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Anime Analysis: Solo Leveling (2024) by Shunsuke Nagashige

Anime Analysis: Solo Leveling (2024) by Shunsuke Nagashige

“Kindness won’t save me”

Considering that the overwhelming majority of anime are based on manga (and seldom on original stories) having a title that is actually based on Korean material, emerges as a very intriguing novelty. “Solo Leveling” is based on a South Korean web novel written by Chugong, which was later adapted into a webtoon format, before becoming an anime by A-1 Pictures. It is also worth noting that a k-drama adaptation, a spin-off webtoon and role-playing video game are in the works, in a testament to the success of the franchise. 

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The story takes place in a world where hunters — human warriors who possess supernatural abilities and are ranked according to their abilities — must battle deadly monsters to protect mankind from certain annihilation. In this setting, a notoriously weak hunter named Sung Jinwoo, who is in the business to raise money for his hospitalized mother and to take care of his younger sister, finds himself in a seemingly endless struggle for survival. Frequently mocked for his abilities, he still strives, with his efforts regularly ending up with him in the hospital. One day, however, after narrowly surviving an overwhelmingly powerful double dungeon that nearly wipes out his entire party, a mysterious program called the System chooses him as its sole player and in turn, gives him the unique ability to level up in strength. 

Gradually, Jinwoo completely transforms himself while battling stronger and stronger enemies, all the while trying to hide his powers from others, and particularly the big guilds that have risen, and exploit the spoils of dungeons for financial gain. When he pairs up with Jin-ho, though, whose family wealth has gotten him equipped with very expensive and powerful gear, during a random mission, he finds himself having to consider a proposal that will make him rich, and the youth the owner of a new guild. Although negative in the beginning, he eventually agrees in order to find more resources to save his mother. All the while, he keeps leveling up while the game becomes more and more part of his reality. 

While it is quite easy to classify “Solo Leveling” as a shonen, it is also quite interesting to examine the ways it differs (or looks exactly the same) from the majority of entries in the category. The story starts in the common way, with a rather low level underdog suddenly finding unique powers, which he does have, though, to hone them intensively in order to truly progress. Usually the shonen titles have someone sticking with the underdog protagonist from the beginning, either a comrade of similar level or a trainer who also has the role of the mentor. In this case, though, Jinwoo is completely on his own, at least for the majority of the first season, something that makes all the difference here, for two reasons. Firstly, it creates a sense of mystery for what is happening exactly, which the protagonist shares with the viewer. Secondly, it creates a character that is standalone and helpless in essence, but still manages to move forward, something that definitely creates empathy for him. 

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At the same time, this aspect also allows for a more thorough analysis of the main character, mainly as an individual, with the stand alone approach here working quite well. Furthermore, even when he finds a comrade, he is the one in charge, in a rather unique element for the particular genre, which adds to his portrait. Moreover, and in probably the most interesting element here, Shunsuke Nagashige examines how Jinwoo ends up becoming murderous, in a way that can only be described as cold-blooded. The fact that he is both that, but also a loving brother and son, creates an ambiguous persona that definitely raises the interest towards him.  Lastly, his relationship with Joo-hee, who ends up traumatized by all the violence and death surrounding the dungeon dwellers, hints at something very intriguing too, which is bound to be explored more in the next seasons. 

In a rather unique aspect, the game being played throughout the anime combines typical J-RPG elements commonly found in contemporary anime with a deeply immersive integration into Jinwoo’s life. His unparalleled level of involvement in the game sets him apart, adding another layer to his character’s uniqueness and shaping his interactions with others. The constant presence of game screens displaying hints and information, seamlessly integrated into his everyday existence, underscores the depth of this immersion. This approach is skillfully executed, enhancing the narrative through exceptional animation. Lastly, it also adds to his portrait, as he struggles to realize where the game ends and where his actual life begins. 

Another very interesting contextual point here is the way corporatism and corporate greed are embedded in the narrative. The way the guilds are becoming more and more powerful as the story progresses, and the fact that other conglomerates find a source of new profits in the value of the objects found in the dungeons, highlights this aspect, adding yet another level to the narrative. This element is another unique one for “Solo Leveling”, since this socioeconomic context is usual in the Korean entertainment industry, but not so much in the Japanese one. Furthermore, that there are people exploiting low-level dwellers, the effort of poaching the A and S-ranks from one another, and that there are some psychopaths along with the users in the whole settings, cements the intricacy of the context here. 

Apart from context though, in its base, the title remains a dungeon-exploring, sword-and-magic with intense rpg elements title, with Nagashige’s approach also thriving in that regard. That Jinwoo constantly moves forward, raising his level and adding to his abilities works excellently here, as much as the fact that he truly has to struggle for the benefits, being on his own and all. 

Tomoko Sudo’s character design has almost every character being tall and lanky, in an approach that does become a bit tiresome after a point. The monsters, on the other hand, are truly impressive, with the crimson knight in particular definitely staying on mind, in also what is the most memorable battle of the season. In a very interesting approach to the action animation by A-1 Pictures, the quality actually increases as Jinwoo gains levels, in an aspect that can be described as meta. Particularly the increase of speed is impressive, additionally making the technical aspect part of the narrative. Moreover, the moments where the style becomes more pencil-like, reminding intensely of Studio Trigger’s artform, as are equally impressive. The non-action moments are characterized by realism, without any particular exaltations. Also of interest is the way Nagashige handles the fan-service, which is here, but presented in a very subtle fashion, which could even be described as cheeky, through passing shots that last quite briefly. 

Despite not being utterly unique, “Solo Leveling” has enough elements to deem it among the best of the year so far, while the teasing for what is about to follow looks rather promising. Personally, I am very interested to watch both where the main story will progress, and how the dramatic roots that have been planted here will grow as the series moves forward.