“The season was a success, guys. Let’s go get drunk.” And so they did.
It didn’t start out especially stunning, but the foundation was solid, and with time it began to distinguish itself from other magical-fantasy-action-harem anime. It’s more than an adventure; it’s a myth in the making. It’s a hero’s tale.
Mea Culpa, Of Sorts
First of all, a mea culpa: DanMachi isn’t chauvinistic. Or at least, not any more so than any other magical-fantasy-action-harem anime, and less than most. Bell’s grandfather sounds chauvinistic—it was my mistake in the first episode to conflate what the grandfather had said with what the show thought about women. Now, there is a certain amount of sexism in any harem anime, whether standard or “reverse” (i.e. a male or female protagonist), though this is inherent more in the author and the plot, not necessarily the characters. Let me explain.
Take High School DxD. The sexism there is in the story’s obsession with collecting ladies (for Issei) like they’re pokemon, even though Issei himself treats his friends with respect. (The girls he occasionally peeps on, on the other hand…) Compare this to Log Horizon, where, even when Shiroe had upward to three ladies interested in him, it never feels like a harem anime. That’s because those ladies’ feelings are parts of their stories, not an aspect Shiroe’s story. It’s not Shiroe collecting a harem; it’s a B-plot concerning Minori’s, Akatsuki’s, and Henrietta’s feelings, as a part of their stories. They just happen to have eyes for the same man.
DanMachi falls closer to Log Horizon, though it’s undoubtedly still a harem anime. Bell’s focus on Aiz, and his desire to help and protect people not because they’re girls, but because they’re them—okay, maybe some of both, but the end of the Lili arc sure seemed to indicate which part was more important to him—sets him apart, as does the story’s de-emphasis on harem antics, to the point that they only showed up once in a while. There’s also the fact that, aside from the waitress in the first episode, all of the female characters who develop feelings for Bell seemed to do so for good enough reasons, even if we entered after the fact with Eina and Hestia (which is totally fine). All that, combined with how Hestia is an equal second protagonist, and how Bell is her romantic interest (i.e. the relationship is usually portrayed from her point of view) more than she is Bell’s, keeps it from feeling exploitative. Plus, Bell is simply a good main character. Which brings me to my next point…
(Actually, first, an important note: While all harem anime are to some degree sexist, that doesn’t mean they’re evil, nor that you shouldn’t enjoy them. I used High School DxD as an example, which I generally enjoy (the last three episodes excepted) and have blogged two seasons of. Clearly, I haven’t forsworn harem anime! It’s fine to enjoy them; I just like to acknowledge this inherent troublesome aspect and keep it in mind, lest it unknowingly infiltrate my worldview. That part I still agree with—my mistake was in judging this show on a throwaway line, which was exacerbated by only blogging one episode. Kind of like how I thought Love Lab was a yuri show from the first episode, even though it quickly disabused me of that notion. DanMachi shares the inherent flaw of all harem anime, but less so than most of them, enough so that I often didn’t think of it as a harem anime at all. Okay, now onto the next point.)
Why DanMachi Works For Me, While Sword Art Online Didn’t
I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of DanMachi fans are Sword Art Online fans. They scratch a similar itch. They’re both “game-y”, with blade-wielding protagonists who assemble an unlikely harem. They’re simple—and to those who don’t like them, formulaic—but to those who connect with their stories, they work. But I didn’t like Sword Art Online, whereas I enjoyed DanMachi. Why?
The main reason is Bell himself. Kirito is often called a Gary Stu, and up to the point I’ve watched (I stalled after the mini-arc that took place after GGO), he is. A lot of this has to do with how he violates MMORPG norms by having some special skill no one else gets, by not dying when he’s killed, by solving all his problems himself, etc. Which, as fans may be chomping at the bit to note, are all things that can be said about Bell as well. But Bell is saved by two things: He’s in a typical fantasy world, and he’s a loveable idiot.
On the former, Divine once remarked to me that he didn’t understand the annoyance that I and several other RC writers held for SAO at the time. He said that it was just a typical fantasy story. And he’s right—taken like that, my opinion of SAO moved from “I hate this shit!” to “Eh, it’s not for me.” I find it to be a bad MMORPG anime, but as a typical fantasy anime? It’s fine. Fairy Dance was kind of crap, but the first arc was all right, taken in that light. DanMachi avoids the problem entirely taking place in a standard fantasy setting (while still pinching some “game-y” elements), so Bell getting a special skill doesn’t rub the wrong way. (Plus, it justifies his rapid advancement, which I appreciate, which is then further justified by the revelation that he’s the grandson of Zeus. Children of gods aren’t rare in mythology, after all.) To me, DanMachi rubs the same itch that Tower of Drauaga did, save with more focus on the adventure, less on the plot. And I write adventure stories, baby. You better believe I’m fine with that choice.
