Mushroom man on the spit!

Mushroom man on the spit!

I just finished reading episode 1 of this entertaining and weird manga, called Dungeon meshi in Japanese, by Ryoko Kui. It’s the tale of a group of adventurers – Raios the fighter, Kilchack the halfling thief, and Marshille the elven wizard – who are exploring a dungeon that is rumoured to lead to a golden kingdom that will become the domain of whichever group of adventurers kill the evil wizard who has taken it over. The story starts with them having to flee a battle with a dragon, which swallows Raios’s little sister whole. She manages to teleport the rest of the party out of the dungeon in an act of self sacrifice, and they decide that they should go back in and save her from the dragon. They could wait and resurrect her from its poo, but they decide they would rather go in, kill it and cut her out of its belly (dragon digestion is very slow). No answers are forthcoming to the question of why she can’t just teleport herself out as well, or how she will survive in a dragon’s belly, but I’m sure the reasons are clear.

Anyway, because they left all their gear and loot behind when they fled, they would need to sell their armour and weapons and downgrade in order to make enough money to buy supplies for the return trip. Also they don’t have time to go back to town and get more stuff. So they decide to go straight back into the dungeon and live on a subsistence diet of whatever they can gather and kill in the dungeon. This is particularly appealing to Raios, who has always secretly wanted to eat the creatures he kills (when he tells them this, Marshille and Kilchack decide that he’s a psychopath, but they ain’t seen nothing yet …) Off they go!

They soon run into a dwarf called Senshi who has spent 10 years exploring the dungeon and learning to cook its monsters. Raios has a book of recipes but Senshi tells him that’s all bullshit, and teaches them to cook as they go. Senshi has always wanted to eat a dragon, so he offers to join them and help in their quest. Thus begins the long process of returning to the deepest levels of the dungeon, one meal at a time …

The food chain, in the dungeon

The food chain, in the dungeon

This manga is basically a story about a series of meals, with some lip service to killing the monsters that go in the meals. It starts with a brief description of the ecology of dungeons, which sets out a nice piece of Gygaxian naturalism, along with the food pyramid suitably reimagined for mythical beasts, and gives us a tiny bit of background about the dungeon crawling industry, which is so systematized as to be almost industrial in its scope. Once we have this basic background we’re off on a mission to eat everything we can get our hands on: Mushroom men, giant scorpions, giant bats, basilisk meat and eggs, green slimes (which make excellent jerky apparently), mandrake, carnivorous plants and ultimately a kind of golem made of armour. In the process they make some discoveries about the nature of the beasts – for example, Marshille discovers that you can use giant bats to dig up mandrake and that a mandrake tastes differently depending on whether you get it to scream or not, and the golem is actually armour that has been animated by a strange colony of mollusc-like organisms that are excellent when grilled in the helmet or stir-fried with medicinal herbs.

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Plus, we get recipes, which are detailed and carefully thought-out and also slightly alarming. For example, for the mushroom man and giant scorpion hot pot (pictured above) we get to see the team slicing open the body of a mushroom man, which is kind of horrific. The final meal of this issue, the walking armour, is particularly disturbing, since the crew basically sit around in a room plying mollusc flesh out of the pieces of an empty suit of armour, then grill them, except the head parts, which they cook by simply sticking the entire helmet on the bbq and waiting for them to fall out as they roast. It’s made clear that the armour is operated by an interlocking network of separate mollusc-things that have some kind of group sentience, but then once they manage to drag some out of the armour they slip them into a bowl of water and declare happily “they drowned!” Really it’s just like eating a big sentient shellfish. i.e. completely disgusting, in a disturbingly fascinating way.

Each recipe also comes with a disquisition on its nutritional benefits (and the importance of a balanced diet), along with a spider diagram showing the relative magnitude and balance of different ingredients (in the bottom right of the picture above, for example). In some cases special preparation is required – the green slime needs to be dried for several weeks, but fortunately Senshi has a special portable net for this task, and a green slime he prepared earlier which the crew can sample. In other cases, such as the basilisk, medicinal herbs of various kinds need to be included with the meal, which sadly makes it impossible for the reader to make their own roast basilisk, lacking as we do the necessary ingredients to neutralize the poison in the basilisk after we catch it. There are also tips on how to catch the ingredients – the basilisk has two heads for example but only one brain, so you can confuse it if you attack both heads at once – and some amusing biological details too. For example, it is well known that chimaera made from more than two animals are not good to eat because they don’t have a main component of their structure, while chimera of just two animals – like the basilisk – will adopt the taste and general properties of whatever their main animal is (in this case, a bird)[1].

