How many shows have you passed on because you figured they “weren’t worth your time?” What were the factors that contributed to that impression? Was it a lack of interesting marketing? Was it the style? Or did you buy into the narrative being thrown around that a show was “trashy”?
In 2015, I watched YouTuber Demolition D+’s video on the Spring 2015 anime season and delighted in his humorous appraisal of that quarter’s entertainment. The headliner for the video was Is It Okay to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, or, DanMachi as it would come to be abridged. Demo called it an SAO clone and I didn’t so much as bat an eye because I was laughing so much.
But then the second season aired in 2019 and friends who watched it told me about the show’s world and how it was actually pretty fun and that I should give it a chance. By this point, I’d already accepted that SAO wasn’t as bad as we all thought it was, so who was I to turn down an opportunity to prove my misconceptions wrong.
After watching all three seasons of DanMachi, not only am I shocked as to how anyone could have compared this to SAO beyond the leads sharing the same VA, Yoshitsugu Matsuoka. The art styles aren’t even that similar. More than anything, I’m angry that I didn’t watch this sooner.
This is DanMachi, my new favorite fantasy anime.
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Season I | The Rise of Bell Cranel
In this world, gods walk among us. In the city of Orario, gods create their own “Familia,” filled with adventurers who devote themselves to their gods in exchange for power. The adventurers descend into the tower of Babel and battle monsters to make a living, earning money and renown. Bell Cranel is one such adventurer.
He’s a wannabe hero with limited experience, ashamed of his cowardice, and embarrassed to talk to his idol, Ais Wallenstein, a First-Class adventurer. He is the sole member of the Hestia Familia. Hestia herself is a poor, lonely goddess, but one who cares deeply about Bell and wishes for him to achieve greatness.
Bell is something of a laughing stock for his numerous blunders and can barely get by. However, as he throws himself into adventuring, desperate to become stronger, he realizes he has an aptitude for acquiring greater strength and powers quicker than others. Characters in DanMachi are “leveled up” akin to a video game with the help of their gods.
The first arc of the season follows Bell’s humble beginnings, struggling to keep his head high until he discovers his quickly growing aptitude for magic and other traits. His persistence inspires those around him. Bell is the kind of bright, kind, though not-quite-clever sort that I found easy to love. He makes friends quickly and every new character introduced is more delightful than the last.
From Syr to Eina to Ryu and beyond, each new girl added to the cast early on spoiled me with no shortage of cute and wholesome scenes. What’s more, there are some cathartic moments shared between Bell and these other characters. Bell finding his first real friends in Orario, or getting recognized for his accomplishments, or acquiring a powerful weapon from his goddess, all hit me just right.
The kind of character Bell is isn’t too big of a departure from what I expect from shows like this, but his design and his style of fighting feels refreshing. Protagonists in these kinds of stories are often wielding large swords and are a more traditional knight/samurai. However, Bell is more like a powerful rogue, dashing around quickly with a simple-looking yet iconic dagger.
His rabbit-like white hair and red eyes are all he needs to stand out. For everything else, he wears mostly black with gloves to match, and dual-wields knives as the seasons go on. It might just be my personal preferences, but Bell is exactly the type of character I would make in D&D and that helped me get a lot closer to him. For everyone who can’t relate, trust me when I say his design is simple but stands out where it counts.
When the first big arc ends, Hestia, a character I remember mostly by all the memes pointing out her ridiculously-designed dress, actually contributed to some of those early scenes that got an emotional reaction out of me. She’s incredibly bold and forthright in expressing her love for Bell, gifting him with a valuable tool that becomes a staple of his character.
Unfortunately, I do think that Hestia gets sidelined later on, though certainly has plenty more times to shine in ways big and small. Later on, I’ll explain where this began to irritate me, but for now, I’ll say that she resorts to the trope of constantly being defensive of Bell because she’s already claimed him, creating friction with other female leads. It’s harmless comedy but those uninterested in it won’t find it much refreshing.
Back to the good (and there’s plenty of that) the rest of the season starts to build up an adventuring party for Bell. The first was Liliruca Arde, or Lili as she’s called most times. She starts as something of an antagonist, not that it’s immediately apparent to Bell. She is a “Supporter,” someone who specializes in carrying around heavy materials for their adventuring companions. However, she secretly hates adventurers for their cruelty and scams them for their valuables to pay off her debt to her Familia.
Her internal conflict is one that I’ve seen before but never get tired of when done right. She hates adventurers but can’t shake the feeling that Bell is different. Still, when he shows her kindness, her unwillingness to believe that it’s genuine is saddening, because you know she had to have been screwed over so many times in the past.
Across the board, these emotional moments continuously dug the story’s hooks deeper into me and I must applaud director Yoshiki Yamakawa for his work. He was also the director for Little Busters and High Score Girl, so his talent for conveying emotion doesn’t come as too much of a surprise upon reflection. Additionally, the music by Keiji Inai (Burn the Witch) is sublime.
