It is time to go back to the wacky world of modern world characters getting transported to fantasy worlds! If you have not read my last post on isekai, please go there and at least read up through the “Acting and Reacting” part of that post, to understand the basics of what isekai is (if you did not know already) and how they can differ in whether they focus on the protagonists’ reactions to the fantasy world or actions on that world. In this post, I will be looking specifically at how the protagonists of isekai stories act upon the world they find themselves in.
As I mentioned in my last post, the entire point of writing an isekai story, as opposed to a fantasy story in a self-contained world, is to give the audience a character (or characters) they can relate with, due to that character coming from “our” world. When the focus of an isekai story shifts to the actions of that character on the fantasy world, the modern-world protagonist has one additional role given to him/her: he/she brings the knowledge and/or products of our modern world into the fantasy world. Depending on the premise of the show, the protagonist may be traveling into the new world with things like smartphones, manga, or even a full-blown modern military. In other shows, the protagonist may only bring knowledge of modern economics, video game mechanics (helpful if you’re trapped in said video game’s world), or just “what usually happens in these kinds of stories”. Oftentimes these items and knowledge will give the protagonist a notable advantage in the world, though sometimes they backfire and end up hurting him instead.
With what they bring from the modern world, the protagonist oftentimes starts doing things in the fantasy world. They may be trying to fight off an evil force or simply trying to improve life for the people in that world. This especially comes into play if, during the “reacting” part of adjusting to a new world, the protagonist finds parts of the world that they do not like, such as some fantastic racism or an oppressive government. After the protagonist realizes that some parts of this fantasy world are not really worth fantasizing about, he then takes up the job of trying to make the world better. Of course, he could just be going out to gain glory or build a harem of love interests or simply trying to find the best way to survive and make it back home.
I’ve Got The Power
Regardless of what the protagonist does in the new world, his access to unique knowledge, items, or powers gives him power over that world that he likely did not have in his former world. What he ends up using that power for plays a large part in what the tone and nature of a given isekai story is. Many isekai stories fully indulge in the power the protagonist has, allowing him to defeat any enemy in his way, impress all the ladies, and accomplish great things in the world so they hail him as a hero. In other words, these isekai stories quickly become power fantasies.
Power fantasies are a particular form of wish fulfillment that focuses less on presenting the audience things they want and instead let the audience imagine they have the power to get what they want themselves. They appear all over media, with video games being especially popular for the fact that you actually get to control the character in power, making that connection even stronger. While isekai video games do exist, isekai light novels and anime instead use their protagonist’s familiar origins to form that connection with the audience so they can indulge in the power fantasy.
However, while wish fulfillment in general gets criticism for being too indulgent, power fantasies get criticized especially harshly because of the implications such stories can have. The core issue is that these stories by their nature center around the protagonist who acts as a stand-in for the person reading/watching/playing; as such, it is all too easy to reach a point where the protagonist also becomes the moral center of the story. The protagonist needs the space to wield the crazy powers he has, but in normal circumstances that would make the protagonist seem like some power-hungry psychopath. Therefore, the protagonist is established as working for the “good” side, and everyone he goes up against is “evil” and thus is okay to use all his powers on.
In and of itself this structure is not bad, but it does lead to many potential problems. Writers can make the protagonists do things that are actually morally questionable, but we do not question them because we are in the mindset that “the protagonist is always right”. Characters around the protagonist get warped to fit this narrative by becoming either blind followers with no capability of acting on their own, or villains who act utterly horrible with no nuance of character just to eventually be the protagonist’s punching bag.
