Why is slavery such a common plot device in isekai web novels? It’s something I’ve touched upon in earlier blog posts and Twitter threads, but it’s only become a big question within the last year or so, thanks to The Rising of the Shield Hero‘s general popularity with the Western anime community. What was once a curious oddity within the light novel subculture has gotten much more visible now. And thanks to America’s fraught history with chattel slavery and persisting political issues regarding how that history is taught and remembered, isekai slavery is a more controversial topic there.
As a result of all the recent chatter, I became curious about why slavery became such a trend on Narou in the first place. I stumbled upon a story called よくある異世界奴隷事情を現実的に考えてみた (“I Tried Thinking About the Common Isekai Slave Circumstances Realistically”). It’s an essay/short story that explores the topic. I thought it was interesting so I reached out to the author ε-(´∀｀; ) and obtained their permission to translate it. Here is the translation:
I Tried Thinking About the Common Isekai Slave Circumstances Realistically
“Hey, big brother. So I’ve been reading this light novel lately…”
My little sister Misa showed me a trending novel on the popular novel sharing website Shousetsuka ni Narou.
“I Formed the Strongest Party Out of My Slave Harem in the Other World.”
Yeah. It was one of those novels that were jam packed with my least favourite tropes. This sort of lazy, by-the-numbers storytelling was dime a dozen on Narou. There were a bunch of crappy stories where almost every sentence seemed lifted from somewhere else, but there were some hidden gems among the rough. My sister was a casual light novel reader, but because she had no money she got into this website. Sometimes, she asked me about things that caught her attention.
“What’s the problem with this novel?”
“Well, um, see this bit?”
My sister pointed to the part where the protagonist treats the heroine like family and she falls in love with him, all according to the template.
“Why’d she fall for that guy?” she asked bluntly.
That’s the part of slave light novels that we’re not supposed to talk about openly, I thought, but I gave her a straight answer anyway.
“Because it’s the template.”
My sister was unconvinced, so I went into a more detailed explanation.
“Listen, my sister. Think of the average guy in your class who has no standout features.”
“Okay,” said my sister, closing her eyes and thinking of someone.
“Now imagine you’re the black sheep in the class. People bully you and make you do their errands. But there’s a reason behind it. You committed a crime and you have to pay back the people who are now bullying you.
“But then that average guy helps you out. When you ask him why he did that, he gives a vague response like, ‘I didn’t feel good.’
“Now then, my sister, what would you think?”
“Erm? I’d think of him as a weirdo, I guess?”
“And there you have it.”
My sister’s eyes widened and she tilted her head.
“So many of those generic light novels you see about a guy buying slaves and making a harem depict the guy being kind to his slaves or refusing to exploit them. The reason being is that a Japanese person wouldn’t be able to stomach the idea of handling a slave. And most of these protagonists are pretty average-looking.”
You wouldn’t fall in love with a guy like that. At worst, you’d think of them as expendable, and at best you’d just think of them as okay. It’s getting harder for guys without any charm whatsoever to stumble on romantic opportunities in this world.
“I mean, just think about it. The guy has suddenly come up to you and bought you, and for some inexplicable reason he’s being nice to you? In a world where slavery is commonplace. Of course you’re going to be weirded out before you start thinking of him as a nice guy and so forth.”
If we were talking about a very young slave, you could argue that they hadn’t yet learned the norms of society. But to most people, he would be a weird guy who goes against common sense. The first thing you’d feel upon being bought by him would be fear.
“There are also a lot of novels where the guy abruptly releases the slave. I find this hard to swallow as well. What would happen if you suddenly release a slave in a world where slavery is commonplace? The slave would probably suspect an ulterior motive. But this never happens in most light novels. Instead, they just ask why, and when the guy gives them some vague response, they’re like, ‘Wow that guy is so nice! Let me tag along with him!’ Would that really happen in real life?”
“I guess not. If I got a vague answer, I’d find it hard to believe and start wondering if something was up.”
“Hence, the reason why slave girls fall in love with the protagonist is because they’re written to be love interests, and that’s the template.”
- It’s assumed that a “heroine” will fall in love with the protagonist.
- Because she’s the heroine, she can’t go against the template.
- The heroine has to blindly trust the protagonist.
“If the writer is experienced or a pro, they can write it in a more believable way. But when a novel has gained popularity because of its cute characters and entertaining plot, then people stop fixating on that particular point. Including the author.
“When it comes to a long story, the people who were put off will stop reading at the beginning. As a result, only the people who have a positive opinion will write their impressions. The author stops receiving criticism and starts relying on cliches more and more for the setting and plot. Only the casual readers who aren’t reading too much into it will keep up with it. The others will just keep up with out of force of habit,” I said, then spread my arms to the side. “Look, I just made a crappy story.”
Well, you could say this about any generic story.
Because the threshold for writing novels is so low, you get both the wheat and the chaff. And since most users are used to the chaff, they don’t mind it. Not many people on this site take the novels they write that seriously.
