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A character in Bastard!! using magic and looking really happy about it Image: Netflix

Netflix’s Bastard!! reboot shows how fantasy anime has changed over the years

It’s a throwback anime in all the (metal) ways that count

The recently-released Bastard!! Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy anime is like if someone distilled the 1980s into one awesome, sword-and-sorcery fantasy series. Bastard!! tells the story of the antihero wizard Dark Schneider, who once almost wrecked the world by trying to awaken the God of Destruction, Anthrasax, but is now fighting to stop it.

The Netflix series is a reboot/remake of a 1992 straight-to-video anime based on the 1988 manga by Kazushi Hagiwara, and it’s essentially a time capsule of the ’80s, containing within it a lot of what was popular during that decade — including the building blocks of “old-school fantasy anime.” To be clear, “old-school fantasy anime” isn’t simply animated Japanese fantasy that came out before a specific, arbitrary date. It’s more of a distinct approach to fantasy and a specific way of doing things that just so happens to have been perfected around the 1980s. So, taking Bastard!! as an example, what was the subgenre all about? Borrowing, for one; old-school fantasy anime tended to borrow heavily from other, mostly Western sources, like how Bastard!! uses heavy metal and D&D.

The name “Dark Schneider” actually comes from Udo Dirkschneider, formerly of the metal band Accept, with “Accept” also being the spell that awakens his powers. Other musical references in Hagiwara’s work include Dark Schneider’s signature spell, Venom (like the English metal band), or the existence of the kingdom of Metallicana within its universe. The series also takes more than a few cues from Dungeons & Dragons, another ’80s mainstay, like the demon Suzuki Dogezaemon that’s clearly based on the famous Beholder from D&D.

The trend does go back a little further, though. During the late Edo period (1603–1868), one of the most popular Japanese fantasy novels was Nansō Satomi Hakkenden, a tale about adventure, intertwined fates, and other worlds. It and similar 19th-century novels were influenced by Chinese epics like, say, Water Margin. And after Japan opened its borders during the Meiji period, it started to take inspiration from European and American fantasy literature.

That’s why the first modern Japanese isekai novel about people being transported to a different world of fantasy was the very aptly-named Warrior From Another World (1976) by Haruka Takachiho, the creator of Dirty Pair, who pretty much just retold John Carter with a high-school protagonist. Even the series often called the first isekai anime, Aura Battler Dunbine (which, of course, came out in the 1980s) takes inspiration from the West in the form of its European medieval setting and a Nordic-esque aesthetic with a fantasy twist to it.

A still of Guts cutting open monsters from Berserk Image: Liden Films/Crunchyroll
Edward starting to use alchemy on a railroad track
The worlds of Berserk (left) and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (right) look totally different and feature very different monsters.
Image: Bones/Aniplex

Besides the odd D&D reference, Bastard!! is also set in your standard medieval-fantasy world of castles, elves, knights, mages, and monsters. It’s the same kind of world that other old-school fantasy titles like, say, Berserk or Record of Lodoss War could easily take place in because of how classic that setup has become over the years. You see this less with contemporary fantasy anime shows, which tend to craft their own, brand-new worlds from scratch or base them on native Japanese culture.

You’d notice instantly if, say, Fullmetal Alchemist changed its setting to the world of Bastard!!. It’s not just because their “timelines” don’t match up. Sure, Bastard!! is medieval while FMA is set in a fantasy Industrial Revolution era, but some of the latter’s far-off locations do have a medieval-esque quality to them that could, on paper, work with characters like Dark Schneider. But FMA is very specific with its world-building, constantly expanding its fictional universe by, say, mixing the real Law of Equivalent Exchange (the anime’s version of conservation of mass) with the existence of a godlike creature that actually oversees this physical law. When you’re watching Fullmetal Alchemist, you always get the feeling that there’s so much more to this world, and you can’t wait to learn more about it. In Bastard!!, though, you’re told from the get-go that this is your standard-issue fantasy universe, and the only question you may have about it is: “So… will the dragons be black, red, gold, or some other color?”

