I don’t know what your get down is. I don’t know what streaming services you pay for, who’s password you sharing, or how new your phone is to run shit at 1440p while you’re waiting for your flight. But I know that Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End is a monster of an anime series. Like, Nicki’s verse on “Monster,” not them other dudes. But let me line up the shot on my language a bit, I don’t mean that the series is bombastic with enemies and abilities that destroy cities, or power systems that NASA can’t track. But a contemplative, often emotionally reserved story that deepens gradually with each episode, each town visited, each companion added.
But let’s back up, I went in heavy and its possible you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End is about the hero’s journey. The hero, Himmel, joined by the healer and degenerate priest Heiter, the axe-wielding tanky dwarf warrior Eisen and the elven mage Frieren, who set off on a journey to kill the Demon King. I know, this shit is basically a 1 for 1 of your D&D Saturday night, right? Except, you saw the name of the show right? This ain’t about Himmel (I mean, it is, but it isn’t). And it ain’t even about this hero’s quest (I mean, it is, but it isn’t). The story is actually about what happened AFTER this quest.
That Demon King shit, they done took care of that. His ass been dead. They came home, got parades and statues and probably a whole lot of romantic accompaniment, know what I’m sayin? You spellcasting, what I’m preparing, right? And then Frieren said, well, that was fun, I guess, later for y’all slayers. Again, Frieren is an elf and in like most fantasy settings, elves are both rare and damn near immortal. She was a thousand years old before the quest to kill the Demon King. Which only took 10 years. So the quest to kill the Demon King for Frieren was about as long as it takes customer service to connect you to a real person when you trying to figure out why your gas bill was so damn high last month. While the journey was transformational and easily the most impactful thing that everyone else in the party has done and will ever do, to Frieren, it was really something to do on her way to the store. Killing the Demon King was an errand, my dude. And her detachment is what moves this story forward.
Many years later, Himmel, a human is finally laid to rest, and it has all the gravity that the world’s most renown hero would have. Frieren returns to see her old friends and pay her respects, with the assumption that everyone did what she did. Peaced the eff out and went around exploring the world. But no, Heiter, also a human is in the twilight of his life and Eisen the dwarf, who also will live for a very long time, retired from adventuring but still keeps connections with the friends he has made. And it’s here that it strikes Frieren that her party stayed in community with each other while she was studying abroad for fifty years or some shit. She comes to the realization that because of her life span and her predisposition to outliving everyone, that she doesn’t really invest or take interest in their lives. A sudden sadness hits her that these people who were so pivotal in shaping the world along side her, well, she doesn’t know anything about them. She remembers them intensely and worked well with them, obviously, but she doesn’t really know them and rarely thought about them when she left. But now, they are leaving the world and she is regretful of the time she’s lost. And we’ve all been there, many of us, just straight up live there.
I lost my father recently, too damn recently. And I had enough of a relationship with my father that I’m not regretful of what I missed out in the past, but what stings is what can now never happen. The possibilities we take for granted that are no longer possible. Plans to catch up, spend holidays, take trips…They now seem silly? Wasteful? A fantasy even when they originally included someone who is no longer here. I also think about how pivotal moments mark time. When my daughter was born, dates and times became less important as it became more useful to say, well, “Amira will be 10 by then, so that’s not too long from now,” or “Bruh, Amira had just started kindergarten then, it was a different world back then.” And already, I find myself saying, “that wasn’t too long ago, dad wasn’t even in the hospital yet.” It is cliché, but true that time is relative; the passage of years only really matters for the most important parts of our lives that fill those years. So, yeah, Jesus, let’s talk about anime again…
…this was Frieren’s misgiving that she’s trying to correct. She had put so much stock into the passage of years and cared little for the events and relationships that could have made those years meaningful. But the past is the past and Frieren knows she can’t do anything about what she didn’t do. Thankfully, the “curse” of her long life, gives her the blessing of trying again. Throughout her present journey, Frieren takes on a companion, a former mage apprentice of Heiter when he passes. Eventually, they’ll stumble upon Stark, who studied under her comrade Eisen. Frieren gets another chance to live out her RPG fantasy. Her overarching mission is to acquire as many grimoire and spells as she can, which eventually leads to a quest to find the resting place of her old mentor. But this time, she has companion quests with a real focus on knowing, caring for, and loving (in her own way) the people on the journey with her. Basically, she got that New Game Plus except now she’s doing all the side missions she skipped on her first playthrough.
