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‘Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End’ makes old magic feel new again

By September 29, 2023No Comments5 min read
Frieren faces the camera, looking nonplussed

The first four episodes of Frieren understand the existential bliss of the manga, while still delivering a breath of fresh, elven air.

If there was one thing I was concerned about when starting the anime adaptation of Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End (also known as the Final Farewell to the Dead), it was the fear that this first season would fall short of truly capturing the patient, slow-burn charm of Kanehito Yamada’s manga, which began in 2020 and is still ongoing.

Thankfully, Frieren does what few fantasy stories manage to accomplish despite their best efforts. Developed by Madhouse, it’s a fantastical story set in a fantastical world, sure, but it deftly mirrors both the hopes and anxieties of our modern psyche. It’s not just a story about a thousands-of-years-old elven mage who goes on daring, magical journeys. Not even close. It’s not even really about how this seemingly emotionless elf, who outlives everyone around her, starts to feel remorse about lost opportunities to get to know her friends because she took her time with them for granted.

A fantasy story with a modern message.

No, Frieren is really about the regrets that so many people, so many of us, feel when it comes to the years we pass by without fully appreciating the connections and fleeting friendships that may be momentous to them, but to us feel like a few mere days of our lives. Until we know we can’t get those days back. Whether you’re lamenting the loss of a loved one or just the circumstances of living far away from people you were once closer to than family, Frieren explores that existential ache in dumbfoundingly poignant, even melodic ways.

Frieren and her friends walk through a parade in their honor

These first four episodes are closer to a slice-of-a-life series than a typical Shonen anime with death-defying quests and never-ending power-ups. The story begins at the end of that kind of story, essentially like we’re starting with the epilogue instead of the prologue. For the past ten years, Frieren has been traveling with four companions in order to defeat the Demon King. They include a warrior dwarf with impeccable hair, a degenerate priest who drinks all the time, and a handsome hero who also sees the soft side underneath Frieren’s nonplussed exterior.

The Lord of the Rings meets To Your Eternity.

In the early episodes, entire decades pass in minutes, as if to drive home the idea that to Frieren, they really do feel like drops in the bucket of her life, and it’s similarly jarring to us as it is to her to see young characters suddenly old and gray. Frieren has just been wandering around without much purpose, and the true beat of what Yamada wants to say with this premise doesn’t really come until the end of Episode 1, titled “The Journey’s End.” Here we see the introduction of Fern, a young orphan with some potential for magic, whom Frieren reluctantly begins to train.

Over the next few episodes, we follow along with what to Frieren is quite rare; that is, her taking on an apprentice, since she normally doesn’t bother considering their short life spans. Is there something deeper motivating Frieren to keep her distance from Fern, who despite her youth ends up taking care of her master more than the other way around? Well, that’s the subtextual flavor of this kind of anime, where much of what’s unsaid is far more revealing than the actual dialogue.

Frieren and her friends celebrate in a tavern over food and drinks

Stunning animation with an even better score.

As an anime, Frieren certainly benefits right off the bat from the strong writing of its source material. But what does it bring to the table that the manga can’t quite do, is the question. We should expect dazzling animation, of course, and Frieren is certainly a feast in that regard. But the composition by Tomohiro Suzuki (One Punch Man) is perhaps the starkest, most compelling reason for manga readers to give the anime a look. The music combines the grandeur of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings with the synth orchestral flavor of To Your Eternity (probably Frieren‘s closest comparison point in terms of its subject matter).

Because the manga chapters themselves are so dense in their own right, the anime rarely strays far off its set path at this early point, though that’s likely to shift in future episodes as the real meat of the story starts to kick in. As it is now, Frieren is more of a vibe than it is a plot-driven tale with page-turning revelations. Instead, you want to turn the page because this is a character study, and Frieren herself is a fascinating and revelatory character, if only in how deeply we want to understand her in the same way her companions do. And maybe even she wants to understand herself better, too.

Who is Frieren for?

If you’ve ever wanted a story that actually wrestles with the massive implications of long-living beings walking among us, then Frieren is certainly a thinker in that regard, and though it takes its time to get there, the actual battles and exciting displays of magical set pieces also deliver when the time is right. Episode 2 (“It Didn’t Have to Be Magic…”) and Episode 3 (“The Killing Spell”) gradually work in more effects and wizardry as the plot naturally allows it. Only to return to the show’s comfortable melancholy in Episode 4 (“The Land Where Souls Rest.”)

It’s understandable, then, why Crunchyroll released all these episodes at once, only to continue on a weekly basis from here on out. They really do work together as a cohesive episodic narrative, which might turn off some would-be fans expecting a little more intrigue. But by the end of “The Land Where Souls Rest,” we do get that indication that the journey, or next journey, does have an end, and it’ll be an exhaustive one in all the best ways.

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End Season 1 Episodes 1-4 are now available to stream on Crunchyroll. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of Crunchyroll. Read more articles by Jon Negroni here.

  • 'FRIEREN: BEYOND JOURNEY'S END' Season 1, Episodes 1-4 - 9/10
Jon Negroni

Jon is one of the co-founders of InBetweenDrafts and our resident film editor. He also hosts the podcasts Cinemaholics, Mad Men Men, and Rookie Pirate Radio. He doesn't sleep, essentially.

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