A few seasons past, I started a podcast with my incredibly handsome friends Owningmatt and the equally handsome GeneralTofu about anime and, specifically at the time, what all shows we were watching. If you’ve seen it (which is quite literally one person besides ourselves so congratulations to you, dedicated fan of a very small anime blog), you might have caught a thirty minute discussion (read: accidental rant) surrounding a show that had come out during the spring 2015 season of anime called Dungeon ni Deai wo Motomeru noha Machigatteiru darou ka or otherwise known as Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? It’s probably an easy guess that this anime was based off of a light novel series with a name that long, and while I haven’t read the source material, the show itself is interesting.
The idea of Dungeon is to take your typical MMORPG anime storyline but make it based in an actual fantasy realm instead of a game. Inside of this realm, heroes fight dangerous monsters in ever more difficult levels of a dungeon most likely constructed by the same architect behind the Wayside School building (shout out to Scholastic Book Fairs). As they explore, heroes collect gems that litter the different levels. These gems are found inside monsters, with the larger and more powerful gems residing in higher level monsters and more dangerous floors of the dungeon. The heroes use these as a sort of currency by exchanging them for money and resources that they need to continue to take on more and more difficult challenges. Heroes are sponsored by various gods and goddesses who form a higher social class and rely on their heroes’ worship and gem collection in order to grow their power. In exchange, the gods and goddesses give the heroes special powers as well as use their own abilities to assist in the exploration of the dungeon.
The interesting aspects of this show come from the fact that this entire universe is based around the difficult floors of the dungeon that the heroes face. Currency, sports, jobs, etc. are all centered around either the heroes who go into the dungeon or assisting the higher class of gods and goddesses with their daily lives. Even most of the powers the gods exhibit are centered around helping the heroes, with some gods being legendary armor and weapon smiths and others holding monopolies on wine and food trade. There are even jobs surrounding support classes for the hero. Some people are hired to do management and consultation for the heroes, while others are hired to collect gems and hold the different heroes’ items while they fight, sharing a percentage of the profits found.
This show had a lot of potential and though it didn’t live up to it, being a bit run-of-the-mill, sans the very elaborate and creative structure of the world and setting, it was a fun ride. However, the extent of my thirty minute discussion during the podcast was actually not about the plot or setting of Dungeon but on a very central theme that the series explored: The idea of chivalry. Specifically, the idea of courtly love that was spawned by chivalry.
Nowadays, when someone says chivalry, people immediately think of holding open doors for others and being kind and courteous, particularly on the point of men towards women. This is not necessarily incorrect, but it’s very off-base to the original thoughts and ideas behind the term. Chivalry, back in the days of knights in shining armor and royalty who used the term plebian like it was going out of style, was a concept surrounding the idea of sticking to a set of standards and morals that idealized nationality, religious devotion, the killing of infidels, and a defense of the weak. (One of those things may seem like it doesn’t fit but I assure you, nationality was very important. Possibly just as important as the killing of infidels.) I say “idealized morals” because the reality of the situation is a little like the Pirate’s Code: It’s more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the middle ages, me maties! These ideas of devotion to honor were never really followed, existing mostly in the minds of writers and artists of the time as ways to express what they and their audience would like to see rather than what was. Still, these ideas did spawn a phenomenon that had some basis in reality called courtly love.
With the idea of honor and devotion to your king and country, knights would find comfort and
motivation to uphold these virtues by taking a noblewoman as their patron of sorts, fawning for her favor and worshiping the ground she stood on. The initial idea of courtly love was not necessarily to have a relationship, however, but to love from afar. Many times, the noble woman in question would be a princess or other young lady who was already arranged to marry another. Courtly love, in concept, was merely a big show, played out with the actors never having anything serious, but rather holding to virtuous morals and playing their part in the giant play of chivalry. The knight would hold the noblewoman on a high pedestal as this beautiful and perfect individual; too above them to touch, but always in their mind. Likewise, the noble lady would fawn for the knight, regarding them as a champion and strong hero, never failing in their fights or their morals. In reality, this constant eyeing of each across the tournament grounds usually led to a lot of sexual tension and bouts of rolling in the hay, even if the people in question were betrothed to others. This caused a lot of slacking on those beautiful morals that the knights and ladies hold so dear. However, the idea itself of courtly love was still there and was romanticized incredibly through stories and artwork of the time.
So the ideas of chivalry and courtly love, while never fully existing in real life, find themselves slowly dying philosophically due to being horribly outdated. Today, with men and women coming to the realization that we’re all on equal terms, the concept of men holding doors open or laying jackets on puddles for women and women thanking the men by giggling and daintily stepping on the man’s really expensive jacket to avoid the mud don’t really hold much water (unlike the jacket). While I have nothing against doing something nice for another human being, and in fact think this should be done by everyone for everyone, doing things specifically to win favor points for the opposite sex doesn’t really strike me as a modern idea. These ideas have perpetuated, though, and continue to form in our media. Simply taking a look at almost any animated show from the 90s will give you an example of this. Themes of nerdy guys finally getting the girl once they save the day or sometimes simply because they were nice to them crop up in a bunch of shows for kids. In video games, Princess Peach and Zelda are great examples of characters that always needed their knight in shining overalls or pantless tunic. After a couple decades, a lot of media started to move away from this, though a few still try their hand at revitalizing the tropes surrounding the ideas of chivalry and courtly love. For instance, the show referenced above, Dungeon.
