The Summer 2021 Preview Guide
The Dungeon of Black Company
How would you rate episode 1 of
The Dungeon of Black Company ?
What is this?
Kinji, who lacks any kind of work ethic, is a layabout in his modern life. One day, he finds himself transported to another world–but not in a grand fantasy of a hero welcomed with open arms. He's immediately shoved into a terrible job. Now enslaved by an evil mining company in a fantasy world, Kinji's about to really learn the meaning of hard work.
How was the first episode?
Behold, anime's new winner of the title of “Most Punchable Face.” Look upon it, and tremble with the effort of holding back your fists lest you take a swing and break your screen.
I did not care for Dungeon of Black Company. I know, it's a shock, especially if you've been following my work and know just how much I love isekai and mean comedies about terrible people abusing and taking advantage of innocents. I love them just as much as I love capitalism!
The protagonist, Kinji Ninmiya, has a deep and unironic love of unfettered capitalism. In the real world, a couple of lucky investments have netted him a huge income without him having to work a goddamn day in his life. That all gets snatched away when a portal opens up in the floor of his penthouse apartment and he falls into another world populated by beast people, most of whom are forced to labor in dungeons to mine resources for corporate profits while receiving almost no income themselves. Here, he's at the bottom rung of the ladder, but instead of realizing just how inhumane the expectations on workers are, he resents being grouped in with the “losers” and swears to force his way back to the top.
Look, I'm not an idiot. I get it. It's a satire of Japanese work culture; we're obviously not supposed to like Ninomiya or root for him, yadda yadda. However, all the awareness in the world can't change the fact that watching this felt a bit like spending twenty minutes watching a comedy about Trump or some other uber-capitalist, infuriating facial expressions and all. No matter how much comeuppance he got – and to be honest, it was never nearly enough, since the worst he faced was a beatdown from the employees he was exploiting and a deal with a loli dragon girl that came back to literally bite him in the ass – I just didn't want to spend time with him. I just wanted him off my TV screen where I wouldn't have to think about him. Besides, dark comedies about terrible people are much better when they're crabs in a bucket dragging each other down, as opposed to one guy trying to shove his way back into a terrible system without any hope of improved conditions. Instead of being funny, it's just a bummer, with a discomfiting sense that we're supposed to find Ninomiya to be a rascal or a rogue, and not the human-rights-violating petty dictator that he is.
It's not going to be saved by animation, either. All the visual creativity went into finding ways to make Ninomiya look like a human skidmark. Everything else moves stiffly due to the limited animation, and most of the episode takes place in a single dark cave.
If Dungeon of Black Company sounds appealing to you, I have good news: a better version already exists in the form of a niche little book series known as Discworld, which has far more incisive satire, even when tempered with warmth and optimism.
Hey there children! You know what's NOT the peak of humor? Human rights violations!
Frankly, I'm not sure I quite understand how we're supposed to find what we're watching on screen to be funny. If Ninomiya's suffering was karmic justice, perhaps there would be some humor to be found, but that's not really the case here. Ninomiya, knowing he didn't want to become a cog in Japan's corporate wage slave culture, spent his youth and what little money he had making smart investments so that he could retire in his mid-twenties. And so by achieving personal success, his karmic punishment is being transported to a fantasy world where he is basically enslaved in the equivalent of an 1800s company town? I'm not seeing humor here, only tragedy.
In the fantasy world, it's clear that working hard and toeing the company line will not lead to financial freedom, so Ninomiya takes each and every chance he can to try and claw his way out. However, the company, his fellow workers, and even fate itself seem to be firmly working against him. Each time he has an opportunity, something beyond his control negates it.
In his desperation to escape the hell his life has become, Ninomiya turns into the very thing he is rebelling against: he literally enslaves his coworkers with magic and forces them to do inhumane amounts of work. So don't get me wrong, he absolutely deserves the beating he gets at the end of the episode when the magic finally fails. However, I once again can't seem to find the humor in it.
