Grimoire of Zero is an anime series that simultaneously reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a short episode run. Clocking in at twelve episodes, the series’ first half introduces a magical world. A world of victimised witches and half-beast-half-humans called ‘Beastfallen’. Our protagonist is one of said Beastfallen; known only as Mercenary, his fearsome exterior and gruff attitude disguises a kind spirit that’s rarely recognised by fearful townspeople. Similarly feared are the pair of witches he falls in with; young woman Zero, the author of an influential witches tome from which the show takes its title, and a young boy called Albus who also dabbles in witchcraft.
The brevity of the series necessitates a tight focus on character, and for the first half-dozen episodes, it succeeds admirably! The bond between Mercenary and Zero, in particular, trades off gentle humour and real emotion. As the trio travel through the countryside without much of a narrative to speak of, Grimoire of Zero effectively a sketches a society where division is grounded in fear and bigotry rather than resorting to crudely sketched magical villains. There are solid jokes too; the mayor of a town they visit observes that: “I was once a strong mercenary like you back in the day. But then, well, I took an arrow in the knee,” in an appreciated reference to the Skyrim meme.
Of course, a proper storyline has to eventuate at some point, with an antagonist and all. It’s at this point that the show reveals the limitations of only having a dozen twenty-ish minute episodes to play with. While I appreciate that the writers keep the focus tightly on our core trio – even pulling some tricks out of their happy to tie these characters into global stakes – the resulting complexity unravels much of the strong character work preceding it. It’s the classic anime dilemma, where a long-running manga storyline is shoved in too few episodes to accommodate its density, and it makes for a disappointing – if hardly terrible – conclusion to an anime that had its hooks well and truly in me in the first few episodes.