“Well, if you really want to read an interesting story, you should look for a novel that’s been published as a book so you can get feel for the plot and whether it’s your kind of thing. And if that doesn’t work, you’re left with the search option, digging around for things that interest you. And if that doesn’t work, you may as well just buy light novels since that would be less of a waste of time.”
If you’re willing to compromise, you can just pretend to not notice the rubbish parts. You’ll be just like the other users in that sense.
Alternatively, you could read a story with over a million Japanese characters. Even if there are bits that annoy you at the start, the author’s writing gets better as it goes along. Once you get used to the style, you can enjoy it.
“Anyway, long story short: Barring the small minority of genuinely interesting stories, most of the stuff you find here are ripoffs. I think it’s fine to just enjoy the atmosphere. That applies to most of the stuff that’s in the all-time rankings, too. The rankings just tell you whether the story has caught people’s eyes. Anything below the top 150 tends to fluctuate easily, so they’re unreliable.”
When I was done speaking, I turned toward my PC. And then I resumed my search for an interesting-looking novel in the fickle sea online.
ε-(´∀｀; )’s note: And yeah, that’s the gist of it.
Personally, I’m iffy about stories with a slavery emancipation movement, too. It doesn’t feel convincing when a powerful person lends his strength to weak people in order to spark a revolution.
The disempowered conspire and remove the slavery system, overthrow the regime, and establish their rights as citizens. When a powerful protagonist gets involved from above, I don’t feel that it’s realistic even if it works according to the template. It makes me wonder what would happen if the protagonist went away. Or what would happen if you forced slavery to end before the economy and culture had reached the point where slavery was no longer necessary. It’s a pity how so many stories don’t think that far ahead.
You don’t really see stories where the protagonist is put into the same position as the slaves and sparks a slavery emancipation movement that way, do you?
Translator’s note: Thank you to the author for kindly giving me permission to translate. Also, be sure to take this story as only one person’s opinion. Other explanations for the popularity of slavery in isekai go along the lines of “Since the protagonist is sent to another world and has no pre-established relationships with anyone, slavery is a convenient way to establish trust between him and a girl. Thanks to slave magic, slaves can’t betray you, after all.” What are your thoughts on this web novel trope?
Edit: The ground rules for the comments are no kink-shaming (i.e. insulting/making fun of people who enjoy fictional depictions of slavery) and no justifications of real-life slavery. Thank you!
Thank you for the translation! I have become a pretty big isekai fan since around when I saw Re:zero and have noticed that many of the “lazy” shows use slavery a lot. I wonder why Japanese people started using this as a trope? Was it because many Isekai’s take place in a medieval-like work and they associate that with slavery? Or is it just an easy trope to establish a harem as you said above?
I think that in some stories it can work. For example, in the recently talked about Sheild Hero, the protagonist has few options due to his situation and is forced to resort to slavery but the world has already established this is their system. And he works in it, not trying to abolish all slavery right away or be some “super nice guy”. In that story, I think the dependency of Raphtalia and Naofumi’s need for a party member at any cost allows the story to work in the topic to a degree of success.
Then I look at a story like Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody where slavery means nothing in context. I think that story was lazy for a lot of reasons but the line “I could free them but they seem so much happier as slaves” always sticks with me because the author just didn’t want to deal with getting all the checks of a harem in place so boom just uses slaves! And wow this random guy doesn’t beat us? We love him! In these cases, slavery feels hallow and this is where the WFT comes from.
I could be because I am an American and slavery is still an issue we study but I think most Isekai’s should be able to build a good party (even a harem even though that’s…not my thing) without the slavery crutch.
Admittedly, I think I will need to go through this article a second time in a later date, but I just want to write down some thoughts of mine down before I forget them:
– Slavery, from an cynicism perspective, is actually harem in sincere. Just think about open relationship, polygamy, etc. in our world and you will see that love is almost never the centerpiece of these relationships, nor is self-improvement. This is the anti-thesis of love in fiction: You fall in love, and it makes you a better person in a very short time (it takes much longer, or maybe even never in real life). Harem writers of old tried to reconcile this disagreement (the boy consciously or unconsciously become an extremely positive influences to the girl); however, this crop of LN writers cut corners and straight up confirm the girls as a tangible properties of the boy.
– Have you ever thought about how ancient Greek heroes, even slaves like Hercules, were always born as demi-gods? Or how modern depictions of Spartacus lionized him as a Roman general being betrayed, while for all we know he could had been just a foot soldier? To be the main character of the Great Man theory, you must be a Great Man himself: strong, smart, powerful, being a part of the establishment, etc. And since LN protagonists fufill these requirements anyway, then why shouldn’t the writers make them the face of the revolution?
(Also, slave emancipation fanfiction? Haven’t we already got the Lost Cause of the Confederacy?)
