“There is nothing more elusive than an obvious fact,” said Sherlock Holmes. And how true is it? So many times there are so many things, so many connections and ideas and truths, which are so obvious, and yet we miss them completely until we have one of those thundering moments of realization.
This is one of those times, for me, where I have suddenly realized something so very obvious that I really feel like I should have noticed it before, and so I may need to beg your pardon, oh wonderful audience of mine, as I do exactly what every human, be they child or adult, tends to do upon such a realization: share it, enthusiastically! 😉
Now, it’s no profound realization that we are presently being buried under countless isekai anime and manga, many of which leave a great deal to be desired. Seriously, Wikipedia has at least ninety-five separate pages under that one category, and I know what you’re thinking, “Only ninety-five?” Well, it’s not comprehensive, I thought of several others within moments. Besides the simple over-use of the isekai trope, the problems with all these anime and manga are many and diverse, including boring, overpowered protagonists, dull plots, an abundance of harems, and so on. But I have realized that many of these elements, and how successful any given title is in their use of them, can be interconnected through the answer to a single question.
And what is that question, you ask?
Well, as a quick review for the informed and to inform the uninitiated, isekai is the term for when the protagonist of a story is summoned, reincarnated, or otherwise taken to an alternate world. This does not include anything like UFO abductions and whatnot. It’s more like Alice falling through the rabbit hole to Wonderland. And it has become a very common trope in anime and manga. Perhaps that means something, that we powerless people are dreaming of being taken to another world where we are almighty gods with hordes of beautiful women (or men) wanting to have sex with us… but I digress.
My point is that the most basic principle of storytelling is to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s what our lives are: they begin, they end, and they usually have a middle. No one ever goes through life and gets an entirely clean slate partway through. We are, by very nature, linear creatures, rooted in what has come before, and we constantly look to what comes after, living through each moment to get there.
So, at any point in any story, we must face the significance of both the past and the future even while we are in the present. There are countless stories which do this, and many of the best are so great because they do it so well.
Thus, the question, which reflects the quality of a narrative, and sheds light on who and what the protagonist is, and connects directly to how believable and relatable they are, whether or not they have grandiose power and harems and such… that question is, quite simply:
How much does the protagonist’s otherworldly origin matter?
How much does it actually matter for this character to be someone from our world?
In other words, how much does the trope the storyteller is using actually impact the story they are telling?
If they’re using it just because they think it’s popular, or it’s all they can think of, then small wonder the story sucks! And that’s no matter (or because of) the other fantasy-fulfillment tropes they throw into the mix. If the hero’s own past doesn’t matter to the part they play in the story, then how much can the story itself matter? Following that, how much can the story actually mean? And make no mistake, however easily we humans may be distracted, we are always searching for meaning.
Obviously, I’m not advancing this as some hard-and-fast rule. The world has very few absolutes to it, and storytelling has even fewer. I simply find it as a remarkably accurate rule of thumb, a lens with which we can gauge the quality of isekai stories.
A few examples:
First, some anime where the protagonists’ origins very much mattered.
Seven kids are transported to another world where they meet some unusual friends who act as their protectors. Not only are these all fully-formed characters, but the story itself takes them back and forth between the real and digital worlds as the influence of dark forces are blurring the barriers between them, to the detriment of both. Their quest is to save both worlds.
Saga of Tanya the Evil
Tanya is the reincarnated soul of a cold-blooded corporate official. Not only does this give him, now her, tremendous insight into the workings of the world he is reborn as a girl, but her entire new life is a showdown, a challenge between her and a god-like entity. This has many direct impacts on the plot, partially because there really is someone plotting to use the entire world against Tanya. It also shows how Tanya is growing and changing, ever so slightly, to care about the people around her.
