FEATURE: Aniwords – So, Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon or Not?
Literally this is the most important question that has ever been asked by anyone ever
SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for the Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? anime.
It was a simple question—"Is it wrong to try to pick up girls in a dungeon?" But simple questions don't always have correspondingly simple answers, and so it is with Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?'s ridiculous titular query. And why? Because Danmachi (the romanized abbreviation of the lengthy Japanese title), in specifically calling attention to the issue of how one ought to interact with girls met in a dungeon, actually intiates a strange sort of dialogue with the question. Now, really, watching Danmachi for the answer to the question of whether or not it is morally permissible to attempt to hit on and/or physically pick up girls while traversing the depths of a monster-filled dungeon isn't necessarily the way I'd suggest watching it, but it does provide an interesting lens with which to view the way the show.
Now, to clarify, I don't really think Danmachi is a thesis on an oddly specific potential dating scenario (unless you consider MMORPGs or something), but I do think that it does, at least tangentially, address the question—even if it never comes to anything that could be considered a clear conclusion. Rather, we're given a chance to see a surprising number of perspectives on the topic, which is (to spell it out simply) "how should a boy treat girls?"
There are two distinct—and oppositional—positions suggested by Danmachi. The first, represented by Bell's strong memories of his grandfather's coaching, declares that boys ought to go around saving girls and thus being rewarded with love and affection for such feats of heroism. The second, which is much more complicated due to the show's visual direction often oogling its female characters, is incarnated in the familial relationship of Bell and Hestia (a state of being in contact with others that later expands to include Lili and Welf), and it offers a view of male-female relationships that exist in terms of mutual affection and support. As I wrote in an editorial on my blog some weeks back, Bell and Hestia each work for each other in a way that excludes such gendered distinctions as "boys must save girls" in lieu of "families look out for each other."
The curious thing about the lessons Bell has absorbed from his grandfather (later revealed to be his father, the womanizing Greek God Zeus) is that he is, at this point in his life, utterly unable to put them into practice. From the opening moments of the first episode, we are given to understand that Bell is weak. He is not the image of the hero he desires to be, nor is he emotionally mature enough to "play it cool" and take advantage of the female affections that come his way. To this point, Bell's cutesy character design and childlike demeanor/desire to get stronger (aka, "grow up") play a big role in legitimizing the way Bell reacts to the women in his life as something true about his character, rather than being a typical light novel-induced response. I mean, it is that, but it actually has a point here.
Where this leaves Bell, unable to follow through with Zeus' creepy cajoling, is with no other option than to engage the second position while he attempts to achieve the first. However, he continually runs up into the reality of his world, which is—girls don't need him to save them and, when they do, it's not because they're girls. This point is articulated again and again and again throughout the show, whether it's through Aiz, Lili, or Hestia.
Of these, Hestia is the most influential and prominent, mostly because she is the character who most closely adheres to the mutually supportive construction of male-female relationships Danmachi posists as the counterpoint to "Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrromance!" Despite being a disempowered goddess, Hestia consistently resists the "damsel in distress" and "oh, won't a boy please help me!" molds—and when she does, it's not necessarily Bell who saves her (as when Lili frees her from the kidnappers in the series finale). Rather, Hestia is constantly taking action to support Bell herself, even sometimes being the one who is the savior of Bell, rather than the other way around. But, more importantly, Hestia is Bell's familia, his family. And, in families, you don't help each other because one's a girl or one's a boy. You do it because that's what families do. Beyond that, Hestia is the faciliatator of Bell's growth, the divine being who allows Bell to have the strength to grow and to save. And she's a girl! And it doesn't matter!
For their own parts, Aiz and Lili make strong statements against being simple dungeon trophies for Bell to win. Aiz is incomparably strong, the furthest thing from a girl who needs saving—in fact, she's this so much so that she's actually the ideal that Bell is chasing. That's right; Bell is chasing a woman to become a man who can save women. The irony is obvious and rich. Furthermore, Aiz saves Bell from certain death multiple times, reversing the entire paradigm of "boy saves girl, girl falls in love with boy" to "girl saves boy, boy falls in love with girl." And for Lili, although she's physically and emotionally beaten up, she tosses away Bell's initially stated reason for saving her—"Because you're a girl?" he says—forcing him to arrive at the far more poignant conclusion: "Because you're you." Now, although this is a Cliche Anime Line in the extreme, as a rejection of a gendered reason for saving, it's powerful and meaningful and moving—and, best of all, it reinforces the theme of support ("saving") for the sake of the person, rather than their gender.
All of this is really just to say that Danmachi, although it showers Bell with the affections of numerous female characters, does so in an oddly healthy way. While certain side characters (some of them don't even have names) fall for his heroic deeds, the most prominent female figures in his life interact with him on equal terms—even if he possesses more fighting power. Hestia's affections for Bell (romantic or familial) aren't motivated out of anything Bell did. It's because he's Bell, and she loves him. Likewise, Lili's affections for Bell come not from the function of him "saving" her, but rather from the fact that he accepted her despite her flaws. And Aiz's attraction towards Bell seems a combination of fascination with his desire to become stronger, along with his boyish charms (which I admit I find pretty darn cute, too).
In the end, all of this is really just to say that, for now, I think the answer Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? isn't yes and it isn't no. Rather, it simply suggests that, while yes, you can possibly pick up girls in a dungeon, there are far better ways to relate with them. Of course, much of this is at odds with the way Danmachi clothes its female characters and with the way the camera chooses to focus on their bodies, but the dynamics of these relationships offer a fascinating alternative to the standard shonen anime tracks of male-female relationships. By setting up the ideal of the heroic man who wins the affections of the ladies and simultaneously placing it out of the male protagonist's reach through both his weakness and the strength of the women around him, Danmachi forces an acknowledgement of other options.
In short, don't try to pick up girls in a dungeon. Instead, try treating her like the capable person she is. You might be surprised at how much she can do.
And that's that! In case it wasn't clear already, I really liked Danmachi. What did you guys think of this show, and what do you think about my theories on the show offering alternatives to the normal boy-girl dynamics of similar shonen fantasy series (if you mention SAO in the comments I swear I will slay you myself).
(Isaac eases his compulsive need to write about anime on his blog, Mage in a Barrel. He also contributes to Otaku Review and hangs out on Tumblr. You can follow him on Twitter at @iblessall or on Facebook.)