What’s the appeal of those “stuck in another world” fantasies? Some Japanese bloggers explain

re-zero-kara-hajimeru-isekai-seikatsu-episode-1-04-45_2016-04-03_22-50-21During my adventures on the Japanese web, I rarely see people say anything good about the recent trend towards isekai (“stuck in another world”) stories, particularly in light novels and web novels. The stories are frequently dismissed as shallow, masturbatory and full of cheap wish fulfillment. It’s overdone, they say. It’s trite and cliche. Stop adapting so many of these stories into anime.

Japanese readers have even come up with memes to make fun of the recent trends. 「俺TUEEEE」(“I’m so stroooooong”) basically means “Overpowered MC”. When a story is filled to the brim with all the various wish fulfillment tropes, it’s referred to as a narou-type work. Narou comes from Shousetsuka ni Narou! (“Let’s become a novelist!”), which is far and away the most popular website for posting amateur web novels. If you check out the top-ranked series, the vast majority are isekai stories where the MC does pretty much nothing to earn his 俺TUEEEE status.

The Japanese fandom is like the English fandom in the sense that the majority of internet commentary about this trend is snarky and negative, but a significant number of people are hooked on these stories nevertheless. There are plenty of netizens who attempt to explain the appeal of the narou genre, but because they’re clearly disdainful of it, their explanations occasionally seem condescending, even pathologising (e.g. “it’s a shallow power fantasy aimed at nerds who will never find a girlfriend!”) Nevertheless, there are bloggers who articulate why they like the narou genre quite thoughtfully, so I thought I’d focus on their perspectives in this post.

Because I cannot accept their points at face value, I’m going to respond to them critically in this post. However, I invite you to come to your own conclusions.

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“Go on, I’m listening!”

The first thing that struck me about the appeal of narou stories (according to its fans) is how thoroughly cynical it is. In this interview on 4Gamer.net, the blogger Umetsubame claims that others look down on narou stories because they think that people should work hard in order to succeed. Yet in real life, lots of people try hard but fail to succeed, while others do nothing and succeed anyway.

At this point, Nobuo Kawakami, the Representative Director of Dwango, chimes in to say: “In fact, the idea that if you try hard you will (definitely) succeed is more of a fantasy.” (むしろ,努力したら(必ず)成功するっていう方がファンタジーですよ。)

This isn’t wrong, but somehow it seems like an odd justification for narou stories. Those who succeed in society without too much effort are often born into rich and/or privileged circumstances. This doesn’t appear to match the “average Joe” appeal that narou protagonists have going for them. How is this supposed to be more realistic than a story about an average person working hard and eventually succeeding?

Shiba-Tatsuya

Although I suppose Tatsuya doesn’t fall into this category…

The supposed realism in narou stories makes more sense when you consider their settings. If it’s taken as a given that people cheat their way to the top in society, then in order for a narou protagonist to succeed, he needs to be placed into a world where his own particular skills can be used as cheats. It’s no surprise, then, that the vast majority of isekai stories are based on JRPG-inspired worlds, particularly the pseudo-medieval settings of the Dragon Quest series and the early Final Fantasy games.

The blogger Daichi Saito put it this way: “More than anything else, one’s memories of playing a game summon images of happiness and adoration.” (ゲームの記憶こそが他の何よりも、喜びやあこがれを呼び起こすイメージなのだと思う。) In other words, people these days don’t really experience that warm feeling of success outside of clearing a game.

This possibly explains why so many web novels read like gaming logs: “I woke up, I fought slimes, I rose 3 levels, then I went to bed. The next day, I woke up, fought even more slimes, and rose 4 levels.” etc. etc. It makes for dry reading, but it can be seen as a way of injecting realism into a story about living in a video game-esque world.

Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari vol 1

Tate no Yuusha was a particularly egregious example of this

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It also explains why everything seems to fall into place for these narou protagonists as soon as they figure out the “trick” to succeeding – and why very few of them ever manage to achieve conventional success in their own worlds, even at the end of their stories. The protagonist of Mushoku Tensei never returns to his original world even at the end of his life, for instance. And we also have stories like No Game No Life where it is pretty much stated from the get-go that the protagonists have no intention of going back to their old world. The thought of returning doesn’t appear to have even occurred to Subaru of Re: Zero, either, despite (or maybe because of) his genre-savviness.

What I find peculiar about all of this is the underlying assumption that only people who know how to cheat the system can succeed. Umetsubame explained this cynicism is a result of the current social climate. Japan is past its economic bubble, there is no job security for young people, and in order to get hired you need to bury your individuality. Instead of pathologising narou fans, he points to society’s arbitrary standards of success as the underlying problem. You can work and work and work, but still be laid off your job. Narou stories function not only as escapist fiction, but also as an affirmation of this particular worldview.

As you might be able to guess, it’s not a worldview that I personally share. In fact, hearing that isekai stories are critiques of modern Japan only baffles me because life in the fantasy world usually seems far worse than Japan for everyone except the protagonist. In some web novels, slavery is widely practiced. In the popular web novel aptly named Slave Harem in the Labyrinth of the Other World, the protagonist himself buys girls as his sex slaves. One could perhaps argue that buying a slave harem is a more plausible way for an unpopular guy to go about things than having numerous girls randomly fall in love with him… until you remember that in the slave harem stories, the slaves fall in love with the protagonist. It’s weird and creepy no matter how you spin it.

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Grimgar is one of the few LNs/WNs that consistently shows that life in a fantasy world is not all fun and games

And what about stories where people work really hard but ultimately fail? That’s realistic too, isn’t it? But they’re pretty much nonexistent in the world of Japanese light novels. Kawakami points to the manga Ressentiment as a literary-style work that presents a harsh truth for otaku. Ironically, otaku don’t support it because “nobody wants to know the truth” (みんな真実は知りたくないんだなって。)

This pretty much indicates that the primary appeal of narou stories is the escapism and not for the social critique, even if  certain frustrations with society may have prompted the fantasies to take this particular form. And that’s understandable, right? It’s not as if otaku are the people who invented escapism.

