This article contains 0% of images from actual isekai anime apart from this one smug goth loli fairy because there is no way I wouldn’t feature a smug goth loli fairy.
Hey, folks! On today’s quest to step on everyone’s toes, I figured I might as well write a bit about isekai anime and how most of them suffer from not exactly a plethora of issues but just the very same few over and over again. And yes, I know this is most likely very trodden ground and hardly much of an original topic so bear with me.
Do you sometimes see a fad and think to yourself “this shit is such dumb garbage, there is no way it won’t be short-lived” and then for some inexplicable reason, people keep eating that trash up so it stays around much to your surprise and detriment? Take Minions. Or the concept of memes. Or TicToc, like holy shit.
Yeah, isekai is exactly like that. The thing that made you roll your eyes as everyone else was feasting on plates of garbage back when it got popular in… I don’t know, 2012? and now it’s 2019 and it still plagues us all. Granted, bad anime are one thing but once they all adhere to the same shallow, soulless formula, it’s an issue worth writing about. Which is what I’m doing here. Now, keep in mind, I can only speak for what gets an anime so if you’ve got that one niché untranslated LN by your side… good for you? And, of course, I also don’t mean to generalize, there are always exceptions to the rule.
First of all, I’d like to assume that everyone here knows what an isekai anime is. Sadly, for some forsaken reason, there are people who really don’t yet that doesn’t stop them from using the term all the time anyway. I’m not sure why so many have trouble defining isekai, I mean, it’s right there in the term itself – “other world”. There’s not much semantics to argue here. Sure, there are some borderline cases such as C where one might make some arguments either for or against but those are infrequent at best. Why enough people still somehow manage to associate the isekai term with a straight fantasy setting is beyond me. Yet something that baffles me even more is the thought that isekai is something reserved to newer stories and you have folks downright dismissing InuYasha and the likes as isekai. Best not tell others that there’s this Yu-Gi-Oh! GX arc in season 3 commonly referred to as 異世界編, featuring a yandere monster hermaphrodite winning over the protagonist at the end… you know, things anime fans will insist modern anime invented. For you see, be it -dere types or isekai anime, clearly they were invented way past these aforementioned kids anime classics but let’s also not forget that that was before they were deconstructed by Re:Zero (which invented death and bad things), Gate (which invented the reverse scenario), Shield Hero (which invented evil women and unconventional weapons), Slime (which invented… slimes?) and who knows what else. Man, I’m starting to believe there have been more deconstructions so far than regular isekai anime at this rate. And don’t you dare tell anyone otherwise or else they will get really, really angry at you. Is this the way we act? Being ignorant and proud of it?
And so the debating over something so very easy to define continues. Not that isekai is the only genre subject to stupidity more often than not, just take all the silly comments such as “Wow, this is my first mecha/sports anime ever but I like that it focuses so much on the characters rather than the mecha/sports, that makes it really unique among its genre”. There are things to be said about that but I digress.
And if there’s one thing at least as silly as people trying to reason why certain anime like Goblin Slayer are isekai… or worse, why others that clearly are aren’t… then it’s gotta be how everyone hails the newest, latest installment as the beacon of originality that really breaks the clichés it surrounds itself with. Mind you, this happens every season anew, something that seems kind of contradicting. Usually with the flimsiest of excuses too. Yeah, I get it. This time is different. This time, the protagonist has a gimmick that… man, you wouldn’t believe it when he does that one amazing thing with it… and everyone then is in love with him.
Turns out, these are all derivative trash. Isekai stories should be transformative processes in regards to its protagonists yet there is nothing there and you get the same old formula, rinse and repeat. The gimmicks change, the system remains the same.
And don’t get me started on the “KONOSUBA IS SO DIFFERENT” crowd. Yeah, it’s different for being… a parody. No, seriously, there are people who treat a comedic take on something usually non-comedic as a deconstruction of sorts. At this point, I’m no longer sure whether it’s the protagonists getting transported to bizarro worlds or just us.
Long story short, what matters is that someone gets thrown into another world and that’s where oftentimes any kind of ambition in the writing ceases to exist. Besides, what kind of world are we even talking about? It’s always Boring Generic Fantasy Land™. These isekai settings are always so unimaginative. Wow, European houses and green forests, they really went out on a limb there, eh? Are there dragons and a demon lord too? Geez, might even go for a halfhearted parody story then. Or do this super-serious thing where you have several *countries* and they have *relations* as pointed out by exposition over a map. Narrating your world instead of populating it is also complete and utter garbage, especially with the aforementioned lack of imagination that pops up so often. I don’t think I want history lessons on boring, generic fantasy settings in my entertainment, thank you very much. I already zone out with the video game introduction info dumps regularly. Show fascinating things, don’t describe boring ones. Anime like Girls’ Last Tour and Texhnolyze tell more about their settings without delivering dumps of exposition on it. Every mana-fueling Magic The Gathering card does a better job with presenting me with a scenery I’d like to experience firsthand or at least one that looks stunning. Without telling me a single thing about it. Meanwhile, most isekai anime don’t even try and leave it at Fantasy Europe. Quite frankly, at this point I can’t help but feel that anyone watching a documentary on another country they’re not 100% familiar with will get more of an isekai vibe than from actual isekai anime.
I think my main issue with the isekai fad apart from the blatant lack of originality or creative thought is that the isekai angle doesn’t really matter. It’s a necessary evil to get some loser from place A to place B where he can start over to be awesome and that’s about it. The guy never even has to learn the language spoken or adopt to the culture as there’s zilch of an entry barrier and any sort of actual interaction with a new, challenging environment is completely handwaved.
See, the focus of these stories is, contrary to what the isekai genre would have you assume, not on the new world. It’s on X, X being the latest gimmick or whatever. Slime. Shield. Smartphone. The BS OP element of choice.
