Thoughts on the Isekai Genre

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Fantasy writers need to solve two problems. They need to create a believable fantasy world significantly different from ours that allows for fantasy elements. But this world and the people who live in it can’t be so fantastic that they alienate their audience.

The isekai story offers a neat solution.

‘Isekai’ is Japanese for ‘other world’ or ‘parallel world’. In this other world, the author is free to dream up societies, fantasy races, magic and other fantastical elements without being hemmed in by such minor things as history or the laws of physics. To create a connection with modern readers, the author plucks a character or a group of characters from the real world (typically 21st century Japan) and plunks them into the parallel world. Adventures and hijinks follow.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Three Kinds of Isekai Stories

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I’ve noticed three different types of isekai stories: transportation, reincarnation and video game.

Transportation stories involve traversable gateways or abductions. The protagonist may be mysteriously transported to an alternate world by means unknown to everyone. He may discover a portal, accidentally or otherwise, that leads into a parallel world. Or someone from that parallel world forcibly transports the protagonist to that world using summoning magic. Examples of such stories are Now and Then, Here and There, featuring a boy who is transported to a hellish dystopia, and Gate – Jietai Kare no Chi Nite, Kaku Tatakeri, in which a gateway to another world mysteriously appears in Ginza.

In such transportation tales, the protagonist must learn to adapt to his new environment while taking on quests and other missions. Heroes summoned from our world are typically selected to defeat a demon king or some other evil being, and must survive perils and overcome obstacles to achieve his goal. Heroes who pass through a gateway that allows free two-way travel typically serve as a bridge between this world and the other, passing back and forth to exchange or transfer technology, goods and knowledge. More realistic tales have the hero learn the local language and/or the locals learning Japanese; in others, the transportation process mysteriously grants the hero the ability to speak in tongues or the locals mysteriously speak fluent Japanese.

Reincarnation tales involve protagonists being reborn in fantasy worlds, usually retaining or recalling their memories of their past lives. This neatly sidesteps the question of how the protagonist can understand the natives of the fantasy world, since he would have grown up learning and speaking the language. Reincarnated protagonists will tend to use their knowledge to single-handedly spark an industrial revolution, drive themselves towards excellence, or otherwise gain an advantage over others. Moshuku Tensei features a NEET who decides to make the most of his new life after being reborn in a parallel world, while Isekai Tensei Soudouki has a protagonist with three souls in his mind, all of whom use their respective knowledge to build a commercial empire and drag the rest of the land into modernity.

In video game stories, in addition to being plopped into a fantasy world, the protagonist discovers that the world runs on video game logic. Status windows, levels, unique skills, and health and mana points abound. In some stories, the protagonist was heavily involved in the game, perhaps as a player or game developer. In others, the protagonist doesn’t have such an advantage. Sword Art Online is perhaps the most well-known of this time, starring protagonists who have their consciousnesses transported to a game world, and quickly learn that death in the game means death in the real world.

As these worlds run on video game logic, realism tends to fly out the window. Either the transportation process grants the protagonist the ability to speak in tongues or everyone speaks Japanese. A person’s ability to fight, craft objects, recover from wounds and other such matters are governed largely by his stats. The transportation process may even grant special powers. Reading video game isekai stories can become the equivalent of reading a role playing game.

Cheat Characters

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Common to almost all isekai protagonists is that they possess a special power or knowledge after arrival, or the protagonist is already special prior to arrival. These cheats, as they are known in the genre, automatically elevate the protagonist above everybody else.

At the far end of the scale, the protagonist becomes stupendously overpowered early on. In Death March kara Hajimaru Isekai Kyousoukyouku, protagonist Satou is transported to a parallel world based on the game he is developing, and discovers he can cast a meteor shower three times. He promptly utilises the meteor showers to wipe out an army of orcs. In that instant, he hits the level cap and secures useful gear and vast treasures, effectively turning him into a walking god.

At the lower end, in Isekai Tensei Soudouki, protagonist Balud Cornelius shares his body with the soul of Warring States commander Oka Sadatoshi and otaku high schooler Oka Masaharu. None of them have any special powers, but commander Oka is an apex warrior while otaku Oka retains his knowledge of the twenty-first century. Together, the trio accomplish such wonders as inventing shampoo and treating cholera, leaving their mark on the world.

