation and moral superiority.
This is all very well-written, and it’s full of interesting implications. I couldn’t help but notice that Aura reappeared 28 years earlier, which is the same year Himmel died – maybe a coincidence, maybe not. One also wonders whether demons are monolithic is this sense – if so that’s quite a bold story choice. Frieren doesn’t seem especially concerned with the fate of the city – she openly muses on using the confusion when it falls to escape – but she’s also apparently a prodigious demon slayer. An underling of Lügner, Draht (Ohsuzu Kouki, first thing I’ve heard him in since Ao Ashi) heads off on his own volition to kill Frieren in her cell, but he’s in for quite a surprise.
It must be said, that even when Sousou no Frieren radically changes structurally as it did here, it doesn’t really change stylistically, which makes the transition a lot less jarring than it could be. There’s not much shouting, the killing is done silently and without fanfare, and most of the characters act like they’re still in a slice of life. In that sense the utterly deadpan nature of Lügner and the demons make them a perfect antagonist for Team Frieren to tangle with.
Full-length images: 36.