The Power(ing) of Isekai Protagonists

A humble, average person gets whisked away from our normal world and into a more fantastic one. Here, in this other world filled with strange and wondrous and dangerous things, the humble native of our world is no average person, but a chosen one gifted with great and terrible power, making them all but unstoppable! Oh, and there may or may not be many highly attractive members of the opposite sex intimately involved with the hero.

Sound familiar? It should. It gets used often enough!

What I have just described is the general use of the isekai, or “otherworld,” trope. Someone, somewhere, some time ago thought to transport the audience to a fantasy world metaphorically by doing so to the protagonist literally. Since then, it’s become so commonplace, with more of them produced every season, it seems, that even longtime, dedicated fans may think it a bit overused and worn out. It just doesn’t surprise us anymore.

And they always comment on how overpowered the protagonist is.

“Oh, look, another story where the hero is someone transported to that world from ours.”

“Oh, look, another almighty hero.”

“Oh, look, another fantasy world harem.”

“How original!

Yes, it certainly is overused. I, myself, have complained about it more than once, and fairly recently.

But as I let my mind wander a bit, I began to feel out this issue a bit, like reaching in the dark to understand the shape of something I couldn’t see. And I realized that while the criticism may be valid, we may be misunderstanding exactly what the problem is. It’s not as bad as we might think… and it’s also worse than we notice.

I know, that sounds a bit contradictory. Please, bear with me, as I endeavor to explain. 😉

To start with, examining the issue of overpowered isekai protagonists, and where we feel it to be such a failing, a few examples of…

The Overpowered:

Rimuru Tempest
That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

What was the biggest flaw with this show? What kept it from being great? Everything was too easy. Even when Rimuru himself was not the overpowered one in the equation, which, he usually was, the solutions to his problems made themselves easily manifest at opportune times.

Rimuru himself had multitude of skills, the intellect and imagination to use them precisely as needed, enough magical power to dwarf that of most mortals, and outright immunity to certain kinds of damage.

He is a very powerful ball of slime. Even when compared with slimes and slime-like creatures in other stories.

Ains Ooal Gown
Overlord

As a villain, he’s perfect: an undead skeleton with a multitude of spells and massive magical power, the likes of which can only be rivaled, that we know of, by his strongest subordinates. At his word, tens of thousands die in and instant. Within his shadow, event the strongest of mortal warriors is perfectly helpless. No one can stand up to him with any hope of success, no one.

But he’s the protagonist, too. Protagonists and villains alike both need limits. And he is surrounded by subordinates who are likewise overpowered, as he is, making it all even worse. Until the day his followers break ranks, turning against each other and against him, failure will never be a possibility.

It’s even more frustrating when one realizes just how villainous they truly are.

The JSDF
Gate

Ok, it’s not just one person. And yes, they move freely between the worlds. I still count it, because when you pit a modern military, in its full might, against a little horde of goblins, or something like Roman legions, or even a dragon, the results are a foregone conclusion.

That was one of my chief complaints about the show: one side was routinely able to slaughter all the others. It was satisfying at times, but repetitive. They were able to create some tension on personal levels, but not on an overall level. We always knew which side would win the day.

There is a reason why our civilization eventually stopped training on swords and started training on guns, and high explosives, and machines.

Now, no one can contest just how overpowered these three forces of mass destruction are, and they certainly aren’t alone in that. They’re just too powerful for the good of the story. It is very difficult to stay interested in a story that just repeats the same scenes of one-sided slaughter. We know what’s going to happen, it offers nothing fresh to keep us riveted, so it gets boring.

However, it suddenly occurred to me that this proliferation of overpowered protagonists is fairly recent. Not all isekai heroes are monsters and demigods. Chosen ones, maybe, sometimes, but not so powerful. Here are a few heroes from older isekai stories who, if anything, must be called…

Low Powered:

Hitomi Kanzaki
The Vision of Escaflowne

Hitomi is a mostly normal girl in high school, complete with a best friend and a crush and a complete obliviousness to how her best friend also has a crush on her crush. She’s even on the track team. But there is one thing which sets her apart: she’s a soothsayer, or a seer.