In the case of Gate, Itami Yoji is a First Lieutenant in the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force. He is a mundane human, but behind him is the might of the JGSDF. Through the gate, the JGSDF can funnel troops and resources into the parallel world, allowing them to dominate the land. Thus, the might of the all-powerful Empire easily collapses in the face of modern combined arms, and nigh-invincible dragons fall before explosives and Panzerfaust 3 rockets. Here, modern military technology is the superpower.

A superpowered isekai protagonist, when mishandled, turn the story into a clumsy self-insert power fantasy. The reader can put himself into the shoes of the protagonist and imagine that he is now the lord of the story universe. However, when the protagonist is so hilariously overpowered that nothing in existence can stand up to him, action scenes lose all drama. There is no suspense, no doubt that he will lose, no possibility that he will ever be defeated in battle. Boredom follows.

If an isekai story must have a superpowered MC, there are three ways to get around this. The first is to make the protagonist powerful enough to evoke the feel of a superhero fantasy, but not so much that he becomes a Boring Invincible Hero. Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari, Naofumi Iwatani has unmatched defensive ability, but thanks to the world’s video game logic, he has virtually no attack power and he is still not invulnerable. As he is forced to rely on his squishy companions to do the fighting, there remains the element of drama and suspense.

The second is to reverse the superpowered MC trope: give the protagonist a seemingly useless power, if at all, and force him to make his way in the world. Arifurte Shokugyou de Sekai Saikyou features Nagumo Hajime, a luckless young man transported to a parallel world only to find that he was granted mediocre stats and a useless class. After plummeting into the depths of a monster-filled dungeon, Nagumo must rely on all his wits to survive.

The last approach is to play the overpowered character trope for all its worth. Hellsing got away with starring an immortal and invincible vampire as the protagonist through his force of character. In the case of Jaryuu Tensei, the protagonist is reincarnated as a dragon. In his dragon form, he is so overpowered that nothing his enemies throw at him can do so much as leave a mark on his scales. The story becomes defined by his empathy towards everyone around him in spite of being an evil dragon instead of how he steamrolls over his enemies. While the outcome of action scenes in such cases are preordained, a flashy, cocky or humorous protagonist can inject emotional beats into the sequence, staving off boredom.

What’s So Special About Isekai?

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What’s the key difference between a standard fantasy story and an isekai story? The presence of someone from the real world. Isekai stories need to explore the fantasy world through the lens of the modern-day character. However, handled improperly, the isekai trope becomes a clumsy tool.

In *Isekai Houtei – Rebuttal Barrister*, Yuuto Shiba is a washed-up wannabe barrister. After he dies in a traffic accident, he is transported to a parallel world. In this world, the god has decreed that the Kingdom of Luanolde shall implement the law of Japan, and that Yuuto shall be a barrister. Quite mysteriously, everyone speaks Japanese (or Yuuto is suddenly fluent in the local language).

Such a forced introduction makes it transparently clear that the author is basically writing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney WITH ELVES! Fortunately, the author ensures there is a clash of cultures to fuel drama and make the isekai elements relevant. In his first case, Yuuto must defend a half-elf, in a land that persecutes elves, against criminal charges laid by a noble, whose life and dignity the kingdom views as greater than that of a commoner. Later, he discovers more unpleasantness, such as the actual age of majority in the kingdom, that forces him to use his wits instead of just rote regurgitation of the law.

Without this collision of cultures, an isekai story just becomes a standard fantasy story. The isekai element becomes just a tool to lure in the reader and artificially create empathy.

By contrast the manga adaptation of *Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari* makes almost no references to Naofumi’s history as a displaced 21st century Japanese male. Aside from the occasional reminder about where he and the other heroes came from, Naofumi’s history plays no part in the story. We do not see him struggling to learn the local language or customs, no confusion over social protocols, no dietary incompatibilities or taboos, no significant employment of modern knowledge and technology, no indication that Naofumi came from a different world. If the Naofumi’s backstory were changed to ‘wanderer from a distant land’ or ‘teenager from the frontier seeking his fortune’, there would be no significant impact on the plot or character. The isekai element here is used simply to justify the fantasy elements, the video game logic, and to handwave Naofumi’s shield and defensive abilities – and even those can be justified using other tropes.