Good point. If there’s no coming-of-age narrative, then following the beats of a traditional love story isn’t a requirement, either. You can just skip to the part where the girl fawns over the guy.
Good one lol
I wrote a really long reply on my phone but then I hit back and it got deleted. I’ll try again on PC.
First, I disagree greatly with the statement about waiting for ” economy and culture” to be ready. It doesn’t matter if it’s “ready”, slavery and other inhumane things like that should ended ASAP.
As for Light Novels using slavery, along with it being lazy, I also find it to be disgusting and vile. There are ways to use slavery for a good narrative but no LN story I’ve read/watched an anime of has done that. They’ve always used them as an excuse for “love” and/or control. A lot of these novels just felt like authors’ writing “In Defense of Slavery” essays when they get to the chapter that explains why it’s okay for their MC to have slaves.
What I find to be the worst though, is when these stories free the slaves and then have them WILLINGLY become slaves again. To me just seems like the author is trying to say “slavery is okay when they want it!”. It’s never okay and that mindset is disgusting and damaging. The only slaves that “wanted” it were conditioned by years of mental damage.
Imagine if we had a protagonist that raped people.That’s the same level of vileness I see in a protagonist that owns slaves. Would people defend a protagonist that raped girls? Why do people defend slavery?
Slavery should be reserved for villains. Any protagonist with even a sliver or morals should reject slavery with all of their being. Anything less makes me question the author’s intent. As I said earlier, it feels like they’re pushing a pro-slavery message when they don’t outright reject slavery. There’s no middle ground for slavery to any decent human.
I’m pretty sure there are such protagonists in stories with substantial followings, and people do defend them on the grounds that the victim deserved it.
I don’t know where you’re from but usually people for whom slavery is a big subject of controversy are Americans or people who have been greatly influenced by American culture. The stories in question on the other hand are written by Japanese people.
It depends on the kind of slavery being depicted, I think. If, instead of chattel slavery, the stories were about wartime sex slaves in colonial outposts, it would bring to mind the comfort woman issue, which is a big deal in Japan and Korea, as well as other countries in Asia.
“First, I disagree greatly with the statement about waiting for ” economy and culture” to be ready. It doesn’t matter if it’s “ready”, slavery and other inhumane things like that should ended ASAP.”
History disagrees with you. Slavery was only gradually replaced by feudalism, not at once. It’s a way of society, unless you become a tyrant yourself, you can’t change it overnight.
“Imagine if we had a protagonist that raped people.That’s the same level of vileness I see in a protagonist that owns slaves. Would people defend a protagonist that raped girls? Why do people defend slavery?”
Because it’s the way those societies works. Nobody with half a mind would defend slavery in modern society, but what about old romans who were the same as those catholic priests in that one South Park episode? That was simply “how it was” at the time. But I don’t want to enter a rant about morality and societies, so I’ll end it here.
“Any protagonist with even a sliver or morals should reject slavery with all of their being. Anything less makes me question the author’s intent.”
As the post and the story said, authors just want an easy way to write love interests. It’s as accepted as the adventurer’s guild concept thanks to DQ. You think that existed somewhere in history? Think again. People don’t defend slavery, they just use it as a medium. It’s similar (yet different) to that initiative by the UN to ban lolita depictions in japanese written and drawn media. The japanese basically told them to start protecting real women’s rights instead of fictional characters’. They know anything written is just fiction. It’s unethical and illegal in reality, but the other one is just fiction. They have that distinction so marked that only explicit descriptions or depictions of sex as an act purely of pleasure get 18+. Even heavy depictions of blood, murder, horror drugs and mean words only get 15+. Their culture is very different to us.
…I still ended up writing a rant about different morals in societies. Oh well.
Seems a load of nonsense, to be honest. The “but the japanese culture is sooo different” ignores Japanese people criticizing this as well, and there are many of that.
[MOD: Kink-shaming aspect of the post has been removed.]
I understand your point that the slavery trope is not universally accepted in Japan, but let’s avoid kink-shaming the people who do enjoy it as a fetish, okay?
“Seems a load of nonsense, to be honest. The “but the japanese culture is sooo different” ignores Japanese people criticizing this as well, and there are many of that.
The real reason slavery (and loli, for that matter) is popular is because then women can’t say no are under the guy’s power. And the guys that read such stuff just can’t handle when women have a choice not to pick them.”
You ignore the fact that “slavery” is just one of those plot devices. Functionally, you can have an overpowered character, and people will be amazed and follow their will (be it as apprentices, companions, servants or whatever). At that point, their role is basically the same as what slaves do. Even if you consider they’re not slaves, story-wise and plot-wise, their actions are the same as those from slaves in other stories. It’s just a plot device.
