How Isekai Gets It Wrong

I wanna do this while this is still fresh on my mind before I procrastinate this into obscurity.

Being a proper adult with a real adult job and whatnot, I haven’t really kept up too much with the seasonal anime. That said, being a regular on /a/, I’m aware of what’s going on with the seasonal anime. One of the trends I noticed has been this abundance of isekai anime. I’ve watched a few of these or a few episodes of these and I didn’t see the appeal. I’ve been puzzling over it though. Isekai anime are clearly popular, but why don’t I like them?

This post has very likely been a few years in the making because I’ve found that I haven’t liked any isekai. I’ve found a few I’ve been OK with but I could never invest myself in any to watch them to completion. Konosuba is one of the only few that I think do isekai right. Why is that? What is special about Konosuba? What does Konosuba have that other isekai don’t? Well, enough stalling, let’s get to it.

Defining Isekai

What is an isekai? The kanji for isekai are 異世界 which loosely translates to ‘strange’, ‘different’, or ‘wonderful’ world. The main setup of an isekai is that the protagonist through some means or another is transported to a ‘world’ completely different to their ‘world’. The protagonist then has to struggle to come to terms with their new place (or lack thereof) in their new life.

Let’s make sure we also classify what isn’t an isekai. A lot of people like to point to Sword Art Online as an isekai. It isn’t. Part of the isekai genre is an inability to ‘escape’ the new world to return to the old. Even in SAO, the ‘new world’ wasn’t a new world, it was just a game. And it has gotten even less restrictive. SAO has its own problems but I’ve already made a post about it.

For the sake of ease of reading I will be referring to the world the protagonist comes from as “Old World” and the world the protagonist is transported to as “New World”.

What Do Isekai Anime Get Wrong?

To answer this question, we have to remember what an isekai is. It seems most isekai forget it almost immediately. An isekai is what you get when you take someone from one world and drop them in a new one. This has some pretty natural implications which are very rarely acted upon.

Picture this: You come from the United States. You are transported to a world where slavery (true slavery, not indentured servitude) exists. You would expect such a person to promptly cry out against the slavery because it clashes severely with our western morality. In the case of Shield Hero he embraces it (which imo was justified) or there will be some revolution in the making. Of course, I know why authors do this. They want the protagonist to be the key feature in revolution. Who wouldn’t want to be the guy who legally ended slavery? However, due to this, they’ve created one or two problems.

The Palette Swap

Let’s first consider the case in which the western morality is secretly adopted in the new world but has yet to been realized. What you’ve done is move the protagonist from the old world to the old world with a palette swap. This is lazy writing. It comes from being unable or unwilling to create a new world so you simply recolor the old world, thus “palette swap”. This alone isn’t bad. Naturally, there are three cases of this. So let’s examine the three cases.

  • Present to Past
    • Moving the protagonist to a parallel past new world allows the author to examine the values of the past through a modern lens. We do this all the time whether we realize it or not. Fundamentally, it’s what a progressive individual is doing. They imagine themselves from the future and they are stuck living in the past. Alternatively, you can use this to examine the values of the present through an idealized past. By making the people of the past out to be happy, you can examine why people are unhappy in the present
  • Present to Present
    • Moving the protagonist to a parallel present time is the ‘What If’ scenario. ‘What if the Nazis won WWII’, ‘What if WWII never happened’, ‘What if FDR never won re-election’, or ‘What if the U.S.S.R. never fell’. Using this, the important thing (and I cannot stress this enough) is to make sure it’s sufficiently different from the old world. If the alternative history is only marginally different from the real history, then you’re wasting my time. Too many isekai waste my time with this, creating a world with different species but not using these tools for anything.
  • Present to Future
    • I hesitate to call this a ‘parallel future’ because no one knows what the future may contain. This is the appeal of this usage. It allows us to imagine how drastically our lives may change. DO NOT USE THIS FOR SCIENCE FANTASY. Only use this for science fiction. The emphasis should be on how what is extraordinary today becomes mundane in the future.

Again, you want to make sure you’re using the world to its strength. If you don’t sufficiently differentiate the new world from the old world, we have to ask the question: Why are we here? I mean we’re going to ask the question either way but if you’ve insufficiently differentiated the new world, its answer is all the more important. And the answer is naturally the protagonist. Which brings us nicely to the next section.

The Man Out of His Time

Fundamentally, you should get the man out of his time no matter what you do. What is ‘the man out of his time’? The man out of his time (or the fish out of water) is a person who is in a completely foreign environment. They don’t match the environment and the environment doesn’t match them. They bring with them their values and ideas from the old world into the new world. This is the modern United States citizen with their child labor laws being sent to industrial revolution London. They are the avatar of the audience and they are the vehicle which allows the audience to contrast their world with what could be, what would be, or what should be.

If you’ve properly differentiated your new world, using this character you can inject modern values into the new world or even examine the new values in contrast with the old ones. If the author uses this character well, the modern audience viewer may disagree with the past but at least understand where they’re coming from.

If you haven’t sufficiently differentiated your new world from your old world, the audience will then have to examine the protagonist. Which means you have to make them extremely jarring to the old world. If you’ve done a parallel present transition, you need to then make them jarring in the old world as well. I think Tanya the Evil does this well. You’re not really supposed to root for Tanya (She’s evil) but you are supposed to examine her and imagine yourself in her shoes. What would you have done differently. (I will have to do a Tanya the Evil review later but I haven’t quite finished it yet)

Ironically, if you make a completely different world, a good goal may be to turn the new world into an anti-villain while if you make a relatively similar world, the goal will then be to turn the protagonist into an anti-hero. In other words, you won’t play a villain or hero straight. If you do play a villain or hero straight you often invalidate your setup. Because again, I have to ask the question, “Why are we here?” And if you can’t justify the existence of the old world I have to ask ‘Why even bother with the isekai’?

Which is the fundamental issue with most isekai. They more often than not invalidate their initial premise turning themselves into weak shounen (which is fundamentally a wish-fulfillment genre).

Conclusion

So the general answer to the question of why I don’t like isekai is that they’re often written poorly. The reason I believe they’re written poorly is because they’re not making use of their tropes correctly. A good isekai will properly contrast the new world with the old one. It can do this either with the world directly or with the protagonist. What happens too often is that the new world is too similar to the old world and the protagonist is too blank to draw such contrasts. If you must make the new world exceedingly similar to the old world, you must, must, MUST make the protagonist jarring by the new world standards in some way (this is what I think ‘Tanya the Evil’ does well)

Anyway, that’ll be it from me today. Thanks for reading

Artemis Hunt

How Isekai Gets It Wrong