Isekai stories comprise of two key elements: a parallel world with fantastical elements distinct from our own, and a protagonist or protagonists who come from our world. For stories in this vein to realise their full potential, they must balance both halves to create a whole, while avoiding the pitfalls that lead to self-insert power fantasies. Done right, an isekai story shows the reader the best of both worlds.

Anime Analysis: Demi-chan wa Kataritai

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Cute monster girls doing cute things.

It’s tempting to summarise Demi-chan wa Kataritai (Interviews with Monster Girls) with that line, but the anime puts a fresh spin on an otherwise well-worn trope. An adaptation of the manga of the same name, Demi-chan wa Kataritai is a slice of life anime that posits the existence of demi-humans and explores the lives of four demi-humans in a high school in modern-day Japan.

As a slice of life anime, Demi-chan wa Kataritai has no overarching plot, no villains to defeat, no extended conflict to overcome. Without any of the elements that drive a plot, the franchise relies on its characters to sell the series.

And it does that in spades.

Four Monster Girls Walk Into A School…

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Takahashi Tetsuo is a high school biology teacher whose dearest wish is to meet demi-humans and learn more about him. By a stroke of fortune, when the school year begins, four demi-humans enter his school. He seeks them out and talks to them, leading to the titular interviews with monster girls.

Genki girl Takanashi Hikari is a vampire who drives much of the story’s comedic moments. By contrast, Machi Kyoko is a quiet and intelligent dullahan who secretly wishes for more human contact. Being a yuki-onna, Kusakabe Yuki represents Japanese folklore in the series. The final monster girl is Sato Sakie, a shy and awkward succubus who joins the school as a math teacher.

In this world, demi-humans represent a minority of the population (Machi is just one of three dullahans in existence), but at least in Japan they are accepted as regular people with special needs. The conflict between the demi-humans’ natures and their needs drive their respective arcs.

Hikari is the most well-adjusted demi-human, and she is the glue that bonds the rest of the cast. Her drama arc centres on her relationship with her twin sister Himari, who is a regular human, and her interactions with her fellow demi-humans and teachers. Machi, being a dullahan, has her head constantly detached from her body (it’s suggested that her neck is a wormhole joining her head and body), requiring her to learn how to adapt to the modern world. She longs for more social contact, but people feel awkward around her because of her head. By contrast, Kusakabe believes that she can accidentally harm people around her, and avoids getting too close to anyone. Sato’s arc is a variation of that theme: being a succubus, her body produces aphrodisiacs that drive men wild. She wonders if she will ever have a romantic relationship, and comes to believe that Takahashi is immune to her powers. (Spoiler: he isn’t.)

Demi-chan wa Kataritai finely balances the monster girls’ dual natures, highlighting both their monster and girl selves. Throughout the series, the audience is constantly reminded of their biology, expressed through their human selves. Hikari and Kusakabe are susceptible to heat, and as the story moves into summer, they start complaining about the sun and retreat to Takahashi’s air-conditioned biology preparation room. Kusakabe herself has a constantly cool body and needs to manage her body temperature. Being a dullahan, Machi feels safe and comforted when someone is holding her head. Sato wishes to be a responsible adult and teacher, so she dresses plainly and avoids touching males — and her lack of experience interacting with males comes painfully to the forefront when interacting with Takahashi.

This tension between the monster and girl selves drives the story, allowing Takahashi to shine.

Great Teacher Takahashi

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Lesser studios and creators would have treated the series as a harem story with a perverted pushover as the protagonist. Instead, both the anime and manga portray Takahashi as a teacher who is genuinely concerned about his students. He thinks, talks and acts like a teacher, offering counselling when they are troubled and scolding them when they underperform. In Sato’s case, he treats her like a colleague, going out of his way to hide his reaction to her aphrodisiac.

