It's perhaps the definitive sword-and-sorcery anime, but it all started as novelisations of Dungeons and Dragons gaming sessions, like the Dragonlance books. (These days Lodoss is part of the Japanese RPG system Forcelia, but that's basically AD&D with bits of Runequest's magic system.) Curiously, though, the first printed Record of Lodoss War wasn't even a novel, but instead a "replay" serialisation in the Japanese magazine Comptiq. Those are transcripts of RPG sessions and they're surprisingly popular. Ryo Mizuno kicked it all off. His novels got adapted into manga and anime series, with this being one of the first anime series to make it big in America. Even today, it still has lots of fans.
I didn't like it, although I'm hoping I'll prefer the 27-episode TV series. They're more faithful to the original novels, apparently.
What's cool about it at first is how closely it maps to AD&D. This is lots of fun. You can sit there ticking off all the things you recognise. It even has kobolds, which it thinks are monstrous sword-wielding grunts (as in AD&D) rather than the magical sprites of Germanic folklore. Meanwhile our heroes all fall into recognised classes, of course. Parn's a first-level fighter. Deedlit (or Deed) is a High Elf magic-user, although it would be more accurate to call her a Runequest shaman who specialises in elementals and spirits. Etoh is a cleric. Slayn is another magic-user. Ghim is a dwarf fighter and Woodchuck is a thief.
They go on adventures. They kill things. This is cool... but then, after a while, I realised that I wasn't really that interested. The show was okay, but I was sticking with it more through inertia than because I particularly cared. I'm fond of fantasy, but less so of bad fantasy and this strikes me as, at best, mediocre.
You see, our heroes are fairly boring. Parn's the main character and he's unwaveringly brave and pure-hearted, but he's also one-dimensional, humourless and stupid. Show him a foe and he'll charge at it with his sword. Any foe. He'll do it against a dragon, or against the warrior king who's leading the armies that are invading Lodoss. This guy should be mince. There's a line between courage and stupidity, but Parn wouldn't even recognise it. Take away his sword and he'd still go charging in like a bull. There are times when he's picked yet another obviously unwinnable fight and only survives by authorial intervention.
He doesn't even try to make up for his lack of skill with brains or ingenuity. He just runs straight towards his opponent, screaming his head off. I didn't actually want to see him dead, because he is indeed brave, morally upright and practically a paladin in the making. However I did think he was an idiot.
Etoh has no personality and does very little. He's a cleric, but the sage-like, philosophical Slayn is more cleric-like. Etoh just looks like a monk and makes up the numbers.
Slayn and Woodchuck are okay. I quite like the way that the latter is living down to his job description, being lowlife criminal scum with a character design you wouldn't touch with a bargepole.
The two regulars I actually liked, though, were the non-humans. This is probably because they have relationships with other people. Deed(lit) can be a bit of a space cadet, but her shaman powers make her slightly different from the Tolkein template and she soon starts fancying Parn. Well, each to her own. Ghim, on the other hand, is every inch the stereotypical fantasy dwarf, but he's also searching for a human girl who's like a daughter to him. Ghim ends up being kind of magnificent, actually.
So the regulars are a mixed bag. Well, so's the storyline. It's the kind of plotting that will thrill people who think fantasy should be all about dragons and battles, but on closer examination you'll realise that stories on this scale don't leave much for our heroes to do. The final episode, for instance, has two villains fighting each other while a third one stands on the sidelines, talking to a fourth. Our heroes? Well, Parn runs forward a lot, shouting "Deed!" He has a sword fight, but it's as boring as all of them, because:
(a) It's a sword fight
(b) He's never going to win anyway. I mean, really. Look at who he's fighting.
(c) Even beyond that, Parn's being a plank again. You'd think he might have said, "Excuse me, could I perhaps fight you after I've got Deed down from that sacrifical altar?" The response would presumably have been "no", but he could at least have tried. Not Parn, though. He's just thinking with his sword arm, as usual.
What's good about this anime? Well, there's cool stuff to look at. I liked the dragons and the fairy realm in episode four, for instance. I like the show's willingness to change its line-up, with heroes being lost to the bad guys and other supporting characters becoming regulars. Those two mercenaries are good, for instance, despite being human, while it's always a kicker to see heroes die (or worse). I also liked the Dark Elf with stripper cleavage who's loyal to her evil master and hence, in her way, noble.
On a subtler level, I like the way that AD&D levels and training are built into the storytelling. Heroes aren't magically born that way. Parn's pure of heart, but he's also rubbish of arm and everyone knows he's going to have to put in hard practice hours if he's going to be able to stand up even to a few goblins.
On the downside, the early episodes hop around enough chronologically to be slightly confusing. I still can't tell where episode one's meant to belong. Story points are unclear. (In episode six, why should a defence treaty involve the sacrifice of a baby?) Meanwhile the finale leaves a massive plot thread hanging, in the question of what's going to happen to SPOILER. I've just checked wikipedia to see what eventually happens to him elsewhere in the canon. Answer: "His whereabouts after SPOILER is unknown." What? You've got to be kidding me. He returns briefly in the TV series, but then disappears again.
Bizarrely, if you're Japanese, Lodoss sounds like Rhodes. You know, the Greek island. Apparently Lodoss fans used to go on holiday there.
Mind you, I like the fact that Lodoss's fantasy world, Forcelia, is a shared world that's visited by other anime. There's also Legend of Crystania (apparently terrible) and Louie the Rune Soldier (a comedy and a nostalgic favourite of mine).
These OVAs also have famously lavish animation and surprisingly elegant music. Everyone seems to worship the art, although the main thing you'll notice is comedically freakish elf ears. They're like an extra pair of arms. Apparently the character designer was inspired by Gundam robot antennae and this look was since taken up by all Japanese media, plus even the odd Western production like World of Warcraft. Oh, and Dark Elves are either gorgeous and dress like strippers (if female) or hideous (if male). You could build fan theories around this.
This is the kind of show that makes its ancestry obvious. It's got AD&D in its bones and blood, obviously. (Incidentally, the first printed Record of Lodoss War wasn't a novel, but instead a "replay" serialisation in the Japanese magazine Comptiq. Those are transcripts of RPG sessions and they're surprisingly popular.) However you can also see the evidence of Lodoss having been a novel series, in the epic, staggered nature of its plotting and the way it's more flexible with its regulars than most anime or TV shows. It thinks big. It also has industrious and seriously badass villains, scary enough that there's usually no realistic way for our heroes even to survive against them. It's earnest, it's epic and no one's safe.
However it's got a lurching plot that's trying to boil down a sprawling franchise into thirteen episodes. Partway through, it leaps forward several years and you might not even realise. The TV series tells the story better and more faithfully, apparently. The series also thinks sword fights and battles are exciting, which is a fundamental problem even when the fighting doesn't involve armies and other people we don't care about.
It's important, historically. It changed anime, role-playing games and the fantasy genre. For me, personally, I found the AD&D-ness to be fun for a while and there were some characters I liked (Deedlit, Ghim, Shiris and Orson). Also, in fairness, I think the show stood up remarkably well to me having almost no patience with its lead character, Parn. However I still couldn't watch more than one episode at once. I'd always find I couldn't face the idea and would put on something more entertaining instead. Eventually I finished the series without having expended too much willpower, but I wouldn't go recommending it or anything.