What's the Point of Isekai? The Cultural Implications of the Genre

by NineOuh,

Fiction reflects nature. It's a way to contextualize the world around us with the tools at our disposal, be it through painting, literature, or film. There's always an underlying struggle going on in fields of art critique about the purpose of said fiction. Is it to represent our current world in some dramatized fashion, or is it to take our modern trappings and imagine a different world with them? This struggle grows even more taxing when approaching the subject of metafiction because, by their very nature, stories centered around a meta rely on knowledge of said meta in the first place. In our world of instantaneous connection and gratification, general audiences aren't looking for entertainment that requires a doctorate in weirdo to penetrate, at least, according to conventional wisdom.

Strangely enough, however, discussions of the meta have been commonplace in art and entertainment for as long as humanity has been blessed with pattern recognition. Shakespeare was a huge nerd for himself and made entire plays that called back to tropes and character archetypes he was fond of, and Greek plays were all about tying together new stories from older more established narratives. Callbacks, cameos, references, these are all things we're familiar with to some degree in the things we consume. But in a medium like anime, meta is more than just a matter of references and callbacks. Ever since the late 90s with the advent of the internet and the slow rise of the light novel as a fixture of youth entertainment, making entire stories centered around lampshading, playing with, and outright upending conventional anime tropes and archetypes became extremely en vogue, and with these stories eventually seeing anime adaptation the overall meta of anime changed.

It's oftentimes dangerous for a medium to be too aware of itself, or for purveyors of it to be more wound up in notating tropes and commonalities rather than seeking out new and exciting narratives. I'm not gonna sit here and act like I'm not fond of junky narou-kei shows where the main guy gets a billion abilities in the first episode and proceeds to out genre-savvy all the fantasy NPCs around them season after season, but the fact of the matter is, no matter how many I read, or even how many I end up enjoying, I can't help but find something lacking on a very fundamental level in many of these stories. This fixation on the meta is distracting from the more interesting elements present in the text, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in Isekai stories. Isekai is a story motif built with the metatextual as the cement to connect the building blocks of the narrative. The vast array of different titles that plant a trope-aware tracksuit wearing otaku in a JRPG-esque fantasy world are tiring to wade through, for sure, and even the ones that put a slight spin on the premise don't seem to be interested in much beyond common trope subversion. Isekai, and by extension, Narou-kei fiction is being suffocated by itself. I really have to ask. At this point, what is the point?

I think the most fascinating sleight of hand that Narou-kei isekai stories pull is that a lot of them aren't about “other” worlds at all, they're about ours. Much like mecha stories are more about the pilots than the robots, the shousetsu brand of isekai story is less about the actual other world, but more about what the main character brings from our world to there, or alternately, poking fun at the lack of change between the two worlds.

We live in what is looking to be the gradual downward slump of the isekai genre as a whole in the anime landscape. I say gradual because it doesn't seem like the trend is dying soon, more just a slow descent in hyperactivity. That said then, what can we glean from isekai as it exists in this current cultural moment? Plenty of smarter writers than me have already tackled this question, but what I'd like to hone in on are the implications of the Isekai genre, in the terms of what the genre's thesis statement sets out to do; imagine a world better than the world we're in now.

Yes, yes, I know, “better” is entirely subjective, but I think there's something to be found in there. For most vanilla isekai stories the focus is on pulling the protagonist (and the reader) into a world where their specific otaku fixation is the answer to all their problems. Sometimes this is played for laughs, sometimes it's intentionally subverted, and sometimes it's taken to its logical conclusion, but more on that later. Like most fiction that sprouts up out of light novel culture, Isekai is a genre very much concerned with observing and examining anime tropes. Like I said earlier, the hyper-specific fixation on commonly understood story beats and cliches from media that were popular in the past is a style of fiction that's been popular since mankind has been able to make sense of the stories they create and consume, and anime is no different. The reason metatextual fiction is popular is very much present in its definition; people already know they like what they like, so making allusions to time-honored tropes and subverting them is an easy way to earn brownie points with new readers coming into contact with your series.

