The pandemic saw me return to ‘comfort food’ media which meant an absolutely embarrassing amount of anime. A lot of those shows were Isekai. I found the Isekai genre to be both the most interesting and yet the least compelling of the anime I watched. They violate a very important element of storytelling, but they do so intentionally, and the results are shows that feel less like dramatic tv and more like eating a big bag of chips.
The Isekai genre is about someone from our world being transported to another world. The other world of Isekai is almost exclusively a fantasy land based off video games, MMOs in particular. Some of these worlds even are MMOs, like ‘Sword Art Online’ and ‘Log Horizon’. The video gameness of the world is never questioned, and it can run deep. Isekai leads can ‘level up’, have job classes, use health potions, gain ‘skills’ and ‘attributes’ in mechanical RPG-like ways and even have magic that functions like an RPG UI.
At their core Isekai shows are fantasy’s about being transported into your favorite video game, where the mad skillz you picked up by dedicating hours to leveling up and constructing a perfect character have a real world pay off. Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of great stories are built off power fantasies. I’ve received a ton of pathos and comfort from Spider-Man over the years and he’s about a nerd who finally gets to be a superhero. Isekai though, tend to go a bit further.
In Isekai shows the hero is almost insanely OP. They are a god tier entity that can call on crazy powerful spells or abilities almost from the beginning. There is no challenge that they can’t surpass or trump card they can’t pull. At times fights in Isekai shows are just characters shouting abilities at each other, followed by colorful effects and then smirking knowing that they still have a yet even more powerful ‘ability’ to call upon. There is plenty of fighting but no conflict.
The lack of conflict extends beyond physical confrontations. Isekai heroes are almost immediately liked by everyone they meet or if not, soon find a way to befriend or impress every member of true authority or cute girl they come across. By the midway point of a given series, an Isekai lead will have a minimum of three girls who are into him and at least one king or powerful being will have praised their strength.
Even the shows that try to establish some sense of conflict fail to do so or only use it as a pretense to give their lead an edgy vibe. ‘Arifureta’ and ‘Shield Hero’ are the two that come to mind, with some truly cringe results. ‘The villains’ that betray the heroes in each are so thinly drawn that they have no motivation or goals outside of being mean to the unfairly maligned lead. The conflict they create lasts at most a couple of episodes and is used as a springboard to make the hero more powerful and disgruntled.
Shounen, a genre that shares a lot in common with Isekai with a similar male audience in mind and fights that can also be described as shouting with colorful effects and endless trump cards, differs markedly from Isekai in terms of it’s dramatic conflict. Shouen shows like ‘My Hero Academia’ and ‘Naruto’ are about kids becoming the chosen one or a super strong hero. But the process of becoming that hero is important to the story. The main character often endures trials. They have rivals, and shortcomings that their classmates don’t. They don’t win every fight and usually suffer pretty bad defeats forcing them through grueling training.
In Shounen shows the hero usually has a clear motivation, Midoriya wants to be worthy and be able to wield All-Might’s power. Tanjiro wants to turn his demonic sister back into a human. Isekai leads might have worlds to save, but they feel less invested and sometimes are just there to chill. Isekai leads are genre savvy nerds from our world who know exactly what role they’re playing and they often treat the other world they fall into like a game rather than a real place. This meta focus can make an Isekai fantasy world feel less real and lower the stakes.
This isn’t to say that there is an inherent lack of conflict in the concept of Isekai. ‘Grimgar, Ashes and Illusions’ takes a hard look at normal people falling into a DnD style world and finds drama in their survival and growth as adventures. Re:Zero, one of the most popular Isekai shows, has a genre savvy lead in Subaru Natsuki, but that savviness can make him entitled which has real consequences for him. The show also refuses to give him any powers save a groundhogs day style curse that activates when he dies. It’s not my favorite, but it’s definitely focused more on story and conflict than a lot Iesaki.
But for most Iesaki the lack of real conflict, of drama, is intentional, a feature, not a bug. My favorite drama free Iesaki is probably ‘That time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime’ (yes, that’s the title). The lead is a slime, the most basic monster in nearly every RPG. He somehow manages to become a powerhouse and defeats, befriends and/or charms about everyone he meets. The result is a series that is light, chill and largely inoffensive (if you ignore some of the female character designs…). It knows it’s a pleasant, guilt-free power fantasy that you can enjoy on the couch like a bag of chips.