We all know about isekai anime, right? Cool stories about people being ripped from their world and transported to another one. For many, this is like a dream come true. To be taken away from our mundane existence on Earth to become a fantasy hero. Or to live in our favorite video games. However, there is an issue I have with isekai stories that I don’t feel we talk about often. What happens when an isekai plot intrudes upon a story that worked perfectly well as a straight example of its original genre.
This week’s review on Legend of Himiko touches on this briefly. It’s a historical fantasy anime where a country is invaded by a foreign power. Its people wage a brutal guerilla war against the occupiers, which comes with plenty of action, intrigue, and twists. This is then complicated when two Japanese teenagers find themselves transported to this world and get swallowed up in this conflict.
It’s a fine enough setup, except it leaves you wondering why it had to be an isekai story in the first place. The characters native to the fantasy world are quite capable of handling its challenges on their own. They are doing the fighting, both on the frontlines and behind the scenes. They’re also the ones drawing up all the plans and organizing the logistics. This story could’ve worked perfectly well if it were just a straight fantasy plot about these characters and their war. After all, they are the ones who have to live in this country if it were to be liberated. So what use does this plot have for a bunch of Japanese teens to drop in and hog the spotlight?
To be clear, intrusion is a central element of isekai stories. They are fundamentally about characters being injected into a world that is not their own and getting tangled up in its affairs. For this not to be frustrating—as in the example with Legend of Himiko—there needs to be enough purpose to the protagonists to warrant this intrusion. Otherwise you are just watering down your story with an unwarranted layer of extra complexity.
A common angle is to make the characters being isekai’ed part of some grand destiny. The land is cast into turmoil, but the people yet cling to ancient legend that a hero will arrive to save the day. You can still have the culture clash awkwardness when said hero is teleported from Japan, but it at least explains why the local populace would put their trust into them. This is the premise of classic isekai like Magic Knight Rayearth or Tobira wo Akete. As well as modern examples like The Rising of the Shield Hero or Cautious Hero.
The other extreme is also possible; the protagonist is isekai’ed, except they are just some chump. “Welcome to the fantasy world! Adventure guild sign-up to the right, economics 101 to the left. “
You can just dump your character in this new world and have them adopt its ways. Kazuma from Konosuba takes up adventuring, while Mika from Mahoutsukai no Insatsujo starts her own company. These are novel ways to explore an isekai setting from a humbler perspective. You can still work towards saving the world, but now the protagonists need to get their hands dirty to prove themselves capable of that. Rather than having the expectation (and resources) trust upon them from the start.
Either of these paths could also be used to explain the popularity of isekai set in video game worlds. Games, by their very nature, move at the behest of players. Regardless of whether it is an MMO or a singleplayer title, the player is the protagonist and so they are responsible for advancing the narrative. There is no expectation of NPCs solving the plot in the absence of players. So what difference does it make if all those nerds one day wake up in the bodies as their player avatars. The kingdom still needs those goblins slain, so get to it!
There are of course different ways to tackle isekai stories and there are ways to parody their intrusive nature too. Last week’s Isekai Ojisan is a fine example of the latter. Its protagonist is so strong that he unwittingly ruins the plot for others. His solution? Wipe their memories and do the whole adventure over, while holding back this time.
Isekai are always going to have that intrusive element to them. I hope, however, that the above illustrates how this can be perfectly fine. It’s a part of what makes isekai fun. It only becomes an annoyance when it feels like you are being robbed off a fun fantasy story because it has an isekai twist crowbarred into it. When the isekai’ed protagonist lack an actual purpose or are just McGuffins for the actual characters to use. Or when they steal the spotlight from the more interesting characters that are native to the setting.
If a story could work perfectly well if it wasn’t an isekai, then its worth asking whether it should be one in the first place.