Mushoku Tensei Is Not the Pioneer of Isekai Web Novels, But...by Kim Morrissy,
So, Mushoku Tensei. If you've heard of the series, you may also be familiar with its reputation as the "pioneer" or "progenitor" of the modern isekai ("other world") web/light novel genre. It's a common claim you'll see on YouTube (see here, here, and here). Heck, even the anime's own official website refers to it as "the pioneer of Narō-kei light novels." I'll explain what Narō-kei specifically means later in the article, but the point is that these labels infer that Mushoku Tensei isn't just your regular isekai series – it's apparently a genre-defining work akin to The Lord of the Rings.
There is a good reason why the anime's marketing would lean on that reputation. Today's anime landscape is oversaturated with isekai stories based on web novels originally posted on Shōsetsuka ni Narō ("Let's Become Novelists," or Narō for short). Despite starting serialization during a similar time frame as the likes of Re:Zero, Konosuba, and The Rising of the Shield Hero, Mushoku Tensei got its anime adaptation significantly later than its contemporaries. If you only follow Narō stories through their anime adaptations, you're bound to end up with an anachronistic impression of when the stories were originally released. More to the point, there's a distinct possibility that you're sick of the whole trend.
However, I want you to be skeptical of the claim that it all began with Mushoku Tensei. Isekai stories with video game-esque trappings were one of the dominant genres on Narō well before Rifujin na Magonote began posting the story in late 2012. The author himself is fairly open about the fact that the story directly lifts elements of other web novels that were popular at the time. To claim that Mushoku Tensei was the pioneer and therefore the "original" work obscures the influences behind the series, and it draws attention away from what is actually interesting about Mushoku Tensei as a work of literary pastiche.
What the series did do was bring together a wealth of existing trends and codify a genre. In this sense, you could say it was a "pioneer," but primarily in the sense that it became Narō's representative novel during the period of the site's accelerated growth. Mushoku Tensei didn't have to be the first, or even anywhere near close to the first, as long as it was the first for enough of the new people visiting the website in that formative time.
In this article, I'm going to tell the story behind not just Mushoku Tensei but of the community of readers and writers that make up Narō, so that you can understand why Mushoku Tensei rose to the top of the site rankings, and why I personally consider it "the ultimate Narō novel."
Narō Culture is Fanfiction Culture
When the Narō website first launched in 2004, the web novel scene was in a very different place. This was not long after the "cell phone novel" boom in Japan, which was very popular among teenage girls and young women. Because of this, Narō's original audience skewed female, and romantic dramas were the dominant genre. That demographic has stuck with the site – 30% of users identify as female, according to the site's managers in a 2019 interview – but the overall perception has definitely shifted towards male-oriented novels.
What happened? Although the evolution of the isekai trend was by no means inevitable, Narō's loose scope allowed for this trend to take hold. Even though it's ostensibly a site for posting novels, many users post blogs and essays, and the owners themselves say they try to be as hands-off as possible regarding content. This meant that for years people used the website to post fanfiction. And in the mid-late 00s, a certain light novel and anime series was particularly popular among the fanfic-writing crowd...
The Familiar of Zero has one of the most appealing and malleable settings you could find. In the story, the heroine Louise summons a boy named Saito from modern Japan to her fantasy world. Because of that, it is considered an isekai in its own right, but the "summoning" factor allowed for fanfic authors to play with all sorts of loose ideas, like having Louise summon a character from a different series or a self-insert. This allowed for the kind of fanfic that's less a supplement to the story of The Familiar of Zero and more of a springboard into the author's original novel idea.
Those fanfics were massive in forming the roots of what we now call the isekai genre. The Re:Zero author recalls a time when The Familiar of Zero fanfics were all the rage, and how he himself got his start as an author by writing fanfics. When Re:Zero protagonist Subaru first finds himself in another world and makes the self-aware comment: "Is this one of those isekai summoning things?" he was referencing The Familiar of Zero and its derivations.
In fact, you could say that Narō grew as a website partly because of fanfiction. After all, thanks to the IP recognition, it's easier to pick up an amateur's fanfic than their original novel. Eventually, however, they threatened to overshadow the original stories being hosted on the platform. The managers created a fanfic-specific offshoot site in 2010, but this didn't go over well because users preferred to stay with the platform they were getting the most exposure on. When fanfiction was banned altogether in 2012, the authors found their way around that by writing stories that follow the logic of fanfiction – just without the explicit connection to an IP.
