Record of Ragnarok is now the anime with the esteemed position of most exceeding my expectations. My first exposure to the anime was through memes; a popular and immediately viral screenshot from the anime is one of the goddess Aphrodite with two servants holding her breasts up. Given anime’s…let’s just say propensity for fan service I immediately saw this and wrote the entire show off as another oversexualized shonen mess. I was incredibly wrong and I think a significant number of naysayers are probably in the same mental boat.
I had the benefit of getting a strong recommendation from an excellent person with excellent taste. The anime, however, also can make a strong case for itself. Despite the manga being marketed as seinen, Record of Ragnarok is battle shonen in perhaps its purest form. The entire show is a tournament arc with any needed exposition woven neatly in between key peak moments of the fighting. In terms of mood, it feels incredibly, uncannily similar to the chunin exams in part one of Naruto. Even more, the sound design, music, and (some) choreography also feel similar to Naruto and Boruto. The music makes sense given the series share a composer. The rest feels familiar because, like the tournament arcs of those shonen series, the flow of the story in Record of Ragnarok incrementally introduces more and more powers and characters. Because all of them are based on actual gods and mythical heroes there’s also plenty of iconography and source material to play with. Most of all, the combat is satisfying and the show never pretends to be any deeper than it is.
This article is spoiler-free.
A Perfectly Simple Premise
Record of Ragnarok operates in a world where all of the gods and god-like figures (e.g. Buddha) from a wide variety of mythistories live in a composite version of the heavens. Every one thousand years the gods assemble and decide whether to allow humanity to continue to exist or destroy all of them. In this iteration of their meeting, the gods decide to destroy humanity. This is halted by the suggestion of one of the Valkyries, who are only partially gods and cherish humanity, to have the gods battle against the strongest of humanity from across history to decide whether the race is worthy of continuing to exist.
This is a great premise for a few reasons. For one, it’s very easy to explain and thus lets the fighting begin almost immediately for the series. I initially expected an arc of finding these heroes through some sort of search through time but that wasn’t the case. Secondly, it immediately establishes the uniting character trait for the gods and humans alike: hubris. This is a great foundation for the story since it simultaneously characterizes both sides of the fight while differentiating the two based on their position within the divine hierarchy. Finally, and most important for my watch through, it begs the question of how in the world humanity has any chance at all of winning this contest. The eponymous contest is a 13-round tournament consisting of one-on-one fights and gods are…well gods.
Surprisingly Compelling Characters
The characters answer this question and they’re by far my favorite part of Record of Ragnarok. As a history nerd seeing lesser-known figures get a chance to shine in battle is exciting, and seeing their stories shown on screen is just as much so. Battles in this series, like many shonen, are just as much contests of will as they are strength. The origin stories of each fighter are essentially the laurels of history mixed with expository detail about super moves that the show creates. Each special ability of the human fighters is tailored to their backstory, creating a pleasant mixture of history and pure fiction that manifests as their niche in battle.
As for the gods, they answer the question of “how is this fair?” by being (honestly) weaker than I initially expected and less reliant on magical or mystical powers than intuition might suggest. These gods are brawler types using a mixture of hand-to-hand combat, their characteristic weapons (Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, for example), and special techniques that mostly boil down to physical enhancement. They aren’t summoning massive storms of lightning or energy blasts that immediately invalidate mortals; the show instead makes them mostly physical equals to the greats of humanity with their main advantages being their divine weapons, an obstacle the show does well to work through (though I won’t spoil how).
Some of these characters are a lot more invented than others and even these are incredibly intriguing to see on screen. Some characters that don’t have much of an origin to them have primarily fabricated backstories instead of partial ones and even these feel organic to the mixtures of history the plot builds from. In my opinion, the consistent focus on just a few themes makes this possible. Because Record of Ragnarok doesn’t concern itself with executing on two many areas it does what it seeks to do quite well. The main faults that come to mind for the series are elements that it lacks, an occasional spike of iffy 3D animation (this is pretty typical of Netflix originals though), and some degree of repetitiveness. I don’t think the latter is a huge problem for a battle shonen in all honesty. Some shows are just about throwing hands and that’s fine. The Record of Ragnarok is the epitome of that.
Excellent Fights and a Season To Come for Record of Ragnarok
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this series. I spent a day recovering from food poisoning and assembling furniture and it made excellent background television in both the dub and sub. Notably, the English dub gives accents of many of the historical figures appropriate to their country of origin, something that isn’t quite as consistent (or possible really) in the original Japanese. Episodes are pretty quick and to the point, creating momentum to that story that’s fast enough to feel dynamic but not too much so.
Season 1 and the first part of season 2 (episodes 1-10) are currently streaming on Netflix. The second part of season 2 is set to release on July 12th, 2023. The battles we’ve had the pleasure of seeing so far in Season 2 are incredible, with a villain of history that I never expected to love becoming my favorite character of the series and stealing the show from the rest. Aphrodite is on screen maybe a single-digit number of times and my initial expectations about the show’s content couldn’t have been more off the mark. This isn’t a deep battle anime or an overly complicated series and it doesn’t have to be. If you like action that gets right to it then you should be watching Record of Ragnarok.
Images via WarnerBros Japan on YouTube.
©Azychika, Shinya Umemura, Takumi Fukui / Coamix, Record of Ragnarok Production Committee