As for loli, have you read Kodomo no Jikan? (look at the author too). A controversial yet popular work at the time. Also loli characters are (according to one of Frog-kun interviewees) “an ideal that is totally at odds with the harshness of adult reality” since they “don’t actually look like realistic portrayals of young girls”. They’re just an ideal. And that’s how they’re treated in non-hentai media: pure characters who you just “want to take home” (source: Rena Ryuugu). if you want to complain about their portrayal in hentai media, then following the same logic, we should also advocate for the better treatment of women in adult videos. And for the record, people doing that in the USA would be the same as those who you’re talking about in Japan, those who complain about a problematic content in a growing industry (which I’m not saying it’s bad, since historically that resulted in Labour Day, but that was under very different reasons).
I’ll leave you with some links to interesting things I’ve found.
https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1ca6b3eac9da5d38318bfa7c83b0d2dd2a55cbddb3b6374aa879c8cb6732aef6.jpg (some numbers for your “but the japanese culture is sooo different” statement)
https://j-novel.club/s/jk-haru-is-a-sex-worker-in-another-world (this, for the surprise of many, including me, won a popularity contest of light novels in Japan)
https://imgur.com/gallery/4QyrVta (what should’ve accompanied my previous post)
I’ll point out that you’re reporting the number of reported cases, which is not the same thing as the rapes that happen. Fewer then 5% of Japanese women officially report rape. Here’s an article which goes into that the dynamics behind that: https://apjjf.org/2018/15/McNeill.html
In fact, the number of reported rape cases rose in 2018 after the definition of rape was broadened and it stopped being a requirement for victims to file a criminal complaint before a case could be prosecuted. Source: https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20180719/p2a/00m/0na/015000c
Nevertheless, I agree that it’s misguided to blame otaku media for crimes… not that Silly was arguing anything of the sort in their comment. Silly was merely saying that Japanese people outside the subculture tend to find this sort of thing weird, which is true enough. Kink-shaming isn’t right, though, no matter who does it.
I forgot to address one point.
“And the guys that read such stuff just can’t handle when women have a choice not to pick them.”
What about women who read those stories? Like many, they’re just reading it for the story. I don’t think you should generalize readers in the extreme otaku subsection as all readers of the story. Kink-shaming is bad, mkay?
[…] “I Tried Thinking About the Common Isekai Slave Circumstances Realistically” (Fantastic Memes, Frog-kun) […]
I think Slavery and Slave Collar had same origin as “betrayed”. Many of LN had betrayal in their prologue. Hero (or reader) in this story unable to have good relation with equals, or even understand it. Slaves cannot leave you, or betray you. This popularity probably indicate increasing loneliness or withdrawal from society among its reader. Isekai after all is ” fantasy about other worlds”, so its reader prefer dream of other world where concern of this world (relation with other people and society) gone and no longer exist.
Its interesting that other new genres had similar trait : American novel use post-apocalyptic society, YA novel is dystopia and escape/revolution, Chinese Xianxia located in world where clans “all struggle against all”.
I think its show high degree of disengagement and ” escapist” desire among today youth. World where they can show distrust and hostility against all human relationship is desired. Only who can (or deserve) Trust is who completely devoted to you : slaves in isekai, defenseless dependent in post-apocalyptic society, fellow rebel (and your subordinate) in dystopia, family in xianxia.
I want to mostly speak about ε-(´∀｀; )’s note and the notion that a slave emancipation movement has to come from below. This seems to me like whitebox theorizing, while we truly have enough examples in our history of slavery and the end of slavery. Only rarely did slavery cease because the slaves ended it, the abolishment coming from the top is actually a more common case. For examples:
-The slavery in the southern USA came from the government, backed by the middle class opinions, the slaves didn’t contribute much to this.
– In the germanic states slavery was abolished over a period of ~100 years, always coming from the government again, partly under the impression of rising unrest and rebellions, but never in a violent enforcement.
– In russia it took several attempts from the czars themselves to get it pressed through.
There are various examples of upper class people speaking up for slave emancipation, both for ideological, as well as economic reasons. (Franz von Razau, William Murray,…)
Therefore someone from “above” getting involved in the cause seems perfectly in line with observed history, especially if that person had been educated under current world ideologies.
And regarding the point what happens if slavery is abolished before the societal culture could support such a move, again see russia or the souther US, from “it just didn’t happen” to “No longer slaves, but tenant with pretty darn poor conditions”.
Now if there was only an explanation for why almost every popular isekai story is a copy paste of each other.
>MC gets OP powers
>quickly gets a love interest which expands into a harem
>the girls have no personality or hobbies beyond lusting for the MC
>MC is scared shitless of physical contact with females
>the girls remain madly in love with the MC forever even though he just keeps running away from them
>MC has basically no personality, goals, motives or hobbies other than “get strong” or “protect my harem”
>every arc is basically the MC flexing his muscles to defeat some badly written villain who kick puppies for fun while the girls get wet
There must be thousands of the same shit on Narou yet the same shit keeps getting popular enough for LN, manga and anime adaptations. Why? When everyone is writing the same shit, what makes people pick one over the other?