Umetsubame finishes by saying something very interesting, though:

Well, it’s just that there are times when you want to read bitter stories, you know? If you looked at moe-type works all the time, that could be gratifying by itself, but then there would be times when you’d feel like it’s all a lie and and you’d want to look at something bitter. And, well, if you looked at bitter works all the times, you’d think, “Moe is good for me after all,” and you’d go back to it (haha).

This, I think, gets to the heart of the matter. Different strokes for different people on different occasions. I also enjoy  narou stories from time to time, but it’s just one type of story among many that I consume. To enjoy narou stories, I don’t even need to self-insert as the protagonist. For example, I’m enjoying Re: Zero this season even though I think Subaru is a bit of an ass. Emilia is cute and Reinhard is kinda hot, and that’s good enough for me.

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hrrrrnnnnngggggggh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you like/dislike about the narou  genre and isekai stories in particular?

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Posted on May 5, 2016, in Editorials and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 56 Comments.

  1. Somewhat I think this post is related to my rant on Twitter… *wink wink*

    “Narou”-style is hard to definitely take seriously in terms of realism, due to its escapist nature. And while, yes, Grimgar is most likely the best “narou” LN/WN by being “darker”, the saturation of optimistic stories in this genre gives a sense of desensitisation from the real world.

    But, even if being whisked away for a little hour by reading is fun on its own, no need for a specific writing.

    Also, “narou”-style turns into a story where the reader feels more linked to the protagonist(s) while being far away from him/them by never acheiving what the hero(es) accomplish(es).
    Quite paradoxal.

    • Somehow*
      I need to check what I write.

    • I feel that Grimgar isn’t really a “narou” story because it isn’t focused around the protagonist’s exploits. It does count as an isekai story, though.

      Also, “narou”-style turns into a story where the reader feels more linked to the protagonist(s) while being far away from him/them by never acheiving what the hero(es) accomplish(es).

      This is a really good point. I think these stories appeal to the part of us that thinks “I wouldn’t have been so stupid” whenever a character makes a seemingly dumb mistake in a story. We’re able to make that judgement because we know the context of the story and also possess lots of meta-knowledge about storytelling. So we feel powerful when a story tells us, “Someone who possesses the same knowledge as you would be really awesome in another world!” Also, since most of us know how it feels to easily clear a game, I think it is possible to relate to the feeling of cheap (yet satisfying) victory that narou stories sell us.

  2. Great post. I’d have to say this isn’t a subgenre that has ever particularly appealed to me–but, as they say, different strokes for different folks. I usually call these Narnia-stories, but I think you made a good point in noting that in most of these LN/anime series, the protagonist isn’t really trying to get back to his home world. Even SAO has Kirito quickly move on to another virtual fantasy world, despite nearly losing his life in the first story arc. Games are just that much more fun than real life, apparently.

    I’d have to say my favorite take on this sort of concept is actually The Devil is a Part-Timer, which more or less approaches everything from the opposite direction. The powerful demon lord ends up in our dull reality and has to flip burgers for a living (and, similarly, the fantasy heroine ends up working in a call center). In the end it’s still escapist fiction in that magical misadventures ensue and days are saved, but I get a kick out of the way the tropes are played around with.

    I’ll pose a question on this general topic. Why is it that in most of these RPG video games (and in turn, many light novels and anime) is the setting based on medieval fantasy Europe? Why does the magical folklore and legends of the West appear to resonate with Japanese audiences a lot more than the magical folklore and legends of Japan or East Asia? Is it simply an effort at a more thorough escapism, if the protagonists (or the players) are leaving their home culture entirely?

    • I wouldn’t call myself terribly familiar with JRPGs these days, but from the games I’ve played, I actually do think that they do incorporate heaps of Japanese magical folklore and historical figures, even if the overall aesthetic is drawn from medieval fantasy Europe. e.g. The “Ashura Sword” in Breath of Fire, the “Masamune” in the Final Fantasy series, etc.

      I also think that, while “stuck in a medieval fantasy world” is a popular genre, an even more popular genre in Japanese popular culture is “stuck in a point of Japanese history”, usually the Warring States era.

      But yeah, it’s an interesting thought to chew on.

      • I’m gonna correct you on this but practically all Japanese games draw on Eastern folklore more so than the West, the influence is there and sometimes it’s practically hard to see where the influence has come from but every Japanese RPG game you play you have this inky feeling that it has some real Eastern influences and they are extremely hard to spot and it’s more or less the way they are bought up.

        Even pokemon doesn’t seem to have many mythical creatures, practically all the legendaries are based on an anicent mythical legends around the world, half of the pokemon are based on Japanese folklore and a fair few are based on real life animals.

        It happens vice versa as well when a Western developer makes an Eastern game you see hardline Western views in them more so than the East Shogun 2 is a prime example.

        To this question

        “I’ll pose a question on this general topic. Why is it that in most of these RPG video games (and in turn, many light novels and anime) is the setting based on medieval fantasy Europe? Why does the magical folklore and legends of the West appear to resonate with Japanese audiences a lot more than the magical folklore and legends of Japan or East Asia? Is it simply an effort at a more thorough escapism, if the protagonists (or the players) are leaving their home culture entirely?”

        Your being pretty vague here but I will assume likewise that your just talking about the the games release in the West for sale. Remember that there are MANY Japanese video games the games release here are far and few between as Western companies would probably deem inappropriate to the West and “localize it for us” which ruins the whole game.

        For example the ACE Attorney Series, this seems in the essence a WESTERN game through and through but if you look deeper you don’t know how hacked up this series is, as this pretty much represents the Japanese legal system where it’s almost a miracle to win a losing case which Phoenix (Eastern mythical bird, it came from the east not the west sigh.) rise from the ashes of the loss and wins a losing court case.

        The setting may go back as medieval fantasy Europe but remember they are human like us and even though you may perceive it that way. The set up is more reminisce of a Eastern society how everyone walks around and communicates how everyone must make way for the respected members of society which the Medieval Europe adopted from the Crusades, if you interfered in the process in Europe you would be killed ruthlessly where in the Eastern society they tend to give you a second chance and remember that in WESTERN MEDIEVAL EUROPE society wasn’t like that perceived in games, it’s more middle eastern or ARABIC before the Crusades EUROPEANS were literally living in poo and animal crap until after the crusades they brought the society from the Middle East back to Europe and that’s why it looks so good, it’s the same as Middle eastern type society back then cause they came back and looked at themselves and said “WE CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS” and bought so much stuff back like Chess, Fruit and Vegetables, irrigation, agriculture, proper building techniques and the like. Watch Horrible Histories the part where a soldier returns from a crusade to the wife, if you can’t be bothered reading history books.