These are the discrete origins of the "meta" quality of the isekai genre that is often remarked upon by fans and critics alike. By sharing the familiar template setting of "the other world," the stories maintain enough common ground that readers can easily dip in knowing broadly what to expect – the same way fanfiction writers use an IP's characters and setting to draw readers into their story. It's also worth noting that Narō also uses a tag system identical to fanfiction websites. Because of the "fanfic, but also not fanfic" nature of this type of novel, they came to be known as Narō-kei, or "Narō-type" novels.
To be sure, not all Narō novels followed the template strictly; early successes like The Irregular at Magic High School and Log Horizon aren't considered Narō-kei works, even if parts of them did get incorporated into the zeitgeist, like the overpowered protagonist of Irregular and the game-like setting of Log Horizon. As the template gradually became more distinctive and mutually understood among readers, it created the space for even the most amateur of original novels to get the kind of exposure that popular fanfics tend to enjoy. By the time fanfics were banned, the site was big enough that it didn't need to be sustained by them. It was in this context that Mushoku Tensei first began serialization.
Mushoku Tensei: The Ultimate Narō novel
Rifujin na Magonote was not a good fit for the light novel industry. In various interviews, he has spoken of how he tried to submit his stories to publishers but was denied at every turn. Seven years before he began writing Mushoku Tensei, he spent five years trying – and failing – to get published. He eventually became so disheartened that he stopped writing altogether. Discovering Narō was what helped him overcome his feelings of failure and to try writing the kind of thing he loved to read. "It doesn't matter if their writing is clumsy. If other people can put themselves out there and write stories that their readers enjoy," he thought, "then so can I."
The story of Mushoku Tensei begins with the 34-year-old unemployed protagonist getting kicked out of his own home. He considers his entire life until that point wasted and quickly gets killed by a truck in what he thinks of as a meaningless act of self-sacrifice. Through a twist of fate, however, he is reincarnated into a fantasy world as a newly born infant. It is in this new world that he decides that he wants to make a fresh start – to take life seriously this time.
The initial premise of an adult man getting reincarnated into a fantasy world, where he eagerly learns magic, is very similar to the 2011 Narō web novel Heal Saikō ("Healing is the Best"). Rifujin na Magonote says that this was one of the novels that he took inspiration from at the time. He was also inspired by Isekai Meikyū de Dorei Harem o ("A Slave Harem in an Alternate World Dungeon"), which had a plodding and methodical kind of plot but was written with breezy prose and short paragraphs so that it would be easy to read as a web novel. That was how Mushoku Tensei began, as a perfectly readable but also somewhat aimless story about a boy learning magic in a mundane fantasy world.
Things changed when Roxy entered the picture. In the story, she is hired as the magic tutor of our protagonist Rudeus, but she also serves the important role of addressing his trauma about leaving the house. The chapter where she takes Rudeus on a trip outside caused ripples in the Narō community. The story immediately shot up the site rankings, and within a year it secured the overall number one spot. It reaffirmed to the author that the theme of facing one's trauma was the most resonant part of the story, and he made sure to continue emphasizing it as the plot progressed.
As you can see from this, Rifujin na Magonote was the kind of author who took into account reader feedback as he crafted his story. He developed many of the finer aspects of the setting as he went along, trying to anticipate what would surprise and interest his readers. He was also deeply conscious of what his contemporaries were doing, and would constantly incorporate worldbuilding elements and plot beats that he thought were neat. Years later, he casually admitted in a discussion with Re:Zero's author that the climactic arc of Mushoku Tensei borrowed directly from Re:Zero.
One of the most notable aspects of Mushoku Tensei is how frequently it changes up its plot. By the time you finish reading the 20+ volume epic, you'll have encountered almost every fantasy cliché that exists, from magic academies to adventurer's guilds. Nevertheless, it always feels cohesive because it's all grounded in Rudeus' coming-of-age story. It's a novel about a man's life that never stops building upon itself, and its plot is directly shaped by both the writers and readers in the Narō community. This is the main reason why I consider Mushoku Tensei the ultimate Narō novel.
It's also important to note that the lack of content restrictions or editorial influence on the site meant that the author was free to take the story in whatever direction he liked, no matter how weird or objectionable it was. You are guaranteed not to find anything quite like Mushoku Tensei outside of Narō, for better or worse.
