Welcome back to Text x Context, where we’re not in Kansas anymore!
There’s a running joke among the staff of Beneath the Tangles that C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is an isekai story. Of course, it isn’t what otaku typically mean when referring to a tale as isekai, but what makes the joke funny is the kernel of truth it contains. After all, the Narnia series is just one of many Western narratives that, like Japanese isekai, revolves around that foundational premise of someone from our world being transported to a fantasy realm.
With that in mind, we decided to dig a little deeper and explore the points of comparison (and contrast!) between otherworld adventure stories from the East and the West. As exemplars of typical isekai storytelling, we settled on Konosuba and Seirei Gensouki, complemented by two decidedly American isekai in the form of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and A Wrinkle in Time.
Feel free to read through our thoughts from top to bottom or hit any of the links below to jump to a specific topic or question. You can leap from this TL;DR version straight to our article giving highlights from the discussion.
Isekai as a genre • Protagonists • Sidekicks • Worldbuilding • Similarities • Adaptations • Western isekai as manga • Konosuba and Oz, Seirei and Wrinkle • Fantasy vs. realism • Foreshadowing • Religion and mysticism
What is isekai and is it a culturally-specific genre (i.e. Japanese), or can non-Japanese stories be considered isekai?
Twwk: Strictly speaking, isekai simply means “other world.” Of course, we’ve all come to understand it as a genre of anime, manga, light novels, and visual novels in which a character is transported to another world for the purposes of adventure. So though I hate to throw up that huge anime X with my arms before we start, I wouldn’t consider non-anime style series as fitting within the isekai genre—that would of course include our American picks, A Wrinkle in Time and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
But part of the fun of our analysis here is thinking a bit outside of the box and understanding that, since isekai has now so oversaturated the medium, we can stretch the concept further and play a little loose with it just for the fun of it.
Gaheret: I think that isekai is not specifically Japanese in nature, but I don’t think it belongs simply to Narnia-style “low” or “two-worlds” fantasy/SF either. Instead, I think isekai is more similar to time-travel or alternate-dimension stories. It’s a (sub)genre focused on creating possibilities for the protagonist. What can he or she be now, in this new scenario? Thus, I would not include Oz or Wrinkle either, because the protagonists remain as they are, normal children without fantastic powers. Perhaps something like The Neverending Story, Ready Player One or even Flash Gordon. Low fantasy/SF stories where Our Protagonist is given an opportunity to develop his or her hidden strengths in a, well, “entrepreneurial” way in another world. With a smartphone, probably.
Jeskai: “Isekai” is a huge and diverse category, which makes it challenging to define the word in a non-arbitrary way that won’t exclude any Japanese story we intuitively recognize as “isekai” but will exclude Western stories, as well as media that are “Japanese” but not isekai. Part of why I dissent from saying “isekai” must be written by a Japanese person is because such a criterion doesn’t pertain to the nature of the story, but rather the characteristics of the author; moreover, lots of non-isekai stories have Japanese authors. I’ve previously argued that at the heart of isekai is the prospect of something beyond the world we know. The appeal of stories that show us (as Judy Garland famously sang) “somewhere over the rainbow” is not culture-specific. If the Bible is to be believed, all humans were created for life beyond the physical world we know. I think that aspect of our created nature is why alternative world stories can be enjoyed so widely. Whether we know it or not, we aren’t meant to be satisfied with this world, and so something about the idea of other worlds is inherently attractive.
In light of all that, maybe the definition of “isekai” I’d propose is “stories that appeal to a fundamental human desire for a world beyond our own by depicting people from our world being supernaturally transported to fictional realms.” Or something like that? I specify supernatural world-hopping because exploring strange new worlds is an established aspect of science fiction; when the means of transit are rooted in technology like warp drive or Stargates, we consider a story sci-fi, rather than isekai.
sleepminusminus: Yeah, I think I’d agree with Twwk here; isekai seems to be more of a phenomenon within the Japanese anime sphere, even if that sphere is sort of vaguely defined. The whole fun of this “let’s compare American and Japanese isekai” thing is that there isn’t really such a thing as American isekai—if that existed then this conversation wouldn’t really be all that interesting!