Probably most dangerously for an isekai series, though, is the cultural implication of a protagonist who goes to a foreign land and changes things according to their own beliefs. One notable isekai series, GATE, has definitely caught this criticism. GATE tells the story of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) after a gate to another world opens up and the inhabitants of that world invade and cause trouble, so the JSDF enter the gate to subjugate the threat. Many have brought up criticisms that this light novel/anime promotes a dangerous nationalistic ideology in a country where notable ultranationalistic groups still try to gain power. Personally, I decided to drop the show around episode 7 as, being a member of the U.S. military and sensitive to the power we have, I felt the show’s glorification of military power, as well as how it largely portrayed the targets of that power to be irredeemable villains, was just not healthy for me. I do not say this as judgment on anyone who did watch and like the show and felt nothing was wrong about it, and I do believe many can appreciate the show’s good parts (e.g. Lelei) without being negatively affected (and for all I know the military glorification may be toned down later in the show), but it does provide a good example of how an isekai power fantasy can lead to unfortunate implications.
Cast Reflect on Self
So what is the solution here? How can an isekai story provide a power fantasy without creating problematic implications? One way is to make the story so obviously a wish fulfillment story that the audience naturally distances themselves from the story a little. This is usually enough to keep from associating too closely with the protagonist, thus reducing the chance of being affected by dangerous implications. Of course, shows that are overtly wish fulfillment power fantasies tend to be low in substance because of this need to keep the audience at a slight distance, so stories looking for a more serious exploration of themes will need to take a different approach.
A good approach here would be to offer up a few moments where the protagonist reflects upon themselves and what they are doing, and consider for a moment if what they are doing is the right thing. This Extra Credits video goes into this approach with regards to video games, and it works for anime as well. As mentioned in the video, the answer is not as important here as it is the opportunity to give the audience a chance to think about the actual implications of the actions of their protagonist representing them.
Of course, an isekai story can seriously contemplate the morality of the protagonist’s actions and be all the better for it. My current favorite isekai light-novel-turned-anime, Outbreak Company, succeeds because it is willing to ask the hard questions about what the protagonist is doing, even if the overall tone of the show is lighthearted enough to ultimately side in his favor. This story of an otaku tasked to introduce anime, manga, and the like to a fantasy world presents what comes off as the ultimate otaku “power” fantasy: introducing otaku goods to a fantasy world and gaining fame and recognition for it. In the hands of a lesser author, this would be nothing but self-indulgent wish fulfillment, but Ichirou Sakaki, writer of other excellent fantasy series like Scrapped Princess, takes this premise more seriously. At one major point, the otaku protagonist Shinichi is forced to confront the thought that he may ultimately be an “invader” in the world, helping Japan conquer this fantasy nation not with military power but with cultural power.
As a Christian, I found Outbreak Company particularly poignant when I realized how similar Shinichi’s mission is to Christian missionary evangelism. The series itself makes that comparison, with the fantasy world empress referring to Shinichi as an “evangelist” of otaku culture, and in the light novel, Shinichi even brings up the specific example of the spread of Christianity in the Middle Ages. It’s a sobering showcase of what could happen should missionary work be misapplied. And yet, the show does ultimately side with the “missionaries”, and show the good that can happen when cultures meet and exchange ideas. In this way, I feel like Outbreak Company is not just the best isekai anime I’ve seen, but also one of the best examples of anime reflecting Christianity I have come across. However, it only gets to be that because it dared to ask the hard questions to the protagonist.
The famous saying “With great power comes great responsibility” definitely applies to power fantasies, which is why these moments of self-reflection can be so effective. When the protagonist of an isekai series reflects on the morality of his own actions, he accepts a certain level of responsibility to match the “power” he brings to a new world, acknowledging that the use of this “power” can bring about consequences. Of course, the story could just opt to saddle the protagonist with actual, oftentimes political responsibility, frequently against his will. In Outbreak Company, Shinichi is forced to become the ambassador of otaku culture to the fantasy country of Eldant, which allows him to have close contact with the country’s empress and effect change on a great scale. Other isekai light novels have the protagonist become the king (or equivalent head-of-state) of a nation, or at least gain enough respect from the heads-of-state to make decisions that change the fate of an entire country or two.
