Reviewby Theron Martin,
Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
Young Bell Cranel came to the city of Orario because it's built over the Dungeon, a vast underground complex riddled with monsters. Under the oversight of a Guild, adventurers there gather into groups called Familia, watched over by a patron a god who has descended from the heavens and used his or her blessing to empower the adventurers. Bell also sought to be an adventurer, after his grandfather told him that saving female adventurers from danger in the Dungeon is the best way to pick up girls, but the only Familia that would take him was the newly-formed Hestia Familia, making him its only member apart from the patron goddess. Worse still, he's the one who ends up getting saved by a girl – the beautiful Sword Princess Aiz Wallenstein, one of the city's top female adventurers, whose patron goddess Loki doesn't get along with his Hestia. If that embarrassment weren't enough, Bell has also unknowingly caught the attention of Freya, the devious and obsessive Goddess of Beauty. To stand beside Aiz in battle and become the hero he's always dreamed of being, Bell must find worthy companions, navigate the attentions of several women, and grow strong enough to face the challenges of the Dungeon. To high adventure!
The full title of this 2015 series (mercifully shortened to DanMachi) is arguably misleading, since it immediately inverts this supposed premise, and Bell never actually tries to pick up girls in a Dungeon. However, it is true that Bell unwittingly attracts the attention of many beautiful women through his adventuring in the Dungeon. Besides, it's one hell of a memorable title.
Still, that title and the harem of women fawning over Bell that follow do imply a sleazy mix of harem and RPG fantasy cliches, and it's true that the series does devolve into harem antics at times (especially when Hestia gets clingy), but that's far from all there is to this series. DanMachi steps well beyond its base nature in several important ways, becoming one of the most entertaining fantasy anime of recent years in the process.
The first and most immediately apparent difference is the setting. Though the anime version trims out some of the world-building seen in the source light novels, the setting's conceit is nonetheless one of the more interesting variations on RPG mechanic-driven worlds. The whole business with adventurers and the Dungeon is clearly meant to imply a fantasy RPG brought to life, complete with ability ratings imprinted in mystical tattoos on adventurers' backs, a level system, skills, and magical abilities, but the extra details – like how this system is spurred by the blessings of patron gods, how magic works in different forms, and how grand triumphs are necessary for level increases – makes this concept work in surprisingly sensible fashion. The way adventuring in the Dungeon is justified both as a way to keep the spawned monsters under control and as support for an industry based on the magic stones they drop cleverly justifies the economy that drives adventuring (which largely doesn't make sense in most fantasy RPGs). Additions like Monsterphilia, Under Resort, and the concept of a “pass parade” (where you deliberately run by another adventuring group to foist pursuing monsters on them) provide additional neat touches, as do implications that the Dungeon is sentient to some degree.
Character relationships are also crucial to the series' success. Bell and Hestia are a duo practically made for each other: a pathetic goddess seeking to establish herself and a stray boy unable to find a home in any other Familia. Hestia's possessiveness and repeated attempts to be Bell's goddess in a more carnal fashion can get annoying at times, but the sense of loyalty and devotion they show to each other make them a truly great duo. Later additions of the prum (halfling) supporter Liliruca and the smith Welf Crozzo round out a strong core party whose members complement each other quite well. Bell's interactions with Aiz, the elf waitress Ryu, and the human waitress Syr also have their own charms, and various backstories help greatly flesh out the characters and setting.
For all that the series benefits from those two factors, the most important element to the series' success is the way it captures the spirit of high adventure that makes fantasy RPGS so enjoyable. A potent musical score loaded with grand, sweeping orchestral numbers deserves a big chunk of the credit for that, and the battle choreography, action scene direction, and supporting animation all contribute as well, but the effect goes beyond just the technical aspects. The writing conveys the essence of what it means to go on adventures, illustrating that feeling through a number of truly spectacular key battle sequences. One relatively early chase scene involving a giant ape is dazzlingly dynamic, but it's topped by Bell's eventual rematch against a minotaur, which I regard as one of the greatest one-on-one fights in an anime. Even that is also trumped by the battle that spans episode 13, with its final few minutes making for a truly great boss fight.