As for the latter point, whereas Kirito was Too Cool For School, Bell is a loveable idiot. This separates the audience from Bell enough that he stops being a pure audience insert, and becomes his own person. The same thing happens with DxD’s Issei—while many might envy his harem, most aren’t, and wouldn’t want, to be the open, shameless pervert that Issei is. Likewise, most wouldn’t want to be a naïve baka like Bell, no matter how commendable his heroics. Kirito, on the other hand, is cool and skilled and knowledgeable. He’s who we would want to be. Which wouldn’t be a problem, if he were a video game protagonist, like the Escapist’s Yahtzee Croshaw opined recently. (I’m adapting his points to my argument, by the way … he doesn’t mention SAO or anything.)
There are other reasons. The first arc of DanMachi wasn’t as good as following ones, which is a common problem for authors. Trust me on this—I already know all sorts of ways I could have improved my first novel, and I haven’t even released the second one yet. The setting is also shifty in a way that even SAO wasn’t, since I still don’t have a clue why monsters explode into crystals that can be exchanged for money and all that other jazz. But Bell saves the day, as he often does, by being himself. It’s remarkable to me, how thin the line is between a divisive story and a solid, well-received example of the genre. What a dangerous profession I’ve taken on.
The Supporting Cast
Another of DanMachi’s strength is in the supporting cast. That doesn’t include Hestia, by the way—she’s as much of a main character as Bell is. But she’s certainly a strong character as well, silly and feisty and with her own hopes and dreams she’s actively pursuing. I can’t imagine her getting suspended in a cage and assaulted by a server admin. She’d latch onto his head and bite until the sucker bled out. Or kick him in the shin, as she tried in the penultimate episode. Or at least insult him the whole time, because that’s how Hestia do.
But the whole cast was roundly strong. I especially liked the gods, who, unlike the ones in this season of DxD, felt like characters in their own right, rather than generic challenge obstacles the author slapped familiar names on. That’s common in fiction nowadays—I’ve heard ancient Greek and Norse (and in this case, Hindu and Japanese) mythologies referred to as grab-bags of ideas for lazy writers. But Hestia, Loki, Hephaistios, Freya, Takemikazuchi, Ganesha, Hermes and others, in this story, all feel like people we’ve come to know. DxD’s Loki is kind of pointless, to be honest, whereas DanMachi’s Loki is as full of personality as Marvel’s/Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the Thor/Avengers franchises. Ditto to most of the supporting cast, especially Lili, Welf, and Aiz Wallenstein—though even initially flat characters like Bete revealed themselves to be more interesting with time. The named characters all added to the story in their own right, rather than just being NPCs there to facilitate the protagonist’s tale.
The Final Accounting
In the final accounting, I enjoyed DanMachi. Though the first arc didn’t light a fire under me, later arcs were much better, and it steadily improved until I was literally cheering (literally! As in, I was actually whooping aloud!) as Bell and all his friends confronted the rogue floor boss in the final episode. That’s how you conclude an adventure story, my friends—no. That’s how you give birth to a myth.
So, several perplexed readers are now wondering, if I enjoyed DanMachi so much, why didn’t I blog it? Had it aired in another season, I probably would have, and would have enjoyed doing so. Hell, I probably would have enjoyed blogging it more than most of the series I did blog this season, with the exception of Arslan Senki, which is the best. (Though I don’t regret what I decided to blog, even with their foibles; while hindsight is, of course, 20-20, I’ve generally had fun with what I wrote about.) But since I didn’t realize that until week four or five—I spent most of the season behind by a few episodes, as I’m wont to do—the chance was lost. Woulda, coulda, shoulda … but oh well. It was a fun show no matter what.
As far as magical-fantasy-action-harem anime go, this is one of the better ones. It even transcends the form in places, putting the “harem” part on the backburner, and focusing on the “magical-fantasy-action” part to good effect. It’s an adventure, but it’s more than that—it’s a myth that appropriately uses the names of famous mythological deities in order to raise up a character of its own, a hero who deserves their association. If you have any fondness for the genre, I recommend DanMachi. It doesn’t necessarily innovate on the genre, nor is it significantly different than the myths it echoes, but it doesn’t have to be. All artists steal, after all, and original author Oomori Fujino took many of the things she liked, recombined them with personality and care, and a good story resulted. Above all else, it was a lot of fun.
My first novel, Wage Slave Rebellion, is available now. (More info—now available in paperback!) Sign up for my email list for a FREE sequel short story. Over at stephenwgee.com, the last four posts: The secret to enjoying a long life, Story Review: Mad Max Fury Road, How to not get butthurt when others insult stories you love, and Guilty pleasures are bullshit.