Like the rest of the cast, Demi-chan wa Kataritai constantly reminds the audience of Takahashi’s physiology and character. Takahashi is buff and strong: he is occasionally seen carrying heavy loads, and among the cast he carries Machi’s head the most. When interviewing the demi-humans, he showcases his knowledge of biology, and sets up impromptu experiments to learn more about them. When interacting with Sato, we see his iron will in resisting her aphrodisiac — and he actually succeeds. Mostly.

Takahashi’s portrayal as a competent, (literally) strong male is refreshing in an industry marked by bland and/or weak and/or perverted male protagonists. The default Western approach of having a Strong Female Character demonstrate her ‘strength’ by tearing down a male is conspicuously absent — the one time this happens the male was a creep who got was coming to him. Indeed, everybody is portrayed positively in the series, supporting each other instead of tearing them down. In modern-day entertainment, this is an unusual approach, and all the more refreshing for its positivity.

From Character, Tone

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The worldbuilding and character-building lead to a relaxed, light-hearted tone. None of the monster girls are monsters; they simply have biological quirks. Vampires don’t need to feed on human blood, yuki-onna can’t cause fatal cold spells, succubi don’t need to seduce men to survive, and dullahans aren’t innately dangerously. None of the demi-humans face widespread societal discrimination; indeed, all of them receive help from sympathetic authority figures.

Because of this approach, the drama in the series is heavily character-focused, revolving around how the main cast interact with other people. As the setting is limited to a high school context, there are no wider conflicts with higher stakes. With every character doing their best to accommodate and support each other, the moments of drama and teenage angst are easily and plausibly resolved within the length of a chapter instead of being drawn out. There are also plenty of comedic moments, further softening the tone and reinforcing Hikari’s role as the joker of the crew.

Demi-chan wa Kataritai demonstrates how character-building and worldbuilding influences the tone of a story. The story minimises opportunities for discrimination, oppression and physical conflict, focusing instead of social interactions and relationships. The series deftly balances the characters’ physiology and personality to produce a cheery, leisurely slice-of-life story punctuated with moments of drama and humour. It is highly recommended for people who want to see light-hearted slice-of-life tales and for creators looking to study the intersection between worldbuilding, character-building and story-telling.

Image credits:

  1. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai
  2. http://elvortex.com/guia-de-animes-invierno-2017-parte-1/
  3. https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2016-09-10/interviews-with-monster-girls-demi-chan-wa-kataritai-tv-anime-teaser-introduces-characters/.106315
  4. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai/pics

5 Writing Lessons from Manga

As a child, I couldn’t understand the appeal of manga. To me, they were simply a different kind of comic book, and comics held little appeal to me. Then, in my teens, English-translated anime took off in Singapore. Almost all of them were adaptations of Japanese manga. I pursued the source material, and found Ghost in the Shell.

That experience led to an explosion of stories: Rurouni Kenshin, Rave Master, Appleseed, Full Metal Alchemist, Ao no Exorcist, Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio, Twin Star Exorcists, Claymore and more. These days I read at least as much manga as I do prose works. Part of that is enjoyment — another part is to study them and apply the lessons learned to my own writing.

On first glance there seems to be little transferability between prose and manga. The former is a written medium, the latter is visual. The former is carried entirely on the strength of its words; the latter combines images, dialogue and exposition into a coherent whole. But both are storytelling media, and in my explorations of manga I have found five lessons that are universal to both.

Concise and Engaging Narration

Dialogue in manga is limited. Being a visual medium, there is only enough room for a handful of lines in every page. Narration must be concise, advance the story and engage the reader.Dialogue has the additional burden of reflecting the speaker’s character. Not everyone can pull a Masamune Shirow and get away with filling entire pages with philosophical exposition without boring the reader.

Similarly, in fiction, narration must also keep readers invested. There is no room for rambling that does not serve the story, and large chunks of exposition without context will just turn readers off. Excellent manga demonstrate economy of words–the same concision writers should aspire to.

Showing, not Telling

Manga is primarily a visual medium. Stories are literally shown to the reader. Mangaka will draw as much as possible–people, settings, actions–using as few words as possible. In excellent manga, exposition is limited to the barest minimum for world-building. Some mangaka will disguise such exposition as dialogue, or simply portray events and have the reader figure out how the world works. In Rave Master, as in many shounen manga, characters tell each other what their weapons or skills can do in the place of creator exposition. BLAME! takes the other approach: almost nobody says anything about the world, forcing the reader to figure things out.