Gaining political power is rarely ever something these protagonists particularly want, but in a way it is just another part of these stories’ power fantasy. After all, many people are, to put it lightly, quite dissatisfied with how their political leaders run their countries, and even those that are not can easily list many examples of past and present political leaders of other countries they dislike. Isekai stories provide a platform for their authors, and by extension, their audience, to imagine running a country on their own terms, with reasonable policies that change a nation for the better.
Again, this setup runs into potential problematic implications of a political/cultural takeover of a nation, which is why isekai stories where the protagonist takes on political power have a greater burden of illustrating the responsibility they have. Outbreak Company shows how not all the effects of introducing otaku culture to Eldant are positive, and that Shinichi’s actions may in fact be part of an outright invasion. The series also notes how Shinichi does not quite have that much power, and that an honorable goal like eliminating racism is in reality extremely difficult to implement practically.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to make a better world. As an isekai protagonist changes a world for the better, we can take a moment to appreciate things in our world we might take for granted, such as a culture that generally looks down on racism and class discrimination. We can also take a moment to consider if the changes being made to a fantasy world can be applied to make the world around us a little better. We cannot assume such changes will be for good, but we can at least give some thought on the matter.
Our Own Journeys To New Worlds
The book of 1 Peter talks about how we are sojourners of God, traveling and making temporary residences on Earth as we look towards our true Home. For Christians, our beliefs and culture are very different from those around us, and not only do we bring those beliefs in contact with people around us, but we also seek to convert those people into adopting our beliefs, or at least seeking to improve their lives as we act on those beliefs. As if that is not enough, we also have God’s power on our side, and no one is more overpowered than God. For better or for worse, we take a position where we offer something we hope other people will want, and that puts us in a position of power. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but the moment we let humility escape us and selfishness take over us, we can cause incredible harm to the people we are trying to help.
For these reasons, isekai stories can be quite relevant to Christians. They are stories of encountering new cultures, of wanting to help improve the lives of people in these new cultures, and of using the power and beliefs we bring to change the world. But, at their best, they are also stories of being careful with that power and beliefs, realizing that just because we want to help people does not mean that what we do is actually helping them. They are stories about respecting the cultures of those new worlds when they are worth respecting, and reflecting upon ourselves over and taking responsibility for what impact we have on other people. Unfortunately, many isekai stories indulge in the power fantasy without taking the responsibility that goes with it, so it falls upon us, the audience, to read/watch with discernment and reflect upon what the protagonist does and what moral implications his actions might have.
To sum it up, whether you love isekai stories or hate them and their associated tropes with every fiber of your being; whether you like traveling with these protagonists to new worlds to experience a more interesting life than what we have on earth, or to enjoy the power fantasy of changing a world for the better; one way or another, isekai has become a significant part of otaku culture that does not look to be going away anytime soon. These two posts I have written by no means cover all of what isekai is or what it can be, but I do hope they give some insight as to what the appeal of such stories is and what Christians can take away from them. This is definitely a topic I want to revisit later, focusing on specific series and how each one makes use of the isekai setup, so until then, have fun traveling to whatever fictional worlds tickle your fancy!
Outbreak Company is streaming on Crunchyroll.
As a bonus, I shall now recommend my current favorite isekai light novel I am reading that does not yet have an anime adaptation! How A Realist Hero Rebuilt The Kingdom tells the story of a college student from our world who is summoned to a fantasy kingdom… and then proceeds to use his knowledge of modern economics, politics, and world history to reform the kingdom after the king cedes the throne to him. It provides an interesting take on the isekai story with a greater focus on paperwork and bureaucracy than adventuring, and there is plenty of reflection on the protagonist’s responsibility for the people and the difficulties in actually implementing socioeconomic reforms.
The official English translation is being published by J-Novel Club, and you can find links for eBook versions here, with a print version coming later this year. J-Novel Club also provides translations for other isekai light novels like Outbreak Company, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, In Another World With My Smartphone, and Arifureta: From Commonplace To World’s Strongest, as well as several non-isekai series.