Reading: Delicious in Dungeon

I’ve been trying to sleep better lately, and part of that is improving my sleep hygiene. This mainly means changing a longtime habit I have, which is being on my PC until I get tired enough to sleep. I’ve described to my therapist before that being on the PC is basically my “default state of being”, which sounds a bit pathetic now that I type it out.

The first couple times I tried to get off my PC for an hourish before bed, I found myself impatient and uncomfortable; I didn’t really have much to do around my place that didn’t involve the blue light that’s supposed to mess up your sleep. While I have a bunch of printed books, I found it difficult to just sit down and enjoy them for some reason. I kept thinking about what I was missing, or well, how much happier I’d be if I wasn’t just doing this.

This changed when I found out that I could put manga chapters on my eReader, which I’ve had for a couple years. I originally bought a Kobo Touch in 2012-ish because it had functionality with importing bookmarked articles from Pocket, a service I use for stripping sites’ graphics in order to just read things in plain text. I had figured at the time that this would get me away from the PC, but I didn’t end up using it that much.

Now, I’m pretty happy with how well this little device is adding to my routine, and how easy it’s been to just upload things that I want to read. I’ve been re-reading some series that I had previously glided through without a concerted effort; sometimes it’s easy to just skip through pages thinking “yeah yeah I get the gist, all this stuff is filler.”

I can’t say it’s really helped my sleep at all yet, but it’s at least been a nice change to a routine I could say was definitely unhealthy. As someone who’s always felt guilty that my living room couch doesn’t get much use, this at least has turned that around. Couches are comfy. They should be appreciated.

Delicious in Dungeon

The first series I re-read is called Delicious in Dungeon (or Dungeon Meshi, as I tend to not re-name my files into their English names). The premise is pretty simple: an adventuring party has a time limit to revive one of their dead party members, who is trapped on the sixth floor of a dungeon.

Because they’re broke, they figure they can save some cash by hunting and cooking things they find in the dungeon.

In the process, the human (Laius), halfling (Chilchuck) and elf (Marcille) meet a dwarf named Senshi, who happens to have lived in and lived off the dungeon for ten years. He offers to come along with them, if only to make sure that they’re well-fed and don’t kill themselves in the process.

It’s a nice little intersection of a couple different genres that I’ve been picking up lately, and it combines a lot of their strengths.

First, it focuses a lot on the worldbuilding and explanation of the worlds’ mechanics, similar to an isekai. While that genre is usually centered around someone from one world being teleported to another (usually to save it), I find that isekais usually have a very strong desire to tell you about how things work in the new setting that the protagonist has found themselves in. I’ll be writing more about my dive into this genre in the future, but the genre has been getting more prominent, with manga and anime mainly being made from light novels that people have written.

Second, Dungeon Meshi is very much a classic dungeon crawler in a somewhat classic fantasy setting. If you’ve played a vanilla Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying campaign, you’ll find similar things here: you’ve got humans, dwarves, elves, dragons, halflings, orcs, and all the different variations therein. You’re basically more comfortable with the world because you’ve likely experienced something like it before; while it doesn’t delve into straight-up video game mechanics (experience and leveling up) like most isekais do, it does borrow heavily from the common RPG tropes.

Lastly, I’d like to think that there’s a very loose commonality with manga that are centered around food, cooking, and the art of preparing meals. I don’t know if there’s any kind of formal name for it, but I can understand why they’re successful: food, even if it’s fictional, is satisfying to see prepared, and you get little bits of the characters put into the preparation and their actions that result in the meal. The author also can either be creative in their dishes, or just look up recipes that exist in real life that they can then draw. This also makes for very easy story hooks, scene transitions, and downtime for the party, since you actually have to sit and rest for the cooking to occur.

So with that in mind, this mis-mash of genres turns into something pretty easygoing and satisfying. The party meets a challenge or new monster that interferes with their dungeoneering, the monster is dealt with, and in the process a new meal gets cooked. While this isn’t formulaic for every single chapter, Dungeon Meshi plays its role as a cook well: every “mode” of the story is portioned out well, and plays its part in the combined whole.