I can understand why something like Re:Zero gets popular, because it doesnt follow the same format as 99% of isekai stories. But I dont get why something like Arifureta gets popular in the first place.
Pretty simple explanation – Isekai stories are the current in-trend with the Japanese fanbase, like battle high schools and mecha pilots of yesteryear.
Where there’s a trend, there’s a bandwagon effect. All these writers want in on isekai because everyone’s doing it. The entry threshold’s very low too, all you need is a computer, a webnovel account, the ability to type on a keyboard, and you’re ready to go.
As the above article mentioned, the readerbase doesn’t take those stories seriously, and turn a blind eye to the faults so long as they get entertained. So if no one’s overly judging your writing quality so long as they’re happy, there’s no true incentive to refine your output. Why, you could even copypaste the whole premise of a webnovel your predecessors wrote better into your subpar novel and still get away with it because the general reader standards were already low to begin with.
First, there’s “employee falls in love with their employer.” Secretaries and their bosses, in particular were a common configuration. Having to work together keeps the two parties in each others’ lives by necessity (to get that paycheck), and so their relationship can build even if they aren’t initially attracted to one another, or one of the parties isn’t worthy of the other at first.
Pushing this to a racier variant is “sex worker falls in love with their client.” Pretty Woman. The business aspect of their relationship has them spending time with each other on the regular as above, but also now the object of desire is obligated to perform intimate duties for their client that you don’t get from a normal employer-employee relationship.
In older civilization settings, the line between sex worker and slave gets ever thinner. Game of Thrones and Spartacus both have relationships in this vein, though there tends to be lots of tension over when the owner will snap and kill their slave.
But also, the slave setup captures a lot of the “you can count on them to be around even if you’re not that desirable of a person” benefits of the imouto fantasy, but I guess they’re more squicked out by incest than they are by a slave having no way to resist abuse from their masters.
Isekai slavery harems just mindlessly dropped the conventional harem dynamic into this “sex worker in a medieval setting falls in love with their client” model, and didn’t think much about the broader implications, and then trend chasing did the rest.
What I was thinking, was that maybe slave trope stems from the subservient(?) female heroine type in harem manga/light novels. Like maids, or such emotionless robotic heroines that blindly listen to the protagonist and just obey his every command, sometimes even addressing him as ‘master’ and such formal terms… and that popular heroine ‘type’ was incorporated into the isekai genre through slaves.
With the slaves, there is definitely some kind of hierarchy involved here with the heroine placing themselves lower then the protagonist rather than being on equals (like for example Hidan no Aria, where the protagonist believes that he isn’t worthy to be with Aria, the heroine, because of the difference in their social standing), which makes me wonder if people really dig this kind of heroine type in Japan?
Thanks for translating that bit. It was interesting, and really made me think more about the common tropes in isekai.
1. Yes, there’s lot of chaff in those platforms. Yes, there’s a lot of derivative storytelling. Writing is a muscle. Most people don’t have a platform to properly exercise and receive feedback. Even if the content is not amazing compared to what already is out there, by writing things on their own words these authors are getting better. That’s pretty valuable compared to the alternative in capitalism, just writing in your own home with no one reading it, no feedback except a rejection from a publisher and no pay-off unless you hit it big. At least you get readers and the opportunity to learn.
2. Being derivative is not so bad. Specially from a writer’s perspective. Before intellectual property laws came into place, that’s how story was written: by re-writing stories. That’s also how stories worked before the written language. Everytime the story was told to someone else and passed along to new people it would change. Through these small iterations we got the classics.
3. Slavery was never necessary. To say it was is a very Nietzsche-like argument. NO, the only purpose of slavery was to sustain a social-economical class divide between rich and poor. Where the rich class (like Nietzche) didn’t have to work as much. The slave work in the Americas provided the resources the industrialized Europe needed to create a capitalist upper class.
That is to say, it’s a very ideological position to say slavery was necessary at a certain point in history, it’s the ideology of imperialist nations who promoted wars of conquest. In the perspective of the colonized and exploited nations, slavery was a threat, an impediment to their development, not a necessity. Japan had several wars of conquest, a very strong imperial ideology, it’s very conservative to this day because of it. That’s one reason why so many isekai has imperialistic subtext.
In fantasy isekai this upper class is usually a nobility or aristocracy. Human societies always relied on collective work, where a community comes together to combine their labour and enjoy the fruits of their labour. Slavery, and colonial exploitation, take those fruits and send it outside that community, be it the rich or the rich in the metropolis.
4. The author is right that all revolutions for the liberation of slaves is a bottom-up movement. An outsider cannot sustain the movement, the power comes from the masses, not the leaders. The leaders emerge organically from the masses.
But that is not to say an isekai character could not start a revolution. The oppressed are oppressed from all directions, including intellectually and ideologically. To break free from those constrains means going outside that intellectual cage, in other words, it means learning from the same sources as their oppressors.
