The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai
How would you rate episode 1 of
Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai (TV 2020) ?
What is this?
After the defeat of the demon lord Hadlar, all of the monsters were unleashed from his evil will and moved to the island of Delmurin to live in peace. Dai is the only human living on the island. Having been raised by the kindly monster Brass, Dai's dream is to grow up to be a hero. He gets to become one when Hadlar is resurrected and the previous hero, Avan, comes to train Dai to help in the battle. But Hadlar, announcing that he now works for an even more powerful demon lord, comes to kill Avan. To save his students, Avan uses a Self-Sacrifice spell to attack, but is unable to defeat Hadlar. When it seems that Dai and Avan's other student Pop are doomed, a mark appears on Dai's forehead and he suddenly gains super powers and is able to fend off Hadlar. The two students then go off on a journey to avenge Avan and bring peace back to the world.
How was the first episode?
Somehow or the other I seem to have read Dragon Quest manga and seen Dragon Quest anime without ever actually playing a Dragon Quest game. Fortunately for oddballs like me, this particular iteration doesn't appear to rely too heavily on franchise knowledge but is instead just a fun family-friendly fantasy adventure about a boy raised on an island of monsters who is slated to become a hero.
On that front, this does lean heavily into the basic tropes of children's adventure fiction – Dai is an orphan when he washes ashore on Dermline Island, a remote place populated by monsters who are now monstrous only in appearance, their evil ways having been banished when the previous Hero disposed of the Demon Lord. (Is the previous Hero Dai's dad? I'd bet money on it.) So in this Tarzan-like set up (more like Bomba the Jungle Boy, but no one's heard of him anymore) Dai grows up unprepared for the first humans to land on the island to be bad guys out to hurt his family and kidnap his best buddy, a golden metal slime named Gomechan. It's honestly very textbook for any chapter book or middle grade-level fantasy adventure, but it's sticking to these tropes for a reason: they've worked since at least Treasure Island and they continue to form a very solid backbone for this style of fiction.
Partly why they work is because of characters like Dai and his de facto grandfather, Brass. Dai is wide-eyed and curious about the world, but he's also desperate to overcome what he sees as the barrier to being a hero, which is his inability to use magic, something Brass, a mage himself (or rather, a sage) wants him to do. Brass has raised Dai to be a good person, and since he's been living in the warm bosom of his monster family, he can't even conceive of people behaving less than honorably, another genre staple that functions well here. When the bad guys (who are more like unscrupulous guys) land on the island, Dai has no way to resist their lies until they forcibly make him see them, at which point his true hero qualities come to the surface. Again, none of this is surprising, but it still makes for good watching, with Dai's moment of awakening risking his good nature but instead showing the Power of Friendship™. Where we have a nice deviation from the norm is when the king who accompanied the bad guys turns out not to be bad himself – I honestly wasn't expecting that he was taken in just as Dai was.
It's clear that this episode was just the very basic set up for Dai's adventures, which will likely get going in full next week as he gets to know Princess Leona, who hopefully will learn that the best way to recruit someone's help is not to insult them immediately. (I don't think she meant it, but wow, talk about a brain-to-mouth filter fail.) But even in set up form, this is a lot of fun, more immediately engaging than its close relative Monster Hunter Ride On and with fun character and creature designs, surprisingly slick fight scenes, and the potential to just be a reliably good show.
The Dragon Quest franchise, which began in 1986 and has been active ever since, is widely considered to be Japan's seminal fantasy RPG franchise. It has sold over 80 million copies worldwide and had a broad and deep impact on the Japanese gaming industry. One release in the franchise has even been credited with helping to spawn the monster-collector genre, which includes titles like Pokémon and Digimon. Hence some of what is seen in this episode is not a case of the anime borrowing elements from those series, as this franchise had them first.
This entry is a remake of a 1991 anime by the same name, which was itself based on a 1989-originating manga of the same name rather than one of the franchise's games. Though the technical effort and certain style points have been upgraded for 2020 standards, the character designs and overall look of the series hasn't changed much. If the series looks like a throwback to the late '80s/early '90s, that's because that's exactly what it is, for better or worse.
The first episode is a very standard one for shonen action series skewed towards younger audiences: as a baby, young Dai drifted ashore on an island inhabited by monsters freed when the previous Dark Lord was defeated by a Hero. Dai wants to be a Hero himself, though his adoptive grandfather wants him to become a Mage. (In the first series Dai both fought and used magic.) When a false Hero and his party kidnap a monster friend, he must go retrieve that friend. At the end he winds up meeting a princess, though she has a less than high opinion of him because of how short he is. And that's about it. Naturally various action sequences happen along the way, including a very busy fight on a boat as Dai and his monster allies try to rescue his friend, and the summoning gimmick familiar to any Pokémon fan plays a big role in this.
