Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is, as the absurd title implies, generally a fairly lighthearted show. So I was quite surprised when it abruptly featured an arc dealing with sex trafficking. I appreciated the unambiguously evil portrayal ofthe goddess Ishtar and her chief pimp Phryne. The show clearly suggests that while not every woman involved in sex work is necessarily irredeemably evil, the people who run and profit from such business are wicked. They engage in various forms of coercion and exploitation, and are not portrayed as positive in any way.
I feel like it’s necessary to note that Ishtar and Phryne are evil, but that’s not really what I want to focus on today. Besides its implicit commentary on sex trafficking, this arc became the basis for some profound thoughts on the nature of heroism. I’ve been fascinated in recent times by the concept of heroism, and pondered what exactly is the sine qua non of being a hero. In his confrontations with the Ishtar familia, protagonist Bell Cranel demonstrates how love is an essential heroic quality.
The central figure of the arc is Haruhime, a fox-girl from a distant land, kidnapped and sold into slavery and now used as a prostitute by the mighty Ishtar familia (the followers of the goddess Ishtar). To be clear, Haruhime is a slave and cannot be held morally responsible for how the Ishtar familia used her. However, as with other forms of abuse and exploitation, being an innocent victim doesn’t keep Haruhime from being deeply damaged by her experiences. She also possess magic that makes warriors stronger, making Haruhime useful to Ishtar’s ambitions beyond simply being a prostitute. However, not content in making this slave use her magic on one person at a time, the Ishtar familia plans to kill Haruhime in a magic ritual to make all their warriors stronger.
When Ishtar’s minions capture Bell and threaten him with gang rape, the terrified Bell manages to escape and encounters Haruhime. Once Bell makes clear that he’s not a “customer,” he and Haruhime bond over their shared fondness for heroic stories. Speaking for all of us, Haruhime says, “I want to be taken by the hand and led by a hero to the world I’ve always longed for.” However, this introduces the character’s major conflict: She feels tainted by the her stint as a prostitute and believes she has no right to want anything better:
“I’m not a beautiful princess, or a saint offered up as a sacrifice. I’m a prostitute…I didn’t protect my chastity with a strong will…On the day I realized I was no longer pure, I lost the right to read those beautiful stories.”
Bell counters that “A hero wouldn’t abandon someone like you!” but Haruhime is unpersuaded. “Why would they save a filthy girl like me?” she asks. “To a hero, a prostitute is a symbol of destruction.” Haruhime feels hopeless, believing herself undeserving of anything more than death.
Later, when Bell is again apprehended by the Ishtar familia, Haruhime saves him from the clutches of
Jabba the Hutt Phryne (Seriously, she’s Jabba the Hutt in human form!). Bell, unaware that the Ishtar familia is about to kill Haruhime, also informs her that he and her old friend Mikoto are planning to buy her freedom. Haruhime is moved to tears, but remains fatalistically accepting of her impending death. Bell’s escape is interrupted by a confrontation with Aisha, a somewhat reluctant minion of Ishtar, who challenges Bell thus: “You have the face of a cowardly, indecisive child. You can’t give up everything to save her.”
Bell’s dilemma stems from the fact that rescuing Haruhime would bring about a war between his Hestia familia and the more powerful Ishtar familia. Although strictly speaking the story doesn’t use the word, when Bell says a hero wouldn’t abandon Haruhime and Aisha says Bell isn’t willing to give up everything to save her, they are talking about love. Does Bell love Haruhime enough to sacrifice for her? As he ponders, Bell thinks back to Haruhime’s words: “‘To a hero, a prostitute is a symbol of destruction.’ No… That’s not how it works. That’s not right! The heroes we both looked up to weren’t like that.” With this realization, he determines to rescue Haruhime, regardless of the potentially dire consequences to himself and his familia. Bell decides that he loves her enough to sacrifice for her. (To be clear, this isn’t romantic love, but it’s still genuine love.)