This meta, "trope-hunting" approach to storytelling may have found it's prominence with light novels, but plenty of the stories we're discussing didn't actually begin with physical novelizations. They started online and what's funnier is that most of them started on the exact same website. For the uninitiated, Syosetsu.com, known more commonly by its full name, Shousetsuka ni Narou, is a site that lets users post and promote their own web novels. While you may not have heard of the site, you've definitely read or watched something adapted from a story that started there. Log Horizon, Mahouka, Death March, Ascendance of a Bookworm, a strong majority of the shows that I've been using as backing footage for this video, yup, all from the same source. Syosetsu has been the guiding creative engine in the modern otaku ecosystem, the trope-hunting obsessed, metatextual overload we've become used to seeing didn't happen as an accident. These things are what specifically entices the site's audience to check out the new stories, and as such, story writing takes on an almost content creator-like dynamic. I know what it looks like to be a slave to the algorithm, and believe me when I say the ecosystem of Syosetsu has a lot more in common with anime YouTube than traditional serialized publishing. It's easy to sit here and cast aspersions at the lack of originality present in the Shousetsuka scene but when I asked earlier what the “point” of isekai is I wasn't complaining about unoriginality, because Narou-kei doesn't prioritize any sense of the "original" over it's participation in the culture of Otaku-based storytelling.

The smartest anime YouTuber on the internet, Pause & Select, has often talked about how isekai stories with a Japanese protagonist getting zapped into a fantasy realm will oftentimes come with a philosophy of imperialist soft power. Shows like Outbreak Company, Slime Tensei, and High School Prodigies all contain elements of Japanese characters imposing modernized modes of production on medieval fantasy societies. As far as "imagining a better world" it's oftentimes obvious that the writers of these stories approach that with the imagination of a trope-obsessed, working age, Japanese Otaku. Knight's & Magic, in particular, makes it clear that the MCs ability to understand the magic system as well as the mechanical components of the machinery present in the world, was a direct result of him having been a mecha anime-loving code monkey working for a tech company xx.

These genre-aware story beats are what entice masses of otaku consumers onto these stories, and while some may balk at the ostentatiously indulgent otaku pandering that permeates this style of fiction, the reason people call these “Narou-Kei” stories in the first place is because they're from a website that churns out an immeasurable number of similar fiction every week. If one guy makes a series about picking apples in another world and it shoots up to the top of the charts, and another guy drops “I can't believe my story about picking apples in another world got popular in another world”, yes the actual text of the first series has nothing to do with the second one, but within the text of the second one, you'll either be made aware of the first text or be reading it because of the first text. That inseparable dynamic between the original and the referential work makes for an environment where both stories hold equal power as fictional entities, especially if both works are well received by readers. You may not get it, but the folks reading and writing these works do.

With any genre of fiction the best way to figure out where it's coming from is examining the context it was created in, and the material conditions of those creating it. As far as the Japanese web novel scene, by virtue of it being a free to join website with a large active community, Shousetsuka Ni Narou has played a large role in democratizing the process of writing an anime story. Any common NEET or depressed salaryman can write a web novel and have it be seen by thousands. This means a whole generation of people who, while they may not be the best at narrative structure, are uniquely equipped to create community-sourced, self-aware vehicles for hyper-focused tales that address pretty much any specific weird fixation and run it through the community approved trappings of a JRPG fantasy setting. The nerds making these books are usually of working age and write these books in their free time. They typically aren't actually putting that much intrinsic thought into the worlds they create.

I for one, think it's interesting that a bunch of people who spend time writing stories about how unsatisfied your average otaku in the workforce is with their humdrum life, only to warp them to a world where they can keep going about their humdrum life except within the context of a fantasy light novel. I'm no expert on isekai, but what I do know is that I'm the target audience for most of these types of stories, and as an avid consumer of narou-kei literature, the fixation on playing out some variation on “dissatisfied genre savvy otaku gets thrust into a world where only his weird fixation can solve everyone's problems” is more than just idle indulgence. Whether these authors know it or not, they're exposing some very interesting contradictions.

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