Record of Ragnarok returns and executes on its premise with greater success than the first season. The question is whether that success is enough to keep people watching.
When the first season of Record of Ragnarok dropped back in the summer of 2021, it was roundly blasted for its poor animation quality. Many felt it was little more than a slideshow at times, and a few cuts, in particular, were singled out for being exceptionally bad and making the rounds on social media. I reviewed the first season and shared the same criticisms, but I walked away with a more muted response than most. It wasn’t great, but after decades of watching anime, I had seen far, far worse. Then again, saying, “I was not as harsh as others about the first season,” is not exactly a ringing endorsement either.
One of the major gripes existing manga fans had was that the story deserved better. The manga is full of such bombast and exciting concepts that to see it all rendered in ho-hum (at best) animation was a severe disappointment. Despite not having read the original manga, I completely get this sentiment.
Season 2 of Record of Ragnarok is one of improvements across the board, most notably in animation quality. Again, when you’re starting near the bottom, you have nowhere to go but up, so this compliment says very little, but it is clear that the animation quality is higher than in the first season. If the entire first season was long stretches of meh-to-so-so broken up by massive drops in quality, this second season is long stretches of pretty good broken up by a few “Hey, that wasn’t half bad” sequences. It’s certainly not a night and day difference, but it is noticeable and appreciated. There is more life to what is happening on screen, which is greatly appreciated.
The conceptual creativity on display is consistently excellent as well. The basic idea here is nothing too spectacular, mind you – it is a tournament anime where two weirdos punch each other, a song as old as time, and all that. It can be hard to create tension and a sense of real stakes in such a well-worn trope, especially when the fighters are essentially brand new to the audience each time. But Record of Ragnarok manages to deliver on this with aplomb. Both matches are full of interesting ideas – notably Jack the Ripper’s Volundr, which I thought was full of surprises – that make the fights more than just slugfests.
Even when the fights are slugfests, the color commentary from the various personalities in the stands keeps things interesting. Tournament arcs live or die by their ringside commentary, and season 2 has some great ones. Sure, there are the expected bits like Zeus being a scheming old man or Aphrodite embodying the “boobs boobily” school of character writing. But the real delight is the hilarious random one-off historical figures who appear during relevant fights, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle expressing that even his Sherlock Holmes could not solve the case of Jack the Ripper (shock! gasp!).
The smartest play here is the emotional tenor of the Hercules and Jack the Ripper fight. Now I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I find myself rooting for humanity by default since 1) I find the capricious deities unworthy of veneration, and 2) I’m not a massive fan of going extinct. So naturally, I’m inclined to cheer on the human half of the match. But this fight is excellent in that it twists your expectations, making Hercules a babyface and Jack the Ripper (humanity’s champion in this fight) an obvious heel. The crowd also wrestles with this, going back and forth between not wanting to die and having nothing but admiration for Hercules and disdain for Jack the Ripper. It’s smart writing, and the flashbacks only compound these feelings.
The Shiva versus Raiden fight is less morally textured, but it is still an engaging watch. Besides the fact that Raiden’s love of Thrud/strong women is deeply relatable, there are many cool ideas sprinkled throughout. Raiden’s inability to control his strength as a child to the point where his muscles shattered his bones the second he tried to move was precisely the kind of over-the-top nonsense I love. Also, the idea that he could embody sumo to the point where he could stand toe to toe with Shiva is simply amazing. Shiva gets the real lion’s share of the development, though, and his ascent to the peak made him far more – dare I say it – human and sympathetic than I anticipated.
So we’ve got better animation and two great fights chock full of good ideas. It’s a home run, right?
The problem with Record of Ragnarok season 2 is that I’m not sure what is being offered is enough to keep people entertained. This season has ten episodes, and two fights are stretched across them. While I have watched shows with far longer arcs, it’s hard to ignore the formulaic approach here. Each match lasts precisely five episodes and has roughly the same tempo: two fighters enter the ring and start battling, we get a flashback for fighter A, we get a flashback for fighter B, somebody does an ultimate move, and on to the next fight.
The sheer audacious power level of the fighters is also starting to wear a bit thin. When every fighter is at peak condition with incredible moves, and they keep pushing themselves to the limit to deliver yet another ultimate attack… it all starts to run together. This makes the Jack the Ripper fight much more interesting because he is constantly using cunning to unleash creative new ways to challenge Hercules, rather than unlocking transformations or tossing out super moves. These variations help break up some of the monotony that can come with super-beings duking it out for hours on end.
The unique fight choreography and engaging animation can often help break up some of that monotony, but neither shows up here to save the day. Again, the Jack the Ripper fight has a bit more going on conceptually, but the Shiva and Raiden fight is a lot of giant blows back and forth. So it’s up to the animation to do the heavy lifting, and despite being better on average, it never succeeds in doing much more than just average.
The structural repetition starts to get tiresome too. The core conceit of the matches can only be engaging for so long before you realize that, no matter what, you’re locked in for a five-episode slog with little visual excitement and few actual twists outside of sudden power-ups or new techniques. It’s a shame that the series already feels like it’s falling into a rut with repetitive setups and payoffs when we are really still relatively early on in the total runtime.
There is more variety in the side stories, and that’s a good thing. The drama between the Valkyries, the shenanigans involving the Gods of Fortune, and the friction between Buddha and the other deities is all great. Sadly, it always feels like it doesn’t go on long enough, and pretty soon, you’re right back in the arena with the fight. Hopefully, future seasons bring in more of this to create new stakes/drama where the otherwise repetitive fights might not.
All in all, Record of Ragnarok Season 2 is better than Season 1. But the quality jump is minor at best, and the novelty of its tricks is already wearing a bit thin. Given just how much anime is out there vying for people’s attention, doing a bit better than before will just not cut it. Season 3 needs to amplify the quality and variety to capture people’s attention for more than a brief memey chuckle.