How Would You Like Your Fantasy Anime Served? – This Week in Anime


Chris and Steve discuss all the ways a fantasy anime can get it right and the shoddy mimics that catch viewers in their traps.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.

Delicious in Dungeon and BASTARD!! -Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy- are streaming on Netflix. Am I Actually the Strongest?, Arifureta – From Commonplace to World’s Strongest, How NOT to Summon a Demon Lord, Yohane the Parhelion -SUNSHINE in the MIRROR, Goblin Slayer, The Wrong Way to Use Healing Magic, AMAZING STRANGER, The Ancient Magus’ Bride,and Isekai Cheat Magician are streaming on Crunchyroll. My Isekai Life is streaming on HIDIVE. Berserk (1997) is coming soon to home video from Discotek.


Chris

Steve, I’ve got a grievance to air. Time was “dungeon” meant the prison area of a castle or keep. People got thrown in there for their crimes, maybe tortured a bit. Look at these so-called dungeons now, thanks to the proliferation of fictionalized fantasy settings! They’re sprawling, explorable, underground wonders! They have cool treasures and even food in them! People want to go into them on purpose!

Nothing means anything anymore, and I must go on a quest to fix it.

Steve

That’s right, Chris, I can’t believe it either, but they’ve gone and gentrified dungeons. There’s nowhere you can find a decent, hardworking executioner taunting a distressingly emaciated man shackled to a stone wall. It’s all labyrinthine hallways and spike traps now. People are even eating gourmet meals in dungeons! And do our politicians give a damn? Of course not.

This is what happens when your neighborhood of storytelling isn’t just one of the older settings out there but one that feels even older thanks to its classical aesthetics. These dungeons and/or the dragons that occupy them have been around a long while, and if anime releases alone are any indication, they’ll be filling up the fictional real estate market for longer.

“Fantasy” settings cover a pretty wide swathe of possibilities. By definition, it’s limited only by a creator’s imagination. But we see a specific kind of “fantasy” more often than most. It has castles. You’ll see dudes in armor. There are lots of different races of people. Elves have pointy ears, and so on. Delicious in Dungeon fits into this mold, adding several new members to the pile each new season. But something sets Delicious in Dungeon‘s setting apart from its vaguely medieval brethren. And it’s not just the fashionable frog suits.

To be sure, having your characters looking incredibly, hilariously stupid by necessity shows how well Delicious in Dungeon gets the RPG experience on a much deeper level than its contemporaries.



But yes, Delicious in Dungeon, an anime so nice we’ve kicked off a column with it twice, works as both a storytelling success on its own and an indicator of the foibles of the fantasy setting. I’ve always been rather ambivalent about fantasy as a genre. Part of that’s down to raw overexposure, but much of it’s also my perception of how so much of the world-building in lesser entries feels shallow.

I get the fatigue. The past decade of fantasy anime has been inexorably intertwined with the isekai genre, and that’s been largely unfortunate. For a while there, it seemed like isekai storytelling had entirely supplanted more “traditional” fantasy anime by sheer volume alone. This is a problem because most of the isekai series’ primary influence is other isekai series.

Fantasy (as with any genre) can already run into the issue of fewer entries feeling derivative when everyone wants to be the next Tolkien. But at least that’s lore that’s arguably worth riffing on. The fantasy isekai feedback loop results in clunky magic systems, circular towns surrounded by walls, and, for some godforsaken reason, slavery.

My favorite example I unearthed during my research was Arifureta, a show I watched for “This Week in Anime” that I only remember because of the KamiKatsu-tier CG on one of its monsters. One of the things I forgot about it was that the main dude was powered up by eating monsters! Doesn’t that sound familiar?




But look at how joyless this is. It’s all about stats and levels.
As with most material, it’s not necessarily the base content of a story but what’s done with it. For all my griping about the tropes endemic to fantasy isekai, I admit some have worked for me with how they use the setting, magic, and even in one absurdly specific case, slavery.



So long as we’re talking fantasy, I might as well cross the obligatory How NOT to Summon a Demon Lord reference off the list early. Though real talk, one reason that show worked was because it put a modicum of thought into its fantastical setting and how it functioned.
Grappling with the basic tenets and implications of your setting shouldn’t be a high bar to clear. That’s a requirement vague enough to encompass any number of approaches. But if your only reference point for writing an isekai is other isekai, you’re already hampered by that limited frame. Good writing synthesizes a whole slew of diverse influences in a profound or novel way. That’s one of the reasons I took a shine to the recent adaptation of Bastard!! Instead of taking its cues from video games, it drew on hair metal album covers and pinups spray-painted on the side of a van. Now that’s real fantasy!


