Friday, June 21, 2024

Anime Review: Delicious in Dungeon Series 1

Three different shows in a trenchcoat, masquerading as a fun, silly, traumatic adventure (and succeeding)

I don't think I have ever watched a show - any kind of show, not just anime - that careens so wildly and gloriously between absolute delightful nonsense and gut-wrenching, soul-crushing emotional darkness. Every single episode of Delicious in Dungeon (also know as Dungeon Meshi) is a rollercoaster and a surprise gift bag. Reach in your hand and what do you receive? A man with an almost sexually charged obsession/hobby interest in eating dungeon monsters. What next? The death of sibling and that same man's determination to save her from the longest of odds, knowing that even as they speak she's being digested in a dragon's stomach. And now? Up-skirt shots of a heavily bearded dwarf! And then? Dressing up in the partly-flensed skins of giant frogs! It's a RIDE.

You thought I was joking about the frogs? I was not

It shouldn't, by rights, work. It really shouldn't. But somehow it does. There's no real smoothness between those two moods, no attempt to reconcile the cheerful goofery of this band of adventurers clumsily pootling down the dungeon and the horrors they witness and perpetrate. You just have to sit with the whiplash of it all and... cope. But somehow, that's the best part.

To step back a little, Delicious in Dungeon is an anime (based very closely on an existing manga) that follows a D&D style party after their healer has been eaten by a dragon and, as her last act, sends them back to the surface and safety. Her brother, the human fighter of the group, is determined to go straight back in and save her, but not everyone is willing to join him, not least because they simply do not have the funds to correctly supply their return trip. Nonetheless determined, he, along with the elven mage and half-foot (clearly halfling) rogue head back in, and soon find themselves hungry enough to consider eating some of the more... food-adjacent-seeming entities that roam the dungeon. On their first attempt, they meet a dwarf who has been doing exactly that for some years and who, glad to find fellow enthusiasts, agrees to accompany them and help them eat and cook their way down into the depths to find and resurrect their fallen comrade.

Season 1 - we now have a confirmed second season, though not yet with a date attached - takes them right down into the depths, and some discoveries about the dungeon, its ecosystems, its magic and its origin that change the scope of their original quest somewhat, and take us into the territory of those bigger, darker, deeper themes. But every episode also includes interludes of finding edible monsters, plants or other dungeon detritus and turning it into deliciously drawn meals. This is a show that does spend time telling you exactly how to cut down that mushroom critter and fry it just right, or whether you should barbecue your dragon meat or cure it. It wants to make food a core part of the story - visually and thematically - and it does that in every single episode.

It is, however, also conscious, as I'm sure you've begun to be even just as you read this, that there are some definite grey areas of morality and mores that could easily be stumbled into on this journey. Where is the line of monsterhood between animal/plant and the more... peopley? What is ok to eat? It's a theme only touched on a few times explicitly, but it is something that runs through as an undercurrent throughout the show, and eventually links in to some of those bigger themes in some very interesting ways. We establish early on that humanoid creatures are a nono. But where's the line on humanoid? Fishman egg roe - yay or nay? It's never the biggest deal, never a big focus of long exposition, but it's constantly clear that, as well as being outrageously silly, this is also a show that is really thinking about its premises as well.

Whether it comes to any enormous conclusions? Well, that remains to be seen in season 2, as and when we get it. But the process of thinking about them is fun, especially as it blends together with all the other things it's doing.

As a D&D pastiche with a big sense of humour, it works wonderfully. The jokes and silliness are genuinely funny, and the characters are just the right amount of caricature to be enjoyable, relatable and well... people... while still being silly, funny characters. We also get to enjoy some well-worn and beloved silliness at various points, with a particular highlight being the episode where everyone swaps species, and our burly dwarf becomes the sparkliest twink elfboy who ever lived.

No, really.

The moments of sometimes quite horrific darkness also, somehow, are really well done. We spend enough time with the characters, even through the silliness, to get a sense of them as people, and so when horror comes their way it is impactful, even despite the quite dramatic tonal contrast. There are plenty of tragic backstories - because of course there are - but much of the darkness comes in the form of the imminent and the visceral. There are blood and guts very much splattered about on screen, and we do have to grapple with some really quite horrible things in the quest to find someone who's been digested by a dragon but can still be resurrected. Which shouldn't be a surprise, but a lot of shows would not be willing to fully go there.

If anything, it could possibly do with dwelling more on some of those aspects, but I feel like that's going to be something we cannot avoid by the time we get to season 2.

If it has a weakness, it's an unwillingness to spend more than a couple of minutes at any given time really establishing any sort of solidity of worldbuilding. By the end of the season, a lot has been built up, but it's definitely in little snippets and bursts, and what we get is interesting enough that I would definitely like to have got more. There's an absence of who and how about a lot of things that would really improve things. Equally, it's very slow about pulling in some of the characters who eventually end up being relevant, and there are plenty I would like to have spent a little more time getting to know, but who are clearly being signalled as important in... some way... to the events as they are going to unfold, or to events that happened before the start of the show. We get those answers, but predominantly in bare bones form, and I just would have liked a little bit more, a little bit extra, to really get things bedded in.

That being said, it's a case where it feels like the answers do exist, and we've just never had them on screen, rather than that if you asked, someone would have to hastily make something up and hope it didn't accidentally ruin some other bit of continuity. Which is better tv, but possibly less good D&D. There is a very strong sense that much of this is going to be developed further, and we're just not there yet, but it does feel somewhat endloaded with info and exposition compared to the norm, and to what I'd enjoy. I don't need a wizard to infodump everything in episode 1, but there's a happy medium that I think the show could have nudged its way a little closer to, at least for my liking.

But as weaknesses go? It's hardly the worst out there. And so much of the rest of the show is so charming, it more than makes up for it.

All in all, it's a bunch of chaotic muppets rattling their way down a dungeon, eating the monsters, yelling at each other and then occasionally being incredibly traumatised by events. If you're happy with that tonal cacophony - and it's very easy to be happy with it in context - then the show is a heck of a fun ride, and one I would wholeheartedly recommend. 


The Math

Highlights: delightful characters, actually funny jokes, occasional bouts of philosophising on the boundaries of cannibalism

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.