For someone who claims to have no interest in the Isekai genre of anime, I feel like I spend more time talking about it than I probably should. Really though, it’s just my continuing amazement at just how many totally uninspired and super generic Isekai stories keep getting green-lit when there is so much actual potential for the genre on a conceptual level.
Y’see, as a genre, I think Isekai has the potential to be something to tell some really weird and unique stories, mashing up characters with real world knowledge and sensibilities into all kinds of unique settings and situations. More often than not though, the ones that I’ll see people talking about, or I’ll glance over the Manga for end up being the most interchangeable premises you could imagine.
So much so that the characters in the stories themselves even point out how uninspired and oft used the tropes of the story they’re in are, using them as a method of beginning their, often overpowered, journey. It infuriates the hell out of me. But that wasn’t what I was planning on getting wound up about though in this post. What I actually wanted to touch upon was the part of the genre that takes up the remainder of the time in the story, after the premise and setting have been established.
What usually ends up turning me off about Iskeai are the power trip aspects of the story and how poorly they’re usually handled in terms of storytelling.
Huge power without a caveat is inherently boring. The most interesting examples of the genre for me are those that have relatively normal heroes, who get by on their knowledge and quick thinking, and then there are others who still have an overpowered protagonist, yet put conditions on his powers. Which adds drama, tension and stakes to a story in which other Iskeai will simply have the hero breeze through to victory. Even after having the gall to build up some false tension
I’m looking at you That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime.
Forcing the hero to do something like function as a part of a team or (for example, pulling this off the top of my head) sucking on the titties of some magical princess to transform himself (Shinju no Nectar is a far better action manga than it had any right to be). Being overpowered is fine, but there need to be something that limits how often it can be used.
Power for power’s sake is inherently uninteresting unless the writer can add some additional stakes consistently, that way each encounter isn’t the forgone conclusion.
The best Isekai, in my opinion, are the ones without superpowers at all. Ones in which the protagonist’s only real advantage is their intelligence or their knowledge of modern day technology. To me, crafting a story like this is the only true way to fully justify even making a series into an Isekai in the first place and not just a fantasy story where summoning a hero from another world is wasn’t actually nesseserily to the story.
Ascendance of a Bookworm is the absolute best example of this I can think of. Main is far from overpowered at the beginning of the story, in fact, her frail body holds her back from achieving anything as quickly as she could be doing. But her achievements are all justified, as a modern day woman who spent much of her time reading, she had an impressive general knowledge, and uses that to become a successful businesschild and inventor.
And then there’s Dr. Stone, which isn’t technically an Isekai in the traditional sense, but still plays by the same rules.
These characters are interesting protagonists, ones you want to see succeed because their method of doing do is oftentimes unique and unexpected. Going back to the more lazily written Isekai archetypes; the heroes are often the first ones to tell you they were people who lacked talent, drive, ability and oftentimes even a personality. Why on earth would I want to follow a character like that? especially when they’re given god-like abilities on their first day.
I’d much rather follow someone driven, especially if they’re an underdog, their toil and what they overcome is the story you want to see, not just an inevitable ascendance to power without any genuine hardship.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t situations where a talented writer can’t make an overpowered protagonist work well. Fantasy Bishoujo Juniku Ojisan to comes to mind, in which two 30-something year old childhood friend business men are transported to a fantasy world. The straight laced one gains incredible power, while other turns into a shark-toothed waifu that everyone falls in love with as soon as they lay eyes upon here, and hijinks ensue.
The entire charm of this series comes from the comedy of the situation and the two characters constantly bickering with one another while constantly getting themselves into trouble. They’re both overpowered in different ways, but they’re so standoffish with everyone that the entire fantasy hero trope is constantly shut down every time it tried to get doing with them.
Most Isekai I’ve read have an inherent lack of stakes. And while nobody is ever in danger of dying in this series, the character’s personalities and weird attitude ends up contributing undeserved stakes to the strangest of situations and make them work. Which shows that you can create interesting stories without putting the main characters in danger.
I mean look at One Punch Man, a series in which no hero has actually died throughout and yet is impossible to take your eyes off of. Because while Saitama is inherently a force of nature, every other character has personal drives and stakes coming out of their ears. The comedy coming from how Saitama inevitably shuts down the stakes before they can conclude.
Getting by on weak comedy, going full fan service or having impressive art alone can only get you so far. And those that do try to masquerade as a serious story to try and maintain my attention is inevitably going to fall away and find itself in the ever growing pile of forgettable examples of the genre. But hey, if anyone feels like there are some great Isekai that fit the mould of what I actually want out of the genre, I’d happily take the recommendation.
But it’s still a genre I’ll inherently bounce off of, but only because there is so much of it right now.