        So your question should be rephrased… Why do RPG VIdeo games are based on a Renaissance of Europe which is a mix of Western and Eastern Civilization as the Middle East was combination of the Two and that answers your question. They aren’t based on a Western Medieval Europe they are based on the City of the Peace, Jerusalem, one of the major trading capitals at the time which is between Asia and Europe so therefore is a mix between the two.

        • I was with you until you started mentioning the crusades. Then your comment became incoherent to me. (Sorry!)

          Also, while Ace Attorney is indeed a good example of a game that has more Japanese influences than may be immediately obvious to someone who plays the U.S. version, you do realise that the protagonist’s name is not Phoenix in the original Japanese game?

  3. I like narou-type stories. But then, I can like any type of story, except pure comedies. And SAO is one of my favorite anime (especially because of the Aincrad arc, but I still like the others).

    However, I’ve never really seen SAO as a form of escapism. Or maybe I just don’t perceive it… I mean, when it comes to something like Non Non Biyori, I can definitely tell it’s escapism. Last year, mondays were my worst weekdays, cuz I had classes the whole day. And it was on those days I watched NNB, so I could get rid of all the stress.

    But as for SAO… The anime itself is about escapism, I just don’t know if it can be considered escapist. People play SAO to escape reality, Sinon played GGO to escape reality, Leafa played ALO to escape reality, Yuuki as well… And even Kirito used his in-game power to try to ‘cheat’ the harsh reality around him. But the answer was never on the games, it was always on people. SAO tells us we find strength on other people. Escaping was never the right solution.

    So if SAO is escapist… It’s a escapist work that says escapism doesn’t work? Could that even be considered escapist?

    • I think what separates SAO from a lot of other isekai stories is that Kawahara is really good at worldbuilding. The fantasy settings in other isekai stories are built around the idea of another world, so they leave the reader to fill in most of the blanks based on their JRPG knowledge. But Kawahara spends a lot of time drawing out a world with its own rules and social conventions. As a result, his worlds don’t actually feel that different from the real world. It’s still escapism, but it’s escapism that constantly makes the reader reflect on the real world.

      Russell left a good comment about SAO below, so you should read that as well.

      • (Note that I’ve only seen the first season of SAO.) Actually, I think the world building is precisely what makes SAO escapist in nature. All the energy of world building of SAO goes into stuff like geme mechanics, or in-game sensual content. And then the game is treated as a setting as comprehensive as the real world. Technological features tend to serve as incentives for fantasy and little else (e.g. Yui being explained as a psychological caretaker program – which in term of world building remains laregely inconsequential). I was approaching SAO from the SF perspective when I first picked it up (as it aired), and was very quickly very disappointed. From a SF perspective, the world building is aweful. But if you re-calibrate you’re expectations to a straightforward adventure story, it’s fairly entertaining, and the worldbuilding gives you a backdrop that’s mostely sensually appealing. The concept of “player killers” is lifted from online games and transformed into a very straightforwad villain generator. And so on. And so on. Everything in the world building is handled in a way to maximise adventure fun.

        I think the trapped-in-a-game genre is a tad different from other isekai shows, if you take the game interface seriously: then world building must take into account that the real world changes, too, because the technology that makes the game possible has other uses in real life. Shows like .hack/signs understand this. Dennou Coil does away with the game altogether, and has overlapping realities, depending on whether you wear the gear or not. If you watch shows like these, you’ll understand that SAO‘s interest (at least early on – I haven’t seen more than one season and read nothing) isn’t in that sort of question at all.

        Log Horizon and Grimgar, on the other hand, nearly erase the world of origin, only hinting at its relevance now and then. Both seem to have a plan, to be leading up to some development. But the primary focus, at least in the early stages, is social organisation. SAO isn’t interested in that sort of stuff, either.

        The game’s in SAO really are designed to be places to escape to. And SAO is aware of this and addresses this, which is, I think, what starlessn1ght addresses. People have problems in the real world, and running away into a game doesn’t solve those problems. The problems are usually conceptualised as problem between people, and very often the solutions play out online (such as Suguha/Kirito in ALO). So, when a show actually addresses escapism like this, can the show still be escapist?

        To me the answer is an obvious “yes,” but I find it surprisingly hard to formulate a satisfying answer, and I think it’s a very interesting question, worth thinking about. I think the nature of its world building is part of it. But there’s more to it than that.

        I have a hunch that it might actually be more than escapism: a sort of plea, or maybe even an apologia for other people to respect video games. Something along the lines of: “the friends we make online are real friends,” or the “skills we develop while playing games are worthwhile, too”… It’s just feels more self-centered. More directed at yourself and others. If the stakes in a game were real, than being good at games could safe lives. That’s a sort of wishful thinking, but it’s also – I think – born of a certain stigma. If you’re good at sports, or at chess you get prestige. If you’re good at video games you’re a geek. It’s also very specifically a male fantasy: Asuna feels a lot like the answer to the cliché that people who play too much don’t get a girlfriend. I do think SAO is escapism, but what you’re supposed to escape from is very specific: an interalised stigma of videogaming as “too nerdy for respect”. A lot of the character development Kirito undergoes seems to point in that direction.

      • I agree with a lot what both of you said, the worlds of Accel World and SAO are both one of my favorite aspects of both series. It definitely seems like one of Kawahara’s greatest strengths. In both series the real world feels a lot like our own just some years in future and along with the game worlds are filled with its own positives and negatives.
        Escapism often seems to be them that SAO often dances with.

        In SAO and SAOP, there’s the massive floating castle of Aincrad a world all its own. Its a game but its not suppose to be played. The growth of Kibaou’s Aincrad Liberation Force into the Army, and Lind’s Dragon Knights Brigade into the Divine Dragon Alliance, both of which I really look forward to seeing. And then there’s Kizmel who would love to see come back in New Aincrad in ALO.