By that, I mean she tells fortunes, usually with her tarot cards. When she gets transported to the mystical world of Gaea, however, her abilities are enhanced a bit, including more accurate fortunes, frequent visions, the ability to scry and find things with her grandmother’s pendant, and so forth. She sees the truth, the past, present and future. She can even alter fate, thought that is usually by accident.

That may seem like quite the ability, and it does prove useful at pivotal moments. However, it’s a small ability, and she’s never able to use it in combat herself, though she may render assistance to others with it. Time and again, she saves lives with it, but it doesn’t protect her very well or let her smite her enemies. Her unusual ability, on its own, is really very weak. So much so that she can only watch in horror as terrible things happen, and she gets left behind when the men go off to fight a war in earnest.

Come the end of show, Hitomi’s last role is simply to be rescued by someone who loves her, and who she loves in return. So, definitely not “overpowered,” eh?

Genki Sakura
Monster Rancher

Genki is a normal kid who literally got sucked into his game. He has no special powers whatsoever, though I understand there’s some sort of mystic bond between him and his friends that lets them because a phoenix, or something like that? I didn’t actually finish the show, to my regret. Circumstance barred me sometime late in the second season. But for what I saw, Genki had no abilities himself.

That is about as opposite of “overpowered” as you can get. Just a normal kid, albeit a fit and exuberant one who is always calling himself the Monster Champ. He is the beating heart of the team, the glue that binds them all together, but he has no powers. He can fight as well as any normal kid might imagine they do, but he has no powers. He was just drawn into a strange and wondrous world, and without his friends, he would been a goner.

The flip side of that is, he was basically just this loud-mouthed kid. He may have been a leader, but he was also just kind of there. He didn’t seem that important… no wait, I amend that… his origin didn’t seem that important. He didn’t need to be from our world for there to be a story, and it would have been perfectly easy to substitute a native of that world in his place.

The Digidestined
Digimon

Now, I know it’s not the normal sort of isekai story, but, come on. They are taken or voluntarily go to another world, and that’s only on their end. For the digimon who enter our world, they are the ones being taken to another world.

I also know the Digidestined are usually partnered up with powerful digimon, and once or twice they’ve been those digimon. More often than not, however, they aren’t the powerful one in this situation. So while the digimon do the fighting, the Digidestined kids basically just think or cheer or whatever. They have no abilities of their own, and they can be next to helpless without their digimon partners.

Yet, even if one considers the digimon to be some sort of extension of the Digidestined, they never start out as powerful. Furthermore, the stronger they get, the stronger their enemies become, and they are often outclassed.

Now, Digimon strikes a pretty good balance between the humans and the digimon in terms of importance. They are friends and comrades and this is their story, not the story of the world around them. Other shows did not fare so well in that regard.

So we have the latest crop of isekai stories being saturated with overpowered protagonists, yet the older stories went the opposite direction, and made their lead heroes weaker than most, just with something pivotal to add in certain situations. As a result, they weren’t always the center of the story, and even when they were, they weren’t automatically the most important people in the room. They witnessed as much as they influenced, sometimes even approaching insignificance in some way by the end of their own show.

That’s two ends of the spectrum, though, and either approach risks losing the audience. Better to walk a middle ground, something that includes the extraordinary powers which prove pivotal to the plot, but balanced, with understandable limitations. On which note, I present:

Medium(ish)  Powered:

Naofumi Iwatani
Rising of the Shield Hero

This one is still airing, and I can hear some objections already. Naofumi is powerful, they might say, and I must agree, but there is more to it than that.

First of all, Naofumi is the Shield Hero. His abilities are primarily defensive and supportive in nature. That’s the entire reason he needs his party, so he can bring something offensive to the fight and maybe stay alive.