The Mainstreaming of Narō
None of the aforementioned qualities, however, can quite explain Mushoku Tensei's broader success. No matter how memorable a story it is, it's not the kind of thing that one would expect would penetrate far outside of the niche online subculture from which it sprouted. That's something you could say about most Narō novels, but it's particularly true of Mushoku Tensei. Besides the usual JRPG influences, the author also cites erotic games like the Tōshin Toshi and Rance series as particularly formative, because they taught him to weave sexual desires into his narratives as driving plot points. When a game in which you play as a goofy serial rapist is one of your primary influences, you're probably not the kind of writer who's angling for mainstream appeal.
This was the point in which good timing played a factor. The web novel scene in general enjoyed a significant boost when Sword Art Online became an unprecedented anime hit in 2012. Unnamed Memory author Kuji Furumiya recalls the impact SAO's success had on web novel authors at the time: "It was a time when fanfiction was more prevalent than original novels. So when Reki Kawahara won the Dengeki Novel Prize with Accel World, which also led to his self-published original web novel getting published, he proved that there was a pathway beyond novel contests and commercial publishing. As much as I thought that it was due to his own skill, it also made me think that if I did my best, my words could reach others too."
Amateur authors, as well as readers yearning for something similar to SAO's flavor, flocked online. As the most popular Japanese web novel site at the time, Narō became their destination. This is why SAO is also sometimes described as a "pioneer" of the isekai genre, although its author disagrees with that label. With Mushoku Tensei being among the most popular Narō novels during the SAO boom, it naturally became a formative influence for many of the new people joining the fray.
Mushoku Tensei's most noticeable influence was in popularizing the "reincarnation" part of the isekai fantasy. Even if earlier popular web novels like Knight's & Magic also involved reincarnation, the more typical means of transferring the protagonist to the other world was summoning (e.g. Re:Zero, Shield Hero, The Ideal Sponger Life). After Mushoku Tensei, however, reincarnation became the default. It also became popular to emphasize themes of regret with one's previous life, like the salaryman who works himself to death in Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody, and to portray the other world as a way of making a fresh start, cutting off all ties to the old world.
"If Mushoku Tensei was so influential, why didn't it get an anime sooner?" you might ask. This is mainly because of the peculiarities of the anime industry. According to producer Nobuhiro Osawa, Mushoku Tensei's anime was first greenlit in 2016. Now, as far as anime adaptations go, that year was a watershed moment. Konosuba and Re:Zero aired in that year, and they were both huge successes. If SAO inspired producers to target video game-esque light novels, then Konosuba and Re:Zero proved that Narō isekai novels specifically were worth investing in.
From 2018 onward, the anime industry saw an explosion of titles originating from Narō. Because it tends to take 2-3 years for a TV anime to air after getting greenlit, you can most likely trace them to the impact of Konosuba and Re:Zero. Mushoku Tensei was simply part of that wave, but it had a longer preproduction period than most, because the process of acquiring the skilled staff necessary to adapt its difficult-to-animate material necessitated the creation of an entirely new studio. Therefore, it ended up coming out later than the mountain of other titles that got greenlit around that time.
A rising tide lifts all boats, they say. At least in the case of Narō web novels, this proved to be true. As we have seen, Mushoku Tensei alone was not responsible for the current boom; it took momentum coming from many different sides for it to finally reach the mainstream (well, as mainstream as late night anime can be, I suppose).
I'm sure that many of you reading this have ambivalent or maybe even negative feelings about the Narō boom. These novels are the deeply flawed works of amateurs following a fanfiction template. No amount of animation polish can scrub away their defects. Rifujin na Magonote himself once held a narrow-minded view towards Narō authors. "I didn't want to be compared to that level. I thought it would be lowering myself," he admitted. But it was his experiences with failure that made him cast away his misguided pride. Who was he to judge those people putting themselves out there? It's so easy to sit on a high horse and sneer at other people's efforts, but if you tried self-publishing a novel, you'd realize how difficult it is to create something that attracts readers.
I felt a lot of things when I read Mushoku Tensei. The writing can be terribly inconsistent, and I never thought much of the decision to initially cast the protagonist as a mean-spirited caricature of a pedophilic otaku. But as I continued reading, I could see the author's growth written plainly on the page. The story morphed and changed within me. I laughed and cried and found catharsis. It was truly a story written from the heart.
To the author who spent years of his life pouring himself into this messy, fraught tale, with little commercial prospects or literary recognition at the time, I have only one thing to say:
"You did well."
I am grateful to the Sikii-Tei dōjin circle for lending assistance to my research on Japanese internet culture. This article draws upon interviews and observations recorded in volumes 5 and 8 of the "Sikii-Tei no Heya" dōjin publications, first printed in 2011 and 2013 respectively.
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