        In Accel World, there’s Brain Burst which uses the real world to craft the Accelerated World and one’s very memories, hopes, dreams, and so much more to craft a duel avatar.

        Lime Bell – What Chiyuri wants more than anything is for her, Haru, and Taku to be just like they were as kids. She wants nothing more than to turn back time, but her efforts are often more on the lines of prayers and hoping. Hence her avatar’s color and abilities.

        Silver Crow – Born from Haruyuki’s dream of spreading his wings and soaring in the sky. His desire to escape the hell that he feels is his life,and soar with those that cares for. All born from things he has repress and forget.

        Then there’s Noumi/Dusk Taker who really shows how twisted people can be in Brain Burst with an avatar born from his hatred toward his brother. His brother stole everything from him, and instilled a disgusting desire to take everything all manifested through his avatar’s signature ability Demonic Comandeer.

        And there’s also the Incarnate System, in which one’s own imagination and will are power. Sometimes it comes from hope, but of course there’s a dark side to it. And that dark side created the Disasater Armor and people like Dusk Taker. People who use that anger, hatred, and despair. As was learned in Vol 7, The Disaster Armor was born when a young boy turned his rage and hatred toward all who hurt someone he loved.

        “Blossom and I never wished for power. A hegemony through the power of the «armour» to control the Accelerated World had never crossed our mind. We just wanted to be able to always live in this world with everyone, that would’ve been enough.

        If on the mirror like surface of the «armour» , domination and destruction, plunder and lust can be seen, then that is merely a reflection of the desires of those who look.

        They are the ones who want power, it’s them who killed Saffron Blossom again and again in that cruel manner.

        Then I’ll grant it to them.

        My rage, Blossom’s pain, will remain within this «armour» — «The Disaster». From this moment forth, anyone who puts on this armour with desire for power will attack, destroy, devour all other Burst Linkers. Taking in the power of the devoured, infinitely growing stronger. Until the last person left. Until there is only one person in the barren lands of the Accelerated World, at the end of the game.

        That is the hidden nature of the power you desire.

        I will curse this world. Tarnish it. Even if I’m to disappear here, my rage and hatred will revive — time and time again.”

        You can’t have the good without the bad.

  4. This is a really great post. Thinking about it I would say I probably do like such stories, given how passionate I am for both SAO and its younger sibling Accel World, though between the two I do feel AW is the stronger but SAOP is stronger than both. And I do like the bits I’ve read of Log Horizon and Danmachi. The idea is popular and as Kawahara once said in an interview:

    “Reki Kawahara: I think there have been stories of young heroes being thrown into alternate worlds for a very long time. For example, stories like Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story” or C.S Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia”. The concept of alternate worlds may have simply become those of video games, but do you think those fantasy desires of today’s story-loving youths would be different than those from before? Perhaps the next generation of young people might not prefer the large-scale MMO style of SAO and might prefer a simpler, social game sort of world.

    This may seem like a textbook answer, but I believe that just like the real world, an online virtual world would have just the same amount of good parts, as well as the bad parts. However, in the times when I’ve accidentally knocked over a cup of coffee, I’ve deeply wished the real world had a save point from which I could restore.”

    But, that comment about some of there views being condesecnding really got me. If there’s one thing I really hate its people being condescending towards what people for what they like. Whether it be toward superhero comics & stories, light novels, or these kinds of stories what have you. It’s an attitude I really wish would die out. It is too much to ask for people to realize that different people like different things for a variety of different reasons. One of my favorite episodes and memories of watching the bits of the 90s Spider-man show that I could was an adaptation of the Spider-man comic The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man. I’ve never read the comic, but the episode is a beautiful little story about Spider-man and a little girl who gets to met her hero. She gets to spend the day with him and even saves his life. What’s more she’s a cancer patient. And the comic its based on is one of the most beloved of all. Truly great hero stories are more than just beating up bad guys. There heartwrenching, uplifting and so much more.

    “I do know who I am, and I’ll be ready. And it’s all because of the faith of a little girl who’s more of a superhero then I’ll ever be.”

    Dreams are a beautiful thing. Its easy to say the world is crap and that dreams and idealism are easy. But there not. I like so many of these not because their cynical but because they remind me to rise up, my head held high. People are better, the world is better.

  5. There are too many of them…

  6. AstroNerdBoy

    I haven’t seen too many of these kinds of series. SAO (and its sister title that eludes me at the moment) are on my list of things to watch. I did enjoy watching “No Game No Life.” I guess “Tenchi Muyo! War on Geminar” counts since the protagonist is sent from Earth to another world, although the universe of the canon “Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-ohki” series is fairly fantasy laced due to all of the space faring aliens around. Going back in the day, I got a kick out of “Those Who Hunt Elves” (explaining my avatar from the 2nd series and containing one of the funniest anime episodes I’ve ever watched in my life).

    As a kid, I loved the “Chronicles of Narnia” series. Ditto “A Wrinkle in Time.”

    As I think about it, the appeal in these kinds of stories would seem to center from the fact that someone from Earth gets sent to a fantasy/sci-fi world and has to deal with that situation. In some cases, the MC gets to be Mary Sue, but done properly, this can be fun as well. (I like how it was done in “No Game No Life”.) So you can have an MC from an established, “normal” set of rules sent someplace where the rules are changed, and that can be interesting and entertaining.

    • As I think about it, the appeal in these kinds of stories would seem to center from the fact that someone from Earth gets sent to a fantasy/sci-fi world and has to deal with that situation. In some cases, the MC gets to be Mary Sue, but done properly, this can be fun as well. (I like how it was done in “No Game No Life”.) So you can have an MC from an established, “normal” set of rules sent someplace where the rules are changed, and that can be interesting and entertaining.

      I agree. The most interesting thing about these stories (when done right) is seeing a person adapt to a different culture. That was what I remember liking about Escaflowne, which predates the recent trends.

      • AstroNerdBoy

        Oh yeah. I forgot about Escaflowne. Also Dual! So I have seen a few more than I thought, but mostly older titles.