In addition to the rather, shall we say, functional, approach to non-human creatures, the story also has some quite cynical comments on the adventuring business. During the encounter with the carnivorous plant, for example, they find a half-digested body. They feel they should return this body to the surface, but just like climbing Everest, they don’t want to go back up till they reach their goal, so instead they leave it in the path for a returning group to deal with. Realizing this might cause someone to trip, they arrange to hang it from a tree by a rope in what is, essentially, a mock execution, and then they go to sleep underneath it (Marshille, unsurprisingly, has bad dreams). To counter this cynicism Marshille acts in part as the conscience of the group, spinning on her head in rage at one point when they suggest eating something, and refusing outright to eat humanoids, but she is usually overruled and then forced to admit that yes actually this meal is quite delicious. Marshille seems to be the stand-in for the reader, since she generally expresses the disgust that the reader is likely (I hope!) to feel, and also gets things explained to her obviously for our benefit (this comes across as very man-splainy, since it’s the male fighter telling her how the world really is, but since she spends most of her time responding in apopleptic rage, it’s bearable).

Beyond its cynical but loving commentary on the world of dungeon crawling, its fine recipes and detailed exposition of dungeon ecology, this book is also a careful retelling of a staple of Japanese television entertainment – the cooking variety show. Anyone who has spent more than about a minute in Japan will have noticed that Japanese television is heavily dominated by variety shows about food, and a common format is for a group of stars and starlets to go to a remote town and sample its local delicacies. Usually this happens in rural Japan, though it can also often be seen in overseas settings, and it always involves a brief description of what is special about how the food is prepared and the ingredients obtained, and then a scene where everyone eats it and says “delicious”, and if there is a starlet involved she will be the one asking the questions while an older person (usually male) explains things to her. So this manga is an almost perfect recreation of that format, except with adventurers instead of starlets and magical creatures instead of standard ingredients. Also, the food shows usually don’t go beyond saying oishii over and over, but in the book we get more detailed expressions of the nature of the food, its texture and taste, which is just great when you’re talking about a humanoid mushroom.

Part RPG dungeon crawl, part variety show, part ecological textbook, this manga is a simple, pleasant read with an engaging story and two entertaining characters (the dwarf and the elf). It’s a really good example of the special properties of manga as a story-telling medium, since the entire idea and its execution would be almost impossible in short story or novel form, but is really well-suited to words with pictures. The pictures give it a more visceral feeling than if you were simply reading a short story about a dungeon cooking show, but the manga format gives I think more detail to the food and science descriptions than you would get in a TV drama. It’s a great balance, and an entertaining read. From a non-native Japanese perspective, it has the flaw that the kanji don’t have furigana (the hiragana writing by the side of the kanji which makes them easy to read), so it takes a while for a non-expert reader to get through, but it doesn’t have the heavy use of slang language and transliteration of rough pronunciation that you see in comics like One Piece, which makes them almost unreadable to non-experts. In general the grammar is simple and straightforward, though sometimes Senshi’s speaking style is overly complex and he uses weird words. In some manga, and especially in novels, the sentences are long and complex and very hard to read for slow readers, but here the sentences are short and straightforward, and the language is mostly standard Japanese. I found I could read in ten page blocks without too much difficulty, using a kanji lookup tool on my phone (I use an app called KanjiLookup that enables me to write them with my finger, which I’m not very good at but a lot better at now I have read this whole manga). After about 10 pages I get sick of constantly referencing the app and put the book down, but it’s not so challenging that I gave up entirely, probably because of the simple language and the short sentences and the very clear link between what is being said and what is being depicted. So as a study exercise I recommend it. As a cookbook or a moral guide, not so much …



fn1: Actually I’m pretty sure the “basilisk” in this story was actually a cockatrice.

Can he see you...?