Ok, Will, you’ve talked a lot of shit, but why is this supposed to be one of the best anime in recent memory? Two reasons it works: Frieren is a full three-dimensional character and Himmel might the best use of Ghost of Hero Christmas Past ever. Touching up Frieren first, I had a hard time putting into words what makes her such a good protagonist, and I eventually settled on the uniqueness of her set up. She’s lived for over a thousand years. So far in the anime, we’ve met maybe one other person (non-demon) as old as she is. So, it makes sense for her to be incredibly knowledgeable and wise. She has been in the world, and to her credit, as a rolling stone and traveler, she knows the wider world. She is cultured and aware of towns, villages, races, factions, languages, etc. the way you would expect from someone as older than the communities or landmarks she interacts with. She doesn’t panic in a fight. She knows her party’s abilities and trusts them in a heated moment, even if they don’t fully believe in themselves yet. But let me tell you a little somethin’ about Frieren aka Old Hag aka Frieren the Slayer if you nasty.
She’s also very immature? And aloof, and emotionally stunted? And at first, you’re like, how the hell is someone putting up 1K on her passport, immature? And well, that’s because she’s never had to care about being in community with people in this way before. In the flashbacks (and Lawd, we gonna get to the flashbacks), Frieren is often cold and pragmatic. What’s the job? Bet. Job’s done? Word, back to reading this spellbook again, tell me when you need me. Now, taking this new approach to understanding the humans around her, she’s often out of sorts. She’s lazy about chores. She falls asleep quickly and will sleep all day if you let her. She doesn’t clean up her living space even though it drives her apprentice Fern crazy. She’s messy like she was raised by magical wolves. But also, now, birthdays are important to her, and there’s anxiety and lack of confidence of what to best get for her companions. Its incredibly sweet and human, ya know, for an elf. But it makes every new situation Frieren journeys into surprising and hard to predict how she will react to it. Will she lean on her otherworldly wisdom to resolve a situation? Or will it fall into a category of personal relationships, one that she is a lot less assured about and may fumble completely.
The second reason why this show is so damn good is because of Himmel. The show begins with Himmel anointed as a young man and the Hero who defeated the Demon King. But by the 10-minute mark of the anime, Himmel is dead, and the only physical part of him that remains are the vain posed statues of him in numerous villages all over the land. But Himmel is large in the series, as through flashbacks we see Himmel was ultimately the one that taught Frieren how to care for those around her, even if she often ignored his musings and advice at the time he gave it. Remember how I talked about how momentous occasions reframe how we mark time back when I was crying into my keyboard about my pops? Well, this anime does that too, marking new locations with “X years after the death of the Hero Himmel.” He is inescapable, not only for his impact on the modern world, but his impact on our protagonist. Almost every episode, when Frieren faces a situation unfamiliar to her or one with complication, we get a flashback of her interacting with Himmel that helps inform her current situation.
What is heart-warming, even a bit heartbreaking, about the flashbacks is that it’s obvious that Himmel had a giant heart for those around him, but specifically, he loved Frieren. He cared for her, looked out for her, defended her, and sometimes, not so subtly, pursued her. But Frieren was never in a place to receive that kind of affection. Seeing her realize now, in the present, how much Himmel cared for her and that she was largely numb to him at the time is tough. It’s emotionally intelligent storytelling, but still tough. What makes it worth it though, is her valiant attempts to pay forward his kindness. Often trying to live up to the example he set. Not necessarily in the action-packed heroic tales that survive him. But in the caring and kindness he showed to those around him, even if there wasn’t a gathering crowd to witness it.
Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End is not only a surprisingly fresh take on the hero’s journey. It’s a hero’s journey, within another hero’s journey that takes place after the first hero’s journey. But the much less complicated summary is, to Frieren herself, it is all one journey, even if it looks like multiple iterations for those of us with normal lifespans. The Wire taught us that the game stays the game, the people change, but the roles don’t. You see this in Frieren. Halfway through the season, all the roles have been repopulated from the original hero party. But what’s different is Frieren and how she treats her new party members. The unique premise allows for one of the most contemplative and genuinely reflective stories I’ve seen in anime, period.
This season of Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End began airing on Crunchyroll in September of 2023 and is scheduled to conclude in March 2024.