  7. Honestly, I think people would hate these less if more of them actually did anything interesting with the premise and were better written. Log Horizon and The Devil is A Part-Timer stand out because they actually have the protagonists adjust to living in a brand new world, along with having actual characterization for the cast. If you’ve got a ton of works with generic characters, going through generic plots, in generic settings, then the whole genre/medium looks terrible.

  8. You know, the other day I was looking back at how many “OP protagonist in a magic high school” anime there have been in the past few years – another subgenre that is maligned for many of the same reasons the one you talk about here is – and was really surprised to find out that there… actually haven’t been that many of them.

    On the other hand, I think this kind of “starting life over in a new world” sorts of shows actually are as prevlant as we think they are.

    Perhaps these stories are attractive, in part, because they break away from the limited scope of high school and open up and entire world for the self-insert protagonist to conquer. Why be a badass in high school when you can be a badass in a whole world? The attraction expands (and the target audience is also outside of high school, right?).

    • It’s worth pointing out that some of those magic high school series end up expanding their scope way beyond the high school (e.g. Mahouka and Rakudai Kishi). Just because things start off in a high school doesn’t mean that the author can’t aim for epic “the world is at stake!” conflicts. Then there are stories like Zero no Tsukaima, which has a magic high school AND is an isekai story at the same time.

      I think that the greater prevalence of “starting life in a new world” stories can be partially explained by the fact that it’s easier for worldbuilding. You just transplant the character into a generic RPG setting and you don’t even have to explain very much about how the rules of the setting work. On the other hand, you need to put at least some effort into creating a magic high school.

      It’s also worth pointing out that there are just so many stories set in non-magic high schools. Well, it’s not even worth pointing out. They’re just so dang common.

      • This is a good point, and as I also discovered as I was doing this research, I haven’t actually watched that many magic high school shows to completion. Heck, even freaking Magical Warfare doesn’t stick to just a high school setting.

        I want to watch ZnT but Crunchyroll only has the second season… :(

        • I think you can live without ZnT, tbh.

          • Don’t you dare talk shit about my favorite anime of all time.

            • But ZnT anime is a shit… in comparison to novels. J.C.Staff cut most of politic/war but put more ecchi instead.
              Anyway I like ZnT even if I usually do not like isekai stories, it have a few elements I like (not medieval, but early modern period, other pairs forming around, MC really wants to go back to home, and so on.)

  9. I really liked playing old-school J-RPG (not the MMO variant though), but power fantasy shows in that kind of setting with a ‘cheating’ protagonist is an anti-thesis of what I enjoyed from the genre. There’s a sense of compulsive fulfillment in starting at Lv. 1, see Numbers Go Up, and progressively see more of the world as you grow stronger. I like the sense of role-playing as the MC (it’s probably no coincidence that most of my favorite RPGs to this day are the ones with silent protagonists; Suikoden, Mother 2, SMT, CT), and having a narrative with The Player as Genre-Savvy Main Character break the immersion and take away the focus from the actual experience of learning about the fantasy world. It doesn’t help that the main character in that kind of shows tend to invariably be an obnoxious and unlikable brat.

    On the other hand, I can enjoy the ones that play it more like a straight up ‘fish out of the water’ comedy, and I really like what Grimgar did. Not an anime and not perfectly executed, but the narrative of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance also presents a challenging quandary on the whole ‘escapism is bad!’ idea (MC and his friends whisked into a fantasy game world; MC is the only one wanting to go back, while the others refused to go back to the real world where they have to deal with bullying, broken home, and physical disability).

    • To be fair, some web novels go into a lot of detail about the whole level-grinding process… ironically, that makes them even harder to read, though.

      I think that another reason why it’s hard to get emotionally invested in a story about an overpowered protagonist in an RPG world is that it’s boring to watch someone else play a video game. Well, Let’s Plays are really popular, but I just can’t get into them, personally. They just lack the sense of immersion you’d get from diving into the world yourself. It’s very hard for a non-interactive story to capture the magic.

      SAO makes a nod towards this at one point, when Kirito figures out that SAO’s game master must be a participant of the game. It’s also probably one of the reasons why the series skips the actual grinding parts and aims at telling a standard adventure story for the most part. At its best, it can still be an immersive experience, but it’s not the same thing as playing the game yourself.

  10. Reading this post, first and foremost, I’m actually surprised a majority of the Japanese has such similar criticisms to narou/isekai to Western audiences. I thought it was just exclusive to the latter.

    I definitely agree that the statement about these type of stories being social critique is kinda pushing it. While there are a few exceptions to it (Grimgar was able to display the harshness of so-called “fantasy world” perfectly), narou stories are generally more escapist in nature. In a lot of isekai like you highlighted, the characters made almost no mention of returning to the real world-it’s as if they are pointing out that the virtual world is a much better, ideal world.

    And in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with it. Just like Umetsubame mentioned, there are times and place for different kinds of anime. Sometimes you need escapist stories, but sometimes you also need bitter stories to balance it work. This is the main reason why even though I like moe anime, it’s not the /only/ type of anime I watched.

    • Reading this post, first and foremost, I’m actually surprised a majority of the Japanese has such similar criticisms to narou/isekai to Western audiences. I thought it was just exclusive to the latter.

      It’s not anything to be surprised about. Lots of popular things get a lot of backlash, especially from online communities. Think of the internet commentary on 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight. If you were a foreigner and only knew about the sales numbers, you’d be tempted to think that Westerners love those stories, but in truth they’re really divisive. So it is with Japanese web novels and light novels.

  11. TBH, the whole medieval JRPG-esque setting of isekai stories DO get boring after a while – even a slightly different historical time period would make all the difference. Like an isekai world modeled after the Meiji/Victorian era – or even one in a 1920s style world of Art Deco and jazz music!!

    But I think sometimes the game-like aspects of isekai novels tend to be highly influenced by the fact that some writers are also heavy JRPG otakus. I recall Grimgar’s author admitting he was a huge JRPG fan in the day. Coupled with his introvertness and discomfort with interacting with other people live, he admitted a one point of his life ” …times for sleeping or eating, I used solely to think about games. I would dive into the blood-rushing, heart-pounding world of online RPGs every night and return to the mundane humdrum of the real world in the morning. I lived in the world of games and games kept me alive.”

