I would sum up Granbelm as “Magical preteens who fight a battle royale with robots in hopes of being the one chosen by magic itself, complete with gutwrenching drama and enough character death to remind you that anime isn’t supposed to be fun.” You’d read that sentence and instantly know if it was for you or not. Me, I didn’t hate the ride but was glad when I made it to the final destination. This isn’t a show I would have picked up without it being recommended and it’s not a show I’m likely to revisit anytime soon. There’s also a Surprise Twist [TM] around episode 9 that kind of broke my investment in it, although I’m aware that same twist really worked for some people.
Note – I’m a member of a Discord server called Leth’s Lazy Lounge, where we all did an “anime exchange” where all participants bring a show to the table, we all watch what we can during the week, and then we share our thoughts. Many participants shared one of their favorite shows. A few shared a show they just wanted to discuss, and a couple were apparently chosen just to mess with all participants. I’ll be taking all of these seriously. This is the first show of this exchange.
Once upon a time there was magic in the world. Some mages were like “nope, can’t trust humanity with that” so they sealed all the world’s magic away into an entity called Magiaconatus, which is New Latin for “Magic Persisting on Its Own.” As a result, the mage bloodlines have thinned out over the centuries. But every full moon, witches fight to see who is going to be the head witch and get the power of the magic. Instead of getting into mage battles, they fight in GIANT MECHA which are actually dolls fueled by magic power and shaped by their desires.
Enter one Mangetsu Kohinata, an ordinary schoolgirl who feels like she doesn’t really have anything to offer the world so she does her best to cheer up those around her, makes lunch boxes for everyone, and generally tries not to draw too much attention to herself. One night she goes back to her school because she left a lunch she made there, because that’s a thing Japanese schoolgirls do I guess? And the school isn’t locked at all? I dunno. And it turns out there are robots fighting outside! And now she’s in another dimension where the fights won’t hurt any of the buildings in this world! Mangetsu gets rescued by one Shingetsu Ernesta Fukami, who is super powerful and also apparently German despite the fact nothing about her suggests this.
It turns out despite having no magic lineage to speak of, Mangetsu has her own magical robot doll, and this is kind of a big deal. She decides to fight in this tournament to prove something to herself, and to her fellow mages. Along the way, she’ll make some real friends, and some real enemies. She’ll also learn what it means to be human.
Granbelm is a show that tries and arguably succeeds to be several different things. It pulls from some of the strongest magical girl tropes and the strongest mecha show tropes to create something truly unique and beautiful. There is also a fair bit of family drama behind the scenes that comes into play, which helps keep the plot going.
Why it Works: This is a series that is stronger than the sum of its parts. The characters are more than just tropes, but individuals who play well into the show’s greater narrative. The mecha fights are good to look at but also have serious depth to them. The animation is absolutely gorgeous, and the show decided to stick with 2-D models which works well in its favor. There’s a consistent style of color that accents the drama just as much as it suits the action.
The characters and their motivations, for the most part, makes sense. It’s easy to understand why Mangetsu wants to participate in the fight, even as she doesn’t have a lot of faith in herself. It is easy to see why Shingetsu feels burdened by her skill and talent. Sometimes the acting is a bit overwrought, see Anna, but her motivations and ultimate reactions make sense and are very much understandable. In many ways it is refreshing to see a focus on actual characters, instead of tropes meant to milk a franchise.
Why it Doesn’t Work: The game is rigged. The game has always be rigged. And as the story concludes, we come to realize the game will continue to be rigged.
I would argue that the biggest hindrance in my ability to enjoy this show is likely some viewers’ biggest buy-in – the nature of the characters, how they play into the greater narrative, and what they are (more than who they are) in the grand scheme of the contest to determine the “Princeps Mage.” It’s hard to discuss my concerns at length without significant spoilers, but the story’s conclusion is so far removed from what the initial episodes suggest that there is, for me, this jarring sense of disassociation. In some ways, I’d feel as a viewer I felt more manipulated than the primary protagonist did.
There’s also something to be said about how while the show is supposed to be focused around a contest to determine who will have access to all of this magical power, it becomes quite clear from the get-go who is expected to lose… and lose they do, sometimes fittingly and sometimes tragically. In that, some of the suspense is shifted, because we know for certain that the dual protagonists are going to win, we just don’t know how horribly their opponents are going to lose. It’s easier to feel detached to the other characters in this regard – why buy in when we know the bet has zero chance of paying off?
Also, I think for this show to work the loneliness that the character’s struggle with, be it from being just average to being blessed in some ways really has to resonate with the viewer. For some, that’s just not a theme they’re going to be willing to explore, or be able to understand. It would be easy to dismiss these characters, should that prove to be the case.
Overall, I didn’t dislike the series. I could even see why others would like it; there were individual arcs that separated from the source I found both entertaining and thought provoking. The show is well executed and the themes of who people are and how we hurt each other with our own mistakes is going to resonate with the right viewers. The overall story, however, just didn’t work for me. I didn’t walk away from it feeling like I had learned something new about myself or discovered something worth chewing on, but instead like there was a roller coaster ride that had everyone else screaming in fun while I felt a little nauseous and disorientated. Also, that surprise twist. I just can’t stress how much I disliked that specific turn of events.