While anime has traditionally specialised in adapting homegrown manga and light novels into series, the rising popularity of manhwa (South Korean comics) has forced the powerhouse Japanese industry to look to their western neighbours for inspiration. In recent times, acclaimed manhwa such as Tower of God and The God of High School have been remade into highly rated anime. But as good as those adaptations have been, none have proven to be as celebrated as Solo Leveling. Based on the massively successful webtoon (digital comic) by Chugong and Dubu, this outstanding TV show directed by Shunsuke Nakashige and written by Noboru Kimura is by far the biggest anime hit of the season.

Solo Leveling takes place in a world where regular modern society has been disrupted by the sudden and random appearances of “gates” – portals enabling monsters from other dimensions to come into our world. In order to neutralise this threat, supernaturally gifted humans known as “hunters” are sent to combat these creatures. As years pass, an industry has formed around this phenomenon. Hunters organised into “guilds” are hired by the government for large sums of money to enter these gates and raid the “dungeons” within in order to defeat these beasts before they emerge. Beyond their lucrative contracts, hunters are able to pick up “loot” and mine for “mana crystals” within these dungeons to earn extra income.

Solo Leveling. Credit: Crunchyroll

Hunters, monsters and dungeons are classed according to their degree of power, with S-rank being the highest and E-rank being the lowest. Sadly for our scrawny E-ranked protagonist Sung Jin-woo, he’s infamously nicknamed “The Weakest Hunter Of All Mankind”. Although he’s consistently wounded and barely able to survive even low-level missions, Jin-woo persists because he’s the sole breadwinner for his family. With medical bills piling up due to his mother’s coma and a younger sister in school, his earnings as a hunter is the only thing keeping them afloat. However things take a turn when he sets foot in a double dungeon (an S-rank dungeon hidden inside a D-rank dungeon). Despite his best efforts, Jin-woo (alongside most of his party) is brutally destroyed by godlike, statuesque beings.

Mysteriously, Jin-woo is resurrected by a divine force. Our hero is perplexed when he awakens in a hospital bed and is able to see the world through the lens of a gaming system. Touchscreens (only visible to Jin-woo) pop-up around him detailing his stats (strength, intelligence, health, agility, etc.) and offering instructions on how he can improve them through daily exercise and participation in “instance dungeons” where he can practise and pick up magical items (healing potions, mystical weapons, etc.). This is unusual because in this universe, a hunter’s power level is fixed, unable to increase or decrease regardless of experience or training. Thus, Jin-woo is the only being able to exponentially level up.


But just because our protagonist is getting stronger doesn’t mean that life gets any easier. While mighty hunters are treated as celebrities and receive bigger paydays, Jin-woo has no way to explain to authorities how he’s able to continually elevate his abilities. Thus, he maintains his E-rank status and only joins higher-ranked raids in unglamorous positions. In these tougher dungeons, where more money is at stake, Jin-woo soon learns that not only are the monsters more perilous, so are his human companions.

As you’ve probably figured out, Solo Leveling is essentially Fantasy MMORPG: The Series, marrying the terms and mechanics of role-playing games with the tropes and structure of shonen. Watching a humble weakling slowly become the strongest character feels like the ultimate wish fulfilment – and the series executes this journey expertly. Solo Leveling never rushes Jin-woo’s rise, immersing us in the struggles and triumphs of his transformation as he grows physically and mentally into an ultra-confident, absurdly skilled GigaChad. Of course, each step of Jin-woo’s story is packed with dynamic action and adventure that’s gorgeously rendered by A-1 Pictures (the famed studio behind Sword Art Online, Your Lie in April and Kaguya-sama: Love is War) using a seamless combination of 2D animation and CGI.

Solo Leveling. Credit: Crunchyroll

The only thing holding Solo Leveling from perfection is the lack of emotional depth from the series’ supporting characters, who largely function as plot devices for Jin-woo’s journey. Despite constant peril and several gruesome deaths, there’s a dearth of tension due to the audience’s lack of investment in the people around Jin-woo. And since Jin-woo himself is protected by plot armour, viewers almost never have to worry about the danger he puts himself in. Nevertheless, Solo Leveling’s narrative surprises, brisk pace and visual spectacle more than makes up for its flaws. Combine that with the joys of Jin-woo’s ascent and the intriguing mystery of his omniscient interface and you get an addictive anime that deserves all the hype it’s getting.

Solo Leveling season 1 is available on Netflix and Crunchyroll now. 

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