And yet, we can see lots of connections between isekai and American fantasy novels, like the idea of new possibilities or simply the potential of a world beyond the one we know. So even if we can’t call Wizard of Oz or Wrinkle in Time works of isekai, there are definitely thematic similarities that are fun to poke at.
How do the protagonists of these stories compare?
Oz – Dorothy • Wrinkle – Meg • Konosuba – Kazuma • Seirei Gensouki – Rio
Twwk: I find it interesting that the two female protagonists ultimately end up “finding themselves” as they complete their quests. Dorothy’s transformation isn’t exactly complex in the novel, but she does go from seeing the world as “grey” (quite literally so, in the classic movie) to valuing that sense of being home. There’s a gratefulness she gains from her journey. Meanwhile, Meg is learning to love herself. At the novel’s opening, she doesn’t see much about herself that’s lovable, but over the course of her journey, she finds the strength to do the impossible and accept that people can love her despite lacking the kinds of abilities she considers to be brilliant or beautiful. It’s possible that Haruto/Rio gets there, too, but for now, he’s on a path of revenge rather than growth. Kazuma, well…perhaps there’s something yet to come, as is usual for most isekai, but there ain’t much growth going on for him so far!
Gaheret: If our protagonists were to meet, no one would understand anyone else in the slightest. Haruto/Rio and Meg are too insecure to approach someone of the opposite sex and they don’t get people their age either. Haruto/Rio can’t even speak to a kid like Meg for anything other than helping her if she’s lost or saving her from a monster. She treasures her connections with others, but cannot create new ones by herself. Only the freedom of spirit and kind determination of others can get these two protagonists to open up—Meg more quickly, Rio more reluctantly. Kazuma is flippant about others and just goes with the flow, and only ever looks at external traits and what’s in it for him. If those three could articulate what they sorely need (love, a father, respect), I could imagine Dorothy, the only proactive connecting force left, discovering each of them in her own way. But they can’t, and so she wouldn’t.
Nevertheless, every one of our protagonists is living pretty much the same journey. Everyone has a bitter experience to run from and an isolated life that no kid would want. Why? For unknown reasons, or as a result of losing important people who were cornerstones for them, or because of their trying to be a hero and ending up as a laughingstock. When something otherworldly appears, there is newness, uncertainty, and horror, and… hope, too. They all walk toward it in their own, distinct way. Dorothy does so as a timeless, luminous child character, like Alice, Huck Finn or Peter Pan. Meg, who shares Dorothy’s deep wonder, moves toward hope as a classical YA heroine with issues. The social game is difficult and unfair, as is dealing with abandonment, rejection, anger, and love too.
Rio faces all this as well, but he’s a stoic kid with a college education, well-trained in martial arts and cynical about society and politics. He lives his new life ahead of everyone in almost everything. Of course, this is wish fulfillment, at least in part, which is a prominent element in almost every isekai. Remove the tragedy and the complications that come with it, and you have Kazuma, wandering around, stealing heads and panties for the lulz, and occasionally playing the video game warrior part.
Jeskai: I see Rio/Haruto and Meg as internally flawed/conflicted but relatively more mature characters, in contrast to Kazuma the comically (for a certain sense of humor?) and annoyingly immature protagonist. These two archetypes (the mature, internally conflicted lead, and the comedically dumb/immature lead) are definitely common among light novel and anime protagonists. Rio and Meg also share troubles with mistreatment at school and parental loss/absence, further solidifying Meg’s place as an anime protag. I think Dorothy warrants her own category: like with some other fairy tales, Dorothy is a bit of a blank slate written such that many children could imagine themselves in her place. That’s fine since Oz is a fairy tale, but it means any adaptation has to decide for itself what kind of character she should be.
sleepminusminus: To be fair, the whole “nondescript self-insert protagonist” thing is an anime trope as well. So maybe Dorothy too is an anime protagonist 😛
But I’m tracking two threads through all of this—each protagonist struggles with some internal conflict and embarks on some journey. Which makes sense if we’re thinking about that general idea of isekai as exploring the potential of a world unlike your own.
