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SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 Review: Genre-Bending Brilliance

Anime imagine of a creature smiling a wide grin with red eyes
Image courtesy of A1 Pictures

By Sarah Musnicky

SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 is an excellent example of how easily the genres can cross over in anime. From action to horror to the psychological, this latest series produced by A-1 Pictures has it all. While the season itself suffers a bit from pacing issues, overall, SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 is an entertaining prologue to the action on the horizon in Solo Leveling: Arise from the Shadow.

SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 focuses on the protagonist, Sung Jinwoo (Taito Ban). With the nickname "Weakest Hunter in the World," our down-on-his-luck hunter's threshold for success is low. Not only does he have to try to survive the most basic of Dungeons, but Jinwoo is also responsible for taking care of his younger sister and his comatose mother. Long story short, Jinwoo's got a lot on his plate.

The series starts strong by throwing both viewers and Jinwoo straight into the natural horror of this anime's world. Heck, the first scene features some human-chomping giant bugs, so viewers can instantly learn what kind of action and gore scenarios they will get. Episode 2, however, features one of the earliest horror-infused dungeons, with murderous god-like statues squashing hunters like bugs. It is when Jinwoo is left at the literal altar as a sacrifice that the series' title kicks into gear.

The System, which gets little explanation for its existence in SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1, chooses Jinwoo to level up. It isn't common for Hunters to have a second awakening, but it isn't entirely out of left field. Jinwoo, however, can continuously grow and level up throughout the series due to the challenges The System throws at him.

This is why it is easier to describe SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 as more of a prologue. Much of the season's focus is on Jinwoo's journey leveling up. He goes from the timid and weak E-Rank hunter we meet at the beginning to the cut, almost bloodthirsty killer by the season's end. But the series is not without its lessons.

For Jinwoo and the viewers, SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 via The System and expositional dialogue points from other characters point out how working alone isn't always the best method. It works for a while, but the path is lonely. Eventually, there will come a task that requires teamwork. Even the strongest S-ranked hunters are called on to work together, as illustrated by a mission in Episode 12. Whether or not Jinwoo fully learns this remains up in the air, but he learns something akin to teamwork towards the end.

An animated person looking with shock at a bloodied knife
Image courtesy of A1 Pictures

There's also the impact fighting and killing have on hunters, particularly as they level up. The dive into the Hunter culture and how little management there is once hunters enter dungeons is fascinating. It shows how easily corruption can spread when given the chance.

Even for Jinwoo, he is not immune. The stronger he becomes, the more his personality starts to change. This near change in personality surprises those closest to him, particularly Yoo Jinho (Genta Nakamura), during their first dungeon together. Killing can and will be seductive, but it is unclear where The System stands on this with their interactions with Jinwoo.

Where SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 stumbles is in its middle half. A couple of storylines compete for attention, leaving Jinwoo's general trajectory stagnant halfway through. Even if you remove the recap episode, this issue still remains. While these other storylines end up setting up plausible conflicts for the second season, better finessing with the writing and merging of these storylines will help improve pacing later on.

There's also the added issue that Jinwoo almost suffers from plot armor after his second awakening. Yes, he struggles early on, but there's never any real hint that he might not get out of a situation unscathed. In Episodes 11-12, we almost get a moment where Jinwoo looks like he's finally going to lose, but the plot goes by way of deus ex machina. It removes the possibility of actual stakes for the viewer when the hero doesn't suffer actual pitfalls.

Yes, he suffered through near-death experiences before his second awakening. But the lessons he learned through those life-or-death experiences also seem to have been tossed out of the window. The stronger he gets, the more risks he takes. And, with seemingly no enemy now that he can't conquer, it makes me wonder what can take him down.

The animation is stunning to behold. As SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 progresses, the animation adjusts and experiments with illustrating Jinwoo's ever-evolving skillset. This culminates in Jinwoo's epic battle with Igris the Bloodred, who also presents Jinwoo's closest brush with death post-second awakening. It is impeccably done and heightens the already-baked intensity of that battle since we know he can't use any potions to recover.

SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 is entertaining, even when it stumbles. From the blood, monsters, and murder, this anime is a lighter venture for horror fans looking to step into the anime side of things. Now that it has been confirmed for Season 2, things will hopefully get crazier for Jinwoo and his new skillset.

SOLO LEVELING SEASON 1 is now streaming on Crunchyroll.


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