    Which version of Tate no Yuusha have you read? I’ve heard the light novel version significantly rewrites/puts a LOT of new content focusing on action/adventure instead of the JRPG-life of the source webnovel.

    • I read the web novel for TnY. I did hear that the LN is a significant improvement over the WN, though. I can’t say that I find the underlying plot compelling enough to actually shell out money for it, though. lol.

      I agree that isekai stories in non-JRPG settings are quite fascinating, generally. Although you have to look outside otakuland to find more stories like those…

      • I wish I could read the LN version of Tate, but sadly no one seemed interested in translating it before it got licensed.

        At least there’s the manga version, which follows the LN.

  12. Ultimately there are limits imposed by the readership and genre.

    I think you probably could write an interesting story centered around the idea that young men are sold a bill of goods in their entertainment that the real world is never going to deliver. Is that really a LN, though? Is a 13 year old boy going to be able to connect the dots when the protagonist saves the princess and she tells him, ‘I’ll never love you no matter how many times you save me.’?

    Given the demographics of the readership, LNs are probably the perfect place for a deconstruction of masculinity. A writer would probably have a pretty hard time with the sales pitch, though.

  13. arbitrary_greay

    What’s interesting to me is that such stories seem to have male-author connotations. The Gary Stu has different associations than the Mary Sue, reflecting the priorities of the writers in their fanfiction roots.

    Similarly, narou fanfiction is rampant in specific fandoms, with connotations of what type of people write narou fanfiction. “Fix-fics” of the power fantasy variety (such as with time loop conceits) are usually concentrated in animanga and video fanfiction. You don’t see it come up in western superhero comics, TV, or western live action film fandoms that often. The notable exception is, of course, Harry Potter. But not for HP diaspora fandoms, like ATLA, or Marvel Cinematic Universe, Superwholock, etc.

    For the few time loop or fix-fics by known female authors, the focus of the content is also different. There’s more focus on characters’ state of mind and their relationships, and much less curb-stomping. Obstacles are generally character-based, rather than a power-level obstacle. The “fix” mechanic often makes more problems than solutions, becomes an angst-generator instead.

    In contrast, most power fantasy fanfiction often falls into the “Shinji/Naruto/Harry gets a spine” category. There’s a focus on the tactical value of world-building details, rather than character interiority, which is overwritten by a personality that notices the tactical values of world-building details. There are often crossover elements, stemming from the writers’ origins out of forums like SpaceBattles, where the tactical values of world-building details of various fandoms are directly compared.
    (Another notable exception is the Buffy fandom, which has an entire website devoted to crossovers, and has a long tradition of dudes writing power-fantasy fics for the dude main character Xander. But again, the crossovers that go in-depth on comparing power levels, especially wrt the Stargate universe, tend to be male-written. It is, however, a rare instance of female authors championing the “what if these people weren’t so mentally fucked up” conceit for the Buffy/Faith femmeslash ship, a la Evangelion personality-fix fics.)

    And the thing is, I love power fantasy fanfiction. But only for fanfiction. I can’t stand FS/N source material, but I love reading FS/N fanfiction getting into the nitty-gritty of Nasuverse tactics.
    This is because fanfiction inherently is in comparison to the source material. I can read characters get their just rewards from what canon has put them through. They’ve “earned” the right to be more escapist in fanfiction, by not being so in the source material. And I expect source material to do better.

    So it’s fascinating that in the West, the fanfiction authors that have successfully published their writings as adapted original fiction are mostly female, in the YA category.
    It is the male authors that either write narou fanfiction as a side job and never aspire to be full-time writers, or don’t bother with the fanfiction at all, taking their power fantasy ideas straight to original fiction. And it’s doubly interesting to see what types of readers are okay with power fantasy original fiction. Something something Jupiter Ascending something.

    • arbitrary_greay

      *usually concentrated in animanga and video game fanfiction

    • It’s kinda funny that you mention power fantasy and SpaceBattles in the same paragraph, because SB LOATHES power fantasy stuff. They’re more interested in exploring the untapped potential of a franchise or dealing with clashes of civilizations, whether culturally or militarily, that have the characters/factions involved use the stuff each franchise has given them effectively. That’s partly why there’s a large amount of arguing over what a side can and can’t do in a lot of the crossover story threads: there are HUGE disparities in demonstrated feats and abilities between franchises, and you can only tweak the balance between things so much before destroying suspension of disbelief.

      That said, I do notice a few things about power fantasy fanfics. They tend to be self-insert stories, where the character is replaced by the author’s written persona, stories that just totally rewrite the characters’ personalities (and possibly even setting details) to suit the author’s whims (In Name Only fics), clones of other fanfics that inherit the flaws of those fics or exaggerate minor aspects of those earlier fics, or fics made by people who might be familiar with debate forums, but just look at the numbers to see who wins. There’s a subset of the last group that just hates certain groups and wants to see them lose for whatever reason, which are the most obviously power fantasy crossovers.

      Giving characters harems also seems to be a common power fantasy, and probably is exclusively male written, unless it involves female characters.

      That said, there ARE male fanfic authors that have successfully made the transition to writing published books, but a lot of them came through WAY different avenues than female YA authors did. A bunch of them did it through Strange New Worlds, a Star Trek fanfic contest where the prize was getting your fic published in an anthology of other worthy fanfic stories. For female YA authors, the genres they tend to explore may or may not make it way easier to convert their stories into original works. 50 Shades of Grey, for example, started as a Twilight fanfic, but its focus made it super easy to excise the Twilight material and repackage it as original content.

      I would imagine that more male fanfic writers could/would make the jump to published author status if there were more IPs involved in programs like Amazon World or if there was more of a culture of recruiting promising talent from fandom like in Japan. Most of their stories are too steeped in the lore of the original IP to really be turned into original IPs and even if they weren’t, they’d be dismissed as cliche/derivative garbage (like the isekai stories are) if the author doesn’t basically rewrite everything from scratch.