Comfy as a concept

The cast of Dungeon Meshi from Chapter 9.
The party has often had enough of this shit.

The reason I was sucked into this series is that it does a good job with balancing its gimmick with the idea of forgetting that gimmick even exists: it doesn’t coast on the cooking, and provides solid, likeable characters that you want to follow along with.

Instead of being the stereotypical virtuous hero, Laius is a monster-obsessed… weirdo? It’s hard to describe him like that without making him seem unlikable, but a lot of the motivations and characterization that he has hinge on his curiosity and borderline obsession with monster knowledge (including how they taste). This leads to an interesting subplot where he doesn’t even feel like the main character, at times; the party sometimes feels like they’re managing him as a resource rather than taking his leadership.

Despite this, we get reminders why the party hasn’t been wiped out yet. Laius is a competent fighter without being overpowered or “special” by manga standards. He has a mind for strategy and creativity when it comes to solving problems, and his goal of saving the party member (his sister) is never compromised for some dumb reason.

Read right to left

He’s the equivalent of that one person you know who’s well-adjusted for 95% of the time you know them, but getting them going on that one weird hobby they have turns them into someone that you’re wondering if they should be put on some kind of watch list. In the context of the story, this means that he’s flawed, but also someone that you don’t find annoying.

I find this concept is really difficult to execute, because you want to be able to avoid having an overly-skilled character ruin all tension while keeping from an overly-flawed one annoy the reader with their incompetence or quirks. There’s a difference between “tolerate” and “go away” feelings; Laius is very much in the “like, but tolerate the weirdness” category.

Well, I wanted to keep this blog post short, but I might as well go into every character at this point.

Read right to left

Marcille’s an elf, and she went to magic school with Laius sister. However, as an elf, her life span is much longer than a typical human, so the attachment is more personal than professional; Laius’ sister taught her a lot about something she was passionate about, and that friendship is more than enough motivation to rescue her.

However, Marcille’s got a number of interesting facets that make her, again, likeable, but flawed. Her curiosity and passion for dungeons as living things is a direction I haven’t seen in Western media very often; she wants to be able to create and maintain safe dungeons where people are able to reap the benefits without worrying about high-level monsters. She also researches “ancient magic”, which she insists is different from the “dark arts.”

This interest in taboo subjects causes some problems for the party, but also helps her shed the “picky eater that’s weirded out by eating all these monsters” trope that she lives up to for the first couple chapters.

We feel you, Marcille. Read right to left.

Instead of being that one-note joke, she becomes a lot of the visual humor in the manga because she’s tired and has seen too much of this shit to even care about what they’re eating or how they’re solving problems anymore. There’s enough panels of Marcille where you can read how done she is just radiating off the page, and that’s extremely relatable as someone who could probably fall asleep in most/any environments.

Marcille is vulnerable, unsure of herself, and in an environment that she doesn’t particularly like. However, her friend is in danger, and she’s a valuable part of the effort to save her. As the party’s only healer and mage, she’s also the main link to the world of magic — the setting heavily relies on it, and you need someone to basically do the technobabble.

Key features: eyebags. Tired of this shit.

Chilchuck is kind of a glue that holds the cast together, and I wouldn’t say he’s as prominently a “main character” as the others. He’s the straight man in a party full of weirdos, and his common sense (along with his skills disarming traps) keeps the party alive. Most of the intrigue in his character is that you try to disassemble how secretive he is, and he provides a lovely anchor to the worldbuilding of Dungeon Meshi by playing with the timescale of non-human races.

Despite his childlike appearance, Chilchuck is older than Laius, and has a wife and kids; his backstory (one you find out about it) gives you more context to his actions, and you appreciate him more. Despite Laius’ competency as a fighter, Chilchuck is usually the one executing non-combat solutions, and being able to serve as a pragmatic compass for the party means he’s crucial.

