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