Solo Leveling isn't in shape to keep up as anime thrives
Solo Leveling has cast a shallow yet broad net with its storytelling.
"In a world of gifted hunters and monsters, a weak hunter, Sung Jinwoo, gains extraordinary powers through a mysterious programme, leading him to become one of the strongest hunters and conquering even the strongest dungeons."
This is the synopsis of Solo Leveling, an anime that’s brand new to Crunchyroll for 2024. Kicking off with its premiere episode on 6th January, it’s easy to think that we’ve heard this story somewhere before.
"Gon Freecss discovers that his father, who left him at a young age, is actually a world-renowned Hunter, a licensed professional who specialises in fantastical pursuits such as locating rare or unidentified animal species, treasure hunting and surveying unexplored enclaves."
This is the synopsis for 2011 smash hit anime series Hunter x Hunter, which wrapped up a full 10 years before Solo Leveling even came into existence. Without context, these two shows are almost completely indistinguishable.
It’s a tale as old as time - a young unestablished hero, typically with a dysfunctional family unit, enters a magical foreign world thanks to powers or strengths that they didn’t know they fully had. From there, an untouchable desire to be the best and strongest in their field is formed.
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Even in mainstream fantasy, the likes of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have all built their success off of this premise. In short, it seems to be a foolproof path to long-term glory. But how does a newbie sustain themselves in the midst of it all?
The problem is that being too generic - or trying to cater to absolutely everyone by following a tick box formula - works against a debut programme in the 2020s framework.
Goblin Slayer shows like Goblin Crown have continued to fly under the radar, while anime such as Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 fell off the face of the Earth, even with a familiar IP to work from.
Does adopting this strategy make Solo Leveling a bad anime? Not at all. Sung is an endearing sweetheart, even though his genuine hopelessness is nigh-on frustrating to follow in early episodes.
He’s an E-rank hunter, meaning he’s about as lowly as low could get. Called in to tackle a D-rank dungeon, he’s quickly in over his head when it’s revealed that a secret second dungeon is attached to it.
As more of Solo Leveling’s premise is revealed, there’s a solid structure to be enjoyed. The action sequences are gruesomely brutal, leaving viewers open to what might be to come - even when the bare bones of the narrative are obvious.
Stuck in violent and disarming situations, there’s enough present to want to come back to see how Sung might progress.
But is this enough to stand up against a packed roster of anime in 2024? It’s incredibly unlikely. In the first quarter of 2024 alone, the world of Gundam makes a comeback with Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Freedom, Frieren: Beyond Journey's End - what some have hailed as the best anime of 2023 - returns and One Piece starts its long-awaited final Egghead arc.
Where anime lovers are spoiled for choice, Solo Leveling is probably not the place their eye is drawn to.
Whether it’s a case of bad timing or purely predictable patterns, well-established IPs with the same structure, or new shows that have a completely fresh spin, are likely to take precedence. Solo Leveling plays out more like an anime greatest hits medley, having a little bit of everything to cater to every taste.
There’s an intricate magic system, a network of villains, a bashful hero and a sidekick who won’t admit they’re in love, even when everyone else can see it.
In essence, Solo Leveling has cast a shallow yet broad net with its storytelling. The result? A lack of authentic edge that keeps the show as good rather than great.
On top of this, Solo Leveling doesn’t seem like a show - or original Korean web novel - many fans are overly fussed with. There’s a feeling of 'mid' in the air, with the general consensus that even the original web novel needs a bit of bedding into.
The trouble is, Solo Leveling doesn’t have the luxury of time in an industry where a new show - or at least episode - is being released on a weekly basis. It hasn’t argued hard enough to ascertain why viewers should choose it out of thousands of options the streaming platform has, letting the fact that it is something new do the talking instead.
Perhaps it’s a signal that anime should step away from story adaptations altogether. Perhaps it’s a sign for said adaptations to slow down in output, so we can savour them more.
Regardless of personal opinion, Solo Leveling is likely to bear the brunt, lost in the sea of shiny, intricate and unique animated shows we are routinely presented with.