What an isekai MC/outsider does not have is the emotional charge to end slavery: the anger towards the oppressors; the humiliation of being treated as less than human, the extension of machines or a work horse. They do not have the existential threat of going back to shackles if nothing is done or if the revolution fails. They are less invested in revolution, that why it’s a bottom-up movement even if there’s strong leader figures. It does not fall into the idolation of individuals.
I’d say Death March offends me less since it at least makes it clear that Saito dislikes slavery and begins to work towards abolishing the system in later novels if I recall hearing correctly and does eventually free his slaves when he guarantees their safety and removes the curse on the two sisters. It’s still horribly fucked up and it would’ve been better to have sorted that shit SOONER, but it’s still better than Slave Hero’s harem and eventual village of his slaves who totally love living there under his protection and care. Horrifically low bar to cross though.
>>“But then that average guy helps you out. When you ask him why he did that, he gives a vague response like, ‘I didn’t feel good.’
“Now then, my sister, what would you think?”
“Erm? I’d think of him as a weirdo, I guess?”
“And there you have it.”<<
[…] to my blog’s commenting policy: No kink-shaming. This was because of the discussion around a blog post regarding slavery-themed web novels. I thought that one commenter went over the line by insulting […]
I tried thinking realistically about all manner of anime–such as harems, reverse harems, romance, BL, yuri, otome, ecchi, slice of life, sports, drama, comedy, magical girls and idols–and then realized that fiction doesn’t have to be realistic, that nearly everyone in Japan can tell the difference between fiction and reality, and that if you want non-stop uncompromising realism or the self-satisfied illusion of it you can just watch American shows instead.
[MOD: racist part of the comment has been removed.]
A lot of good points made here. I want to approach it from the perspective of types of isekai premises, and how those map to party formation (ie: the group of characters who form the core group about which the story will be told).
I can think of 4 main types:
1) Summoned. With summoning, the agent that brings the isekai protagonist to the new world is someone in the destination world. This implies a certain degree of power and standing for the summoner (such as the king in “Shield Hero” summoning the four heroes) based on the idea that the summoning is a difficult and expensive thing to perform. Most of the time, this will then lead to the summoner providing additional support for the protagonist (either material support, or guidance in completing their ‘destiny’, etc). As such, slaves rarely enter the picture, since the summoner can presumably provide higher tier support and companionship than a mere slave. Further, the summoning is almost always done with some explicit purpose in mind, which means there’s a concrete goal for the story to head towards. (Example: Magic Knights Rayearth) Shield Hero allows introducing slavery in this setting type by removing the support the summoner would normally provide.
2) Reincarnated. With reincarnation, the isekai protagonist is given an explicit family — fairly necessary, given he or she is reborn as a baby. This family provides an immediate framework of support and social connections. This is the form that will most likely have the protagonist attend some sort of adventurer’s school, which itself provides more opportunities for creating the primary party. In no way is slavery necessary to support this plot structure, and it is almost never seen. (Example: Make My Abilities Average!)
3) Portal. In this case, the transport to another world is not exclusive to the protagonist, and/or allows free travel between the worlds. Because of access to the modern world, social connections to the regular world still exist, and modern technology vastly outweighs the value of slaves, so slavery does not readily enter the picture. (Example: GATE)
4) Transported. This covers a number of methods (eg: pseudo-summoning in Re:Zero or Death March; death by truck-kun, such as in KonoSuba; or sucked into a game, such as with Slave Harem or Log Horizon). If death is involved, it’s just an inconvenience, since usually a god will recreate the protagonist’s body in the new world (sometimes youthened, but always at least a teenager). Unlike the first three types of isekai transitioning, however, this type offers almost no social support structure. You’re completely cut off from the real world, and don’t know anybody in the new world. You can’t just enroll in school, or have your family take care of you.
The author has to start being more creative in order to form the “party” that’s going to be the framework for the story. Lack of reputation and money means there’s no real reason for anyone to join with you without a *lot* of introductory story work, and that’s something that both the author and the readers often want to skip past. (Re:Zero cheats by using time travel to repeat the first day for multiple episodes, and then immediately jumps to Emilia’s mansion where you have sufficient permanent characters to form the social webbing.) This is where slavery becomes an easy method of introducing new characters, though you might also rescue lost waifs, save a damsel in distress, or do some other amazing act to get another character attached to the protagonist.
Reincarnation stories tend to have the most female protagonists, though there’s still plenty of males. There’s a strong tendency towards economic building, or actually changing the world in some way (often social injustices). I can’t think of any reincarnation stories where the protagonist gets slave companions, although there might be something similar, such as maids that are permanently assigned.
Summoning generally only has slave companions show up when the author upends part of the default template expectations in order to divorce the protagonist from the summoners, and even then only if the protagonist has few skills and capabilities that would allow them to put the world on “easy mode”.
