Danmachi is Fun Fantasy Done Right

I did not intend for this to become a series. If I’m being perfectly honest, Dororo: Dark Fantasy Done Right was a title I devised simply because it was specific enough to grab interest, but vague enough to spark curiosity. It wasn’t until I caught up on Danmachi’s third season that I realized there was actual potential for a series here.

Danmachi is an anime I really like, but have a hard time telling you why I like it more than any other. The story is okay; it’s a little repetitive since it’s all about how Bell manages to save this new girl from a hostile god. The characters are competent and endearing, but they’re not exactly deep and nuanced. Even the presentation is just pretty good, but it’s not great. If anything, it is an adequate representation of ‘good enough’, a serviceable 7/10, but not to me.

Maybe it’s because I’m a geek for mythoogy, or that the idea of a light-hearted fantasy action romcom is uniquely appealing to me. Either way, Danmachi is far better than anyone gives it credit for, and in a world cluttered with video game-style fantasy anime with OP protagonists, I want to look at one of the earlier examples that actually did it right. Today, I’m here to defend Danmachi as an unapologetically light, breezy, and excellent anime.

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The secret protagonist of Danmachi, Ganesha!

The city of Orario is populated by the two strangest kinds of people: gods, and adventurers. All the deities of mythology descended the world below and abandoned the sum of their immense power, now acquiring groups of followers called Familia. Familia have different specialties, many work in commerce and production, but the most elite are the adventurers who enter the dungeon in the center of the town, exploring its labyrinthian levels for loot and level grinding.

Bell Cranel is a young man who came to Orario after his grandfather’s passing, following the old man’s words of ‘wisdom’ urging him to save a girl in the dungeon in order to win her heart. Bell fails at this twofold: he’s a novice who joins the lackluster Hestia Familia, whose titular goddess rivals the most useless of any anime goddess you care to name, and he winds up as the damsel. He’s saved from a Minotaur by Aiz Wallenstein, the Sword Princess of the Loki Familia, and he falls for her.

Unaware that he executed his grandfather’s advice in reverse, Bell is determined to become a strong adventurer worthy of Aiz. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a sweet cinnamon roll of a guy, and in the world of stuck-up gods and heroes, humility and kindness are some of the rarest traits somebody can have.

We follow Bell as he works his way up, unlocking his unique skill letting him acquire experience at an exponential rate, and build the Hestia Familia into a prestigious adventuring group. He also acquires a harem in record time, though he’s too shy and meek to ever take advantage of that. Actually, I’m not sure he’s exactly aware of it. Either way, Bell isn’t the average harem protagonist; he’s not a doormat audience insert, and his single-minded pursuit of one girl keeps the show from getting too sleazy.

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That’s it, that’s the show.

The first season of Danmachi is similar to a slice of life anime as it’s not focused on an overarching plot. In the beginning, Bell is working to level up and simply earn enough money for dinner. Considering there’s the running gag of Hestia working a constant string of new part-time jobs, it’s not going well. Still, you get to see him make a name for himself, and while his unique ability makes that easier, he still has to work hard in order to succeed. Considering that Bell is such an endearing character, though, it’s gratifying to see him struggle and grow, all while seeing meaningful progress.

It isn’t until the second season that the series starts following longer storylines as Bell and his friends come into conflict with the Apollo Familia. You might miss the episodic nature of the first season, but the new emphasis on story provides some much-needed structure. This kind of story is better served by an arc-based story, followed by significant downtime. I can better appreciate Bell and his friends attending a fancy gala or spending time at the onsen when they’re a welcome relief from big fights that come with the main plot.

I plan on reading the light novels eventually, but all I can say now is that the second and third seasons have followed Bell rescuing a girl from the clutches of a particular god. It’s kind of funny, considering he became an adventurer specifically to save a damsel and get her to fall for him, but now he isn’t interested in them. I’m just crossing my fingers that the story diversifies in the confirmed fourth season.

That being said, the best part of Danmachi is that it’s just fun. The plot can get heavy and dark at points, but it has the flavor of comfort food even at the worst of times. Bell is a cheerful source of optimism, and never fails to raise the mood. The cinnamon roll protagonist has become ubiquitous in recent years, and I can only attribute to how pleasant they are. I can appreciate doom and gloom, but Bell’s unswerving kindness and hope is refreshing.

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POV: Bell and Aiz just saw your search history.

But that light tone and balance of work and play would mean nothing if the characters were flat or boring. None of the character writing is exactly brilliant, but every character with significant screen time is adequately written. The depth is typically proportionate to that screen time, and the series’ ability to achieve that balance is seriously underrated.

In the Hestia Familia, nearly every member has an established repertoire and clearly defined personalities, which is all you can ask of a fun anime that isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. Sometimes the writers lean too hard on how jealous and possessive the girls are of Bell, especially Hestia and Lily, but it’s an easily-ignored side gag. It would be helpful if their main personality traits were something other than “they’re infatuated with Bell”. It’s irksome, but it’s not a problem with any other girl in the cast.

While I appreciate Danmachi’s characters, I much prefer talking about its world. We’re not running short on video game fantasy anime, but Danmachi’s world feels unique amidst all the anime that have come since. The world of gods and the members of each Familia create their own fascinating kind of politics, and most of the deities from world mythology have been reinterpreted for this world, usually as hot women. Oh well, that’s anime for you.

And that world only gets bigger and more interesting as the series goes on. Whether that’s introducing gods and humans who live outside Orario, or the sentient monster people, the Xenos, who are a focal point of the third season. Danmachi didn’t touch on topics like social prejudice and whether or not people are bound by their heritage, but now that it has, it feels like an organic extension of the world we knew before.

None of it feels ham-fisted or overtly preachy, and it only makes me more intrigued for the stories to come; each season has introduced a gradual growth in its world building and mysteries. It’s almost strange to think that we can get this level of storytelling from a dumb fantasy romcom, but Danmachi does all that while playing to its strengths as a dumb fantasy romcom. It uses all the time it is given to invest the audience in its characters and world. That’s not just good for fun fantasy, that’s just good writing.

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I would also like it if there was more than just two dudes in the main cast. Just a thought.

Danmachi is an enigmatic contradiction. It succeeds by being a light and breezy romp in a neat fantasy world, but when it tries to branch outside that small domain, it almost always succeeds. I can’t emphasize enough that its success is not luck, it is the strength of smart writing coming together in meaningful ways.

Maybe I’m overhyping what is ultimately an okay anime, but if I haven’t communicated that I love a good 7/10 anime, then what’s the point? This all comes down to personal taste anyway, but Danmachi is a masterpiece of alright anime. It might be forgettable popcorn fodder, but I can’t make myself forget about it yet, and I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

At this point, I’m still not quite sure if I plan on making “Fantasy Done Right” into a proper series, but I suppose that depends on whether or not I can dig up different anime that fit the bill. The genre is so large and each subgenre is so complex that there’s almost certainly material for it, but it will come down to whether or not I’m cut out for finding them.

So if you would like to see this become a series, the best way to let me know is to like the essay, comment, and follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress. There’s also my Twitter, where I rant about all the anime I’m watching @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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