More series these days took their inspiration from Heavy Metal rather than RPG Maker. Because overdone as they are, the aesthetics of sword ‘n’ sorcery fantasy are ones with inherent appeal—much like cyberpunk sci-fi, it’s immediately distinct from our own “normal” world but can be adapted in almost infinite ways. You can do a lot with it just as a simple adaptational vehicle, like Yohane the Parhelion dropping the Love Live! Sunshine!! cast into its unique, present-day urban/fantasy fusion setup.



Idol music is hardly hair metal, but there aren’t any stat sheets.

Before I get too ahead of myself, I should clarify that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using games as a reference point. Regarding the overall state of fantasy settings from the past half-century of art and literature, you won’t escape the shade under the giant umbrella that is Dungeons & Dragons.

I’m sure plenty of us have cool stories birthed from tabletop gaming sessions, so it makes sense that setup could be adopted for more formalized storytelling. Plenty of anime has been based directly on creators’ roleplaying sessions, from storied classics like Record of Lodoss War to legendary punchlines like Chaos Dragon. The indulgent spontaneity of Chaotic-Neutral Player Characters can lend to some entertaining storytelling, as long as the actual writing and plotting chops are there.

In the specific case of Delicious in Dungeon, Ryōko Kui has been quite open about the influence of tabletop and video game RPGs on her writing. Famitsu recently had interviewed her. Generously translated/summarized by Twitter user @Gaearth in this thread:

She talks about everything from watching her dad play Wizardry to her recent obsession with Baldur’s Gate 3.



Granted, a video game magazine naturally focuses on the video game side of her influences, so I’m sure she has other stuff bouncing around in her brain, too.

I’m just saying, “I skin the giant frog to make a suit that will let me touch the poison tentacles” is 200% a plan cooked up by deranged PCs.

And like any good DM, she makes them live with the consequences of their actions.

Exactly: a lot of Laios and Senshi’s antics, in particular, feel like the actions of offbeat players unconventionally interacting with the fantasy world in ways a poor, less-prepared DM never properly considered. This means that many of the well-thought-through elements of the setting are the result of Kui’s consideration of these things.

Ironically, writing good fantasy requires a solid grasp of real life. You can conjure all the weird monsters and breathtaking vistas your cerebrum can, but if you don’t ground them in tangible, tactile details, they become ephemeral. So, I would not be the least bit surprised if Kui majored in biology because she truly knows her stuff when it comes to individual organisms and how they fit together in an ecosystem.

“Fit together” quite literally, in some of those cases.


I love her mimics turning out to be giant killer hermit crabs. That’s so good; it is much more evocative and creepier than the traditional treasure chest with teeth.

It’s a cool concept on its own, and it also filters down into the characters themselves, with ideas about how trap specialists like Chilchuck interact with specific kinds of creatures. Compared to his compatriots, who wouldn’t mind eating them like any other monster, Chilchuck’s feelings towards mimics are decidedly divorced.

Given some of her comments in that Famitsu interview, that creature-first approach also makes sense. She says that Wizardry, heralding from the days when dungeon crawlers were primarily text-based, wasn’t all that fun to watch, so she’d pore over the monster designs in the manual instead. Taking one aspect, you find fascinating and extrapolating from there is a great way to worldbuild because you draw unique connections. That’s how you get armor mollusks.

I wouldn’t expect a fantasy-action cartoon about fighting living suits of armor to make me crave abalone, but that’s the Delicious in Dungeon difference.

I’m also reminded of an anecdote from Hidetaka Miyazaki of Dark Souls fame. He grew up loving English-language fantasy novels, but because he wasn’t fluent enough to read them in their entirety, he’d fill in the blanks himself from the illustrations and his imagination. That approach is reflected in Dark Souls‘s twisted, fragmented, and patchwork fantasy world.

Fantasy is supposed to spark the imagination; it’s right there in the most basic definition of the term. While carefully considering elements of your setting can cause some compelling creations, it’s not a foolproof writing strategy. Compared to Delicious in Dungeon‘s cheeky and fun approach, you have the cruel and tragic style embodied in my irregular annoyance, Goblin Slayer.