That’s not a critique of older fantasy anime. When you’re working with a familiar setting, it forces you to flesh out your characters more or find some other hook to help your creation stand out. Bastard!! went with heavy metal, something that few other series have really done before or since, and we’re still talking about it nearly 35 years later.

Another thing that tends to define old-school fantasy anime is them finding safety and security in civilization. In Bastard!!, the world is a wild, untamed place full of unholy things wanting to come face-to-face with your internal organs, just like in Berserk or Vampire Hunter D. The only oases of peace and stability there are human-made cities. Now compare this to Fullmetal Alchemist where the seemingly peaceful world of civilization, progress, and technology turns out to be a lie, a facade that runs on blood and is controlled from the shadows by dark forces that go to the very top. The Rising of the Shield Hero similarly took its time to deconstruct and expose its standard fantasy world as a place where the supposedlycivilized humans are the real monsters. Hell, Demon Slayer, which is steeped in Japanese culture and history, actually managed to capture this kind of anxiety about the corrupting power of progress and modernity that’s come to define contemporary fantasy animation by giving its main villain a distinct hat.

A giant minotaur with men in suits of armor running past it, seen through a broken wall Image: Netflix

There are many possible reasons why fantasy anime changed gears like that, but the most probable one is that, 30 to 40 years ago, the world seemed like a less total-crap-sack place (the ratio of crap to sack varied but never seemed to be one-to-one). Plus, the people who ran it came off as somewhat competent or at least playing by an understood set of rules. That, of course, was not the case, but with access to information not being anything close to what it is now, it was easier to believe the lie. And that collective delusion that humanity was holding it together translated to civilization becoming a safe haven in the world of anime, with all its threats being “external.”

In Bastard!!, human-made castles actually serve as seals keeping the terrifying Anthrasax from awakening and hitting the reset button on the whole world. In comparison, in Death Note, it’s the modern golden boy Light who turns out to be the real monster, even when put next to the literally monstrous death god Ryuk. In short, in contemporary fantasy anime, the villain calls are coming from inside the house.

All these deconstructions and examinations of “who is the real monster” are par for the course in contemporary fantasy anime. Shows like Fullmetal Alchemist, Rising of the Shield Hero, or Death Note explore topics like geopolitics, racism, or the broader idea of justice. Bastard!!... does not. It’s loud, it’s flashy, and it’s so much fun, but it’s not that deep. One scene in the new anime actually involves Schneider turning a powerful sorceress into an ally by giving her the biggest orgasm she ever had… by biting her ear.

Not that long ago, fantasy was definitely perceived as being more escapist (even if some of the most lasting fantasy stories definitely had some deeper parable to them). It was a way to unwind by watching a wizard blow up a dragon by speaking Latin at it. That’s not to say all old-school fantasy was surface-deep, even in anime. Berserk, for example, is more than just a gore-fest about a madman with a sharp (symbolic) surfboard strapped to his back, seeing as it explores themes of the corrupting nature of power and how a life of revenge is a life wasted. Even Bastard!! had moments that hold up to a deeper analysis, like how Anthrasax was actually the result of scientists, magicians, and alchemists trying to create a weapon to end all conflicts.

Again, what defines “old-school” and “contemporary” fantasy anime isn’t the calendar. There wouldn’t be distinct contemporary Japanese fantasy without some shows and movies from the past trying out new things like crafting their own unique worlds or occasionally turning to Japanese culture for inspiration. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or Sailor Moon — the latter of which is partially based on the legend of Princess Kaguya, one of the oldest Japanese myths ever — spring to mind. “Old-school” Japanese fantasy is more of a state of mind, which by its very nature is hard to put into words. Thankfully, all of the subgenre’s most recognizable tropes are there on display in Bastard!! Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy, your one-stop guide to doing Japanese fantasy the old-fashioned way, with one of the heaviest, most metal anime openings ever. What more can you ask for?