It’s not “WOW, THIS WORLD!”, it’s “WOW, THAT SMARTPHONE!” – just ask the harem girls, they usually say so in unison. And quite frankly, it’s not even about the smartphone either as the smartphone is just an extension or proxy of your awesomeness for some reason. “WOW, YOU!” – there, that’s the message behind most isekai anime. The world, the people that inhabit it, the smartphone, they’re all just backdrops so you can feel good about yourself.
And so, the part where the protagonist properly interacts with his new world gets sidelined immediately. Introducing the protagonist to a whole new experience and fresh surroundings alongside the audience is a powerful tool to close the bridge between the audience and its characters yet I often find myself scratching my head at non-isekai anime regularly doing this better than isekai anime.
Higurashi does this better for example. It starts out as Keiichi moves from the city to the lovely village of Hinamizawa, based on world heritage village Shirakawa-go (see, that’s already an interesting setting to go with). As he is introduced to the village and new characters, so are we, making it easy for us to relate to him. And it’s a setting and characters worth being introduced to. Hinamizawa is so striking from its cicada sounds to village mysteries to locations such as the Irie clinic or Keiichi’s house (remember what other protagonists’ houses look like in anime?) to the people that inhabit the village that you could almost argue Hinamizawa itself is the protagonist of these stories. Just imagine Higurashi had some generic school setting to go with. It just wouldn’t be the same.
To name another instance, Zipang isn’t an isekai anime per se but when it transports the crew of a JSDF ship to WWII and has them change their views on morality and question their own decisions as it lets them collide with past people from all walks of life it gets the appeal right moreso than new isekai. Likewise, Zipang does well in having characters from the “isekai side” so to speak take an interest in the world the main characters stem from, influencing their world view and decision making, hence the entire ordeal being a majorly altering experience to both sides. Well, as it turns out, going back in time isn’t that different from getting transported to a different world.
As far as I’m concerned, isekai should be a transformative process to all those involved. Instead, most of these stories are just shallow lip service to merely one character however.
This is why Grimgar is a good isekai story as ordinary people get thrown into a different world and have to struggle through it to make a living in it. It forces them to interact with their world whereas the average power fantasy immediately devalues it and uses it as a prop for the protagonist. Within both the characters as well as the world they inhabit, interactions and decision-making become a major focus as it’s the only way for the characters that got brought over to another world to acclimate. And so a self-serving world that pays no heed to the characters’ longings ends up as more interesting than one specifically catered towards the main actor’s needs. Nobody is “you-tooled”, waiting for you – or the protagonist – to do your thing as if their existence hinged on it. Likewise, Skyrim bores me conceptually already from the get-go as you’re the legendary Dragonborn set to save the world rather than a literal who is slowly working himself up the ranks in a world that doesn’t give a shit about him.
And since this is half a laudatio on Grimgar anyway, let me just point out that Grimgar also makes sure to bring over people with an actual personality rather than blank slates and makes them mesh properly. Haru starts out as an overly brooding young man not sure how to grasp others and through his new experiences, gets to grow as a human being. The world he inhabits forms him because he has to partake in it by paving his way through it instead of said world rolling itself out like a red carpet. Which, really, is the big issue with so many isekai stories out there: when you transport a self-insert protagonist without identifiable features to another ignorable world, you get a story about nobody set in nowhere at all. All of this defies the purpose of an isekai story, something that is about the interaction between people and their environment. An isekai anime that doesn’t care about its setting should be some kind of oxymoron yet it isn’t. It’s the norm. It’s kind of insane, really.
Oh and don’t get me started on nonsense like “the teenage boy from modern Japan will show the backbones fantasy people the way as he hails from a more advanced society”. You know how to fly to the moon just because your society did at some point? No. Conclusively, and this goes without saying, you can’t really claim to benefit from other people’s achievements – or take their credit for that matter. Yet in this kind of isekai story, the protagonist somehow always does, which, really, goes to show how creatively bankrupt these settings are and almost negligible as a prop to the protagonist’s power trip. If a character from a modern era ended up in the middle ages, he wouldn’t revolutionize them but start out as an apprentice to a smith or farmer due to a lack of an applicable skill set. And deal with a lot of other problems. He’d have to fight for his resources. Truth to be told, any reality TV show that throws middle and upper class disasters on deserted islands goes to point out that if you strip away our commodities, we’re hopelessly lost and these formats aren’t exactly shining examples of amazing TV either, mind you. I am not awesome because Edison was. Just because I know what a light bulb is doesn’t mean I’m qualified to bring electricity to the poorest parts of Africa with my bare hands. I’ve mentioned time travel before and it’s kinda ironic that plenty of isekai anime aren’t much different from medieval Europe until the Japanese teenage boy comes in with his modern TECHNOLOGY and shows them how it’s done… without having ever done much in his own life.
But if not for a messiah to teach the savages with the cute girls about the miracles of a far more advanced civilization through the power of plot convenience, that wouldn’t be a power fantasy and would require actual writing. And we can’t have that because you’re special. Quite frankly, It also reeks of lazy arrogance. Like some rich kid who’s never worked before in his life but is so very loaded with daddy’s money making it to the slums and then giving tips for saving or some rubbish like that. I don’t think anyone would like that kinda person. Yet your self-insert is that person and isn’t he just the greatest being ever for that? There’s a bizarre lack of self-awareness with this kind of writing.
Which brings me to the end of this post already. At the end of the day, what do you want me to say? Interacting with the world is hard. And you most likely won’t ever be the best at anything. But precisely because there are no cheat codes and magical shortcuts, you can find some meaning therein.
Though really, if I had a choice, I’d rather magically get transported to the land of goth lolis seeking anime bloggers for recreation purposes any minute now. I’m still waiting.