Welcome back to my re-read-through of Dungeon Meshi (aka Delicious in Dungeon) by Ryoko Kui, the freshest flavor of seinen fantasy you’ll find on the market today. For an introduction to the cast and the story so far, check out my entries for Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.
In this installment, Marcille has a bad dream, Laius practices his mad chicken impression, and Senshi uses his battleaxe for a roasting spit.
Marcille wakes from a horrible dream in which her mother has served her a table laden with the noxious fruits of a dungeon harvest. Emerging from her Catapult Nightmare with the requisite bolt-upright shriek, she smells something mouthwatering, and spies a nearby party breaking their fast on grilled salt pork and bread. Senshi is indignant. The typical adventurers’ diet of dried meat, bread, and wine is decidedly unbalanced. Even a party with “enough to eat” can still be undone by malnutrition. Speaking of which, their own recent diet has lacked a vital nutrient: fat! It’s time to go monster hunting, and the monster du jour is basilisk.
Called “the king of snakes” the basilisk is a cross between a rooster and a snake, a two-beast combination which Laius admires for its balance and simplicity. Hunting down the nest, the party discovers a handful of newly laid eggs, an excellent source of fat that should complement their chicken dinner nicely. (Eggs? Since when does a rooster lay eggs? But they look like snake eggs, not chicken eggs, so…best not overthink it…) No sooner have they wrapped up the eggs than a scream from nearby alerts them to the basilisk’s presence, as the monster gives chase to the party they saw earlier.
Laius immediately leaps into action – not by drawing his sword, but by spreading his arms and legs and letting out a mighty BAAAWK, doing his best to intimidate the foe and give the other party a chance to escape. (Marcille and Chilchuk agree to pretend they don’t know him.) While Laius has the basilisk distracted, Senshi comes round behind the monster, and he and Laius rush in at the same time. The two heads of the beast are momentarily paralyzed with confusion as it tries to deal with both threats at once, and in that moment the dwarf and fighter strike, and the basilisk is down.
A member of the other party had taken a hit from the basilisk’s venomous spur, and he’s not looking well. Fortunately, Senshi can concoct an antidote from the beast’s blood…if he can be persuaded to! The poor fellow might be on death’s door, but the dwarf insists that antidotal herbs taste better when cooked, and it’s a wee bit early for lunch. Only after everyone engages in some grand performative theater about how hungry they are does Senshi agree to grace them with…roast basilisk!
Stomachs are filled, the wounded are healed, Senshi doles out some life advice about nutrition and exercise, and the other party part ways with our heroes encouraged and invigorated – only to get wiped out by man-eating plants a few days later.
In this chapter we go beyond the hunting and the cooking of the dungeon’s denizens and consider the nutrition problem. Not only do you have to kill the things (without getting yourself killed), prepare them in such a way that they are rendered both palatable and digestible, and preserve the dungeon ecosystem; you also have to get the right variety in your diet, lest you suffer malnutrition. Such attention to detail is one of the major selling points of the series, and shows off the mangaka’s enthusiasm for expanding on her central premise. I almost wonder if Laius is at least partly an author surrogate, his wide-eyed (wild-eyed?) ardor for monster anatomy acting as an outlet for her own absorption in the subject. I usually don’t like using a story to psychoanalyze its author, but in this case I’ve got to imagine that Ryoko Kui truly enjoys setting up and solving all these little puzzles. I love how caring she seems, always having Senshi mother everyone and dole out good advice. You can just see her lying awake at night worrying about her characters – are they getting enough to eat, do they have a balanced diet, are they exercising, are they sleeping right?
Oh yes, and are they playing well with the other adventurers? Yet another example of attention to detail is the regular inclusion of other adventuring parties. A less thoughtful (or more minimalist) author might have used the survive-in-the-dungeon scenario to downplay the social aspects of the story, isolating the heroes in a narrow tunnel of monster encounters and survival challenges. In Dungeon Meshi, no matter how deeply the party delves, they’re always encountering other wanderers in the dungeon, several of whom are gradually woven into the larger plot. Now, some mangaka multiply characters when they’re running out of ideas (I’m looking at you, Tite Kubo), or keep the story going with a succession of villains-of-the-week (I’m looking at you, Rumiko Takahashi). Thankfully (thus far) this series has been guilty of neither. Whether they come and go in the course of a chapter (like the unfortunates in this installment), or come to play a bigger role in the story (like others we’ll meet later on), every new introduction feels thoughtfully crafted, planned and designed to enrich the story and bring something fresh out of the main characters and the setting. After all, this wouldn’t be nearly so fun if we didn’t get regular opportunities for our heroes to impress other people with their weirdness.
One particular bit of Laius-weirdness that comes out in full force in this chapter is his total lack of vanity, an indispensable virtue when survival demands methods that are not always dignified. Performing an enraged chicken impression might not be what most warriors sign up for when they get into the business, but the willingness to adopt unorthodox tactics can often spell the difference between victory and defeat. Flexibility in the face of new challenges, openness to strange experiences, readiness to throw oneself heart and soul into the task at hand, no matter how bizarre or inelegant – these are the traits required of a man when madness is on the menu. And the secret ingredient to all these virtues is the one great virtue of humility. Not mere self-abnegation, but true self-forgetfulness, a state of pure focus possible only to those who have completely given themselves up to something beyond themselves. Laius has doubly given himself up – on the one hand to the quest, to the rescue of his sister – on the other to his vision of integrating organically into the food chain of the dungeon. Any man with a vision, a quest, a vocation, a high calling, must be ready to do the same.
Finally…well…good advice can’t save everybody. Even with renewed hope and the best intentions, there will always be the would-be heroes who die obscure deaths far from home. Never forget that the protagonists are often just the lucky ones. Never forget to be grateful.
Volume three of Dungeon Meshi is available for purchase on Amazon.