Chivalry is expressed in Dungeon through the use of gods and goddesses in the show. As the noble class, all the power and patronage to them means power and fame to the heroes who serve them and vice versa. Heroic deeds and actions of the heroes are the reason the world goes around because through them, there is commerce with gems. So they are given fame and status for this by their patron gods, and there is a lot of fame to go around. Each of the many gods or goddesses has their own “familia” around them, heroes and servants that basically make a sort of mafia family, using their power and fame to exercise control, obtain money, and fight in ever stronger battles in the dungeon. Some familias are even large enough to carry out huge militant expeditions into the dungeon, run half of the operations in the city built around the dungeon, or even sponsor their own gladiatorial games for the city’s entertainment. This series has a lot of intrigue and politics that goes on in the background with each of these noble groups vying for power and fame; sometimes working together and other times at each other’s throats. However, just like the nobility of old, they all try to have some semblance of a romanticized existence, with celebrations of noble deeds and a positive exterior that seems to show they’re working for a holistic good.
In this way, we’re given a background for this anime that parallels the nobles of old, in their constant games of power and fame while attempting to make people believe they work for an upstanding purpose. And this seems to be true for a lot of the heroes and gods of this show, with many characters from different familias working together or respecting each other. However, as the show goes on, we see more and more how false this is. Some familias notoriously abuse people, demanding payment for protection, and others even harm their own members because they know those members need the familia to survive. We start to see a more complicated picture underneath the facade of chivalrous nobility we’re first introduced to, making the familias seem less like perfect romanticized nobles of old and more like mafiosos or even characters from Game of Thrones in the way they act and behave. I thought this show had a lot of interesting elements in this aspect about chivalry, showing initially a romantic look at nobility, but then revealing a more complicated picture.
However, the best example of old ideas coming at the viewer like a blast from the past in this show is what the show does with the idea of courtly love. This is where I feel the show gets very interesting, if not always for the right reasons.
Dungeon, I feel, is a great example of a show that takes a few steps forwards, a few steps back, cha cha’s real smooth, and then trips in the gym during the senior prom to the chagrin of their date. Right from the start, our main character Bell Cranel, is saved by a mysterious blonde swordswoman from a noble familia by the name of Aiz Wallenstein when he goes a little too deep in the dungeon by himself and stumbles upon a minotaur. Almost dying, Bell is a bit scarred from the encounter but is so grateful, he falls madly in love with this mysterious woman that saved him. With his heart full of reverse Florence Nightingale effect, Bell comes back to the rundown church he lives in along with his goddess, Hestia. Hestia uncovers a new hidden secret skill called Realis Phrase in Bell, caused by his fateful encounter: The more Bell falls in love with Aiz and attempts to pursue her, the faster and faster he will level up, becoming stronger. However, there’s a catch. If Bell’s love were to ever lessen, this skill will disappear altogether. This becomes the basis for almost the entire story as Bell constantly attempts to get closer and closer to Aiz while simultaneously building her up in his mind, fawning over the idea of this amazing girl and holding her on a pedestal as something to strive for. In this way, Bell starts to objectify her as something to be gained were he strong enough, and so attempts to win her favor and love by making himself either at her level or beyond. While this thought starts to peter out towards the end of the show, for about three fourths of the show, this is the whole story. Bell, too nervous to talk to her normally, attempts to make himself stronger by fighting in the dungeon in order to impress Aiz and obtain her love. This is something many people have seen a million times: Boy has a crush, boy saves the day, boy gets the girl. It’s not a healthy idea, in my mind, but it’s exactly the idea behind courtly love. Bell, as a knight or hero for his familia, is given the chance to fawn over a girl and win her favor and love through heroic deeds. He’s never able to physically obtain her, but because he pursues her nonetheless, his special skill (Realis Phrase) makes him stronger and more heroic. The show basically is rewarding its main character for pursuing a relationship to a woman he doesn’t know and fawning over the mental image of her.Now, luckily, as the show goes on, this becomes less and less of a thing. Bell is finally able to interact with Aiz and finds that she’s very human, even an airhead at times. However, it never effectively addresses the fact that for the longest time, he was in love with “the girl on a pedestal” he had in his mind. In fact, this show had a lot of problems with addressing the idea of effectively representing female characters, actually. Half of the time, the show would have the majority of the female characters as badasses that could kick some serious ass or influence things greatly. Then the other half of the time, it would literally stick the camera between a girl’s legs and have half the female cast falling in love with the main character for no reason other than he was nice, which leads me to conclude that given how the cast acted, a guy who is nice must be one of the rarest things in the universe of this show. Though, I guess when the other skill Bell learned in this show is “You can always save the day as long as someone is in trouble” (i.e. he obtained the power of deus ex machina), I don’t know how much I should have expected from this show. It’s unfortunate that the plot and character representation didn’t hit their marks as the setting and universe of this anime was fascinating.
I would like to say that Dungeon was a not bad show. There were a lot of things I felt it did well to keep me reasonably entertained for the whole thirteen episodes. It’s just that it had a lot of pitfalls. However, my interest in this show is more so derived not from its quality, but on its use of chivalry and courtly love as plot devices; two ideas I thought were interesting to see shown in an anime. For that reason, Dungeon was an interesting experience, but I think one that I’d like to just look at from afar across the tournament grounds… With its big beautiful shiny teeth.
Research and Inspiration for this Topic:
- Myanimelist: http://myanimelist.net/anime/28121/Dungeon_ni_Deai_wo_Motomeru_no_wa_Machigatteiru_Darou_ka
- And, of course, wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chivalry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtly_love, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Is_It_Wrong_to_Try_to_Pick_Up_Girls_in_a_Dungeon%3F_characters#Bell_Cranell
For fun (In case you missed it up above)!