Kagome Higurashi is transported to the past via a magical well on her family’s lands. She figures out how to go back and forth between them, using modern tools like a bike, a backpack, and instant food in the feudal era. She fights demons in the past while going to school with her friends in the present. Though, there are also demons in the present that need to be dealt with. Eventually, though, she finds that she has to choose between the world of her family and friends and the world of her comrades and the man she loves. And that decision relies on everything she has experienced in both eras.
This is much more of a fun-oriented anime than an epic adventure. It begins with a boy who is called to help a kingdom win what basically boils down to an extended series of sports festivals. Soon enough, they manage to figure out how to move him and his friends back and forth, which just adds to the fun dynamics.
No Game, No Life
A brother-sister gaming duo is summoned to the world of a god of a games, after they manage to beat him at a game. Thus, he brings them to play his game, for a two-out-of-three rematch! And boy, do their skills and talents and temperaments influence everything they manage to do! The fact that there is no second season to finish this story is an absolute tragedy, I say!
Restaurant to Another World
A fairly tame example, where a Japanese restaurant is connected to a fantasy world, and it has some surprising effects on the people who manage to find it. Some form friendships, some have their very lives saved, some introduce parts of their favorite dishes to their own world, and all of them have their lives enriched. They only explained how this happened in the last episode, and it is, in a way, the most delicious tale of the lot.
By the Grace of the Gods
In contrast to most, there are no epic battles of high stakes in this anime. There’s not much tension at all, really. But the protagonist is very much defined by who he was before he was reincarnated, and this influences his interactions with others, his discipline and skills, and his zeal for treating others as human beings. He grows throughout the story (as much as I know of it, thus far, at least) because he still has his past intact. It matters. And it’s a joy to watch.
That’s the very much narrowed-down list of anime I could have cited, where the connection between worlds, the fact that the protagonist is moved (or moves) between them clearly matters. It has direct significance to the characters and the story, and they’re all well-told stories with enjoyable, well-developed characters and intriguing themes. And you’ll note that most of them don’t overpower their heroes or (with some exceptions) have any sort of harem.
Now for a few which use the isekai origin rather badly, ie, I don’t see how the lead character’s origin in our world even really matters.
There are so many of these to choose from out there, but, then again, quite a few of them completely fail my one-episode rule, so I am a bit more limited in my personal candidates for such here, but I’m sure you can fill in the gaps.
The highest-quality example I can think of where this particular failure occurred. A man whose life didn’t have much meaning outside a game he played suddenly finds himself existing as the character he played in a real fantasy world. He is now an undead lich with immense power and many dedicated followers. He begins to learn about this new world and interact with it, and along the way he inadvertently begins to take over the world. It has its moments, but it loses a great deal to how the story is following the villains… and to how the lead character really didn’t need to be from our world to have any sort of similar story. It may have been useful in the manga for explaining a multitude of tiny details about a vast cast, but it was fairly useless in practical terms.
Didn’t I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life?
Ok, so the girl who wanted that felt she was outcast as a freak in her previous life, so she wanted to be completely normal, aka “average” in her next life. This inadvertently was translated as making her super-powerful, so she stands out quite a bit. The fact that she is apparently more concerned with this than even with the assassination of most of her family in this world speaks volumes as to how little the past is really having any sort of effect on this girl and who she is. It might be amusing at times, but it falls way short in terms of quality.
Death March to a Parallel World Rhapsody
Did not get past the first episode or two. It was just so freaking cliché and boring! And why did the overpowered, harem-blessed hero have to come from our world, anyway? That had zero impact on the plot!
Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks?
Master of Ragnarok, Blesser of the Einherjar
Isekai Cheat Magician
Same thing. The one that I could only stand to watch out of sheer morbid fascination with just how bad it was!
Notice a pattern here?
Now, there are a few that are more… middling examples, I would say, both in quality and in the significance of the isekai trope within it. These are particularly debatable, and, of course, this is only my own opinion.
These are the shows where the hero’s otherworldly origin mattered, but not that much.