“It’s fine if I don’t look cool,” Bell remakrs. “I don’t care if I’m covered in mud. This can be the last time…but I’m going to be her hero!” Earlier, Mikoto said that if Haruhime is suffering, then she wanted to save her friend. Bell took a little longer, but reaches the same conclusion: Care for another provides the motivation for their heroic undertakings. While running interference for Mikoto to stage a rescue attempt, Bell comes face to face with the goddess Ishtar herself. She offers some talking points purporting to explain why prostitution is a good thing, to which Bell firmly answers, “But even if that’s true, Haruhime-san is suffering!” Again, he doesn’t use the word “love,” but that’s what this sense of concern and compassion is. On one level, this story arc is a physical conflict between Bell and the Ishtar familia. On another level, though, it’s a conflict between Haruhime’s sense of shame and Bell and Mikoto’s love for her. Which will prove stronger?
When Mikoto reaches Haruhime and sees how willingly she’s accepted her impending death, she asks why her old friend has given up on being saved. Haruhime tearfully answers, “I’m a prostitute! I give my body to men I don’t even like in exchange for money. If that were you, could you forgive yourself?” Haruhime has been deeply traumatized by her experience in sexual slavery and still can’t find it in herself to hope for salvation. She asks Mikoto to just leave, but she responds, “No matter how many times you tell me that, I won’t leave! I’m going to save you!” Mikoto loves her friend too much to abandon her.
After Bell destroys the artifact needed to kill Haruhime and complete the ritual, she still asks Bell to leave her. Like Mikoto, he refuses to abandon Haruhime:
“Because you’re a prostitute? And prostitutes are a symbol of destruction to heroes. That’s what you said. But…the heroes you and I longed for were different! Even for a prostitute, even if a terrible enemy awaits, a hero would never abandon her!”
In other words, a hero would care enough about even prostitute’s suffering to intervene. A hero would practice love. Haruhime insists she’s “filthy,” but Bell fires back, “Don’t just decide that you’re worthless or that we can’t do anything!” In valuing Haruhime even when she feels worthless, Bell is showing her love. He asks Haruhime what she truly wants, and moments later, Phryne demands that Haruhime use her strength-boosting magic to help her crush Bell. Haruhime does use her magic, but to strengthen Bell instead. Bell’s love for Haruhime wins out over her sense of shame, and for the first time, she tries to live rather than just passively accepting death.
Haruhime’s speech at this juncture is moving: “I don’t want to sell my body anymore. I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore. I don’t want to die. Help me!” A bit later in the fight, Bell reiterates, “Haruhime-san is suffering right now, so I’ll save her.” Bell’s loving, compassionate attitude toward Haruhime is the foundation of his heroics. Amid Haruhime’s perceived filthiness, Bell continues to love (as does Mikoto), and eventually it helps lift her out of the shame in which she is mired. Ishtar may be a goddess of “love,” but Bell’s heroic love trumps anything the pagan deity has to offer. I believe love is an essential quality of a real hero, and Bell Cranel is a fine example of heroic love in action. I hope I can love others as well as this fictional character does.
A tangent: I was surprised to find the goddess Freya of all people bearing a faint resemblance to the true and living God. When Freya confronts Ishtar, the latter informs her that Bell Cranel can’t be influenced by divine charm. “If that’s true, he’s even more wonderful. I want him no matter what,” Freya answers. She wants Bell’s love, even though it’s something her divine powers can’t obtain. In this respect, Freya is similar to the God of the Bible, who although he is indeed the Almighty, desires something he can’t simply obtain with raw power: our love. Since love is by definition voluntary, even an all-powerful God can’t force us to love him. Like Freya, the real God also wants us no matter what—to such a degree that sacrificed himself and died on a cross for us! Do we respond to his overtures with the love he so desires? Haruhime wished “to be taken by the hand and led by a hero to the world I’ve always longed for.” The amazing thing is that the greatest, most loving hero of all, isn’t a fictional character: He’s Jesus, and stands ready to receive us if we will humble ourselves before him.