Ahh, dungeon meals…
Dungeon Meshi (ダンジョン飯, Dungeon Meals – Delicious in Dungeon) is an award-winning seinen manga created by Kui Ryoko (九井諒子). It’s one of the more popular titles among those I’ve chosen to review, and I’m pretty sure it’s definitely the most critically acclaimed — deservedly so on both counts. Explaining the series is simple: it’s Wizardry with lots of cooking. If you’re not really familiar with Wizardry (which I’m not, but having been told about it and having researched it the influence is obvious), think of it as Dungeons & Dragons with lots of cooking (I don’t think the Delicious in Dungeon (“DinD”) subtitle is a coincidence). In either case, it’s a fantasy series influenced by role-playing games. The difference here from most other RPG-influenced/derivative manga/anime is that this one doesn’t constantly point out video game abstractions/concepts (like MP or skills or things like that), treating it instead as 100% real, from the ways wounds are healed to how dungeon ecosystems function. In other words, it’s a pen and paper RPG adventure, and our heroes’ first task is to slay a notorious dragon!
Dungeon Meshi is a work of genius. Avoiding many, many typical pitfalls of cliche rubbish you might find in other series while still being a derivative work and yet also having quite a bit of originality and creativity, Kui-sensei does it all and more here. On top of all these positives, her manga is very funny, has well-rounded and unique characters that don’t fall into archetypal standards, has a simple story that’s still very engaging, has well-executed action, fun and interesting strategy, gorgeous artwork, and downright fascinating worldbuilding. It may be cynical of me to say this, but I believe it’s rare for something so good to also earn quite a following. When I read chapter 1 a year ago, this was definitely a series I imagined wouldn’t ever be anything more than a fun little thing that a few people liked. That is far from the case now, and I am thankful. More readers could never hurt, though, so allow me to explain why you should read it too.
The manga begins with a party/guild of adventurers facing a large Red Dragon at a fairly low level of an immense underground dungeon. The dungeon has been here a while, and for many reasons adventurers explore its depths — for the potential glory of reaching the end, for riches, for research, and so on. This guild seems intent on eventually reaching the end, but after a series of mishaps and this unfortunate run-in with a dragon things aren’t looking good. What’s more, they’re weakened from hunger, which helps in absolutely no way.
While the leader of the group, Laius (a swordsman), thinks about all this he loses his focus on the battlefield, giving the dragon an opportunity to try and eat him. Just in time, he is pushed out of the way by his younger sister, Farlyn (a cleric), who is taken up in the dragon’s mouth in his stead. With this, the party is wiped out. Farlyn casts a spell to return the party to the surface, and Laius (who passed out) wakes up there later to find her left behind.
Two party members come to his side as he rises: Marcille (an elf mage) and Chilchack (a halfling rogue). They inform him that the remaining two guild members have formally resigned (through a letter), not wanting to risk their lives under his command. It seems that Farlyn was eaten, since magic can’t work through a dragon’s stomach, explaining why she didn’t return as well. Since they lost whatever they might have gained back when the party wiped, all they really have is the equipment immediately in their possession (some of which was left behind) and the remaining funds they had after supplying for the trip. Naturally, Laius wants to rescue his sister immediately but there are quite a few problems.
- Without the members who quit and Farlyn, re-entering the dungeon is extremely risky.
- They don’t have a lot of money to hire anyone else.
- They also don’t really have enough to resupply.
- Even if they sell their old equipment and downgrade, using the remaining money to buy necessities, worse equipment won’t get them to the level where the dragon resides.
- Should they make it anyway with bad equipment, they won’t be slaying any dragon with dinky weapons.
- They’re still hungry, so they need to eat, and that costs money too.
They also don’t have much time to rescue Farlyn, because although revival spells are possible within the dungeon, if she gets digested or otherwise extremely injured (to the point that her body is no longer recognizable) there’s no coming back.
Laius decides the best course of action is to have Chilchack and Marcille leave the guild, sell their equipment, and reenter the dungeon on his own with a stealthy approach and an idea to cover any other issues. Marcille and Chilchack refuse, however, Marcille saying she cares just as much about Farlyn as he does. Plus, he’ll need the two of them for their skills to expedite his descent so as to waste as little time as possible. Moved by their dedication, Laius agrees, but he insists that they must be sure they’ll go along with whatever methods he chooses.