While this skews towards younger audiences, the series certainly might be of interest to older viewers as a nostalgia trip if they ever played any installments of the franchise. Those who never played the franchise can get a Dragon Ball-like feel off of this and/or appreciate action sequences that are actually choreographed pretty well and ambitiously-animated for a series of this nature. In all, it's not my kind of thing (I never played any of the franchise, either), but it accomplishes its job well for introducing the franchise's anime side to a new generation.
I am decidedly ignorant of the Dragon Quest franchise, games or otherwise, but I kind of feel like I'm not. That's largely because of just how foundational DQ has proven to be since its inception; on top of inspiring countless RPGs on both sides of the Pacific, just the aesthetic alone has become so ubiquitous across Japanese fantasy anime and manga that the iconic “Hero” design is unavoidable. So even though I've never played any of the games or read the original Adventure of Dai manga from the 90's, I absolutely recognized the iconography at play throughout this new modern adaptation. That alone would have been enough to carry me through this premiere, but thankfully it's also just delightful on its own merits.
Most of that comes down to the art and animation. The designs do an excellent job of capturing the energy of their 90s originals without feeling dated, and most importantly the joyful designs of Dragon Quest's monster menagerie have been preserved and put on full display. Nearly every scene has at least one wonderful animation flourish, and those that don't are still abound with personality from every character or critter on screen. There's some noticeable CG whenever a big number of monsters need to be on screen at once, but it's hardly enough to damage the charm of just seeing these big, goofy critters playing or fighting in motion. King Slime is shaped like a friend and I will do anything to protect him.
The story is pretty standard, as you'd kind of expect from such an evergreen franchise, but gets by on personality. Dai is a rambunctious kid who wants to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Hero who defeated the dark lord years ago, but with the twist that our boy hero has lived his life raised on a monster island, with a whole host of ferocious friends to call on for help. It's a brilliant avatar for the kids watching, who'd doubtlessly want to be the sort of fun and adventurous hero of the games, but also would love to collect all the cute monsters as Pokémon. The introductory story of a fake Adventurers party trying to kidnap Dai's closest monster friend is also a solid idea, subverting the typical narrative just enough to feel a little fresh, while conventional enough to grab younger viewers.
I don't know that I'll watch more of The Adventures of Dai – long running kids shows just tend to lose me eventually, even the really good ones – but for those who make room in their lives for Pretty Cure or Pokémon each season, I think this might be a welcome addition to your watchlist. Or if you've put 200 hours into Dragon Quest XI and still feel the hankering for more, give this a chance too.
It's a story we all know: a young boy is, for whatever reason, growing up on an island without any other humans. That doesn't mean he's alone, though – he's friends with every animal on the island, and beloved for his gentle and playful nature. He's happy and unrestricted by the rules of society, powerful in his purity. His idyllic life is interrupted when some humans with ill intent arrive on his island paradise, and though he successfully fends them off, his world is forever changed.
These tales of semi-feral children are common worldwide, and I'm sure every single one of you are familiar with at least one. However, you're probably less familiar with the Dragon Quest franchise, which is immensely popular in Japan but never took off in the West for any one of a number of reasons. It's a series with a lot of history behind it, and as I started it up, I wondered if it would be newbie-friendly.
Overall, I think it was. I got the sense there were a lot of signifiers I wasn't understanding, though my husband helpfully pointed some of them out as we watched the episode together. It felt a lot like a kid's adventure series cut from the same cloth as Pokémon or Monster Rancher, though I know it predates and probably played a major role in inspiring both, albeit with a more traditional swords-and-sorcery aesthetic.
I loved the look of the episode, which didn't totally retain the look of Akira Toriyama's famous character designs but still draws inspiration in the spiky hair for boys and puffy hair for girls. Rather than the thin outlines favored by most modern animation, the design for this uses thick, bold lines and bright primary and secondary colors. It's a great choice that's a bit retro and sure to inspire some nostalgia in older viewers, but not so old-fashioned as to drive away young newcomers. The action is solid, with some creative camera usage, and overall engaging.
The writing is the weak link here, as it uses a lot of standard plot devices without making much attempt to deviate from the formula at all. Dai is a sweet kid but naïve, his teacher a cranky old coot, the intruders duplicitous, and the king clueless. Not exactly inspired, but at least it's not grating either, so it's unlikely to drive away any potential audience members.
Dragon Quest works well as a general audiences series, with lots of broad appeal. Hopefully it'll be dubbed so it can reach more of its intended audience of children here in the US, but it's probably worth showing to children old enough to handle subtitles. For adults, the audience may be a bit more limited, but it's worth checking out if you're looking for something simple, uncomplicated, and fun.
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