Likewise, instead of simply telling the reader how grand a place is or what someone did, writers should strive to draw a picture with their words. Create an image of a magnificent estate and enormous riches by talking about the marble floor, solid gold sculptures, rare artworks and army of maids, cooks and gardeners. Go in-depth into an action scene, delving into emotions, everybody’s actions and reactions, injuries, and more.

Aesthetics and Worldbuilding

In manga, the setting is a silent character. It sets the tone of the story and gives context to everybody’s actions. Manga achieve this through aesthetics, the accurate and/or authentic portrayals of the story’s setting.

Ghost in the Shell emphasised its cyberpunk nature through juxtaposing gritty streets and sleek skyscrapers, and the use of high technology everywhere. In Twin Star Exorcist, the mundane story occurs in modern-day Japan, but the desperate, magic-fuelled action-packed battles are set in Magano, a parallel world filled with ruins and evil spirits. This dichotomy, especially in the early issues, reinforces the mood of the scene, be it peaceful or adrenaline-packed. Shoukoku no Altair has Mahmut running all over alternate-world Europe and the Middle East, and each country he visits has its own unique architecture and visual design, reinforcing the sense of place.

Aesthetics is the visual manifestation of the world the mangaka is building. It is how the reader grasps the nature of the story world. Similarly, in written fiction, extensive background and setting descriptions gives the reader a sense of place, placing the characters’ actions in context while differentiating the story from other stories.

Character Differentiation

Mangaka need readers to quickly and reliably tell characters apart, especially in busy scenes where many people are acting or talking all at once. Mangaka employ many tricks to do this: unique hairstyles and colour schemes, archetypical behaviours (think the infamous tsundere), signature clothes and weapons, and accents and dialogue quirks. All of these tricks have become tropes and character stereotypes — but that’s because these tricks work.

In prose, writers do not (usually) get the benefit of visually illustrating their characters to give the reader a reference point. Writers must therefore find ways and means to keep each character unique in the reader’s minds. They can use many of the same tricks mangaka employ. Jim Butcher, for instance, inserts physical descriptions into the text of his stories every so often, such as Harry Dresden’s famous coat, to remind readers of what his characters look like.

Discipline

On average, a weekly manga runs between 15 to 25 pages per issue. Monthly manga usually has 30 to 60. There are exceptions (usually shorter), but bestsellers tend to run between these lengths. To put things in perspective, Western comics are issued monthly, but have similar page counts to weekly manga.

Mangaka must produce an average of 2 to 5 complete pages every day. More if they are working on  multiple series at once. This does not even include storyboarding, editorial input and other corrections.

Unlike Western comics, most manga are in black and white, with the exception of the occasional special full-colour issue. This saves time on inking and colouration. Also, many mangaka have assistants to help with background art and research. Nevertheless, mangaka must consistently produce high-quality work over dozens, even hundreds, of issues–or they will be dropped, and may need to find a new line of work.

Maintaining such a pace requires discipline. Discipline to uphold standards, discipline to do the work, discipline to keep learning and getting better. This is the same discipline writers require: without the discipline to produce regular content, you’re not going to produce good stories.

Manga is as legitimate a storytelling medium as prose, and despite the differences between them, there are many lessons to be learned. The key is to read not as a consumer, but as a creator. Pick apart the stories and characters, discern the thought processes that go into design and worldbuilding and dialogue, understand the creation process, and see what lessons you can apply to your own work.

The Truth of Your Vision, The Truth of the World

Fiction writing is about truth. The truth of your vision and the truth of the world. The best stories marry these truths into a seamless, dazzling, inspiring whole.

The truth of your vision is at once simple and complicated. It is the story you want to tell. It is the aesthetics of the story world, the technologies, characters, worldviews, setting, everything that composes a story. At the meta level, it is the mood, tone, outlook, themes, the overall energy of the piece. It is your interpretation and execution of the writer’s art.