Second, he does not start out with power, and even as he gains it, he is continually beaten down and outmatched by various opponents. These include the power which threatens the world, and the religious and political forces of the land, and the mystical might of more powerful beings, and even the other heroes. He never has an advantage, and he’s always fighting an uphill battle without even a sword.

Third… heck, his strongest available abilities right now are terribly taxing and costly to use in ways he doesn’t quite understand yet.

So, while he is strong, he is not overpowered.

Tanya von Degurechaff
Saga of Tanya the Evil

I imagine people might object even more to my including Tanya, but, hear me out. She may pack quite a punch, yes, and be highly intelligent. However:

1) She, too, is not always powerful.

2) Her power does not come from within her, but is sharply enhanced by her armory, so she can be deprived of it.

3) Even with at full power, she has been pushed to brink of death by her enemies before.

4) Her true adversary is an entity that could pass for God. Not a god. God. She’ll need every advantage she can get!

5) Even her triumphs work against her in the contest between her and this godlike entity.

Powerful? Yes. Overpowered? Nope.

Kagome Higurashi
InuYasha

Going back to a more classic anime here, about a high school girl who gets drawn back into feudal Japan.

Kagome is mostly a normal girl, like Hitomi. But unlike Hitomi, Kagome comes to pack quite a wallop as a powerful priestess. It’s a bit more loosely defined, and I’d qualify her at the lower end of the power spectrum here, but, even so. A bit like Genki, though, her origin in our world is all but irrelevant, really. But, more like all the other protagonists, the story still pivots on her decisions, and her developing relationships. Though, once again like Hitomi, she becomes something of a damsel to be rescued by the man she loves in the final conflict.

Thus, she’s sort of somewhere between low-powered and overpowered, meaning: medium-powered.

So, there is actually a full, wide range to be found. Some are overpowered, and it can get boring. Others are low powered, and they can often border on irrelevant. And still others strike a balance between the two, and demonstrate that a riveting story depends on quite a bit more than any mere gimmicks. Yet, even in the middle range, there seem to be a clear division: the older protagonists were less “powered,” and the newer ones, more so. Speaking in very general terms, of course.

Now here is where I finally reach…

The Realization:

It’s not just isekai protagonists, but protagonists in general who are like this.

Think about it. There are a ton of overpowered protagonists out there, in every genre, with or without any otherworldly adventures involved. Much like every other trope, it has crept in and seeped through the entire industry over time. It’s so abundant that we’ve started to mock and subvert the very idea of almighty heroes, as in Saitama of One Punch Man, Diablo of How Not to Summon a Demon Lord, and even The Devil is a Part-Timer. Heck, perfection itself is used as a comedic tool in Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto!

Somewhere along the way, the majority of our stories began to revolve, more often than not, around the most powerful characters within them, or those who become the most powerful characters. Naruto, BleachOne Piece? My Hero Academia centers on the boy who becomes “the greatest hero,” succeeding the previous generation’s “greatest hero,” giving us two characters who are both overpowered and have severe limits.

How did this happen?

Well, it’s always been common to give our protagonists an edge, and we are fascinated by the label of “the best.” Put those together, and you get stronger and stronger characters. Kenshin Himura, Heero Yui, and Vash the Stampede are all absolutely “the best” within their respective stories. Yet, these three at least have limits and peers and worthy rivals. And, again, they’re all a bit older than the current crop.

Even overpowering our heroes is nothing new, a’la Hercules or Superman. For a time, as comics and cartoons emerged, our heroes began to be quite powerful, but we eventually moved away from that, towards more human protagonists (thank you, Stan Lee). That naturally made its way into manga and anime, and there was a time when such absurdly overpowered characters were much more rare.

So what happened? What changed?

My conclusion:

Son freaking Goku. That is what happened.

He beats up gods for fun.

