Beyond the Boob String: Why 'DanMachi' Works

by Theron Martin,

I've been into Dungeons and Dragons for even longer than I've been an anime fan, so most of the people I regularly associate with in the casual realm are fellow RPG gamers. When I talk to them about this franchise (hereafter referred to as DanMachi), the full title always gets a good chuckle: "Is It Wrong to Pick Up Girls In a Dungeon?" Indeed, reactions like that are probably what original novelist Fujino Ōmori was banking on: draw potential audiences in with something silly but catchy. All the same, the anime version has proven to have a lot more going for it than just a funny title and a premise with an undeniable hook. It's one of the year's biggest surprises for a number of different reasons.

Not Your Standard Fantasy World

The series' setting is an intriguing spin on the tabletop game-like fantasy world. The gods, in their heavenly boredom, have descended to the human world to live amongst them. To keep things from getting out of hand, they agree to seal away most of their divine power and gather guilds around themselves instead – called Familias – to support their lifestyles and further their interests, whether that be crafting weapons and armor (Hephaestus), making wine (Soma), ensuring the welfare of the masses (Ganesha), or just being a drunken party girl (Loki). (Hephaestus and Loki are now both female.) In exchange for their loyalty, adventurers and craftspeople are granted divine blessings to bolster them in their tasks. For many Familia members, that means exploring The Dungeon, a vast and multileveled labyrinth that lies below the city of Orario. It has its own peculiar qualities, like monsters that spawn from its walls and floors and leave behind magic stones when they die (and sometimes drop items, too!) These magic stones are crucial resources for powering all manner of lights and devices, so they can be exchanged directly for money. The concept of having advisers for adventurers is also a novel twist, since they can recommend appropriate challenge levels for quests and further immerse the viewers in DanMachi's world.

The series also handles the process of characters “leveling up” in an interesting way. Each adventurer has a status akin to a character sheet magically tattooed on their back, and that status updates periodically based on what the adventurer has accomplished. The mechanics behind this forms the series' biggest mystery, as even the gods do not seem to be responsible for this world running like a game, nor do they seem to know what power does control it. (Could it be the sentient Dungeon? No one knows where that came from or why it operates the way it does either.) To gain a level, an adventurer must perform a great, character-defining feat. As a result, the bulk of adventurers never get past Level 1, and the most powerful adventurer in this world makes news by hitting Level 6.

The Hestia Factor

If you keep up with current anime trends then you are probably aware of Hestia, even if you've never watched a single episode of DanMachi. Rarely have characters exploded onto the anime scene with the swiftness and intensity of Bell's diminutive patron goddess. Just a casual perusal of any fanart gallery or doujinshi collection from the past couple months will yield hundreds of Hestias. Granted, quite a bit of that attention has come from the blue ribbon meant to support her sizable cleavage, but her appeal goes well beyond just being sexy. Hestia has the kind of captivating charm that innumerable anime girls strive for, but few ever achieve.

Some credit goes to a fine vocal performance by Inori Minase, but it's more than even that or her character design. She cares for and worries over the lead protagonist Bell Cranel beyond just seeing him as a love interest. She puts herself in great debt to acquire a weapon suitable for his needs, and is even willing to expose herself to great danger to ensure his safety. Granted, these are fairly typical endeavors for anime girls in love, but her actions also come with a special chemistry with Bell. These two are a neat pairing, whether looked at as goddess and faithful follower (which is how Bell sees their relationship) or a potential romantic couple (which is how Hestia sees it). No one else comes close to clicking so strongly with Bell.

Worthy Adventuring Companions

That said, once Bell stops dungeon-crawling solo, he gets paired up with some great companions that each complement Bell very well with their own distinct goals and personas. Liliruca fills the role of professional supporter (a person who collects treasure and carries supplies so that adventurers can fight more efficiently), but she also serves as a sympathetic window into an aspect of fantasy adventuring that has been the butt of jokes since the inception of the RPG: the disposable, dumped-upon NPC hireling. The writing is incredibly smart in how it handles Liliruca and how she is treated by other adventurers. These are not just raw sympathy plays, but actual representations of the way RPG gamers treat such underlings in game sessions, and probably not far off from how they would be treated in a real-life situation. That makes her interactions with Bell, and his ability to gradually win her trust and loyalty, all the more satisfying.

Welf has not been around as long, but even in that short time he's shown himself to be a capable fighter who can stand back-to-back with Bell in a fight as an affable companion. His background as a blacksmith is unique too. He's plenty skilled enough to make magic weapons, but chooses not to because he finds them too impermanent and thus unreliable. (In this setting, magic weapons can produce spell-like effects but have a limited number of charges and disintegrate once those charges have been used up.) That makes him an outcast both in his family and in his Familia, which allows him to gel together quickly with the misfits Bell and Lilliruca, who also value long-term faithfulness over flashy selfishness.

Spectacular Action Scenes

DanMachi is a good-looking series, but its greatest strength is in its feature action scenes. Even day-to-day action is animated well and can get impressively intense, but the series truly shines in its wonderfully-produced big moments, such as the fight against a giant silverback or a couple of later battles against minotaurs.

Bell is what tabletop gamers would call a “spring attack” fighter: he jumps in, tumbles around, makes a hit, and jumps out again, relying more on precision while keeping strikes and blocks based on raw power to a minimum. This gives him a dynamic fighting style, but also one that is not common in anime because it cannot be depicted with typical animation shortcuts. DanMachi gets around this by not shortcutting movement too much in its feature scenes, resulting in extremely fluid fantasy battles. It isn't just the animation, either; the scene framing and use of camera angles for dramatic effect is outstanding, as is the musical support. Even then, the scenes wouldn't have their full impact without excellent set-up in the story and characterization. From the series' earliest scenes, the minotaur represents the nemesis of everything that Bell strives for, a threat to his very identity as an adventurer. While his fight against the minotaur is initially unavoidable, it eventually becomes his make-or-break battle as a person.

What's Not Surprising?

In fairness, Bell is basically the adventurer equivalent of an idol. His conscious efforts to pick up girls in a dungeon may have backfired on him, but the title of the series still fits because he is unconsciously picking up loads of female attention. Some of that attention can be troublesome (Freya, the amoral Goddess of Beauty, becoming obsessed with you is not at all a Good Thing), but he's mostly assembling a cast of groupies. He's even caught the attention of Aiz Wallenstein, the powerful beauty and object of his affections who saved him on their first meeting. (Then again, who knows what she's thinking most of the time?) At least it's understandable that Bell would attract attention; he's handsome, exotic, and impressively capable. So while this hasn't exactly become a harem series, it's not far off either.

To be sure, DanMachi has its flaws, but through 11 episodes so far, it has succeeded far beyond any reasonable expectations at building a hearth of affectionate feelings for its world and characters in fans everywhere. Are you watching the show? Let us know in the comments!

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