Read right to left

Senshi the dwarf is difficult to describe, mostly because despite being a marquee character (and probably the most visually distinct) he’s not particularly… involved? Like, despite doing a lot of the cooking and having a lot of the straight-up dungoneering experience, he tends to be a dwarf of few words, and acts every bit of a person who hasn’t lived in civilization for 10 years.

Senshi is practical, and he’s a “use every part of the cow” kind of person. He’s a valuable sense of stability for the cast and the story itself, mostly because of his creativity and passion for cooking, which can defuse stressful situations and provide some much-needed levity. It’s through him that the story doesn’t get too dour and depressing, and I can heavily appreciate that.

I think part of how he functions is due to his character design: his big, simple eyes and luscious beard make him seem extremely centered as a person, as if he’s not as affected by the weird stuff that the adventure throws at him. You’re very rarely wondering what’s going through Senshi’s head, as he’s very easy to read, and forthcoming about his feelings. You don’t sense any kind of secrets, and his inclusion in the party doesn’t complicate things; he’s only there in compliment to the story, and you come to view him as reliable as the party probably does.

In some ways, if the reader is a member of the party (albeit an invisible one), you’re guided along by the strengths of each of these characters and you don’t feel particularly overwhelmed by any of their traits. Each one is someone that you’d love to share a meal with, and this comfort means that you want to see them succeed.

Like I said previously, none of them suffer from the burdens of being prodigies or otherwise overly special; Marcille’s dabbling in ancient magic drives some of the story, but their goal is less “save the world” and more “let’s just get our friend back”.

Monster of the week

I don’t watch a lot of long-running TV series because I find that the ones I gravitate to start off with a strong concept and then eventually include a narrative that overtakes it. An example is Supernatural; I was drawn in by the plot of modern-day monster/demon hunters, and how they deal with the challenges of doing so in secret. Seeing the format of “oh hey, this week they deal with ghosts with rock salt in a shotgun” and “this week they show us bits of how hunters operate” interested me because of a strong setting and strong concept.

However, over time, the series became more about a narrative about god, angels, the devil, possession, “chosen ones” and saving the world from the incoming apocalypse. This made me jump off the series pretty hard, because ultimately I just wanted to enjoy “one-and-done” episodes where characters that I’d come to like overcame challenges with the qualities that made me like them in the first place.

This is partly why I like Star Trek: The Next Generation: there are both “conflict/issue of the week” stories, and two-part dramas involving characters and major events. My favorite episodes are ones where they just hang around the ship and they have to solve a problem, mostly because through the solving of the problem we get to see more of their world, and how people exist in that space.

I think that’s why I like Dungeon Meshi to the degree that I do — there’s enough of a mix where things are neither too complacent or boring. For every point that advances the plot, there’s enough downtime or character interaction to almost remind my why I’m invested, and strengthen the bond. The vision of the series doesn’t get lost by the desire to tell a deep, involved story, and it doesn’t become stale by just feeling like the same formula every time.

This is increasingly rare, especially as more authors hop on certain trends and tropes.

As you dive into a certain genre, you can usually spot things that authors use as crutches to help guide their stories along. In manga (especially fantasy settings with magic), it can be tempting to have your characters be so overpowered that they either trivialize every challenge, or end up needing a sufficiently world-ending threat to spur them into action.

While the story does include a “big bad” element to it in the form of a final boss, the way Dungeon Meshi gets there makes what seems overly-familiar into something that does classic tropes justice. That’s kind of the point, I guess: you have to be able to use the tropes up until when you need to have your own concepts stand on their own two feet. Without those things working on their own, you run into the problem of “well, the novelty’s worn off. Now it’s just garbage.”

So yeah — it gets my hearty recommendation for those of us who might be looking for something a little more light-hearted while still having a strong concept, likeable characters and solid worldbuilding. It’s a good story to dive into and shotgun all in one sitting.

You can pick up the English translation of Delicious in Dungeon at your local book/comic store (maybe?) or check it out on Amazon.

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