We live in a culture where heroes are constantly compared to one another. Superman vs Batman. Iron Man vs Captain America. Darkseid vs Thanos… oh, wait, those two are different universes, aren’t they?

And therein lies the problem.

Pretty much any and every hero and villain in the whole of media is up for comparison with any other. With the spread of the internet connecting audiences all across the world, this commentary can come from anyone, anywhere, and reach anyone, anywhere. And all it takes is one person, seeing one hero praised for their skills, to say… “Goku could beat them. Easily.”

And it’s true! He probably could! The bar has been raised to ludicrous heights again, because one of the most influential and recognized figures in all of anime has gone, over the course of several decades, from picking up a car, to threatening all of creation several times over. It. Is. Nuts.

And when did this happen? It began in the days of Digimon, Escaflowne, and all the rest, and it still continues even now. Exactly the right timing to influence a generation, and keep doing so throughout the years, so they never forget the most powerful of all. Thus, the succeeding generations of animators and their audience find themselves measuring everyone against him, and the results? A flood of overpowered protagonists who are trying to compete with someone in an entirely different franchise.

Of course… it’s only a theory. 😉

Now, far be it from me to blame only Goku for this, as I’m sure it’s more complicated than just his example alone can explain. He’s not the only one, after all, and certainly not anymore. It certainly is not the fault of only his original creator. Like all things, it is the overwhelming intricacies of society and the multitude of ways we influence each other. There is no one we can simply take it out on.

Unfortunately, that means we can’t just turn off the tide of overpowered protagonists as easy as flipping a switch or turning a faucet. We can’t do much of anything about it, really.

Except, perhaps, voice our appreciation for the more reasonable protagonists, and support their stories more than the others… and wait for the tide to eventually turn, as it has before.

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4 Responses to The Power(ing) of Isekai Protagonists

  1. DerekL says:

    One of my favorite isekai features underpowered protagonists – Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash. They’re not only underpowered, they start out at the bottom of the social ladder too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. DragonKnight says:

    First of all sorry for my bad English I am not native secondary it was interesting to read what you did write, and I do agree that Rimuru and Ainz are overpowered in there respected universes, but neither of them had their real advicery in the anime already. And you did exactly what you did critecised characters in different universes purely by there power, for example slime tensei is a kingdom building, adventure anime and focuses mostly on that. Overlord is also a kingdom building anime with an incredible big cast of character which mostly are fleshed out and the story looses focus from Ainz after season one and then he is more of a supporting character. Gate is for example also a kingdom building (by all that is holy you might just dislike kingdom building stories), but more on the slice of life genre while I do agree to not like it that’s just because silce of life is not my cup of tea. Since I didn’t see the low powered anime (did see monster ranch as a child but can’t remember shit about it) I can’t say whether I do agree to these accesments. Now to the medium powered it Rising of the shield hero is an action adventure anime where naofumi starts at the bottom of the bottom, he gets accused by the princess of the kingdom in a matriachy of rape and gets all stolen of him so his start is at the bottom of anything possible in this society and most politicians move against him from the start because of religious reasons, his power is also stunted from the start but go’s from trash to God-like in this story so putting him in mid tier is not accurate.

    Now to my conclusions yes the market is satisfied enough with isekai anime but killing it of is also wrong, if anything that would just place the problem to another unsuspecting universe, and your complaint on story’s wich are good is in the wrong, what you should have complained about should have been mediocre ty like in another world with a smartphone or magus grandson those are the problem child’s in the isekai genre and most still watch it, and that is bad.

    Well sorry for my rant just found this post by coincidence and read through it and wanted to share my opinion about your post.

    Like

    • Merlin says:

      Thank you! You are always free to comment, and always free to disagree, so long as you are respectful. 🙂

      I actually haven’t seen the smartphone or grandson shows. They failed my one-episode rule, where I’ll watch the first episode, to try it, but if it doesn’t hook me right, then I move on.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Mel in Anime Land Diary | Year 2, Week 32 – Mel in Anime Land

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