The other reason I'm so turned off by this show is simply that it's making a joke of a real problem here in Japan. “Black companies” that force their workers to work long hours with unpaid overtime for a barely livable wage are still the norm in many sectors of Japanese industry. People I personally know and care about have been or are currently being hurt by working at such companies.
And while what we see in The Dungeon of Black Company is obvious fantasy, the feelings it invokes of having no practical way to escape are all too real. To fight against that without resorting to illegal acts, you need money, and you need to accept the fact that, win or lose, you will forever be blacklisted from your field of expertise. On the other hand, quitting your job and finding another takes time, money, and effort; do it too many times and companies won't hire you simply because you don't look to be a long-term asset to the company.
TL;DR: Not only did I not find The Dungeon of Black Company to be funny, I found watching it to be a uniquely unpleasant experience as well.
Now that's more like it! As I've been saying for years now, if I'm going to get into an isekai anime, whether it's a satirical comedy or a more serious adventure, I want it to go all out. Get a little funky with things, take a different perspective, and show me something that feels just a little fresh, you know? I wouldn't say that The Dungeon of Black Company reinvents the wheel or shatters my expectations or anything, but it showed me a damned good time all the same, and sometimes that's exactly what I want out of an anime.
Right off the bat, Dungeon of Black Company nails the two aspects that a lot of modern isekai anime struggle with, in my opinion: Its protagonist and its setting. Within seconds of meeting him, it is clear that Kinji Ninomiya is a real character, and not just some generic self-insert mushbag. In fact, the show does us one better: Kinji is a real asshole! Even before he gets transported to the alternate universe, Kinji is a proud member of the mythical Neet 1%, having exploited the global housing market to become an über-capitalist shut in with his own private skyscraper suite, and he's damned happy to lord above all of the pathetic peons who waste away their lives trying to barely scrape by at their low-wage jobs.
Then, when Kinji finds himself teleported to a fantasy world and placed at the bottom of the labor-force food chain at the Raiza'ha Mining Corporation, does he learn a valuable lesson about respecting the exploitation and endless toil of the working class? Hell no. He discovers a magic portal to the deeper levels of the endless RPG style dungeons he's been working in, then he recruits the labor of the slow-witted but extremely loveable Wanibe and the monstrously hungry dragon-girl Rim. It isn't long before Kinji is building his own exploitative labor machine on the backs of his co-workers (and a magical hypnosis staff). You can imagine how well this works out for him.
Point being, the show isn't afraid to let its protagonist be an unrepentant piece of shit, but he's charismatic enough that you can still enjoy watching his isekai escapades unfold, and it doesn't hurt that Kinji receives some very justified karmic punishment before the credits roll (i.e. he gets his ass whooped by a bunch of demi-humans). It also helps that the setting for Dungeon of Black Company is very compelling, in and of itself. Instead being of your usual Dragon Quest/Elder Scrolls/LotR ripoff, the world of Amuria has the grimier feel of a fantasy world that is smack in the middle of its post-Industrial Revolution throes. The technology is a bit more advanced, the fashion is more modern, and the overall vibe just feels more adult, which absolutely fits the tone of the show.
In short, I really dug The Dungeon of Black Company, and I'm eager to see if the show continues to entertain with its social commentary, funny character dynamics, and how often it lets me get to see a bunch of monster people beat the snot out of scumbag capitalists. It's a comedy that isn't just funny – it's cathartic! That's enough to earn a comfy spot near the top of my Summer '21 watchlist.
To say that protagonist Kinji Ninomiya is an ass is an insult to butts everywhere. Getting whisked away to another world didn't make him that way, though – he's apparently always been a jerk. We first meet him crowing in his penthouse about how he's achieved his NEET dream at age 24, so HE doesn't have to go out in a typhoon to work in an office like those other morons who didn't pull off what he did. He's mid-boast when a hole opens up in his floor, sending him (and his tablet) to Amuria, where, rather than learn any sort of useful lesson, he instead tries to make a quick buck selling his “magic” tablet (with 10% charge left) and then ends up working for a black dungeon company.
