Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End goes where few fantasy stories dare to go

If you’re looking for an anime that will force you to interrogate the inevitable passage of time and reconcile with the fact that one day you, too, will be forgotten, then boy do I have a show for you.

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End is a visually gorgeous fantasy adventure, but it’s also a melancholy reverie about mortality. Elven mage Frieren watches the world around her change: Magic evolves, empires fall, the people she knows and loves grow old and die and are eventually forgotten to time. Yet the show is gentle and comforting, even when confronting the inescapable oblivion.

[Ed. note: This post contains some slight setup spoilers for Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End.]

A group of four figures stand in the fog: a small elven mage with white hair, a stocky dwarven man, a blue-haired hero in a billowing cape, and a priest in black robes. Image: Madhouse/Crunchyroll

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End picks up where most archetypal fantasy stories end: after the band of heroes defeated the big bad. They swear they’ll meet again, setting a date in 80 years, when a big meteor shower returns. From there, they split up. Frieren, the party’s sole elf, doesn’t bother keeping up with anyone else till their scheduled meetup. While she hasn’t aged at all, the rest of her party — Himmel the hero, Heiter the human priest, and Eisen the dwarven warrior — clearly have. And though that meeting does take place, it ends mournfully, because Himmel passes away the very next day.

Frieren swears she will do a better job at keeping up with her friends, but another 20 years pass before she runs into one of her party members again. Life passes differently when you’re an elf and your lifespan is hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The 10 years Frieren spent journeying with her party was just a blink to her, but it was a huge chapter for everyone else. She knows firsthand how much the world changes, how nothing is permanent.

It’s an affectionate cliche that many shonen protagonists — from Hunter x Hunter’s Gon to Pokémon’s Ash — want to be great heroes that the world will never ever forget. Even more slice-of-life protagonists, like Hinata in Haikyuu, want to achieve legendary greatness. But Frieren reminds us repeatedly that even the greatest heroes will be forgotten. Their statues might linger, their names might ring a bell, but the tides of time will wash it all away.

A huge demon looms over two smaller figures Image: Madhouse/Crunchyroll

Frieren can keep her memories, her love for her friends, even as the world forgets them. The rest of us don’t have the privilege of a basically immortal friend to carry on our memories. While that thought could be terrifying, Frieren doesn’t make it out to seem so bad. It’s just the nature of existence. There is no point in trying to fight it. What is important, though, are the connections we forge with others despite the inescapable. In a century, perhaps no one will know who you were; but right now, they do.

The passage — and awareness — of time is crucial to Frieren, as we see when Frieren explains to her new apprentice, Fern, that the demon mage they must awaken and subdue was known for creating the most deadly spell of all time, one that could blast through any defensive magic shield. Fern mentally prepares herself for a hard battle — only to realize that in the 80 years since the demon’s been trapped, his deadly demonic spell has just become regular offensive magic. Humankind’s understanding of magic evolved and thus what was once a deadly, uncounterable spell has now become standard. The battle is over quickly. After all, this is a fantasy adventure where the battles and fights aren’t the important parts.

Instead, Frieren lingers on the small moments, minutiae often overlooked by other epic fantasy adventures. There is a lot of focus on the downtime, the connections Frieren forges with the two young heroes she’s taken under her wing, and the memories she has of her old party. Her new quest involves a lot of retracing of old steps, so she finds herself visiting places that she once traveled and viewing them in a new light. All she has left are memories. And every chance she could’ve connected more with them but did not.

A red-haired young man in a red coat, a purple-haired girl, and a small elf woman with white hair stare at a group of statues in the middle of a town square Image: Madhouse/Crunchyroll

And even now, there’s the constant reminder to the audience that Fern and Stark will one day grow old and die, while Frieren once again outlives a new set of heroes and soldiers in her long existence alone. It looms over the entire show, but instead of undermining the relationships between the heroes, it emphasizes them. If every single person you know will eventually be forgotten, it’s more important than ever to enjoy the time you have with them.

One exchange sits with me the most: Frieren reveals that Flamme, the legendary founder of humankind’s magic, was actually her mentor. She knew Flamme, a person most people think is just a myth, very, very well. She relates that to Himmel, who takes her words to heart. From then on, he insists on having the party’s sculptures made at every possibility, so that no one will be able to tell Frieren that they were just a myth.

And yet, as Frieren comes across many of those statues, some of them are overgrown and nearly forgotten. Villagers forget why they have celebratory festivals for the statues that stand in their town square. The passage of time is relentless and unforgiving. Frieren doesn’t encounter many other long-lived characters, but when she does, it’s clear that they too recognize this. Still, they go on.

One day no one will remember you. And that is OK, because you still mattered once.

All episodes of Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End are out on Crunchyroll now.