Welcome back to my read-through of Dungeon Meshi by Ryoko Kui, my favorite current seinen series and the absolute best place to find out what would happen if you had to eat your way through a fantasy dungeon, one delicious monster at a time. Our heroes are…
- Laios Thorden, Skilled but Naive human fighter and monster-loving otaku
- Marcille, elven mage and Only Sane Man
- Chilchuck, halfling locksmith and Consummate Professional
- and Senshi, dwarven warrior and dungeon-dwelling Hermit Guru
Their quest: dive through the dungeon, slay the red dragon, and retrieve the remains of Laios’s sister, Falin the cleric, in the hopes that she can be resurrected.
Let’s join them, shall we?
Chapter 2 opens on the second level of the dungeon, where rope bridges hang between ruined towers and colossal trees, a canopy world suspended in air, rampant with strange vegetation. This is the highest level of what remains of the lost kingdom, the peak of the spires of the golden castle. Our heroes wonder at the great trees – their trunks stretch downward into the abyss, and their tops should thrust through the level above, but in this cursed place there is neither earth nor roof nor sky – just the trees, and the void.
It’s time for the party to choose their next meal!
Laios consults his guidebook (bristling with tabs). He reels off the options, Marcille her objections: giant bat or giant rat (unhygienic!); forest goblin (no demi-humans!); animated armor (eat metal?). Finally they settle on foraging for fruit. Distressingly for the elven mage, even the dungeon flora are monstrous, sporting teeth, tongues, viscous vines, and a decidedly lively interest in animal prey. Laios pooh-poohs her alarm – after all, carnivorous plants are known in the wild even above ground, and none of the specimens Marcille points out are truly man-eaters. Still, these things have defenses, and won’t give up their fruit without a fight. Laios and Senshi reach for their weapons. Marcille steps forward and readies a spell – Senshi shouts with alarm, not wanting her to blow away the plant and the fruits at one blast – she turns – and in that instant a vine whips out, wraps the elf up, and whisks her into the air!
Swinging madly back and forth, Marcille knocks over the mouth of the plant that grabbed her, exposing a very dead and somewhat digested corpse. While the upside-down elf rages at Laois, he calmly points out that of course some plants have digestive tracts (just not the ones she asked about earlier), and by the way the one that’s nabbed her is a parasitic species that plants its seeds under the skins of its victims. He then calmly draws his sword, aims for the root, and cuts down the vege-beast with a single expert sweep. Marcille is grateful – for all of three seconds, until the ever-curious fighter inquires whether the vine’s firm but gentle grasp was…uh…pleasing.
We do not learn the answer.
So the party gather up their booty and retire to a hollow in one of the trees. There the fruits are lightly steamed and cored and the seeds are removed. Laios tries to pocket a seed, but Marcille swiftly confiscates it and tosses it on the fire. Senshi softens the peels and uses them to line the pan, mixes the mashed fruit with slime and scorpion soup, stirs, pours, heats, garnishes, and finally produces…man-eating plant tart!
The tart comes out both salty and sweet, a complexity of flavor that even intrigues Marcille. She wonders aloud about the survival advantages of a plant having attractive fruit, but immediately backpedals her show of interest when Laios seizes on her flicker of enthusiasm. Our elf is not a convert yet…
Finally, before they retire for the night the party must decide what to do with the dead body. Unable to revive the corpse, and hoping that the next passersby will return it to the surface, they truss it up with vines and hang it from a branch. The result, while making it more likely that the poor soul will be rescued, does appear somewhat macabre.
That night, Marcille has a nightmare.
Last time I mentioned my love for the chthonic, that troubling yet tantalizing savor of the underworld that wafts from the first few pages. In this chapter, the opening image of the floating forest reveals the mangaka’s taste for the weird and otherworldly aspect of fantasy. The reader encounters a planar shift, a startling reminder that a world of magic operates by different rules – or by no discernable rules at all. We are reminded that “fantasy” means anything is possible, that we have entered a realm of visions and dreams, that the genre can be so much more than, say, monosyllabic sociopaths gutting goblins in sewers. (Souka?)
But while the author is not shy of the weird and the wild and the wonderful, she balances the alien aspects of the setting – and adds to their substance and detail – by taking inspiration from the real world. In this case, “plant monsters”, a rather generic fantasy encounter, are made more tangible and distinctive by drawing conscious parallels with their terrestrial cousins. A thoughtful touch, accomplishing two things – firmer grounding for the fantasy, and renewed appreciation for the monsters in our backyard. After all, your garden-variety pitcher plant or Venus flytrap is, rightly considered, a nightmare thing of ghastly beauty, deserving fearful reverence.
Failing to be moved by the wonder of creation is a defect, and a dangerous one. Enchantment with the natural world, along with a healthy dose of prudent trepidation, can lead a seeking soul from admiration to understanding, from understanding to mastery, and from mastery to harmony. To admire is the first step. A lack of admiration can have one of two results – either the careless man is destroyed by his environment, or the arrogant man destroys his environment, and thus himself. In this chapter, Laios and Marcille exemplify the difference between reverence and arrogance. Laios’s natural exuberance for everything monstrous has resulted in a degree of expertise only attainable through dedicated ardor. Because he loves monsters, he studies them. Because he studies them, he knows how to defeat them, and how to do so with minimal risk, maximum efficiency, and maximum gain. Marcille, on the other hand, finds their prey repugnant, things to be destroyed, not understood. In clumsy haste, she risks the loss of the fruits of their labor by over-application of force, and then falls victim to her own ignorance of the dangers. Laios, with the quick, clean, deft hand of practiced expertise, resolves the situation in one stroke. Everybody survives, the environment is preserved, and the fruits can be gathered in safety.
Of course, we can’t be too hard on Marcille. For one thing, her face is adorable and hilarious, and her range of expressions might be the best part of this most excellent series. For another, her reactions are entirely understandable; she’s playing the part of the fish-out-of-water everyman, and the audience is meant to sympathize. It might even be argued that Marcille is the real protagonist, in spite of Laios’s position as leader. Consider that one of the characteristics of the lead character is that they develop over the course of the story, as the challenges they encounter force them to grow. Out of the four party members, Marcille is the one who exhibits the most dynamism. Laios, Chilchuck, and Senshi have fairly static personalities (though we see growth in all three later on). From the start, it is Marcille who bears the burden of constant personal tension, as her vanity, immaturity, and fastidiousness are pitted against the need to survive and to save her friend. Given the visceral horror of having to eat gross stuff, a horror that goes right to the root of any normal psyche, I’d say the elven mage rises to the occasion – if not with aplomb, then at least with some admirably steady guts.
Dungeon Meshi is published by Yen Press and volume two is available through Amazon.