Laius declares that they will eat animals, plants, and monsters (and possibly monster plants) from inside the dungeon, being completely self-sufficient to save money and time.
It’s a full-fledged ecosystem down there, so it should be possible.
And this is about where the manga proper begins, with just one more puzzle piece missing.
Laius starts off by slaying a walking mushroom, then fishing out a giant scorpion from a crack in the wall, intending to eat both. He’s not sure how this will work, but he has a book on the subject of monster-eating with a suspicious amount of notes marking the pages so he at least has a basic idea. It goes horribly, as one might expect, and this is when the party’s godsend shows up.
This is Senshi, a dwarf and also someone who actually knows what they’re doing. With his introduction, things are really under their way. Senshi demonstrates a clearly expert amount of experience with dungeon cuisine, knowing how to take down certain monsters, how to prepare them for consumption, and how to make all that delicious. Furthermore, he has a very obvious “hands on” approach to things, showing initiative by even creating his own tools in order to prepare ingredients. Although he wields an axe, Senshi is no warrior, he’s much more of a chef. After the party adds “slime” to their list of ingredients, Senshi is able to prepare a marvelous (if not weird) dish.
After this, the party and Senshi introduce themselves properly and Senshi asks what their business with the dungeon is. Hearing that they’re going to take on a Red Dragon, something he’s never encountered before, he asks if he can accompany them. Laius readily agrees, learning not a moment after that Senshi has not joined out of kindness to rescue their fallen party member, but because he wants to eat that dragon whose stomach Farlyn may be inside of.
It’s a good first chapter! You get your premise, some basic ideas of the setting, a feel for the kind of comedy on display, a goal, and a cast that you know the basics of pretty well from the get-go. Food looks good, too — though it’s strange to think about.
So, let’s look a little closer at this cast.
I like this cast a lot. These are some great characters. Here, I want to mostly discuss Laius and Marcille. Senshi I’ve pretty much explained already. He’s a survivalist with an extreme appreciation for the dungeon, but that appreciation makes him a little weird. In most scenarios, his first priority is the good of the environment, his second is how he can use that environment to eat things within it or cook with it. As for Chilchack, I think he’s magnificent, but I don’t want to talk about him. Despite being “the cute little one” physically speaking, personality-wise he’s actually more of the mature almost loner type who doesn’t say much about himself. Learning more about him over time is part of the manga’s appeal. For now, consider him as sort of “another Marcille” who’s not as (but is still pretty) against eating monsters.
First, small lesson: earlier chapters of this series render her name as Marsilla, but Marcille makes more sense and is what the latest chapters go with. In Japanese, it’s read マルシル (Marushiru), you can hear how it’s pronounced yourself!
Marcille has several things going on to contribute to her overall strong appeal. What I think is most important, honestly, is that she’s an elf who isn’t gorgeous (although she imagines herself differently). It’s a small thing that goes a long way. Marcille looks pretty…homely, I think. She’s cute, but not beautiful or anything. While I have absolutely no problem at all with beautiful people in fiction, I’ll admit that when a character isn’t beautiful they seem more grounded and believable (and for the record, while some characters are clearly pretty or handsome in this manga, most are normal/decent or ugly-looking). Furthermore, prettiness can be kind of distracting, so like this it’s easier to focus on personality instead of physique. Marcille has big round eyes, big round ears (that are not pointy like most elf ears but instead surprisingly goatlike), and wears a long robe and pair of trousers that’s pretty much 100% practical. What’s more, she isn’t a love interest for the main character (although several readers do see something that isn’t there), which is nice. By default, Marcille is not to be sexualized, and that’s something to boast! Not that it stops people!
Mostly, Marcille serves as the naysayer of the group who does not want to eat monsters at all (which is a normal response in this world). Over time she grows more used to it, but she’d still prefer a meal made from normal animals to one made from a basilisk or something. As a mage, she’s also a very by-the-book sort, which puts her often at odds with Senshi (who probably doesn’t even read books). She has a lot of faith in what she’s been taught in school, even if in reality that may not be practical. She’s probably the one who grows the most as a character in the series, but at all times she is a source of comedy and/or cuteness.
Then we have Laius. Laius is something else.
First, small lesson: earlier chapters of this series render his name as Lyos or Laios but eventually Laius is what everyone settled on. In Japanese, it’s read ライオス (Raiosu), you can hear how it’s pronounced yourself!