And does this teach him anything? Nope! Being exploited by the bosses at the Raiza'Ha Mining Corporation just makes him seize his chance to become the exploitative evil boss the minute he figures out a way. About the one decentish thing he's got going for him is that he doesn't take extreme advantage of his meek coworker Wanibe; just, you know, minor advantage of him, making him fetch and carry, things like that. That all of Ninomiya's plans keep backfiring on him feels less like him having bad luck and more like the universe desperately trying to rid itself of a truly despicable being.
The idea behind The Dungeon of Black Company is clearly meant to be comedic. Kinji's presumably intended to be less of a twit and more of a counterpoint to the more typical isekai protagonist, who either ends up being hailed as a hero or is unjustly banished by a malicious divine being and ends up becoming a hero by bootstrapping it. The problem is that there's just nothing remotely likable about Kinji, so we have no reason to root for him, while other characters, like Wanibe (who looks like a sort-of alligator, thus revealing the naming to be pretty lazy) and Rim, don't have enough personality to balance him out. When you add in unattractive character designs, uninspired backgrounds, and distasteful plot devices, the whole thing is singularly unpleasant. No more for me, thanks.
There's an art to making a comedy about bad people. If you're setting out to create humor based on somebody your audience is expected to hate, you need to make sure there's something enjoyable about following them. Be it the sheer absurdity of your “hero” and their awfulness, or the karmic retribution they bring upon themselves, you can't just stick a miserable asshole into any given situation and expect it to be funny. That's fortunately a lesson The Dungeon of Black Company seems to understand – its overall comedic chops deliver mixed results, but I can at least say I hate Kinji precisely as much as this show wants me too.
From the moment he opens his mouth, our protagonist establishes himself as the ultimate villain. It's not just that he mocks people having to go to work in a typhoon, or that he does so in a speedo from his penthouse apartment. It's that he does this all while making his money off being a landlord – one of the ultimate parasites of modern capital – and is boisterously proud of producing income through no actual effort on his part. There's no guarantee said awfulness is what leads to him getting isekai'd, but every other mishap to befall our “hero” is his own damn fault, and to be honest he still gets off a bit too easy. Dude should consider himself lucky this episode doesn't end with his coworkers caving his skull in with a pickax, really.
The only major problem here is that the actual comedic writing just isn't all that sharp. There are a couple of bits that land, a few decent punchlines, but on the whole this premiere feels like a rather limp execution of a solid premise. The concept of a “Black Company” existing in fantasy-ville is a decent enough idea, and you could conceivably mine a lot of dark, cathartic humor from lampooning such an awful real-world institution through the lens of demi-humans. Cells at Work! Code Black did pretty much the same thing with biology gags earlier this year, after all. Along with our loathsome main character's get-rich-quick schemes you have a formula for a solid – if pitch black – comedy of evils. But there's just not any bite to the gags or misadventures in this first episode. There are some occasional bits of pointed commentary – like their goblin foreman telling them the company doesn't compensate for injuries while dungeon crawling – but you'd expect this kind of comedy to come out swinging and it really hasn't.
Sadly that means there's just not much appeal left to this show. The fantasy concepts themselves are so rote and played out that there's nothing to draw you in. Unless you just really like dragon girls with high-pitched voices who eat a lot and aren't content with the new season of Dragon Maid, none of the supporting cast leaves an impression, and the art design is more function than form. There are a few good faces to be found, but otherwise this is animation to get the job done and not much else.
Still, there are worse things for a comedy series to be than underwhelming. Considering how loud and purposefully abrasive its central character is, I consider it a win that this episode was never actively annoying or unpleasant to sit through.
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