Dungeon Meshi by Ryoko Kui is my favorite current seinen series, and a close second to all-time favorite Lone Wolf and Cub. I’m a shameless sucker for your standard-issue dungeon-delving fantasy adventure, and I like to see a good smart twist on the genre. Dungeon Meshi (literally “Dungeon Meal,” published in English as Delicious in Dungeon) gathers up a bushel of the old, comfortable, familiar cliches, brushes off the dust, gives them a squeeze, and weaves them together with elegant art, a warm sense of humor, and an endearing cast. The premise might smell funny at first, but if you learn anything from this series, it’s that you can cook up something astonishing from the most unlikely ingredients.
It all begins in a small island village…
Mysterious moans from a mausoleum. The revelation of a “golden kingdom” buried beneath the earth by a mad magician. The promise of a dying king that whoever defeats said magician will inherit the title to that lost and fabulous realm. Adventurers flock to the island, and numberless stories are born.
In the depths of the dungeon a band of bold comrades face down a red dragon. A daunting challenge, but they have courage, brains, teamwork – and empty stomachs. Laios (human, male), frontline fighter and de facto leader, sees how hunger and fatigue have crippled the party’s performance. Distracted by his thoughts, he is nearly snapped up by the dragon, and is only saved when his sister Falin, the party cleric, shoves him out of the way, only to find herself in the dragon’s jaws. With her dying breath, Falin casts a spell, and the party is transported to the surface, leaving her behind to be devoured.
Laios wants to go back into the dungeon at once, knowing that if the dragon is slain and Falin’s remains are recovered, there’s a chance she can be resurrected. But the party is penniless, poorly equipped, and down three members — Falin, and two others who quit upon returning to the surface. Only Chilchuck the halfling locksmith, Marcille the elven mage, and Laios himself remain. Rebuilding the party and refreshing their supplies would take precious time; if Falin is to be revived, they must recover her remains before she is digested. So, in spite of their strapped conditions, Laios is determined to return to the dungeon immediately, and Marcille and Chilchuck agree to go with him – Marcille because of her friendship with Falin, Chilchuck out of professional pride. But how will they survive without provisions?
By eating the monsters of course!
This is Laios’s big idea, born of his otaku-like obsession with the biology of monsters and the ecosystem of dungeons. Chilchuck and Marcille are, understandably, initially averse, and Marcille’s disgust is especially emphatic (and hilarious). But they follow Laios long enough to catch and kill a walking mushroom and a huge scorpion, whereupon he embarks on the experiment of converting foes into food.
At this point they are joined by Senshi, a reclusive and eccentric dwarf with a passion for monster cuisine. Noticing Laios’s amateurish attempts, Senshi offers his own cookware and expertise, revealing that he himself has been eating the monsters of the dungeon for more than ten years! With his assistance (and after surviving a surprise attack from a ceiling-dwelling slime), they prepare the dish of the day: huge scorpion and walking mushroom hot pot.
The result, of course, is delicious. Even Marcille has her green-eggs-and-ham come-to-Senshi moment, and discovers the joy of a dungeon meal. Basking in the glow of good food and good company, the party shares their quest with Senshi, who volunteers to join them. After all, cooking dragon has been his lifelong dream…
From page one, this story lured me in with the promise of the chthonic – the dark, the strange, the labyrinthine, the subterranean, the hidden depths beneath our feet and beyond our thought, concealing ancient secrets. Lost kingdoms, mad magicians, unknown terrors, fabulous rewards? Yes please! Dungeon delving at its finest. Really, I’ll take any excuse to delve. Dungeons deep, caverns old, hollow halls beneath the fells – I’ll delve ‘em. My name’s from the Greek georgos, meaning farmer or earth-worker; ge-, earth, -érgon, work. I’m no farmer, and not much of a gardener, but I do love a good dig. (Remember Jurassic Park? “Because Grant is like me — he’s a digger.”) Dungeon Meshi accomplishes something truly alchemical, deftly mixing the two souls of the dig — the deep wonder and terror of exploring the underworld, and the humble, hearty, earthy necessities of farming, food, and even waste management (we’ll get to that.) So pick up your spade; there’s horrors to be unearthed.
What struck me next was the fallibility and fragility of our heroes. They might conquer demons and dragons, nightmares and sorceries, and yet be undone by mere hunger, by forgetting the limits of their own frail, mortal bodies. Heroes are not invincible gods who breeze through adventures without so much as a bathroom break. They are made of the same stuff as you and I. They need to rest, they need to think, and they need to eat. If you want to survive, much less triumph, you must have the humility to acknowledge the weakness of the flesh. Otherwise, well…it’s eat or be eaten.
So the situation’s grim, but the dark tone is leavened by the charm and the sweet good humor of the cast. Many a seinen series (and much modern fiction) thrusts the reader into a nasty world full of equally nasty people, with no clear heroes and nobody worth rooting for. In Dungeon Meshi, Ryoko Kui has given us one of the most lovable adventuring parties in manga. Laios is the clear-eyed, high-hearted, naive idealist, all smiles and boyish enthusiasm, a pillar of strength and quick wits in a pinch, maddeningly inept at reading people and social situations; in short, a paladin, and a true hero. Marcille is the scholar (and sometimes the schoolgirl), elegant yet practical, at turns bashful and fierce, frequently the voice of reason, occasionally the font of madness, sometimes vain, always courageous, and probably the most dangerous of the bunch. Chilchuck is the straight man, the dad, the long-suffering professional beset by incompetents, a man who understands the value of things, not least his own skills, and is frequently pained by the churlish carelessness of his bumbling companions. Senshi is the sage, the wise fool, the half-wild hermit, a beautiful, burly bear of a man, firmly rooted in the earth, almost an elemental spirit of the dungeon itself – and deeply caring.
Finally, it’s gladdening to read a story in which the communal meal takes center stage. Whatever they suffer, and however they bicker, the party always comes together around the fire to break bread and make peace. Eating isn’t just something they do; it’s the heart of the quest, the reward of their labors, the bodily affirmation of their covenant as comrades. At the end of the day, a good dinner together is the highest adventure.
Dungeon Meshi is published by Yen Press and volume two is available through Amazon.