I think Laius is extremely unusual for a protagonist (or rather, “protagonist”, because although he’s technically the main character most of the time the narrative is not so focused or just concerns itself with Chilchack or Marcille), because he is quite insane. At first, it seems like he’s just a person who admires monsters and has some interest in them, but there are signs his obsession goes deeper than that even in chapter 1. Laius would eat almost anything in the dungeon, and considering how the dungeon contains some seemingly semi-sentient creatures, that’s a problem, and not one he seems to understand.
His admiration for monsters is also beyond simply wanting to eat them, which is genuinely creepy and disturbing. He has some off the wall ideas that even Senshi will admonish him for, too, which tells you just how out there he is considering Senshi practically lives in the dungeon. Furthermore, monster nonsense aside, he completely lacks social grace and tact. This means that when he wants to say something reassuring, he’ll probably do it at the wrong time or the way he says it will seem terribly insensitive.
So, all negatives here, but since this is a comedy manga I believe they all work out as positives. Laius is a riot. Even when he’s not providing laughs, just him being so goddamn weird is fascinating in and of itself. For what it’s worth, he actually is mostly competent as a leader of a guild, being very responsible when it comes to others, having a good head for strategy, and possessing a large wealth of knowledge regarding monsters (from how their pacing sounds to how they might behave). All told, a very fun main character.
There are actually quite a few other characters besides this, but it’s best to find out about them yourself. While the series mostly follows the format of “progress through dungeon, fight monster, eat monster” sometimes there are flashbacks going over the characters’ pasts or other adventurers are encountered and/or followed. What fight scenes we get are surprisingly cool and intense, and what characters we meet are entertaining. In between, we get looks at the beautiful and fantastical environments of the dungeon, and that’s also very much appreciated. Also, it’s not really a spoiler, but it’s looking like the series won’t end after the party completes their primary task. Things are being set up that suggest the series will go on for a while after. Good to hear!
On that note, I can’t properly review Dungeon Meshi without thoroughly praising its worldbuilding. This is a fantasy setting derived from tabletop and video games, so it’s pretty unnecessary to explain how things work in a magical dungeon; suspension of disbelief is already high. Even in games where you can hunt and eat monsters, I can’t think of any that go into the kind of detail and have the kind of extensive thought that Dungeon Meshi has. At most, you might bait out a bigger monster with a smaller monster or something and that’ll be about the extent of how complicated things get. With Dungeon Meshi, we receive explanations on why monsters hide where, and why they might look like they do for example. Take “tentacle” monsters, which sprout from walls in the dungeon to catch prey. In actuality, where they sprout from is indicative of where traps are laid. The tentacle creature takes up space where traps are because to fit a trap in a wall you need some hollow space. Also consider mimics, which reside in all manner of man-made objects similar to how hermit crabs change shells. The mimics are the prey of “treasure bugs”, bugs that camouflage themselves as riches, which enter the chests of mimics and lay eggs in the beasts, eventually leaving what looks like a box full of treasure (at which point they can assault an unwary victim looking for treasure). A kelpie’s mane looks like wavy green hair but is actually just a bunch of aquatic plants that attached to the creature in a kind of symbiotic relationship…
There is a ton of thought put into this, so far with just about every monster or plant encountered. Even how spirits possess humans, turn them into ghouls, rot into walking skeletons, and deteriorate into spirits again is a cycle that the dungeon has adopted. Our heroes even have more time to rescue Farlyn because the large size of the Red Dragon causes it to sleep often and digest food slowly, meaning they still very much have a chance to save her. Furthermore, dungeon/adventurer etiquette, professions, and to some degree politics are also examined, which is interesting. I could talk for a long time about how detailed Dungeon Meshi‘s world is, but I think I’ve said just about enough!
That about does it for my review. The last thing I’ll say is that I really love Kui-sensei’s art style, which is pretty and unique but also cartoonish at times. When it gets cartoony, it’s quite funny! I like that.
Dungeon Meshi‘s quality is still very high, so of course it has my high recommendation. Definitely pick it up! If you like, you may purchase this series in the original Japanese through Bookwalker (guide), CDJapan, honto (guide), or ebookjapan.
Thanks very much for reading. Next time, I’ll be reviewing a funny little title from a porn artist.