As part of my new year plan to improve my Japanese, I am on a manga collecting binge, starting with Psychic Detective Yakumo (Shinrei Tantei Yakumo,心霊探偵八雲) by Manabu Kaminaga. This is a series of case files about a cynical and slightly misanthropic college student called Yakumo, seen mostly through the perspective of the slightly eccentric college girl Ozawa Haruka. Yakumo was born with a single red eye that enables him to see spirits and ghosts, and the trouble that this eye has brought him has turned him into something of a recluse and a bit of a bastard. His mother even tried to kill him and then abandoned him when he was a kid, so he’s understandably a little cynical about people. Haruka, on the other hand, wants to help others because when she was about 8 years old she accidentally got her older sister killed, and ever since she’s wanted to be the child who everyone loves, but behaves eccentrically in her quest for this fulfilment. What she doesn’t know – but finds out through Yakumo’s red eye – is that her sister’s ghost is following her around as a kind of guardian angel – and maybe this is why Haruka is the impetus for the adventures that we read in the manga.

In the first episode we also discover that Yakumo is a bit of a fraud, cheating at card games through a mirror pinned to the door of his club room in the University, and then offering to exorcise a ghost from a completely normal memorial picture of the English professor’s dead daughter – in exchange for higher marks and attendance records. “I sell peace of mind,” he tells Haruka, “And it’s an awesome business!” However, he is basically good at heart, and although very off-hand and cool with Haruka maybe he has a bit of a thing for her. By the end of the first instalment we have seen hints of a love triangle, and then tacked on to the end of the book there is an amusing “interview” conducted by the intrepid report “M” who ambushed Yakumo as he was waking up, in which we see the depths of his misanthropy and lack of interest in ordinary life.

The story itself is simple but effective. From here on I shall give a few spoilers, but since there’s no english translation of this manga as far as I know, i doubt you will be reading it, gentle reader (if you can read Japanese, maybe skip this paragraph). Haruka approaches Yakumo for help, having never met him before, because her friend Miki is in a coma in hospital after a strange incident, and a friend suggested Yakumo could help. Miki visited an abandoned house with her boyfriend Kazuhiko, and was attacked by a ghost from behind the door of “the forbidden room,” a room whose door had a sign on it saying “do not open.” Subsequently Kazuhiko “commits suicide” on the train line. Yakumo visits the girl and identifies that she has been possessed by the ghost of a girl called Yuri. Haruka and Yakumo do some investigating on the computer system of the university (which Haruka has access to through a part-time job) and discover that a girl called Yuri went missing a little earlier. The girl was from Haruka’s class, and by tracing rumours of attachments they identify Yuri’s ex-boyfriend, who Haruka goes to talk to. He tries to kill Haruka, revealing as he does so that he had a brief fling with Yuri and got her pregnant, even though “after we had sex just a few times she started acting like my girlfriend.” But Haruka’s sister’s ghost gets Yakumo, who comes and saves her, revealing as he did so that he had guessed that the boyfriend killed Kazuhiko as well. The reason? When Kazuhiko and Miki were fooling around outside the abandoned building, Kazuhiko took a photo of Miki and in the background was the faint image of Yuri’s boyfriend carrying her body away from the scene of the crime. In good Japanese style, having been discovered, the boyfriend turns himself in. The story closes with Haruka and Yakumo getting involved with the case of a serial killer.

The story is pretty simple, but it works as a basic detective story, and a lot of it is about boy/girl interactions between the lead characters. In fact, the manga is probably better called “bumbling helper Haruka” because it seems to focus more on her (and the story of her sister’s tragic death) than on Yakumo, who remains an enigma. The narrative force is largely with Haruka, who though a little ditzy and physically weak is a clever and forceful character, possessed additionally of an emotional depth and moral depth that Yakumo definitely lacks. In all it’s a good story and an amusing tale of a burgeoning friendship (or love affair?) between two people whose characters are guaranteed to create trouble for each other, and it is clearly set up so that we will slowly learn more about Yakumo, while we watch Haruka become a skilled ghostbuster and reconcile herself with her sister.

The artwork is fine, typical manga black-and-white drawings, though everyone seems to have the same features, which makes it hard for me to work out who is talking. But the clear plan in this series of manga is to focus on the story and interactions, not the pictures, so it works as basic background information to support the basic story. I can recommend this to anyone who is able to read Japanese (and I might add, the kanji are entirely supported by furigana, so it’s smooth and easy to read compared to, say, Emma or Shuna’s Journey). If you’re looking for an easy introduction to intermediate Japanese with a fun story and good characters, this is the manga for you!