The truth of vision is simple because you are the originator. You get to decide what the story is about. If you want to write a grimdark steampunk fantasy story with a heavy, broody atmosphere populated by antiheroes and tyrants, that is your vision. If you want to write a light-hearted children’s story about a kid detective solving everyday crimes in the modern day, that is your vision. If you want to write an adrenaline-soaked thriller featuring a superspy travelling the world and fighting terrorists and criminals, that is your vision.

The truth of vision is complicated because you cannot cut any corners. All things must serve the story. Everything inside the story must be an organic development of the paradigms, technologies, ethical frameworks, geography, aesthetics, tone and themes of the story. These are the fundamentals of every story, the field upon which the story grows. If the field is conducive to a certain kind of story, then inserting irrelevant elements corrupts the truth of your vision. They are weeds in your garden, crops planted out of season, and distasteful to the reader. Having a kid detective solve a brutal murder and violently confront a vicious killer does not lend to a light-hearted children’s story, nor is there much room for portrayals of calm, everyday life in grimdark fantasy.

Your truth must be pure and holistic. A reader must understand the story, characters, themes, technologies and settings and see how they all fit together. There is no room for careless dissonance or extraneous elements. Side stories must contribute to the big picture, not lead down a dead end. Actions must fit characters, technologies must make sense, worldviews must sound reasonable to the characters who hold them. Every element of the story feeds into everything else, reinforcing every seam and pillar of the text.

This is not to say dissonance is unwanted. Deliberate dissonance, a planned juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible elements, is a useful tool. But like all tools, there is a time and place for it, and it must contribute to the story. John Ringo’s black humor adds significantly to his stories, as they provide insight into the characters, give the reader breathing room, and highlight the absurdity or intensity of the situations his characters find themselves in. This dissonance must be both obvious and planned, to throw into sharp focus, else it appears to be a mistake.

The truth of the world is a reflection of reality. Different genres reflect different facets of the grand tapestry of life. Romance looks at love, thrillers focus on human evil and conflict, science fiction examines the relation between humanity and technology, and fantasy seeks timeless truths. Stories drill deep into reality and show the reader a deeper truth, be it about crime, politics or human nature. In a masterwork of fiction, the reader sees the writer, a fragment of the world, and a reflection himself.

The temptation here is to conflate the world with yourself. It is easy to see the world in a single light, to interpret human nature and events by your biases, and to ignore everything that doesn’t fit your personal beliefs. Thus, it sounds reasonable to proclaim in your stories the death of capitalism, the self-contradictory nature of patriarchy, the evils of the far left, the joys of communion with God, the self-destructive nature of violence, the aggression of Russia and China, or whatever your own point of view may be. To readers with a more expert understanding of this facet of the world, stories like this come across as shallow, facile, and little more than intellectual masturbation.

If you do not want to write for a narrow audience by appealing to their biases, if your goal is to reach as wide an audience as you can, then you must write beyond yourself. Study the ideas, history and cultural values that drive the characters, factions, nations and other groups in your stories. Stories are about drama, and drama comes from clashing perspectives and the struggle for dominance. Doing this effectively requires research, an unflinching examination of how your own ideas influence your work, and the willingness to give all parties a fair showing.

And if the truth of the world decisively contradicts the truth of your vision, the former will always trump the latter. At best your story will be no different from midmarket works, consumed once and quickly forgotten; at worst, your story is mocked and condemned to the bottom of the pile.

It is not wrong to advocate a point of view in your stories. But the reader is looking for a story, not a screed. It is tempting to hammer your point into the reader’s brain on every page through character ‘dialogue’ or ham-fisted events. A far better way is to place the story first, make all events and actions organic to the characters and plot, and lead your reader to your conclusions.

Like yin and yang, writers have to blend these two truths into an integral whole. Allowing the truth of your vision to overwhelm the truth of the world leads to ideological screeds. It becomes boring message fic, the kind of fic good only for virtue signalling and left-wing SFF awards. Letting the truth of the world overpower the truth of your vision creates stories heavy on exposition and infodumps and light on characters and action; the great classics have cornered that market now and forever, so you might as well just write non-fiction.

Balancing both truths is the writer’s high art, and the great background struggle that dominates the creative process. Done properly, your story will become a glittering diamond, every facet reflecting a dazzling truth.