The Rising of the Shield Hero
The hero comes from our world, and doesn’t know much about fantasy. This might be a benefit in the long run, but he’s pretty well isolated from the start and beaten down in many ways. He rises, though, to become quite useful and powerful. His tale offers some interesting points of discussion. As for this one, I can see how certain aspects of the story and the characters are influenced by his origin and that of the other heroes in the story. But, at the same time, it’s the past within this fantasy world which is influencing everything, not the hero’s own past.
That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime
A more straightforward example, I think, as the slime in question has abilities that were influenced by his death in our world. He also encounters several other people who were summoned instead of reincarnated, and thus the trope is more directly at work within the plot. However, there seems to be fairly little in the way of how heavily influenced these otherworldly characters are by their past. They are largely shaped by the world they enter, as opposed to having much shape leftover from the world they leave. There are also certain qualms to be found with the quality of the story, though it, too, has its moments.
A painfully obvious example in how directly the connection between worlds influences the events happening in both. One day a gate between worlds opens up in Tokyo, and all Hell breaks loose. The government sends the military through the gate to respond in kind, and everything that happens is because of how the two cultures and militaries interact. However, this one, also, has debatable problems in its narrative, in how powerful the protagonists are, in the harem which shortly develops, and, really, in how much it really all matters. That last is because, while the story remains unfinished in the anime, there remain pretty clear indicators that the gate is soon to close, and so while people will find themselves forever in a different world, and the two worlds are certainly being transformed by these events, there’s not really that much reason for them to invest so much in each other.
How Not to Summon a Demon Lord
Now, this one has both the overpowered lead and the harem and the narrative that gives way to flashy lights and flashing of body parts. Where the otherworldly origin of the demon lord in question comes into play is, quite simply, in how he takes his cues for his behavior from all the time he spent gaming. He was quite dramatic and forceful in his speech (the usual “I am superior and you will be crushed beneath my might” sort of thing) and so he imitates that here, being unused to dealing with people but now having a role he can play when he does so. Oh, and it also explains how he can be such a powerful demon lords without actually having committed any atrocities as he gained his power, that sort of thing.
The Vision of Escaflowne
This is a classic. It is a very enjoyable anime, with mature themes. There are only a couple of problems with the narrative. One is how the heroes know what happened in the backstory with Atlantis, and the other is why the protagonist had to be from our world. I mean, it had a clear effect on her as she had a clear effect, for time, on the world around her. But her soothsaying abilities were what really gave her an important role in events, while her relationships gave her importance to those around her. Both of those could be accomplished without her being from Earth, and her decision to return felt a little lackluster, given how much she said she loved the world she came to. Why not just stay in Gaea? And why not just be from there to begin with?
Magic Knight Rayearth
Same thing, really.
Very similar, outside the presence of roller blades. Oh, and the protagonist didn’t even bother returning to our world.
The Familiar of Zero
Same thing, except the hero finds a way to bring his bride between the worlds as much as he likes.
So, we have several examples where the better isekai anime placed some pretty significance importance on how the hero comes from our ordinary world. We have several lesser-quality anime which basically just throw it into the mix and don’t do anything real with it. And we have some middling quality anime where the hero’s origin is of middling importance.
What does this all mean?
Well, we all know that this trope is firmly established now, and it’s not going away just yet. There are a number of isekai anime still incoming, based on various manga. Some of them look interesting, in a way. The one titled, So I’m a Spider, So What, seems to be partially going the route of That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime in that the protagonist is reincarnated into a fantasy world as some sort of monster that doesn’t usually get the spotlight but may be surprisingly powerful in some way. But, as always, the question is what kind of story, what kind of characters, and what kind of meaning will be found in this and other upcoming stories.
To which, I ask, how much does their otherworldly origin matter? If it really matters, then clearly more effort went into everything that matters, and so it’s likely to be that much more enjoyable.
It’s not absolute, but it’s an interesting trend, isn’t it?