      • Arbitrary_greay

        As some of the opinions in the OP point out, the nature of narou protagonists isn’t simply that they’re given a bunch of brute force power, but that they excel by “using the stuff each franchise has given them effectively” in a world where no one else is…plus one world-breaking hack. Kirito may have the dual-wield skill, but the rationalization behind his awesome is that he was constantly grinding levels instead of any sort of social activities.

        The key point in these stories is that having your eyes opened to certain clickbait-worthy tricks will enable you to outdo all of the other sheeple. The power fantasy of people who frequent spaces like SB is that knowledge is power. Therefore, those who know more details (and how to use them) are more powerful.

        • I won’t deny that “knowledge is power” is a theme of these power fantasy fics, but I’m not sure if sites like SB are responsible for most of it. A common element of most of the common power fantasy franchises is the fact that the original is flawed or set up in a way where it’s super easy for the fanfic author(s) to look at it and think “I can do better than this/if it were me, I would’ve done this!” Evangelion, for instance, is sort of like Catcher in the Rye – if you’ve never experienced that sort of depression/alienation, it’s super easy to think of Shinji as a coward. If the power fantasy fic is a crossover, then yeah, SB might be an influence unless the franchises have an obvious power difference (like Star Wars and Mass Effect), since they tend to have the numbers on hand.

          It’s super easy to find anime/manga/video games where there’s a lot of obviously dumb writing choices, and that’s probably why those mediums tend to have the most power fantasy fanfics. And guys may gravitate towards those fics because the male brain tends to be predisposed towards problem solving, and “how can I make this better?” is a pretty natural response towards a lot of media.

          The difference between a power fantasy writer and a good writer on SB is that the power fantasy author only cares about the numbers and knowledge to make the main character/himself look better, while the SB writer uses the numbers and knowledge of the setting to enhance the drama by making all the players involved more capable.

          • arbitrary_greay

            I don’t think SB is responsible, per se, but that it’s interesting that many authors of this form of fanfiction tend to hang out in forums where these kinds of topics are popular. It’s not surprising that many of them are My Little Pony fans, as well, and that fandom produces a great number of crossover fics.

            Definitely agree that the urge to fix is a large impetus for writing. But it’s interesting to see what kind of writers consider “fixing” to mean power fantasies, where other authors focus on other aspects to correct, or to just explore instead of correct. Usually this manifests in the format chosen, where power fantasy fixes are large epics, as they have to address as many issues and solutions as possible, vs. one-shots and drabbles, which can hone in on introspective things, and take them to a logical end.

            That’s a great point about how the narou LNs/VNs/anime/manga do tend to center much more around a single protagonist, where the supporting cast will rarely get as powered up. But fanfiction authors usually love multiple characters (they’re fans for a reason), so power fantasy fics are imbuing most of the cast (minus a few bash targets) with the same “knowledge to optimize my abilities” traits.
            It’s a reason I enjoy the power fantasy fanfictions much more than their source material counterparts. I don’t like seeing the supporting cast be so useless in canon.

    • I’ve read a few isekai stories with female MCs – it definitely doesn’t feel as “power fantasy” as the others, although that may be because they’re aimed at female readers with different expectations. The ones I read come off more like novelized shoujo + reverse-harem mangas, where the girl’s the object of attraction for various handsome young men.

      • running-out-of-time

        Can you name a few of those isekai stories with female MCs? I only know of Escaflowne.

        I’m really interested in how the tropes in those compare to the tropes in the male-oriented ones.

  14. In fact, hearing that isekai stories are critiques of modern Japan only baffles me because life in the fantasy world usually seems far worse than Japan for everyone except the protagonist.

    Actually, isn’t that the point? Since the stories are “affirming” that world view, the escapism isn’t portraying a better world; it’s highlighting the unfairness but putting yourself in a position of power. You’re not escaping into a better world; you’re escaping into a world that caters to you for a change. It’s less an utopian counter-proposal, and more a distortion mirror.

    In a harem show, kindness (most often it’s kindness) gets you all the girls. In an isekai show, you’re personal skill set gets you success. It’s especially obvious with shows like No Game No Life or Mondaji-tachi ga Isekai Kara Kuru Sou Desu Yo, which spell it out. It would also explain the (for me distasteful) delight these shows can have in humiliating certain characters (former royalty in No Game No Life, the clan beaurocrat in Mondaji-tachi…). Taking advantage of slavery sounds quite in line with this.

    I’d say this brand of criticism feels less apt for shows like Re:Zero or last seasons KonoSuba, where hard work does pay off. It’s the less mean-spirited streak of isekai escapism.

    Shows like Grimgar and Log Horizon seem to be actually interested in processes of community building; Grimgar seems to approach it more as a psychological execise, while in Log Horizon it seems more like an intellectual excercise in complexity or something like that.

    Of course, when I think of anime isekai shows my benchmark is still Twelve Kingdoms. And the first trapped-in-a-game story I remember isn’t an anime at all; it’s Tron (I’d actually played the game).

  15. Martin Wisse

    Isn’t the particular success of isekai stories explained by “because SAO”? Escapism and/or social criticism are too broad an explenation for why this particular genre became popular at this particular point in time. Trend following, bandwagon jumping and the tendency of otaku to want something different but the same are enough to explain why isekai took off once a couple of these stories hit it big, aren’t they?

    The main difference perhaps with other types of pure escapist stories is that it more obviously appeals to the idea that the hero could be you, that your skills at playing video games or whatever could make you a hero and get you the girl in another world.

    As such therefore any social criticism in these stories is not that the system is unfair, but that the system is unfair to you — once the hero’s true worth is recognised everything is alright. It’s no wonder that you get stories where buying yourself a slave harem is the right thing to do: at least that’s more honest than most stories about viewing women as trophies.

  16. Heya Ribbit Kun!
    Hmm… For Narue and Isekai kind of stories, I tend to be very cautious at them.
    Because most of them are way too cliche and just a copycat of one another.

    Like so many WN nowadays were SAO-clone and the likes. (Not that I really like SAO after GGO arc.But that’s just me, moving on…)

    SO nowadays for these genres, I tend to try looking for something… ‘different’

    For example, KonoSuba. It might look like an ‘escapism’ in a way, but I like how the thing ‘mocked’ the genre so much while being nice. It was fascinating how it deal with coping with the fantasy world like a joke. Oh and the MC loves the new world MUCH more than the old world.