The true peak of season one, and likely the reason more people gravitated towards the show after it started airing, is the fight against the minotaur. More than any other fight in the first season, this one feels like the true test of Bell’s progression. He doesn’t wanna be the rookie who keeps getting saved by his idol. He wants to be the hero. He’s fighting for himself. This fight has some of my favorite animations in the season.
The worst part about having a great fight like this, though, is that everything that comes after has to try to compete. And try as they might, the end of season one couldn’t quite reach the same heights. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it – not by a long shot. Hell, we still need to talk about the third member of Bell’s party, Welf Crozzo
While searching for armor to replace his broken one, Bell meets the man who made his first set. Welf comes from the Hephaistos Familia, the same Familia that created Bell’s iconic dagger. They quickly get along, but Bell learns that Welf feels like people only value him for his ability to make magic weapons as opposed to his skill at crafting strong armor and weapons normally.
Bell assembles a party of people whose true value, much like his own, is left unappreciated. Together, they quickly rise to become Orario’s most talked about heroes. Though they go through quite a bit of hell to get that recognition. The final arc starts with a multi-Familia parade to get to the 18th floor, a sort of safe zone in the tower. Things don’t quite go as planned and Bell’s party finds themselves in dire straits.
Hestia and other principal cast members plan a rescue, and eventually, everyone ends up in one place together. It’s the perfect conditions for a grand finale as something even worse happens, leading to a huge battle on the 18th floor. As I said, it doesn’t quite reach the hype levels of episode 8’s minotaur fight, but I will never complain about giant final battles with the entire cast.
Speaking of the cast, I need to talk about them because there are so many characters, and to avoid spoilers in a review, sometimes it’s difficult to pay lip service to all of them. The characters are so immediately likable either for the vibrancy of their designs, the kindness of their actions, or the aftermath of their powers.
Ryuu Lion is fucking awesome. I have to talk about her and I can’t necessarily think of a major plot point where she is so essential that I have to include her in my non-spoiler description. She’s a masked vigilante. A real Zorro type who dons her costume and mask and helps out Bell, seemingly whenever the story necessitates even more badassery. She’s practically the Batman to Bell’s Justice League; she shows up when she’s needed but she’s not always gonna hang around the hideout with everyone else
My point is that there are so many cool characters both godly and not, and there are few characters that I hate that aren’t designed to be hated. The ones I hate the kind that I love to hate. I think the story can keep producing such compelling characters because the world is so inherently interesting. The idea of gods walking among us from various pantheons is awesome. Each god and their Familia has a presence that leaves an impression soon after meeting them.
The above-mentioned allure only becomes stronger as the series continues and that’s where the jump to season two gets interesting. Season one came out in 2015 and it wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that a sequel graced us. Not being in the know, I was convinced the series was dead. To be fair, it wasn’t as though there was nothing during that time.
Full disclosure: When I do a series retrospective like this, I like it to be all-encompassing, like with my Bungo Stray Dogs series review. I was convinced I finished all three seasons and that it was it. However, several days before beginning to write this review, I was informed that there was, in fact, a movie and a 12-episode spin-off that retold season one from the perspective of Ais Wallenstein.
I debated holding off or even trying to binge both of those things over a weekend, but every forum post about whether they were essential or cannon responded with something to the effect of “yes, but no.” By then, my friends also had told me to watch playthroughs of the mobile game because the story is really good, which tacked on even more to watch. So I decided I didn’t care. Perhaps I’ll do a follow-up if I ever write a review of an eventual season four.
For now, I want to focus on nothing but the main story adapted from the novels. And with that, it’s time to jump four years into the future to 2019 and dig into season two.
Season II | Familia Battle
The biggest change in the four years was the director. Yoshiki Yamakawa left the project and was replaced with Hideki Tachibana, who would stay to direct season three, as well. Watching the sequel right after the first, I am very impressed at how quickly events became chaotic.
Imagine watching the first season and slowly giving up hope for a sequel, maybe even forgetting the series. And then, when a sequel shows up, you question whether it will be worth a watch. “Am I even interested anymore?” Well, let me tell you, this season is nothing if not quick to the point about what you’re in for.
I have seen few sequels jump headlong into tense, nail-biting conflict so long after a conflict. I wonder if they just got lucky that the next volumes of the light novels were so tense or if they went out of their way to built up the tension early to grab people back.
Bell, now famous as “The Little Rookie” has earned the attention, and ire, of the Apollo Familia. Apollo is a perverted and twisted antagonist high on the power he has amassed. After a tussle between Bell’s party and Apollo’s men, Hestia Familia is invited to a ball with all of the other prominent Familia. There, Apollo makes his move.