Portal stories focus mostly on being able to take advantage of modern tech in a primitive world, and slavery generally just distracts from that. There’s no real synergy in the story styles, so at best slavery will show up as a way to show that the isekai world is more primitive than the modern world.
So the Transported styles are where slavery shows up, and when broken down this way, it’s pretty easy to see why. You’ve placed a character in a foreign world, with nothing to his name, and now need to find a reason for a number of other characters to stay with the main character. Log Horizon dealt with this by transporting hundreds of people at the same time, so social structure was carried over from the real world. Overlord used NPCs come to life, who are basically slaves in all but name. KonoSuba played it straight, and made Kazuma’s life hell for a long stretch of time before a real social structure was built (and the only reason it was believable for his party to form at all was because the other members were desperate and dysfunctional).
Essentially, slavery is used as a mechanism to allow social interaction. And it’s not always about the protagonist gaining a slave. “I Was Reincarnated as a Sword” has the isekai protagonist encounter a slave girl, help her survive an attack by monsters, and immediately free her (breaking the slavery magic she was under). I also like that it is extremely anti-slavery whenever it’s encountered again in the story. But it was still the lever that was used to get the characters together in the first place.
People treat isekai slavery as if it were social commentary, when it’s not. It’s a plot device used to get around a complicated problem that stems from the basic premise of the story: Unconstrained transport to another world (ie: not summoned to complete a quest), with no social support structure that most of us take for granted. It’s functionally the same as the Adventurer’s Guild and/or dungeons and/or magic schools — a social hub to allow contact with other characters in the story.
Most older isekai were of the “summoned” variety, where the isekai protagonist is summoned only to do a job, and then it’s over (eg: Magic Knight Rayearth). There’s also often a desire or requirement to return to the original world (eg: Those Who Hunt Elves; Escaflowne; El Hazard; SAO). There’s little need or desire for ongoing social connections in the isekai world because it’s explicitly a temporary setting. You’re only there for as long as you need to be; no need to make it your home. SAO sidesteps that a little by making the relationships something that will carry back over to the real world. And, thinking it over, there’s also a strong tendency for multiple people to be transported, further solidifying the social framework without a heavy dependency on the isekai world for that.
The transport isekai, on the other hand, dispenses with the “quest” and “transient” natures of the summon isekai. The protagonist often has no means or desire to return to the real world. The social structure thus becomes important in a way that it isn’t for the “quest” isekai, yet at the same time the method of transport strips the protagonist of the many default social support structures that other methods provide. The slave mechanic thus becomes a simple mechanical solution, providing a constant companion, free exposition, secrecy (for the ever-present Japanese desire to “not stand out”), and something to actually anchor the protagonist to the new world. Not every author uses it, but an easy solution is an easy solution.
(This, of course, only touches the surface of all the factors that go into isekai story structures, but almost no one investigates and discusses them in depth.)
Expanding on some details.
1) Reincarnated: This can be split into two subgroups: Reborn, and Replacement. Reborn is as described above, being born again in the new world. Replacement skips the baby phase and just places the protagonist in an existing person’s body (eg: Ascendance of a Bookworm). Both cases heavily imply the protagonist’s original body is dead, but both also generally drop the protagonist into an existing social setting, generally family.
2) Trapped in a Game World: This is a transport type that straddles Summoning and Transported. SAO is closer to a Summoning type (explicit “summoner”, explicit end goal, the game is an actual game in the real world, and thus leaving the game world is an active goal), but Log Horizon and Overlord are more like Transported types (no explicit summoner, no end goal, the game world is a ‘real’ world, and no obvious avenue for returning to the original world). Because of that, I don’t consider Trapped in a Game World to be its own isekai _transport_ category, but rather an isekai _setting_ category.
The Transported category is the most flexible in a lot of ways. For example, Reincarnation always gets the protagonist a new body. Summoning and Portal will almost always keep the protagonist’s original body. Transported, however, can go either way. Subaru in Re:Zero keeps his original body; Satou in Death March is given a youthened body; and Ainz in Overlord is placed in his monstrous game body.
In a certain sense, Reincarnated and Summoned could be considered sub-types of Transported. They’re just strongly defined enough to warrant their own category names. However it brings up the question of what other subgroups of Transported can be separated out, while still retaining their own useful identity.
While Trapped in a Game World isn’t sufficient, it does bring up two types of trapped scenarios: Transporting a single person (such as Overlord) vs a group (such as Log Horizon). For anything involving group transports, slavery almost never comes into play. If we extend that to other general categories, we see that it holds. So we can branch this into Group Transport and Solitary Transport. Again, Group Transport (such as Log Horizon or Grimgar) carries with it an intrinsic social structure, which largely invalidates the need for the slavery mechanic. Slavery only shows up in Solitary Transport variants.