    And there’s the (in?)famous Log Horizon. It is a very realistically world IMHO. So many politics and economics problems in the series which I’m SURE that ribbit would like to talk more about it. How they deal with life and death, how they adapt into the real world and their interaction with the NPCs was amazing. Log Horizon is more of an Isekai thing tho.

  17. Oooh boy Froggy.

    I know this is something you’ve post in quite some time, but I still kind of have beef with this so I’m just going to get it all out.

    On the whole, I don’t have much insight on the appeal of these stuck in another world fantasies since I more or less, begrudgingly, on the argument that these story are power fantasy escapism.

    BUT what I don’t like is the condescending tone that people often use when criticizing these types of story, as if both these types of story and the people who consume it is “inferior” because:

    A) It’s smug
    B) Disregarding the fact that people wants and prioritize different things in their media engagement, and wanting escapism doesn’t make them somehow “inferior”
    C) Also disregarding that there isn’t an escapism that can be found in a more “intellectual story”
    D) Did I mention that it’s smug?

    While you can definitely do better in finding escapist story with more “quality”, you can begrudge people for wanting escapism.

  18. Anime vs rest-of-the-world

    Everywhere else, when literature folks become greatly dissatisfied with the society around them, they end up writing social commentary. It doesn’t make the literature good; the writing could still be bland — there’s a ton of amateur dystopian fiction lying around. But at least, it leans on the side of thought provoking.

    But in animanga-fandom? apparently you bury your head in the dirt and reenact your dreams. I mean seriously, slave harem? Now we’re just getting into the realm of disgusting.

    Has anime (like video games) made its hardcore fans even more in denial of real life? I do wonder.

    • I’d say these web novels are cut from the same cloth as fanfiction. You wouldn’t normally come across deliberate social commentary in your average fanfiction either. They’re not generally read outside their insular niche, though, so the amateur writing is not a big deal.

      If there’s anything distinctive about the anime/manga fandom, it’s that it gives legitimacy to a lot of these amateur pieces of writing by getting them adapted by professional artists and animators. The level of artistic polish in the production only further exposes the amateur-ish core of the writing, though. That’s probably why people get mad about it. It’s not wrong to write wish fulfillment fantasies, but when so many genuinely talented artists are using up their finite time to bring those fantasies to life when they could be working on more interesting projects instead… I can see why it’s not a welcome trend at all.

      • I think you nailed it on the head. Western fanfiction generally don’t get publishing deals (ignore erotica like Fifty Shades). JP webnovels however, received much more of the LN community’s attention, which in turn equates to animator/artist attention for… well, substandard work.

        It’s like… I don’t mind the existence of fanfiction, but don’t flood my TV channels with them.

  19. Just another random

    Frog, I’m late for the party, but since this is about the whole isekai thing, do you have a view on Konosuba? I, for one, consider it a pretty good deconstruction of the genre that goes out of its way to show that being in another world can often be fairly far from fun and games, at least for the protagonist. For the readers and watchers, though, “fun and games” sounds about right, especially the “fun” part.

    • While I wouldn’t call Konosuba a “deconstruction” I do agree it had some satirical elements. Since it’s a screwball comedy first and foremost, though, a lot of the jokes are the sort you’d see in any character-driven comedy. I see it as a humorous show that just happens to be set in an isekai, rather than a satire that makes full use of its setting.

      • Just another random

        Yes, its strongest point is indeed the comedy fueled by insane troll logic. But what I meant wasn’t so much that it satirizes the genre tropes, which of course it does, because that’s not what a deconstruction consists of. Instead, I meant that it takes many of those tropes and runs away with them towards their logical real life ultimate destination, which is the by-the-book definition of a deconstruction. A large number of past mecha shows had absent parents and children that grew up mentally stable despite the lack of adult guidance. Furthermore, a parent, generally the father, was often distant, and not at all rarely a mad scientist or similar sort. We all know exactly the sort of impact that Gendou’s perpetual distance from Shinji caused; Evangelion deconstructed that trope, just like it also deconstructed many others.

        Maybe a Konosuba example will illustrate my logic a bit better. Kazuma arrives to the parallel world without any money and unable to put a remotely decent roof above his head, his initial stats suck pretty major ass, and his first jobs aren’t even worth writing the details of in the LN. That’s not generally how it goes in isekai stories, and for good reason (tropes aren’t good or bad, they’re just tools, and what’s good or bad is the use writers put them to), but if we were to think about it, that’s exactly how it should be.

        I’m trying to remember any other isekai story where the protagonist isn’t game-breakingly overpowered in some way. That’s a genre staple for reasons you discuss in the article, and yet it’s not realistic in the slightest, which makes it a target for deconstruction. I’m not coming up with any. Maybe Log Horizon, if you compare only high-level players and only against each other, could be called one, but the protagonist there is something of a genius on multiple levels so I’d still consider him overpowered, if differently so. This shows that the genre suspends our disbelief in introducing a notion that would otherwise be completely alien. Meanwhile, Konosuba spins it around by going along with what would happen on a more realistic take on the situation, and then uses it for comedic effect.

        I’ll admit that the way this is done is unconventional at best, because at the same time it satirizes the tropes and plays them straight to the point of deconstruction. In a way, I guess this answers for a big chunk of the charm behind the story, with most of the rest coming from its slapstick, which is among the finest I’ve seen in a very long time.

        I’m going to ask you to forgive me for closing my reasoning by going off something of a tangent, but an interesting question I’d never given thought to popped up in my head while I was writing this reply: how much and in what way does a work need to deconstruct the tropes that are generally associated to its genre before it can be considered a deconstruction? I think the vast majority will agree that Evangelion is a deconstruction, but the view that Madoka is also one isn’t all that unanimous, and the fact Gundam was originally meant to be one as well has been almost forgotten by now since its tropes essentially codified a whole new subgenre. And since you don’t consider Konosuba a deconstruction, what would it need for you to consider it one? I can gather the general idea of the answer to this question from what you said, but I’m not being able to pinpoint the specifics accurately.

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