DanMachi (also known as Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon?) follows Bell, a kind-hearted adventurer who fights beasts in dungeons for Hestia — the goddess and “familia” he has sworn allegiance to. Bell initially becomes an adventurer to try to impress girls, but after being saved by the beautiful and powerful Ais, he vows to grow strong enough to one day stand by her side.
In Arifureta, a high school class is transported to a mythical land to become heroes. Hajime Nagumo, the weakest and least confident in the class, saves his classmates from a gigantic monster but falls into the abyss of massive labyrinth. Brutally injured, starving and left to die, Hajime finds a primal will to survive, and becomes a cold-blooded and calculating killer in order to make it out the labyrinth alive. Along the way he frees and befriends Yue, a beautiful vampire that had been trapped there for centuries.
As the shows progress, more and more female characters became infatuated with Bell and Hajime. Though Bell has his eye on Ais (who has her own series Sword Oratoria), several female warriors subtly and not-so-subtly aim their affections at him. At one point, we learn that Bell is something between a prize and a pawn in a feud between deities. By the end of the first season of Arifureta, Hajime has four female companions (Yue, Shea, Tio, and Kaori) — two who fight for the “main chick” spot, two of which he rejects and abuses, and all of which compete for his attention.
Both cartoons are in the “harem” genre of anime—a genre with the subplot of the (usually male) protagonist in relationship (sidekick, romantic, fighting party-member, or a combination of roles) with multiple people, usually of the opposite sex. There are a range of examples of the harem genre, like Oresuki, Monster Musume, or Ouran High School Host Club. DanMachi and Arifureta also overlap into the “isekai” genre, where the main character is transported from the real world to a new fantasy world (note: some argue that DanMachi is not isekai).
In both DanMachi and Arifurata, the shows frame female characters from within the male gaze. Most male protagonists generally have on multiple layers of battle-appropriate clothing, while many female heroes essentially have on bikini armor. The camera pans up and down Shea’s body, goes in close-up on Hestia’s jiggling breasts, or catches a glimpse of her panties. Bell occasionally slips and fall into or has a woman’s bosom thrust into his face. After Hajime saves defeats a final boss with Yue’s help, he wakes up in a bed with her, both of them naked and his hand on her butt.
The guy fantasy aspects of Arifurata are generally absurd, whether the intent is comedy or fan service. The female characters argue over who will sleep in the same room as him, and in one scene, both Yue and Shea introduce themselves to Hajime’s sensei, saying “I belong to Hajime” in unison. The masochist Tio (a dragonmen) changes forms from a giant impenetrable dragon to a voluptuous humanoid after Hajime jams a rod in her butt (yes, you read that right). While this absurdism is suppose to be comedic, it can be pretty sexist and objectifying.
The male wish-fulfillment in these shows (particularly the latter) was a bit on the nose in a way that both perplexed and intrigued me. But I think isekai harem anime show all stuff heterosexual men wrestle with in private and mediate it through art.
If you look closely at shows like DanMachi or Arifurata you can reverse engineer many of the taboos, contradictions, and silences in masculinity. The feeling of wanting to cheer for Bell doesn’t come without our own fear of being ridiculed for not being a ladies’ man. Laughing at Hajime’s abrasiveness relieves our own timidity around women. Where you see a strength, that’s where the weakness is. Behind every mastered skill is an insecurity.
Though similar in many ways (white hair, red eyes, both monster slayers adored by most women around them), the two offer different versions of masculinity. Bell is kind, self-less and sees the good in others, Hajime is cold, self-centered and treats others based on their utility. Bell is an underdog, while Hajime is basically unstoppable. Women have an emotional attraction to Bell’s empathy, while for Hajime, their lust is a visceral response to his overwhelming strength and acumen.
However, the irony is both characters give straight male viewers who want to escape the perceived “alpha male” gender dynamics of the real world a fantasy where they can be the alpha — instead of a place where those dynamics don’t exist. Even though both the “nice guy” and “the jerk” archetypes get the girl (or two, or three, or four), the hierarchy remains intact.
Women flock to Bell and Hajime as their strength and notoriety increase. Buffered by the language of video games (leveling up, improving stats like “attack” or “defense,” rewards for slaying monsters), the subtext is that the harem is a reward for their hard work and heroism.
We should think critically on how this tells boys watching that you get women through display as opposed to connection, and ask ourselves if this is a trope we should accept, mitigate or unlearn. Though my analysis of how these shows display masculinity, I mean this piece to be more a reflection than admonishment. I love anime and can’t foresee that changing any time soon.
But as fans, we can critique the pop culture we like and still enjoy it.