(And yes, I did steal that title from Moviebob.)
So, back in 2015, there was a shitty light novel show produced by J.C. Staff that got most of it’s attention based on a stupid meme. That show was called Is it Wrong to Try To Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon, also known Danjon ni Deai o Momoteru no wa Machigatteiru Daro Ka. Due to it being a rather generic light novel show, aside from the aforementioned meme, most of the press it got cited it as either average or worse, and after the popularity of the boob ribbon died down, everyone stopped caring.
Though I’d initially had no interest in the series whatsoever, my friend convinced me to read the manga of the main series, and I found myself vaguely impressed to find it wasn’t complete and utter garbage. Now, it wasn’t good – But it also had some points of interest, and I didn’t come to regret the time I’d put into reading it, though it hasn’t really made me interested enough to actually keep up with the fan translations.
A few days later, though, I found out that similar to another light novel series with an anime by J.C. Staff, DanMachi had a spin-off novel called Sword Oratoria, focusing on one of it’s lead characters, Ais Wallenstein. After a little deliberation, I decided, ‘Hey, why not? I’ve got time. Might as well.’
I can’t speak to the quality of the anime that’ll be coming out this April, and though J.C. Staff has been able to make some pretty good shows in the past, I can’t say I’m expecting much. I also don’t know if the light novel is drastically better than the manga, because if I’m going to spend my time reading any fantasy light novel focusing on a hot blonde with a sword and magical wind powers, it’s going to be Fate/Zero.
But what I can say is that despite all the negative Danmachi press is that it’s…Good enough.
One big problem a lot of light novels have is that because the tropes for the genres have become so ubiquitous and so engrained into the essence of light novel storytelling, that a lot of stories and and characters start to blend together. Everything becomes different, but the same. Speaking as someone whose only seen so many light novel shows, even I can still point out a lot of the universal themes and idea contained within a lot of them. If you have a light novel set in a high school setting, there’s going to be a cynical, moody twat for a main character. There’s going to be a tsundere, a little sister, or some combination of the two. There’ll probably be another guy who serves the role of being the best friend, and there’ll probably be a cute childhood friend girl who gets dumped for the tsundere imouto. Similarly, if you want to have an action centric light novel, the main characters are going to use swords, the main girl will probably have long hair, and no one will ever have heard of a shield.
In that sense, Sword Oratoria doesn’t really break type that much- It does focus on a light novel girl with long hair who uses a sword. However, what sets it apart from a lot of it’s ilk is that Ais is not at all inherently related to the main character of Danmachi. Though they do become friends and meet each other multiple times throughout the series, they aren’t roommates, don’t go to the same battle school, and both have vastly different power and experience levels. Ais is on an entirely separate level from where her male counterpart is, and isn’t constantly hanging around him. This not only gives her room to have her own stories and adventures with her own friends and teammates, but similarly keeps her from being constrained to the role of the boring protagonist. Because so many light novel heroes are meant to be self-insert characters who the audience can very easily impose themselves onto, they’re rarely, if ever, allowed to fail at what they set out to do. Even when they do seem to fail, more often than not, there’s some kind of final, magical asspull that lets them get through whatever was trying them before with absolutely no effort. However, because Ais isn’t attached to her romantic interest like a leech is to human skin, she is the main character of her own story – A story that isn’t constrained to all the typical light novel tropes -she’s allowed to grow into something beyond being a generic sword wife. More than that, there are actual stakes to her narrative, because Ais has the all-too-rare trait being allowed to fail. It allows for her to grow because she’s actually able to be challenged; Ais, much as she’d want you to think otherwise, isn’t invincible, and she can be beaten. She can, and does get broken down, defeated and can’t always score the win. She can’t always save everyone, and she’s not a perpetually, perfectly moral and infallible wife. She has flaws and problems, and it’s incredible just how much this does to add stakes and weight to Sword Oratoria’s story- Something else I should get onto.
A lot of light novel stories get flack for just kind of spending a lot of time meandering with nothing happening at all – Which is a trope the original Danmachi really, really falls into. There tend to be two big reasons for this, and one is because the story is often driven by the protagonist’s desire to ‘get stronger’, which is such a vague and intangible goal that it means next to nothing and can really only be affirmed to have happened when other characters exclaim “Wow, this power is so unbelievable! Who could have imagined Protagonist-kun could get this strong?!” in the middle of fight. Secondarily, there’s the fact another large portion of a lot of light novel stories tend to be bogged down by establishing the character’s harem, and the protagonist selectively going through and fixing all his side bitches’ problems for them.