At this point we have a large number of characteristics which exclude the introduction of the slavery mechanic, all tied to various forms of social interaction. Given a family (reincarnation), a purpose (summoned), connections to the original world (portal), or allies/friends/acquantances (group transport), slavery just doesn’t enter the picture. It only becomes an option with lack of any sort of social support or connections to anyone else in the new world, and no means of reconnecting to the old world — when the character is isolated and unable to depend on anyone else.
Even when no explicit slavery is used, the general concept of the mechanic can seem like basically a re-skin. The absolutely loyal former-NPCs in Overlord fill exactly the same role. Stumbling on a random damsel in distress and rescuing her is a similarly common trope, and will often put her in a similarly dependent position relative to the protagonist.
Then we have another aspect of the isekai structure. Namely, non-summoned solitary protagonists will tend to go one of two ways: kingdom building, or wandering. That is, they will either stay in a fixed spot, and literally build the world they want around themselves (eg: Reincarnated as a Slime, Farming Life), or travel to explore the world the author built (eg: Death March, Campfire Cooking).
In a kingdom builder, other people gather around the protagonist. The protagonist may be a “ruler” of sorts, so the followers are his subjects, but they’re not slaves. Slaves aren’t necessary to build the social structure, and a kingdom builder will almost never use slavery. So, we’ve excluded another section of isekai.
On the other hand, the “wanderer” has a problem. People don’t casually pick up and travel around a medieval-like world, particularly with other people that they don’t know. Using Death March as an example:
1) Satou’s first contact is a noble girl who’s a magician in the local army. She has responsibilities to both her family and the military. She cannot travel with him, and is left behind when Satou begins his travels.
2) Satou’s second contact is the daughter of the innkeeper at the inn he stays at. Again, she is bound by her job and family, and cannot leave to go on a random adventure.
3) Satou’s third contact (other than the slaves) is a lady working at a “general purpose” agency (she helps him search for a house at first, and then helps him with getting set up to travel). Again, she has a job, and can’t just drop it on a whim. She might have conceivably been a romantic partner if he had actually bought the house and settled down, but the author didn’t want to write that story; he wanted to travel the world.
In order to be able to travel, he needs companions that are not tied down by “real life” issues. Remember that the solitary transported isekai protagonist does not have any goals or responsibilities. The world is open to him, to do what he likes. That’s part of the entire point of this section of isekai — freedom from mundane responsibility.
That tends to narrow the field of possibilities for what sorts of characters can join the protagonist. General options are: adventurers; the abandoned or desperate who have no home to speak of; someone who can, for some reason, simply drop all current responsibilities; monsters (who are generally not bound by fixed responsibilities); or slaves. The second and third of those are hard to repeat in-story, so if you want multiple companions you largely draw from the first, fourth, or fifth categories. In order of popularity, I see slaves > monsters > adventurers. Monsters are obviously less desired because they’re not “human”. And bringing in adventurers at parity with the protagonist (ie: complete noob) often doesn’t work. Stronger adventurers are harder to combine with while still allowing the protagonist to be the protagonist, and there usually isn’t anyone lower on the totem pole (while still keeping the protagonist’s cheats secret).
So we now have a set of general transport modes, along with a few smaller categorizations:
Reincarnated [Reborn, Replacement]
Transported [Group, Solitary (Kingdom Builder), Solitary (Wanderer)]
Of all of those, slave companions are very rare in all instances outside of Solitary (Wanderer), and those that do generally draw heavily on Solitary (Wanderer) tropes. In that category, they are frequently used as the social connections for the isekai protagonist who has no other relations in the world, and wants to explore or travel. There’s a desire for freedom, lack of responsibility, and avoidance of being required to trust anyone (as that’s a common issue in the character background). Slavery fits those needs.
All of which makes it extremely easy to see why the slavery mechanic is used in certain types of stories, without any dependency on author or reader motivations, such as sexual fetishes or hatred of women.
This also helps illustrate that it’s not just “isekai has a slavery problem”, which sweeps all forms of isekai under the same umbrella, and muddies any attempts to analyze the slavery component. Rather, slavery is introduced in a very particular subset of isekai, in order to solve a story structure problem that that subset has.
Of course, most authors won’t explain it this way. For most, it’s simply copying a pattern that works for the story they want. Also, because it’s simply copying a pattern without understanding the underlying purpose, many of the problems that disturb readers’ buy-in on the world show up as cracks in the “realism” analysis.
Most criticisms of the slavery mechanic I see are done from the perspective that the critic believes that the reason for slavery (the mechanic) is slavery (the institution), and thus treat it as a moral issue that anyone could either write or enjoy reading such a story. Also, that slavery is only addressed with respect to the in-story components rather than meta components.
It seems to me, though, that slavery (the mechanic) is merely a side effect of the ways in which a certain subtype of this writing genre can work, and thus it being chosen as the solution is fairly natural, and completely unrelated to any moral debate. The only reason it works (and is thus used) is for meta reasons, and criticizing or defending it from the in-story perspective will always ultimately fail, except insofar as the criticism can be used to improve the story.
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