Mobage, or Mobile Games (named for the now-defunct “mobage” website owned by entertainment company DeNA through which many were initially distributed), anime-themed telephone gaming apps, are blue-chip Big Business. Many of us here at UKA Towers are spending our lunch breaks on Fate/Grand Order discovering the latest historical figure to be turned into a cute girl, an appeal which has made it one of the top ten downloaded apps in Japan (not just in the gaming sub-section, but all apps altogether!) with revenues of over three million dollars per day. Even the Chinese are getting in on the act, with Kantai Collection knock-off Azur Lane and tactical combat adventure Girls’ Frontline getting a big marketing push on YouTube recently. Yes, it probably means that all my data is being stripped off my phone to a Beijing intelligence agency server but I can’t quit, the Walther WA2000 is mai raifu!
These mobage are generally free-to-play RPG and strategy games which operate on a ‘gacha’ system, named after the ‘gachapon’ capsule toy dispensers that are ubiquitous in Japanese shops. Gacha are, in a word, lootboxes. You pay for randomised slot-reel draws to unlock new characters, artwork, equipment and items with the more powerful and more valuable kit being rarities that appear less frequently. This means that a dedicated player wanting to get the most out of the game and experience all its premium content is going to have to dig deep – at upper extremes the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year on Daigo, a player who’s spent the equivalent of £54,000 (!) on Fate/Grand Order. If this sounds like too much of a commitment for those with shallower pockets then fear not, for there is a cheaper alternative: anime adaptations of mobage, giving you a taste of a story without having to have the game harpoon your wallet like a whale. There are more of these around than you realise – last year’s Blu-Ray collection Rage of Bahamut: Genesis was itself derived from a 2011 mobage created by the Japanese developer and DeNA partner Cygames, who also created the original RPG used as a basis for today’s topic the 2014 mobage Granblue Fantasy. Rage of Bahamut was a solidly enjoyable fantasy romp that stood up on its own and felt like a complete package and not just a potted summary of the game, which gives us a promising foundation for Cygames to build its later title Granblue Fantasy. Unusually for a modern anime release, rather than a full season box set we’re getting something approaching the old-school volume releases, with the current Part One containing half of the season with seven episodes (the upcoming Part Two will have the remaining five serial episodes plus two OVAs). It may be less content than normal, but does that mean that each episode enjoys a higher quality? When we watch Granblue Fantasy: The Animation have we unlocked a Five-Star S-Rank or just turned up some vendor trash?
The world of Granblue Fantasy is a magical, fantastical realm where floating islands are suspended in an endless sky. Bran has been living on one such island, filled with a peaceful verdant forest and a friendly bucolic village, since his explorer father left him there as a child and continued his mission alone. Bran has always helped out around the village and he has grown into a young man much loved by his community, but even if he is part of village life he’s never wholly settled down and has kept up his sword-fighting practice, determined to be ready for the day when his father returns and he can join him on his quest for the fabled “Island of the Astrals”. However, adventure will be finding Bran sooner than he realises!
The fateful day comes when a forbidding black airship of the Empire is flying over Bran’s island. Suddenly a massive explosion rips through the vessel, and from the gash torn in its hull a person tumbles out and plummets to the ground. Bran immediately rushes through the forest to help whoever fell and discovers a beautiful young girl, Lyria – who, astonishingly, is completely unharmed despite falling hundreds of feet (the writers hadn't been watching Castle in the Sky that week. Honest - Ed). That’s not the only tall order of the day though, as Bran is forced to defend her from Imperial soldiers who arrive to seize her back. Lyria has the special magical power of communicating with the Primal Beasts, the titan gods that sleep in the heart of the floating islands, and she’s a key component of the Empire’s diabolical plot to conquer the world! Chivalrously pledging to defend Lyria from the Empire that wants to use her powers for ill, Bran teams up with his cutesy talking baby dragon pet Vyrn, Lyria’s guardian Katalina, and a motley crew of other adventurers to fly across the open skies, learn the powers of the Primal Beasts, and discover the way to the “Island of the Astrals” to both defeat the Empire and earn Bran his own place in the legends of that mythic place.
I personally have a great deal of affection for the setting of Granblue Fantasy – to have airships flitting between its flying worlds is probably the closest point in the last eighteen years that hoary old gamers like me have ever gotten to a sequel to the Dreamcast RPG classic Skies of Arcadia! Similarly a scene midway through the disc featuring an airship battle against one of the Primal Beasts, with energy bolts not zapping in like lasers but curling graceful, organic curves through the sky while an ethereal folk chant haunts the background, left me pining for Panzer Dragoon. I don’t know if this will have any resonance with younger viewers but Granblue Fantasy certainly knew how to push my buttons!
Younger viewers at least won’t have any trouble following what’s going on in Granblue Fantasy, for as the synopsis makes clear the story is very much textbook JRPG Plotting 101. A group of friends journey from island to island, defeating the evil Empire, beating a boss and then finding a quest item with clear and specific instructions about where to go next. There are no twists or turns to encounter or surprises to be had – there’s even a baddy called “General Furious” (Well, General Slightly-miffed just wouldn't have had the same impact - Ed), our heroes have to cross the “Grim Vaults”, and Vyrn even squeaks at one point that someone has glowing red eyes, so he’s got to be the villain! Granblue Fantasy might be keeping its powder dry for Part Two but for this release you’re on a die-straight railroad.
Characters are also open books, with no hidden depths and all straightforward folks who are clear in what they want out of life. It even proactively works to eradicate any sense of conflict – for instance, Bran is killed in a monster attack but revived by Lyria’s sharing her life-force with him. This means that the two are metaphysically bound together – they have to stay in close proximity with each other and if one of them dies again the other will die as well. The life-altering implications of this are enormous – not least the burden of responsibility acquired for what is still at this point a stranger’s welfare – but it’s dismissed with a shrug within a single scene and never impacts the action again: for instance, despite the injunction to stay close Bran even jumps off the side of an airship to plummet hundreds of feet onto an enemy and that doesn’t seem to concern him at all. They don’t even have a scene of Bran and Lyria suffering embarrassment from using a mixed bedroom, which anyone who’s watched even just a handful of anime comedies would think was a no-brainer, surely? There’s really only one scene in the whole disc which goes in an unexpected direction: when our heroes save an island from destruction by an angry goddess they blame the irreligious islanders for not showing the goddess proper respect, telling them to worship more regularly; there’s nothing wrong with this conclusion but it’s not one you often see in our modern secular age. At the very least, it might encourage kids to stop squirming and squalling if they get taken to church on a Sunday.
Kids can also watch the battles too without parents needing to be concerned. Outside of the first episode, where Bran spills claret after being slashed by a monster in the cliffhanger, combat throughout the anime is effectively bloodless – faceless helmeted Imperial goons do get stabbed and shot, but all they do is groan and tip over. There’s essentially zero fan-service too – the only thing I can find that even remotely approaches sexual content it is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of side-bum when the wind ruffles Lyria’s skirt in one shot of the ending credits sequence. Apparently there will be a Beach Episode later on in Part Two of the anime for all the girls to get into bikinis, but this release at least is very much all-ages and entirely safe to watch with the family. Even the language is moderated – Bran’s strongest exclamation is “what the heck?”
None of the above is necessarily a criticism – accessibility is a positive quality as well! Anime’s Akira-era grind house reputation has been hard to shake and even modern comedy fantasies like Konosuba have elements that make them really rather awkward to share with uninitiated people who are not already acclimatised to anime’s peculiar foibles. It’s actually quite refreshing to have a reliably safe, light-hearted and inoffensive title that everyone can enjoy. It’s a useful palette-cleanser after coming up for air after Goblin Slayer. I was quite surprised to find that Granblue Fantasy has received a ‘12’ certificate from the BBFC for “moderate fantasy violence, bloody images” when Star Wars has far more fighting than this (let’s not forget that A New Hope features someone getting his throat crushed in the first five minutes!) yet gets a ‘U’. Maybe that lone “bloody images” scene of Bran getting sliced up should have been cut, because the other six episodes certainly don’t approach a ‘12’ and it feels unfair for the rating to make them seem more adult than they are. In any case, I would be quite happy to watch Granblue Fantasy with my younger relatives.
A simpler story line also means that you do not need to preoccupy your attention with untangling plot threads and be distracted from the screen looking up theories and summaries, can instead dedicate your full uninterrupted vision to admiring the visuals. This is Granblue Fantasy’s strongest hook – the action is low-impact, the story is bland, and the characters are uncomplicated, but it does have attractive art. The original RPG caught attention for a production crew featuring Final Fantasy alumni including the long-term soundtrack composer Nobuo Uematsu and art director Hideo Minaba (design chief for Final Fantasy VI, IX, and XII) and their influence is clear – there are even a pair of recurrent villains Sturm & Drang, which act like Granblue Fantasy’s version of Final Fantasy’s Biggs & Wedge. The anime of Granblue Fantasy did come in for some criticism from fans of the videogame for simplifying the character designs, but I don’t mind it at all and these game-players really had totally unrealistic expectations about what was achievable with television anime. If you look up screenshots of the game you’ll agree that the painterly style of its character art would be impossible to animate in anything other than flat Flash paper-doll tweening and it would have looked awful, so the anime has sensibly moderated its approach – and even if the characters’ colours are a bit flatter than in the game everyone still looks clearly distinctive.
Plenty of detail remains vividly apparent the background art with sumptuous baroque ostentation for the airships and other weapons and technologies, alongside verdant vistas of the magical and mystical island realms. Even if the action scenes are not the most intense, they are animated well with smooth movement and varied direction. In a fantasy series with plenty of magical energy being flung about the special effects also are well designed, whether how mystical flames erupt out of Bran’s enchanted sword or especially the prismatic haze effect from Io’s invisibility spell. The dub is decently-acted and the English script is more expressive than the subtitles too; the only fault in presentation is the cheap lack of subtitles for the opening and ending songs.
Granblue Fantasy: The Animation falls into the category of a simple tale that’s well-told. Even if the plot holds no surprises watching it still makes for a relaxing, untroubled experience – a storybook tale of high fantasy, in the sense of a free spirit and light touch. Even if you’re an older viewer who’s seen this sort of thing before and can only roll your eyes how predictably it sticks to tropes you will have to admit that its high production values still means you can appreciate it artistically.