The series also adapts its source material very well. Its 13 episodes cover all of the first five light novels thoroughly, except for a couple of short stories in the fourth book; aside from some extra world-building details, only a couple of significant scenes are dropped entirely. Of those, one is entirely unnecessary (Bell and Aiz getting beset by adventurers to test their metle), and the other would have been amusing (the events of the Denatus Hestia attends in episode 9) but hard to fit into the flow of the anime series. The final scenes of the series are different from what happens in the aftermath of the same battle in the novels, to the point that a little retconning might be needed if a second season is animated, but beyond that, the adaptation is very faithful, with all major events and characterizations remaining intact. Fans of the novels may also spot some minor excised characters in the background, such as Narza.
The production effort by director Yoshiki Yamakawa (Kill Me Baby, Little Busters!) and his J.C. Staff team has its occasional slips, but it's a solid effort overall. The varied settings within Orario and the Dungeon are portrayed particularly well, from the street of ruins where Hestia and Bell live inside a church to the Benevolent Mistress tavern, Welf's workshop, or the wide varieties of atmosphere on each Dungeon floor. Character designs are sharp, distinctive, and faithful to the source material, with many stand-out designs; the short, busty goddess Hestia is merely the most prominent of many, and monster designs also shine. Fan service beyond Hestia's cleavage is limited to just a handful of scenes, but graphic content is much more common. Even so, the TV-MA rating Sentai Filmworks has given the series seems steep. Also watch for a significant change in the opening animation for the final episode.
The English dub provided by Sentai features some predictable casting choices; who else could be Hestia and Liliruca than Luci Christian and Hilary Haag, for instance? David Wald also makes a perfect Welf Crozzo and relative newcomer Bryson Baugus is a real find as Bell; I expect we'll hear a lot more of him going forward. Beyond these key roles, both the dub casting choices and performance quality are much more hit-or-miss. On the high end are John Swasey for his bit parts as Ganesha and the final boss and Ricardo Contreras for his wonderful monster growls throughout the series, but I never felt Shelley Calene-Black and Margaret Lewis sounded quite right as Aiz and Mikoto, respectively. While performances are good for most of the series, the climatic episode suffers badly, especially in key sequences near the end; the absence of sarcasm in one line's delivery makes one scene not make sense, and in others (especially when spells are being cast), the wording or delivery fails to capture the dramatic flow of the scene, so the final half of the final episode has less impact in English. Minor script tweaks in other places also result in other minor differences in meaning. While the dub is fine otherwise, I recommend watching the final episode subbed. This also allows you to see an interesting gimmick with the subtitles: spell chants are in a different font than normal.
Sentai is releasing the series as a DVD, a Blu-Ray, and a Limited Edition combo pack. All versions split the main series' 13 episode run across two discs with clean opener and closer as the only digital extras. (Sadly, the OVA episode released in Japan is not included.) There's also a couple of on-screen explanatory notes about the wording of certain spells. The Limited Edition version includes a collector's box, a hardcover booklet, a poster, static clings, a lenticular card, and a hardcover grimoire; I did not review this version, so I can't offer further commentary.
DanMachi was successful enough that its spin-off novel series Sword Oratoria, which focuses on what Loki Familia and its star member Aiz are up to when Bell isn't in the picture, is also being animated. That speaks well for the possibility of another main season of DanMachi being animated someday, with enough finished novels to easily fill out a new series. That would be especially welcome since the last episode throws out a couple details that aren't yet explained, but if we don't get more, then at least season one ends at an optimal stopping point.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Outstanding feature action scenes, strong musical score, captures the spirit of fantasy adventure better than most
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