Mature detachment at heart of elf-mage’s widespread popularity

@Kanehito YAMADA, Tsukasa ABE/Shogakukan
Mature detachment at heart of elf-mage’s widespread popularity

An instant hit when it began its run in the Shukan Shonen Sunday weekly manga magazine in April last year, “Soso no Frieren” (Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End) dominated a variety of year-end manga rankings after coming out in book form. A winner of this year’s two major manga awards, the Manga Taisho (Cartoon Grand Prize) and Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize, it is no exaggeration to say “Frieren” is the hottest fantasy manga at the moment.

Frieren is an elf-mage with the appearance of a young girl. She teams up with the valiant Himmel, warrior Eisen and priest Heiter, defeats the Demon King, and returns to her kingdom to a hero’s welcome. While 10 years of adventure represents just a blip in time for an elf with super longevity, she is unaware of how time affects her comrades.

Fifty years have passed when Frieren is reunited with an aged Himmel, and soon after, she is attending his funeral. Her two other comrades have also become quite old. Frieren realizes how ephemeral human life is, and begins a journey with new companions to retrace their route to the Castle of the Demon King, filled with a desire to learn more about humans, to find what her friends left behind.

The storyline is unique in that it begins with the epilogue, before mentioning the main adventure itself. Having lived for a millennium, Frieren views the world with aloof detachment, and does not understand the subtleties of human emotions. She never noticed Himmel’s secret affection for her. Now, by reminiscing about dear friends who are no longer around, the scenario of Frieren waking up to her feelings and starting to mature is both profound and emotionally touching.

There were times, however, when I felt a little let down. For example, the flow of time constitutes a central theme in the story, but even where there is a time lapse of 50 or 80 years, it is not clearly represented in the drawings. I understand that it may be a tall order as Frieren does not physically age herself, but I find it unfortunate that the work relies so much on dialogue to weave the story, even though the artwork itself is serious and meticulous.

Moreover, as I am of the generation that was totally immersed in the Western-fantasy-style role-playing video games of the 1990s such as “Dragon Quest,” I found it a little disappointing that the world depicted in this manga had not evolved beyond the one seen in those games. Still, young readers may prefer this kind of imaginary fantasy land because of its familiarity, just as one would expect in samurai movies or kabuki.

To be honest, it is not entirely clear to me why “Frieren” is so popular. Upon re-reading it several times, however, I’ve come to think that perhaps the key is the matured detachment of the beautiful girl Frieren. The passion of youth is in the past. Life and the world continue on long after they start to decline. Perhaps such a sentiment has sunk deeply into the hearts of the readers. Maybe it’s quite revolutionary that “Frieren” is serialized in a manga magazine for boys.

— Kanta Ishida, Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer