Without even trying, Disgaea steps over all those anime about a hero who Wants to Become to the Best. It’s not a deliberate, focused exercise in style or cliches. The only idea behind it is to deliver a simple adventure about becoming an overlord. This form will never die and that’s okay. You can fit many ideas into it. Somehow, Disgaea manages to get it right without fitting any ideas.
Other great works in this style – JoJo and Kill la Kill – have a bigger purpose than simply telling a story. One was about testing the limit of how macho you could get. The other comes from the head of Imaishi, and that guy never stops hallucinating. After all, we’ve seen this pattern of Hero Defeats Enemy plenty of times. Relying on it means falling back on cliches, and cliches are always terrible when they’re crutches.
Disgaea has no such lofty ambitions. It doesn’t push the monomyth further, or tries to get more steam out of its formula. In fact, it has no ambitions besides telling a fun story about an exciting adventure. Unambitious anime are rare, and often terrible. Plenty of time anime fail despite having big aims and trying hard. There was a lot less effort put into Disgaea than other shows, but the result is great.
That’s because telling a simple story isn’t that hard. You just need to remember your story is simple. The problem with doorstop fantasy series and long-running anime is that their size comes back to bite them in the ass. If your story is only about adrenaline and a few oddballs, why stretch it to be as long as life itself?
Free of these limitations, Disgaea lets loose with its wacky world. How it compares to the original game, I have no idea. As an anime, it gets everything right. The focus is both on memorable characters, unique set-pieces and a story that’s bigger than its initial premise. Although it’s mostly comic and light-hearted, it has its powerful emotional moments. It’s another anime that proves that if you make your characters feel alive enough, we’ll be swept away by their troubles.
The characters of Disgaea aren’t psychological. They’re of the grand-mythic type, but even there it’s in a basic form. A megalomanic, a pure-hearted angel and a conniving demon. These templates still work because the characters have an inner drive. Each of them reacts to the situations in their own unique way. Even if their personalities aren’t the most original or developed – they’re never as bizarre as Kill la Kill – they’re still lifelike.
The wacky nature of the world adds excite to the adventure. It’s a free-form world. There’s no internal logic to it. Hell is a bizarre place where weird stuff happens. If that makes the world shallow, these lone set-pieces still achieve the lifelike quality of the characters. The pacing is focused. Each episode stands on its own and has its own arc.
It’s important for your story to consist of such arcs. Stories that only build up put all their eggs in one basket, and can easily fall apart (Especially if your adventure goes on for a lifetime or two). Disgaea‘s adventure is fun because every moment is meant to be fun. In fact, the series often puts its big climax on the afterburner. It’s more focused on what happens now.
These set-pieces are often bizarre and silly, but why shouldn’t they? Adventure stories are that their best when they’re wild. We’re attracted to adventures because the events are often bizarre in exotic places. The silly nature of Disgaea‘s world makes it both more lifelike and more immersive than any WHOA WORLDBUILDING work by Western fantasists. Sure, Maritn filled with world with details and names. He never made something as attention-grabbing as the Prinnies.
Looking back, the expansion of the climax isn’t so unexpected. The hint that the show is more than Laharl becoming overlord are at the very beginning. It’s still a great decision. When the climax arrives, it’s huge. One climax leads right into another, but it never overloads. Every episode has its own inner story. Thus the climax doesn’t explode from too much content. Rather, it’s divided up and allowed to build tension.
While it gets the basic formula right, Disgaea is still an unambitious anime. That’s the flaw that follows it in every episode. It doesn’t feel like only an advertisement, but the art and the basic nature of things point to an unambitious team. The art is great, but the animation quality is fairly low. It’s not a minimalist art style yet the lack of details in the background make it feel like the creators didn’t think it deserved it.
The character design is also great, but everyone on the side is piss-poor. One episode has a one-time antagonist that looks like it was designed in one minute. The creators are clearly capable of great character design and good background. The visuals drastically improve in the climax (The Prinny redemption episode is especially beautiful). Until then though, it looks so basic and uninspired it takes you out of the anime. Animation quality isn’t everything and art style is far more important. Here, though, the animation quality affects the art when the character design is boring and the backgrounds aren’t as wild as they should be.
The story is also, in the end, about nothing. As the mighty Digimon Tamers proved, an adventure story can definitely be full of meaning. Disgaea doesn’t even try although it’s capable. The Prinnies are a brilliant creation. They’re hilarious and an episode proves they can be emotionally powerful. The series never plays around that. The series never pays too much attention to Laharl’s psychological development although it could. It’s not pretentious. It simply doesn’t try to add psychological depth or even cover it up. I don’t know what is worse – not trying, or covering up.
The flaws prevent Disgaea from being great, but it’s highly enjoyable as a light adventure. Many anime can still learn from this – the characters have inner drives, each episode is focused on a single arc and the climax is bigger than the synopsis says. There really isn’t much to dislike here, although some will be turned off by the lack of ambition.
3 Prinnies out of 5