A nostalgic favourite and one of the shows that got me into anime. Ten years ago, I enjoyed it without seeing it as anything special, merely as funny AD&D semi-parody with a likeable cast and a slightly disappointing ending. This rewatch gave me more regard for it, though. I laughed as much as before, while also deciding that the genre subversion meant that what I'd once seen as flaws were actually more interesting than I'd thought.
So, what's it about, then? It's based on a comedy manga by Ryo Mizuno and set in the same AD&D world as his very serious Lodoss War, but with no crossovers. They're on a different continent. Both series have clerics who worship Mylee, the god of battle, and both have elves with ears like aeroplane wings, but for the most part the similarities are just that its assumptions are the same. Fighters, clerics, magicians and thieves will go dungeon-bashing and meet goblins, dragons, etc.
Our hero, Louie, is a likeable goofball who likes getting drunk and punching things. He generally manages to mess up anything he's involved with, although fortunately he's an optimistic chap who's always full of beans and doesn't let failure get him down. Theoretically he's a trainee magician, but he's not the scholarly type and tends to think more like a particularly unsophisticated fighter. In one episode, he gets out his wand and... breaks it by beating goblins to death with it.
What he'd like is to be an adventurer. He tries to join an all-female group who need a magic-user, but they reject him. Later that episode, though, the group's cleric, Melissa, gets a divine revelation that the hero she must follow is Louie.
Cue drooling white-faced horror from Melissa and the start of a lot of comedy.
Episode one startled me by being far more fanservice-y than I'd expected. Melissa's clerical garb has a cleavage window. The team's fighter, Jeannie/Genie, is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger and apparently disdains armour, instead wearing a bikini that shows underboob. The thief, Merrill, is the most normal-looking of the three, both in costume and body type, but then again there's also Louie's non-adventuring friend Ila, who wears a skintight top and provides fanservice even when fully clothed.
I found myself hoping Tomoko wouldn't walk in... and then I completely forgot about the fanservice again, except on special occasions like the swimsuits in episode 15 or Melissa's cosplay in episode 21. (Besides, Melissa's collar-to-ankle dress is modest once you've stopped noticing her boobs, while Jeannie's so grim and musclebound that I think finding her sexy would suggest some kind of fetish.) This anime is entirely uninterested in sex and romance. Indeed, the adventurers don't even seem capable of thinking below the waist. It doesn't exist for them. It would be a distraction from dungeon-bashing. They're aware of such things, in a theoretical sense, but Melissa's reactions to any such notion range from implacable rejection (of Conrad) to zombie brain bleach (at the suggestion of Louie).
Admittedly Ila clearly has feelings for Louie, but he's never going to realise. It's clearly a no-hoper if a boy doesn't react even when you're topless (but face-down) and asking him to oil your back. (Manga Louie is apparently more perverted, though, which carries over in episode 18, the body-swap episode, and annoyed me by being out of character for Anime Louie.)
Furthermore, the girls bully Louie mercilessly and use him as their baggage handler. This could theoretically have been a harem set-up, but Melissa, Merrill and Jeannie think Louie's a moron and would sooner shag a pet dog. There's a power relationship and the girls clearly have the upper hand, not to mention also in competence and common sense.
What the show's about is subverting genre cliches and deconstructing them for comic effect. It's doing so in an amiable goofball way, obviously. Louie. However there's some quite interesting stuff here, especially in the main theme of what it means to be a hero. Melissa's objections to Louie are partly an image problem. She's unhappy that he's an idiot, but just as importantly she wants to be able to boast about him. She's looking for a romantic gallant ideal that has everything to do with silly genre cliches and nothing to do with actual heroes (Hercules, Samson, etc.) The series takes this apart in some detail, including boastful self-proclaimed heroes (Conrad) and Renard/Leonard (everything that Melissa yearns for Louie to be, but with a twist).
This all comes together in the three-part finale, which I admit isn't highly regarded. Our heroes are genuinely heroic against, for once, proper dramatic opposition. There's some cool stuff in there, from Melissa going to support Louie to the three adventurers defying an edict of martial law as they walk towards a line of soldiers. Even antagonist characters prove that they can be helpful, while unexpected supporting characters get big emotional turning points. Theoretically, all this ends triumphantly. Convention is upheld. They save the city and the king wants to reward them.
However our heroes think they're in deep shit because they flattened the palace in the process, so they're going on the run. Louie's a proper hero now. All that social status and esteem that Melissa had yearned for is theirs, if only they knew. Instead, the ending is a deliberate anti-climax that has them unwittingly rejecting that and choosing to be renegades. I can see why I found that a let-down ten years ago, but now I think it's quite cool.
I also quite like the Merrill episodes that used to put me off. As with Woodchuck in Record of Lodoss War, you see, Ryo Mizuno seems interested in exploring the spikier side of his thieves. I approve. They're professional thieves, after all. Admittedly Merrill supports herself mostly through part-time jobs, but she's still a thief and we occasionally see her burgling. Thus despite being a dependable party member and a reliable friend, she's also a greedy mercenary who's money-hungry to the point of mental illness (episode 7) and capable of losing battles with her conscience (episode 14). Whenever such flaws are making her look silly or slightly unsympathetic, this is deliberate from Mizuno.
(Merrill is Mirrell in the original Japanese, by the way. As for Jeannie/Genie, the Romanisation of her name depends on whether you're reading the translated manga or the anime's subtitles.)
I've always liked this show and rewatching it has reinforced that. I prefer it to Lodoss War, for a start. It's a comedy, of course, without much straight drama and no real resolution in the end, not even for poor Ila's relationship with Louie. This show's finale would be better liked if there were a season two. However that's acceptable and I like the development of the characters and themes. The girls' relationship with Louie improves over time as they gain more respect for him, while Melissa's attitudes become more nuanced until eventually she admits that she'd been wrong in her assumptions. "I have learned from my hero." The comedy has a strong basis and I'm fond of these characters. I care about them.
I'd recommend this show. If you used to play AD&D, it's not far off a must-see.