Goblin Slayer is a series that purports to be thinking through elements of a famous-style fantasy setting and how things would “really” work. Still, it always seems to stop as soon as it gets to the most basic, edgy answer as a banal “gotcha” to people who might think tabletop roleplay settings should be any degree of fun.
Dark fantasy is certainly a valid subgenre, but you ideally need an approach that’s more nuanced and less juvenile. Alternatively, you can go the Berserk route and frontload a ton of truly, unforgettably messed up shit in service of a story and characters who grow and heal throughout the narrative. Go as big as Guts’ sword, or go home.

It truly is emblematic of the breadth of the genre that even within the dark ‘n’ edgy corner, you can find an entry that’s known for being impactful and genuinely affecting and another that’s still mostly known for Crunchyroll being a day late and a dollar short slapping the most basic of content warnings on when it first premiered.



Then, meanwhile, over in the delicious dungeon, you’ve got Kui mining that characters can die and be resurrected in this setting for equal parts pathos and pitch-black humor. Sometimes, you really can have your (monster) cake and eat it, too.

I like how we only just learned that the impermanence of death in the dungeon is due to some twisted soul-binding magic that nobody can replicate. That’s another good thing about Delicious in Dungeon‘s setting: it doesn’t play its entire hand immediately. It feels like its world expands a bit more with each episode, and Laios’ party is an increasingly small part of an expanding story.

And hey! That’s also more proof that you can take a trope as universal as resurrection magic in RPGs and still find a way to make it feel unique to your setting.

Playing with that very base concept is also how this season’s The Wrong Way to Use Healing Magic wound up being extremely solid by vanilla fantasy isekai standards. White mages as basic party member healers? Yawn. White mages as rigorously trained front-line combat medics? That’s an idea!

There’s no reason you can’t draw on the basics to make something new. Classics are classics for a reason, and studying them is an excellent way to figure out what makes them tick and what you can change in your own story. And especially given some recent news, I think we’d be remiss not to mention Dragon Quest‘s chokehold on fantasy anime and manga for the past several decades. You could easily argue that Dragon Quest is Japan’s single most important and influential RPG franchise.

There’s a lot to talk about in terms of Akira Toriyama‘s frankly absurd influence on so many facets of culture in the wake of his tragic, untimely passing. Dragon Quest is but one of those, and inexorably relevant to this discussion, on or above the level of the already name-checked Wizardry.



If you have ever wondered why so many of these things prominently feature small, cute, round, blue slimes, well…
Dragon Quest is everywhere! Everywhere. I dare you to find an anime that hasn’t referenced it somehow. I tried to find the most obscure anime in my screenshot folder and settled on the 2019 AMAZING STRANGER short series about a dude’s scale figure who comes to life, and even that has about as explicit a Dragon Quest parody as you can get.

It could be plausibly argued that Toriyama, alongside DQ game designer Yuji Horii, wound up being the Japanese equivalent of Tolkien when it comes to codifying these kinds of fantasy settings. That’s perhaps why so many are shallowly built on killing enemies for in-universe experience points. We also get series like Delicious in Dungeon, which embody the quirks and offbeat approach of a franchise that originally had you interact with its world via a big menu of precise options.



If Laios was in one of these, you know there’d be an ‘EAT’ command.
Perhaps the biggest thing that sets Delicious in Dungeon apart from its lesser brethren is its willingness to interface with those pricklier and less “polished” systems—not merely replicating them but digging towards the reasons for their existence. It’s the difference between a modern isekai throwing up a ton of stats screens because of video games and Ryōko Kui using the dungeon crawler format as a vehicle for a fun and emotional adventure. You should always go deeper. Don’t just look at Dragon Quest; look at its roots in Dungeons & Dragons. And don’t just stop at Dungeons & Dragons either, because you can read Lord of the Rings and gain even more knowledge and context. If you want, you can plumb even further depths. I’m assuming Kore Yamazaki referenced a ton of primary and secondary texts on fae and folklore when crafting the world of The Ancient Magus’ Bride.
Like any good tabletop Dungeon Master, the best authors of these kinds of series put a lot of work into prep beforehand. Whether compiling reference material or thoroughly running the thought experiments to spin these plots out, that’s the difference-maker when fantasizing about a setting that serves its story well.



I am generously considering Kui going on hiatus to play Baldur’s Gate 3 to be “compiling reference material.”
As the youth might say: let her cook.





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