If you’re into anime (or light novels, or manga) you know what isekai is. Basic concept: someone gets transported to another world, discovers they are hugely overpowered but that they need to defeat a very powerful demon lord, and hilarity ensues. It’s what was once known as portal fantasy and the archetypal instance of it is Sword Art Online, which has spawned multiple TV series, movies, games, and enough merchandise fill a hobby store. Isekai is also the name of the book I’m writing at the moment; more on that later.
I was initially disinclined to get into isekai anime because, well, there’s so much of it. Sword Art Online has been on Netflix in the UK for a while, and I didn’t watch it for various reasons. I still only know SAO from the numerous videos on YouTube dismantling it and, to be honest, while SAO started the trend for everything to be isekai, I still have no desire to go there. Then I went and watched…
That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. In many ways, the slime isekai hooks into my liking for slice of life. It’s like watching Sid Meier’s Civilisation combined with an action comedy. Basic concept: a 37-year-old virgin salaryman valiantly steps in the way of a knife meant for someone else, dies, and is reincarnated as the most overpowered slime monster in history. But that’s just the concept. The actualisation of it is funny, genre-aware, self-aware, and very bittersweet in places. The slime, Rimaru Tempest, starts to build a city where monsters can live in peace, and the state of his new nation progresses from a goblin village to a town filled with ogres, dwarfs, lizardmen, and orcs as challenges are met and overcome. Slime gave me a taste for the current generation of isekai. It doesn’t take itself hugely seriously and it subverts many of the tropes associated with the genre.
Overlord is closer to the more standard isekai staples, marginally. The majority of isekai have the hero (always seems to be a hero, because reasons) is trapped in a computer game somehow. Overlord follows that convention but its USP is that the ‘hero’ is a bad guy. The protagonist, Ains, isn’t a bad guy, but he finds himself having to play the part of an incredibly evil undead necromancer type with a veritable army of overpowered minions, all intent on taking over the world. Initially, this was the really amazing part of Overlord and it remains one of the most amusing parts: the minions (NPCs in the original game world) are vastly more competent at being evil than Ains and he’s constantly playing catchup, aided by his minions assuming that he’s already had the brilliant idea they just came up with and that he just didn’t explain it. Lately, Ains is getting the hang of things and I’m finding the series less enjoyable. It has a particular habit (especially in the later stages) of making us empathise with the people Ains & Co are going to destroy with a twitch of their fingers, and then making us watch them being destroyed. It’s kind of cheap. I prefer the earlier episodes.
This season’s rising star, The Rising of the Shield Hero, has some similar issues. The series skips over the initial stage in many isekai shows where the hero doesn’t want to face the big bad and doesn’t understand what’s going on. The four heroes summoned to save <generic fantasy setting> know exactly what’s going on and get straight into it. Instead, Shield Hero makes things tough by shitting on the protagonist from a great height in the very first episode and keeping it up through its entire run. Obviously, his moments of triumph are all the more sweet since everyone seems to hate him, and the journey is quite entertaining most of the time. However, there’s only so much pain I can watch someone go through before I come to suspect the show was designed for sadists (or, since you’re supposed to identify with the protagonists, really major masochists). Also, I found the characterisation of the Shield Hero to be… random. I think they’re going for someone trying to be a bastard because it’s what everyone thinks he is, but not quite being able to pull it off. But to me it just comes over as inconsistent.
Some others… I kind of got stuck with How Not to Summon a Demon Lord because they’re going to do the “brainwashed girl who appears to want to go with the villain and has to be rescued” plot. I might go back to it; I really hope they’ve got a unique way of making that plot worth watching, I just doubt it. Demon Lord, Retry has similarities to that one and Overlord, but it’s unique enough so far that I’m enjoying it. Equally, it’s a currently-running series, so it could go either way. Oh, and I’m currently reading the manga of Konosuba, which is another classic of the genre.
And then (and finally), there’s Do You Love Your Mom… and Her Two-Hit, Multi-Target Attacks? Sounds like an incest hentai, right? It’s part of a current trend for ‘clickbait’ show titles. It’s another currently-running series, so it could go either way, but so far the ‘incestuous’ aspects are played purely for laughs and it’s rather entertaining. Basic idea: a young man, Masato, is zapped into a video game… only to discover that his mother, Mamako, is there too. What’s more, while the protagonist is usually the overpowered one, in this case it’s Mamako who can wipe out armies with one strike of her swords. It gets over the incest thing pretty early on as the team fight a slime monster which starts dissolving Mamako’s clothes and she comes out with one of my favourite lines of 2019: ‘Don’t look, Ma-kun, momma’s wearing a thong today.’ Masato is mortified. One reviewer on YouTube suggested that this might be the most innovative isekai of this season, and that might just be the case.
So, I felt like doing my own take on the genre and I have a Japanese girl finding herself summoned to a fantasy world which is actually called Isekai. She’s pretty convinced it’s not real, and anyway, she’s been told she’s the wrong person to fight the demon lord. Still, she’s stuck, so she might as well get on with whatever adventures she can find, right? Progress has been swift so far and I’m only planning to do sequels if I can come up with something interesting to do in them (or it gets a film deal).
Meanwhile, (if you’ve read all the way down here, good for you) the next Ultrahumans book, Royal Flush, will be coming out tomorrow. The cover has just finished rendering, so I’ll be ready to do the publishing checklist in the morning. It’ll be coming out at $3.99, which is going to be standard from here on out. I can’t hold back the inevitable forever. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it.