He challenges Hestia Familia to a War Game, where the Familias do battle. If Apollo wins, he’ll get Bell. Since he’s the sole member of the Hestia Familia, it would be a fool’s errand, so Hestia refuses.
An insane, frantic manhunt throughout Orario begins as Apollo Familia seeks to try and take Bell by force. To make matters worse, Lili’s old Familia swoops in to coerce her into returning. The second season wastes no time establishing rivalries between Bell and some very powerful gods and their devotees, notably Hyakinthos, a fiercely loyal servant of Apollo.
This is the price of rising to fame in Orario. Bell and his friends have bigger targets on their backs. It’s the first time the audience gets to grasp the threat of going to war with a Familia. Worse, it cements just how disadvantageous it is to be a two-person Familia.
Bell decides it’s time to change that. He has no choice but to participate in a War Game, so he trains with Ais and gathers allies to join his Familia. Meanwhile, his friends try to save Lili from the confines of her old Familia. This is one of the most bombastic starts to a season in a long while.
And that’s only the beginning! Season one and two both cover multiple arcs, but depending on the season, they all reflect a common theme. In season one it was Bell’s ascension from a nobody to being “The Little Rookie.” Both of season two’s arcs focus on conflicts with other Familia and the cost of higher notoriety. At the same time, Bell’s overcoming of those obstacles reaps huge rewards. His Familia gains a place they can call home and it’s glorious.
The second half of the season covers Bell’s feud with the Ishtar Familia, the group that rules Orario’s Pleasure Quarter. Ishtar’s followers are fierce, empowered, militant sex workers. That alone is awesome as a concept, but Bell is doing it all to help Haruhime, a Renard, or Fox Person, being used for her power to strengthen Ishtar’s followers.
Ishtar isn’t an incredibly compelling villain, nor is she as lovably hate-able as Apollo was. However, her followers contain some notable rivals for Bell and his cohorts. From the beautiful and sassy Aisha to the insatiable Phryne. While Ishtar’s motives are simple and her plan fairly standard evil villainess material, it’s Bell’s friendship with Haruhime and his desire to beat the odds and rescue her that makes this arc something special.
Haruhime sees herself as not worthy of saving. She thinks less of herself as a sex worker and thinks prostitutes are people a hero wouldn’t save. Bell thinks this is nonsense and that her loneliness and lack of self-actualization is the very reason he must save her from her predicament. I appreciate this arc for having such interesting empowerment of sex work and a defiance of the notion that such things make a woman “less than” another.
As the final battle approaches, mysterious forces behind the scenes start working their magic, including the Freya Familia. Every single season, Freya or her people show up and cause some kind of ruckus that ends up either aiding or hindering Bell, always with a purpose.
Every since the start of season one, two characters have observed Bell and manipulated events surrounding him: Hermes and Freya. The former offers advice and seemingly meddles in Bell’s affairs under the pretense of being an ally. Freya, on the other hand, almost appears as an antagonist. She and her followers were responsible for some of the biggest threats that pushed Bell to the breaking point.
However, when you think about Hermes and Freya for more than a minute, you start wondering if things are that simple. Whether ally or foe, both have played big roles in helping Bell ascend to greatness. While I wish I learned more about Freya and her agents, I think by the end of season three, it’s pretty clear that they have a vested interest in seeing where Bell goes. What they’ll do with him once he gets to his destination is anyone’s guess.
The final two episodes of season two are far less tense. They focus on Hestia and Bell’s complicated relationship. Notably, her being very direct about her love and Bell not reciprocating those feelings and even turning her down in a way that hurts her feelings. Bell is kinda dense, like a lot of anime protagonists with harems. It’s as much a part of his character as it is a way for the writers to not tie him down to one person.
My issue is that Hestia has such wonderful scenes where she pours her heart out to Bell and nothing ever comes of it. The most notable was at the end of episode three of season one. She gives a very similar speech at the beginning of season two, but it got interrupted comically as if the script was poking fun at itself.
So at the end of season two, they have this falling out and Bell doesn’t know how to talk to her. Their “love” is re-contextualized as a broader, familial love. This is fine, considering how that’s how they explain every other character’s love for him, but it’s a bit infuriating when they give Hestia and Bell the most of these kinds of moments out of any pairing.
To their credit, they comment on why these kinds of loves don’t always work out. In hands-down one of the most beautiful scenes of the show, Hestia gives comfort to a dying man who misses his goddess. The dynamic reflects Hestia’s relationship with Bell and offers a touching dilemma to reflect on.
Season two picked up as if no time passed at all. There wasn’t a drop in visual quality or a dramatic change in the studio. If anything, the show looked even better in season two and started strong with plenty of action to prove it. Season three had a lot to prove and I’m happy to say it outshined every expectation.
