Isekais Suck

Isekai: a blight genre that consistently plagues seasonal anime releases. As a genre, it tends to be about as trashy as it can get. And yet, its everlasting presence suggests that somebody out there is consuming this stuff in enough quantity to sustain the entire market.


Isekai: a blight genre that consistently plagues seasonal anime releases. As a genre, it tends to be about as trashy as it can get. And yet, its everlasting presence suggests that somebody out there is consuming this stuff in enough quantity to sustain the entire market. But first, what is an isekai? Ostensibly it’s a genre where the main character (MC) has “rebirthed” from our modern society into another world; whether that’s being transported/summoned as themselves or being reincarnated into an alternate universe. But simply having the premise of being transported to another world isn’t enough to make something an isekai. After all, Alice in Wonderland isn’t an isekai.

There are other genre-specific niceties that make something an isekai. For instance, there is almost universally a gross engagement with power fantasy and, alongside this, the usual mainstay tropes of harem anime. One can expect an ever-expanding cast of female characters that broadly embody the range of marketable fetishes until the author runs out of whatever creative fuel you can attribute to this process. Power fantasy and waifu collection are crucial components to isekais, and it is how an isekai chooses to engage with these two key parts that differentiate it from other isekais. Indeed, the power fantasy trope is so common in isekai that isekais themselves have taken to semi-ironic meta titles like I Got a Cheat Ability in a Different World, and Became Extraordinary Even In The Real World. The reason is that most of them make the protagonist so powerful that the only joy to be had is to vicariously see them “totally own the unsuspecting noobs” for the nth time. To call it repetitively self-masturbatory would be too on the nose I think—that or a vicious self-abuse of one’s aesthetic instinct.

So sure, it’s bottom of the barrel fiction—moreso an attempt at cynical profiteering than anything resembling an exercise of one’s creative faculties (if any of these authors had such faculties to begin with). However, despite its trashy status and the stretch to call it anything resembling fiction, isekais remain popular. But why does anyone watch, much less like this stuff?

Well, isekais range on how much they tend to engage in power fantasy. Broadly speaking, how much an isekai engages in power fantasy generally decides how much the author wants to focus on the world-building. Those that engage with it less tend to emulate the appeal of a Sims game where you get to observe said world-building and minor characters. Of course, even here, you still get somewhat of a power fantasy where the protagonist will use their knowledge of modern science in a fantasy setting. That, or the protagonist uses their superior magical ability or whatever else to solve the issues of minor characters. That is, similar to how you the player are the godlike influence in the lives of your Sims, the overpowered MC is who we’re meant to project upon. The harem element intersects here because often these storylines featuring minor characters and their complications will serve as an almost ritualistic excuse for the newest female cast member to enter the posse.  One example of the more Sims-like variety is the Overlord series which, while still featuring a super overpowered protagonist, at least attempts to focus on other characters and their troubles. Of course, it too cannot escape being somewhat of a waifu-collector, however, since Overlord contains the average non-harem anime’s level of respect for women­, it isn’t as egregious.

One thing to notice is that many isekai seem to take place in a game-like world; from a hero who has just defeated the final boss to literally being teleported to the world of your favourite video game. Here, one encounters a unique appeal of the isekai genre which the basic isekai lacks. That is, despite the waifu collection elements and the embarrassing display of vicarious living through power fantasy, there is something unique about the “reincarnation into another world” element.

Often, the appeal of the power fantasy is in the stock standard isekai moment. In shounen anime, the stock standard moment would be our protagonist on the brink of defeat saying something inspirational about fighting for their friends before succeeding with the power of friendship. In isekai, you’d often have a character state an expectation of our protagonist’s power level before being blown away. So how does reincarnation play into this? Since our protagonists are almost always soulless husks for the audience to project upon, the thing that makes them special is usually something that denotes them as a “modern person”. That is, since isekais involve being born/sent into another world, there is usually a “special power” that is bestowed upon the protagonist in virtue of this. After all, your audience must be able to say, “If I were there, I’d have the same powers too”. Amazingly, the power that the author generally bestows is “being a nerd”. Literally. Every isekai involving transportation into a video game pre-establishes our protagonist as being very into that game, thus possessing knowledge and/or powers that let them cheat the system. Quite often the backstory of these characters involves a doomed shut-in lifestyle in modern Japan which the current situation has reversed. The unproductive “video game obsession” which has doomed our poor protagonist in modern life has suddenly become a boon. And I think that this is the most characterising part of how isekai works on an emotional level.

While the authors are providing a fantasy where characters are succeeding because of things that society frowns upon, they aren’t fully rejecting the imperative that they ought to be “productive”. It’s weird. One is rejecting the societal standards which make someone a failure, while the other seeks to construct a new standard that reveres the previously condemned. This is something which, I think, dooms the genre to being unable to escape terrible story-telling and cheap power fantasy. It’s because deep down it’s manifesting a non-analysed frustration.

…Well, this isn’t strictly true. Some isekais are okay, but that’s because they either don’t engage in power fantasy at all, give our super-strong protagonists some real stakes, and/or dial way back on the whole “being-gross-to-women” stuff. Plus, the better examples often work as a creative exercise in world-building, which, to me, is at least not automatically garbage. Pieces like Overlord and So I’m a Spider, So What? are often touted as such examples. Though, the more the author uses isekai as an excuse for world-building, the less it seems like a particular work is an isekai to begin with. I do think there is one kind of isekai, in which reincarnation plays a huge factor, that is redeemable. And that’s the otome game type isekai, more specifically, the villainess-rebirth type isekai. An otome game is a story-based game targeted at women—kind of like a dating sim. In these games, there is usually a villainess: the antagonist who typically meets their defeat upon our protagonist succeeding in her conquest of love. Now, these types of isekai don’t actually have to be otome games as our protagonists are often sent to the world of a fantasy novel (where character relations still work the same).

Honestly, I love this genre of isekai. This type of isekai is redeemable because authors often generate actual stories with real plots and stakes. While our protagonist does usually benefit from her knowledge of how the plot of the game or the novel unfolds, the premise is often the following: our protagonist has rebirthed into the position of the villainess and upon realising that her scripted death is nigh, must try and do everything within her power to prevent this. Usually, this means repairing character relations and quite literally “girlbossing” it up in a fantasy setting. One example (and I’m not even trying to name exemplary examples) would be something like The Villainess Turns the Hourglass; in which, a villainess character is sent to the past after meeting an untimely death and must try her best to avoid it with her knowledge of the future. There are stakes, there’s girlbossing, and there even is a romance plot. You’ve even got other examples such as I’ll Become a Villainess That Will Go Down in History, where our protagonist wakes up as the villainess in her favourite otome game. And she sets out, not to repair relations, but to be the best villainess she can be to defeat our heroine’s “naivety”.

Maybe isekais just get so much better when you have female protagonists, so you end up with real female characters rather than the usual female-shaped homunculi—soulless abstractions of male desire. Or maybe it’s the stories written with real stakes and plots, even if one is relying on a copy-paste premise. I do think that it’s interesting that often these stories condemn the naivety and demureness of the heroine in one way or another. It’s a weird reversal where an isekai is acknowledging and trying to subvert the sexist norms of what is undoubtedly a trashy genre.

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