Many stories portray brave adventurers in their quest across the land to retrieve an artifact or stop a great evil. It’s less common to see a story look at what happens after the quest ends. When, after the celebration and ushering in of a new era, the adventurers have to find a way back to a normal life. That’s where Frieren starts.
Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End is a currently airing anime series from Madhouse, adapting the manga of the same name. It centers on the titular Frieren, an elven mage returning with her party after a decade spent taking down the Demon King. For her companions—the humans Himmel the hero and Heiter the priest, and Eisen the dwarven warrior—it was a lengthy journey.
But for Frieren, a decade is much, much smaller. As she states very matter-of-fact, 10 years doesn’t chalk up to a hundredth of her life. And so the journey ends; the party will look to carry on with their lives, which sees Frieren returning to a lonesome journey across the land in search of new spells, promising to visit again sometime over the next century or so.
A hero’s legacy
This is already a fairly unusual start for a story. We don’t see any epic battle with the Demon King. There isn’t much about their trip at all, barring a few comedic asides about Heiter’s frequent hangovers and Freiren’s penchant for getting tricked by mimics. Frieren and friends are introduced as their travels are coming to a close, at the most bittersweet moment of their quest.
As the party remarks on how differently Frieren must perceive the world, the story follows her back out into this unending search for spells. It’s a gorgeous montage. Frieren scales mountains and rests in ruins. The camera lingers on the stillness of each area, like little snippets of places, even as we see years zip by in fleeting seconds.
While perusing the alchemic goods at a shop, Frieren is reminded of her friends and a commitment she made. At quest’s end, the four shared a moment watching the Eras Meteor Shower, which only shows up once every 50 years. Disappointed by the view from the city, Frieren had offered to take Himmel, Heiter, and Eisen to a better spot for the next one.
And so, when Frieren returns to the city to reunite with the crew, she’s taken aback by an aged Himmel. He’s shorter, and much, much older, while Frieren looks the same. Indeed, the whole crew looks older; even Eisen shows some lines of age.
Here, Frieren starts to show its hand about what the story is really about. A moment of Himmel, sitting in his home, looking at a glass case where he’s kept his questing gear hits like a brick. His sword and gear, now too impossibly heavy for him to ever don again, sitting undisturbed in a glass case as he’s about to set out on one last journey.
One journey ends, another begins
After reuniting and taking in the meteor shower together one more time, Himmel reflects on how he treasures not just the incredible sights, but one last journey with his friends. For indeed, time waits for no one, and the flame of Himmel’s life is now a mere flicker.
Frieren, now faced with the mortality of humans, has a sudden realization. There is limited time she will have with these friends, especially compared to her own lifespan. And in this moment, she regrets not taking the time to learn more about them. Scenes and stills of a decade spent together suddenly fly back into her memory, where they were previously absent. It’s a startling realization that all those years, the time that can so easily flit by, can leave you feeling like you’re holding an unpaid debt of friendship.
And so here, Frieren the series truly starts. The elven mage embarks on her journey for spells once more, but this time, with a new endeavor alongside it. She’s determined to learn more about humans, repay what she owes to others, and treasure the legacy left by a single decade.
Like I said before, most RPGs are about the journey itself. The grand quest, the golden years, and the moments that can feel like everything is happening, here and now, in sheer splendor. Games like Persona or the Tales Of series capture this feeling so well; traveling companions bonding around a shared goal, spending time with one another, taking on literal gods and great evils.
Much of the appeal of Frieren is the decidedly calm, melancholic tone it takes on the journey. What happens when the golden years end? What does that time mean? Perceiving the world through Frieren’s perception means we see how the world celebrates and lauds these heroes, then moves on. Statues fall into disrepair. Generations come and go who no longer carry the same reverence for the heroes of old.
So Frieren journeys across the land, building up a new band to try and cherish how powerful those years were and preserve the memories for as long as she can. It reminds me a bit of the superb What Remains of Edith Finch, a story similarly concerned with death, passing, memories, and legacy.
But Frieren isn’t just a sad story about mortality and life. It’s also a gorgeously different take on the typical high fantasy. For anime fans, you’d probably slot Frieren more under the “slice-of-life” category than anything else. There is very little combat or fighting. Most episodes so far have seen Frieren, and her eventual apprentice Fern, just travelling around and helping out towns.
It’s quiet, reflective, and melancholic, but also quite beautiful. There’s something about the way we see time pass in this show, as years can go by in an instant, that really puts a unique perspective on the world. We see how our heroine perceives time differently, yet now struggles with that, as she realizes how precious moments can be all too fleeting. There’s a pang in the heart for all the things that happened in life while Frieren was simply looking the other way, or sleeping in, or being anywhere but present, that she’s grappling with now.
So, if you want something a little different from the usual high fantasy story, or think a drawn-out melancholic version of an RPG epilogue sounds appealing, you could do way, way worse than Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End. The series is currently airing, with four episodes as of this writing on services like Crunchyroll.