Season III | The Fall and Redemption of Bell Cranel
Season three is by far THE BEST season and perhaps the reason you should be watching above all else. Granted, it’s as good as it is because of the two seasons prior that endeared me to this cast, so if the start doesn’t do it for you, the rest probably won’t either. With that said, I believe that there are a lot of people who didn’t watch this show who would love it.
Unlike the past two seasons, season three is laser-focused on one arc. Bell discovers a young monster girl; a Vouivre. She possesses intelligence and can speak his language. Though hesitant at first, the party agrees to take her with them back home. They name her Wiene.
The party now has a difficult task. They must shelter this monster girl and find out how the hell someone like her exists. They soon discover that there is a race of intelligent monsters such as her, called Xenos and the god Ouranos has hopes that Bell can bridge the divide between man and monster.
The premise alone flips the entire show’s world on its head. The characters have to grapple with this major revelation that challenges the objective of heroes: that being to slay monsters. Can something as simple as their intelligence alone bridge the divide or are humans destined to be at war with monsters.
That question isn’t necessarily answered. If it is, it’s not a satisfying one, but that might be part of what makes season three so surprising. The story puts the heroes at their lowest points – lower than any previous threat, not so they can solve the problem that put them there, but to overcome and to learn hard lessons.
It isn’t all just about being content with hardship though. Bell’s determination to do what he feels is right shifts the focus of his journey. He goes from being someone who wanted to be an adventurer to impress his idol to being someone willing to risk the respect of their idol to save an innocent life. I don’t think the Bell in season three even remembers his original goals. He does what he does because it’s just who he is now.
Ais never really thrilled me as a character. It feels intentional that she started as the badass who Bell wanted to impress and then slowly became distant and overshadowed as Bell became cooler and more heroic. Now Ais is an obstacle to him because of their differing philosophies. It’s the perfect use for her. I hope the aftereffects of their conflict lead to a more personal relationship that helps make Ais more compelling on her own.
The Xenos that we meet underground are just as endearing as every other character before them and witnessing their plight only further deepens that connection and the desire for resolution. Sadly, the conclusion doesn’t necessarily fix the underlying problems of the world. If anything, the goal becomes more about stopping further bloodshed before returning to a sort of normal.
However, that normal likely won’t last and it would be a betrayal of this arc if it did. I don’t know what the story holds past this point. I hope for the conflict of Xenos’ equality to be further explored and if it became a major crux of the overarching plot, it would be a genius turn for this series. What is clear is that Bell’s path to greatness is a game played between gods and that he still has a long way to go.
Even without Yoshiki Yamakawa’s skill at composing emotional scenes, Hideki Tachibana’s directing blew me away. Episode 8 of season three, just like episode 8 of the first season, had a powerful moment that stuck with me for the rest of the story and definitively proved that DanMachi was so much more than I’d been lead to believe.
Closing | Why Didn’t I Watch DanMachi Sooner?
Well, for starters it might be because the title is shit. Seriously, there’s a reason light novels are almost a joke nowadays. They have these stupidly long titles that feel like jokes in themselves. But these titles betray how emotional and dramatic the stories can get. I don’t think Bell ever once hit on a woman.
He’s a shy, nice guy whose privileged to have numerous people who are very direct about their desire to bang him. Even Welf outright says that he loves Bell. Everyone loves Bell. But they love him because he’s this sweet, impossibly kind, rabbit-looking head-ass.
More importantly, I didn’t watch DanMachi because I bought into an idea of what the show was based on an already nebulous idea of what another show was, or what a genre was. I thought it would be trashy like SAO, without realizing that it was nothing like SAO outside of characters leveling up, which feels way more diegetic here than in Shield Hero, another show I like. And as I said at the beginning, SAO isn’t even that bad.
We have gotten so much garbage in this industry and this medium. People argue that we settle for mediocrity in our pursuit of good entertainment, but how about how we settle for mediocrity in our pursuit of things to hate? I could have gone years without knowing how fun DanMachi was. I know I’ll never be able to watch every show I’m interested in in my lifetime, but there are countless others I could have loved that I won’t even know about.
So when I know a show exists, I really should put more thought into why I disregard it besides understandable things like “doesn’t look like my thing” or “I don’t have the time.” Because if I make an effort to badmouth a show based on poor preconceived notions, God knows what I’ll miss. God knows I’ll keep making that mistake and so will you.
The least I can do as a critic – that at least some of you will hopefully take seriously, is tell you that this show might just be worth the precious time you have. Because sometimes, the critics we love don’t give enough credit to shows that have something worth watching. So I hope I made a good case for a show that others overlooked.
Because god knows how season three of DanMachi didn’t get nominated for Best Fantasy at the Anime Awards. I mean what the fuck?
Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll.
What do you think of DanMachi? Did you gloss over it or did you fall in love with it? Leave a comment below and tell me what other underrated shows I should check out.
Thank you very much for reading and as always, I’ll see you next time!