The Isekai Genre or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Conflict Free OtherWorld

The Isekai Genre or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Conflict Free OtherWorld

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.

Three Reasons the Cowboy Bebop Live-Action TV Show Might Actually Work

Three Reasons the Cowboy Bebop Live-Action TV Show Might Actually Work

Cowboy Bebop was my first anime (and you never forget your first). I stayed up late and sneaked downstairs to watch it on Adult Swim. It was violent, sexy and effortlessly cool; a jolt that opened me up to a whole new media. Sixteen years after it originally aired in the U.S, it still hasn’t lost its shine, which might explain why it’s getting its own live action American remark.

Considering Hollywood’s track record at adapting Anime classics there’s reasons to be skeptical. But given both what Cowboy Bebop was and the new era we’re living in, there’s also reasons to hope. Here’s three reasons it might succeed.

Adaptation vs. Remake

The press release announcing the live-action show called it a remake, but if they want to succeed they need to view it as an adaptation. It’s an important distinction. Successful adaptations are about acknowledging the strengths and differences of the media you’re working with. And the strengths and weakness of your source material. A good adaptation is not just a solid TV show or movie it’s also a good edit of the original work.

American Gods might be my favorite novel of all time, so I was both excited and anxious when it was announced as a TV show. But everyone from the leads, to the show runner was a dream team and novelist Neil Gaiman was heavily involved with the project. This has created a show that is both faithful and different to the source material.

It updates characters that were going to need it like Technology Boy and Media and it expanded on the roles of characters who were interesting, but didn’t get much page time like McSweeny and Salim. It also changed Laura Moon, giving her a more complex and flushed out backstory, which helped make an already quotable character better.

Cowboy Bebop was an excellent show, but it was also brief, only 26 half hour episodes and a movie. You could make the argument that’s one of the reasons the show was legendary, it didn’t get in its own way. But a good adaptation should try to explore Bebop’s universe more, expand on the rival bounty hunters, corporations and crime syndicates that show up. By necessity a good show would almost have to.

The twenty-five-minute run time of a Cowboy Bebop episode would be hard to replicate in live action. It’s almost certainly going to be an hour long and probably won’t have the budget to consistently pull off the spaceship dog-fights or massive explosions that peppered Bebop episodes. So, it’ll need to go in a different direction to capture the show’s feel and universe. Same too with the costumes. Spike’s would probably look okay in a live action show, but Jet and Faye’s might need some work.

A good adaptation will acknowledge these limitations and differences and create something new with Cowboy Bebop, which would be a lot better than trying to recreate a classic, something that is pretty much impossible. And there’s reasons to believe that on TV, in this day and age, American creators can do what Hollywood has so often failed at.

We’re living in a Golden Age of TV

Do I really need to list all the incredible shows we have right now? Or all the movie stars and directors who are making twelve episode streaming series? While the big screen is dominated by franchise films, TV has exploded with nuanced, creative, and excellent programming. It’s an arms race right now between the streaming services, the premium channels like HBO, and old media trying hold on to relevance. This has meant that TV producers are willing to give creators more control and take more chances. And with this creative leeway and without the expectations of a big movie budget, a Cowboy Bebop live action show might be able to escape the curse of the poor American anime adaptation.

It’s also about god damn time that this golden age of TV has produced a decent space show. Yes, there’s a new Star Trek series on the way and I’m sure some reading this is will say, ‘but Matt what about the ‘Expanse’?’ But considering all the incredible Game of Thrones inspired ‘grim dark’ historical fiction TV we have it’s weird space operas haven’t taken off yet. And the Expanse is decent, but come on it’s really up there with a West World or GoT? Where’s my space fairing show on the level of Stranger Things or Jessica Jones?

It’s time for this era to get its own Firefly and a well-done Cowboy Bebop adaptation could fill that void.

Cowboy Bebop is  Already One Part 90s Action Flick

One of the reasons Cowboy Bebop took off in the US is because it was both different from what Western audience were use too while also having a lot of western allusions. The bounty hunters are called ‘cowboys’, in one episode a NASA shuttle gets tuned up and there’s a reference to the Red Soxs (Boston represent!). One Spike’s comedic rivals rides a horse with a cowboy hat.

One part of the mix that makes Cowboy Bebop so awesome is a love of 80s and 90s action movies. I mean just look at the intro to the Cowboy Bebop Movie; tell me that’s not an animated New York circa 98? The opening episode is basically set in the American southwest with characters that would have fit in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. The characters too fill archetypal action movie roles. Spike is anti-hero with a troubled past, Jet’s a ‘too old for this shit’ former cop, Faye’s a Noir ‘woman that looks like trouble’ and Ed and Ein are….okay, doesn’t all fit, but you get the idea.

The entire Cowboy Bebop universe is wrapped in that grungy, space junk look that was made popular by Alien. A whole episode is even an alien parody where a ‘creature’ runs lose on the ship and Spike has to hunt it down. This 80s-90s love makes translating Cowboy Bebop easier. Creators can go back and look at those already live action influence for way to do Bebop right.

Now all that said it’s still going to be difficult to pull off a solid Cowboy Bebop adaptation. The show had one element that makes it almost impossible to do. It was cool. From the music to the fight scenes, to the noir dialogue, Cowboy Bebop is just plain cool. And cool is something no one can force, it must be discovered. Here’s hoping Christopher Yost and Cowboy Bebop adaptation can find their own way to be cool.