Sword Oratoria is able to avoid this because while Ais is the main character of her own story, she has obligations and has to answer to people with more authority and power than her. Her story is not bogged down in generic harem bullshit, because while she does have a harem of lesbian admirers (including myself), their stories aren’t Ais’ story. She’s not there to solve their problems- Everyone has to wipe their own ass without her help, and Ais has neither the time or the ability to be able to help everyone she meets. She can’t spend all her time grinding endlessly at her goal, because she answers to higher members of her guild, who need her to be doing certain things, even if they go against Ais’ own wishes. That’s not to say Ais is just a silent, uncaring and obedient doormat. She does care about her friends, and she can be insubordinate, and it’s not uncommon for her to go off on her own and do what she wants- But she’s not the hero of everyone else’s story. That’s their job, not her. Ais has other priorities, other responsibilities. Because of all these things, the plot never fully stops moving- Even when it slows down for quiet moments, it doesn’t ever grind to a halt.
This is in-part due to the fact that while Sword Oratoria is ultimately focused on Ais, it’s also got a large cast that adds enough personality to most of it’s characters that it feels more akin to an ensemble piece at times.
In a lot of action stories with multiple characters, it’s not uncommon for there to be a break in the action between two characters to focus on what’s going on with someone else- And that’s not wrong to do, but a lot of the time, it can be incredibly frustrating to suddenly cut away at a dramatic moment to see what’s up with who the hell ever else. However, in Sword Oratoria’s case, even though it can still be really annoying to be suddenly drawn out of what’s going on in one place, I never feel irritation about the fact I have to focus on the characters who we’ve switched to. Much as I want to see Ais get stronger and overcome her personal issues, I also want to see Lefiya grow. I want to see more of Loki, and more of Dionysus and Filvis. In comparison to the main Danmachi story, where all of the protagonist’s friends are sticking to him, and relying on Belle (Danmachi’s protagonist’s name is Belle, by the way) to basically get them anywhere, and thus shoving all the impetus of their personal development onto Belle’s shoulders, the semi-ensemble cast in Sword Oratoria allows more characters to tackle their own development head-on, without relying on Ais having to tell them that she “knows they’re a good person” or that “she believes in them”.
Similarly, because a lot of these characters aren’t specifically needed within the primary storyline where Belle is the star, they’re allowed to be killed off and get hurt. While, admittedly, most of the cast they kill off is really just side characters who aren’t given more than one or two distinguishing characteristics, and you know this spin-off isn’t going to have the balls to kill off any of the major cast, it does still add a sense of drama and stakes to the narrative knowing that in theory, anyone could get killed off at any time.
On the note of people being able to be killed off at any time, because most of the cast in the Sword Oratoria spin-off are both much more powerful and more competent than any of the main cast for Danmachi itself, the threats and challenges they face are vastly more threatening and intimidating. Whereas Belle’s most important fight thus far – Going by my limited knowledge of what’s actually happened in the anime and manga – was with a minotaur, the Loki familia’s battles have been against hordes of monsters that’d eat minotaurs for breakfast. While Danmachi is constantly telling you how dangerous the dungeon is, and that the characters ‘need to be careful’, you really can’t buy into it because Belle’s a protagonist who’ll “Stand-Up-And-Protect-His-Friends-And-Never-Ever-Fail-Because-They-Need-Him!!!!!!” Sword Oratoria, on the other hand says, “Yeah, the Dungeon’s pretty dangerous”, and then actually goes on to show you. It doesn’t just want you to take it’s word that the Dungeon is ‘Totally-A-Dangerous-And-Hazardous-Place-And–Oh-God-Please-Believe-Me”, it has actually follows through. It shows you the monsters, and shows you that, yeah, people do die, and do get fucked up from going in the dungeon- And, while you know it won’t, it always at least tries to get you to think ‘-And that could happen to Ais and friends too.’ It never really works, because as the reader, you’re smart enough to deduce that ‘Yeah, this isn’t the kind of story that’s willing to go so far as to kill off or put majorly important characters out of commission’, but the fact that it does go out of it’s way to tell you that, ‘in theory, if this weren’t the kind of story that it is, it could theoretically happen to our protagonists‘ is appreciated. I appreciate that it’s giving an effort, and that it’s trying- Because that is so, so much more than what most of them will ever even attempt.
And really, that’s what makes me like this manga.
It’s not perfect. There’s plenty of problems I could list off about Sword Oratoria- The pacing could be hell of a lot tighter. Ais’ design is essentially a direct rip-off of Saber’s from Fate/Stay Night, and her powers and personality are painfully similar – Though Ais is more of a ‘dere’ than Saber – and the story is still hampered and constrained because, ultimately, this is still a manga adaptation of a spin-off of a generic harem-action light novel. But it’s a manga adaptation of a spin-off of a generic harem-action light novel that’s trying. It doesn’t excel at any specific thing- But it’s doing enough to distinguish itself, to justify it’s own existence. It’s giving a goddamned effort, and if all of them cared enough to do that…Well, maybe we’d see a change in these kind of stories. Maybe they’d get better, and could stand on their own, and come to have a reason to exist. Maybe light novels could heal their ruined reputations, and come to be something really special again…
But until then I guess we’re just going to have to keep bitching about the Asterisk War and Sword Art Online.