In fact, it’s only through the “other world” they encounter that our protagonists get the opportunity to confront themselves and find adventure. Meg might never have been able to find herself worthy of love if it weren’t for her monotonous, hopeless life being torn apart (literally). Rio’s past-life experiences help him navigate through the politics of Beltrum and begin his journey toward revenge. And like you mentioned, Twwk, Dorothy’s life is injected with color when Oz breaks in.
I think that’s the appeal of these kinds of isekai-adjacent stories. At their best, they break us out of the limits of our world and help us sympathize with the internal conflicts of characters. Like, with Wrinkle in Time—we’re never going to time-travel our way to a planet where an evil brain hypnotizes large masses of people to sacrifice their autonomy and relationships. But an evil mastermind brain does help us to see evil’s corrupting influence a little more vividly than we normally do in our world. And then we can sympathize with a character like Meg, who might not be the most heroic heroine on the surface, but who longs deeply for the good even as she’s surrounded by evil.
What roles do the supporting characters play throughout these novels?
Twwk: I wouldn’t quite say that isekai series mostly feature flat supporting characters, but they often seem that way at first; it generally takes time for them to develop, often over multiple (dozens of?) volumes. There’s an expectation that supporting characters are there to add flavor early on and be given more depth later. They might even disappear for volumes at a time. For A Wrinkle in Time, developing the characters over many volumes is not an option. Though the series did receive sequels later, Madeleine L’Engle is writing as if that’s not a given. Within just the one book, she creates a couple of secondary characters to whom she gives considerable depth.
Konosuba and Seirei Gensouki don’t achieve the same, and in fact, I would say are on the weaker end of the scale even among isekai in developing meaningful supporting characters. In Konosuba, Megumin and the rest are there to color the tale and make the readers laugh, and in Seirei Gensouki, they exist to further the story of the hero’s tale. Even my favorite character from that series, Celia, simply fits into a light novel/anime role (kind and absent-minded child prodigy) of one who guides the hero in his young years and falls in love with him. It doesn’t matter where her journey goes because her story isn’t the point; it’s Rio’s.
Calvin, especially, is a different sort of love interest. While his role is largely also to help the main character in her journey, both physically as they move through space and time and within her own brain and heart, he’s also developing and showing the reader the growth that can happen when one is moral and outspoken. He beats himself up early in the novel, but like Meg, comes out of the adventure realizing great things about himself.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has little time to waste, either. Although the characters are as flat as they are in Konosuba, each of Dorothy’s companions has his own arc, and each is similar to Dorothy’s. In fact, in this book more so than the others we read, the supporting characters exist to further the story as a whole and not just the protagonist’s. Along those lines, I’m not sure Dorothy really needs them so much as they are just on parallel paths. And the trio actually grows more than Dorothy does. While she comes to appreciate home (though with less emphasis than in the classic film), the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion all come to realize their strong qualities and gain confidence, changing the self-actualization principle at work within them all. Thus even in a fable-like story like this, there’s a stronger emphasis on developing the supporting characters in a meaningful way than in the initial volumes of the light novel offerings.
Jeskai: I find the supporting casts of Oz and Konosuba similar in that they both contribute to their stories’ humorous tone. Kazuma’s companions are each written as walking jokes rather than as people. The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion aren’t quite as flat and slapstick as Aqua and company, but they perform a fundamentally similar role in terms of contributing a lot of levity to the tale.
Our pair of more serious stories have correspondingly different supporting actors. Seirei doesn’t have many side characters at this point, but I think that’s intentional: Rio is isolated and alone, with Celia as his only meaningful relationship, so it’s fitting that the rest of the cast is either antagonistic or undeveloped because Rio never has a chance to really know them. Wrinkle has the most interesting supporting characters, with Calvin, in particular, standing out for the way he has struggles of his own yet can act boldly to help protagonist Meg reach new heights in her own growth. Add to that Charles Wallace, Meg’s parents, and Mrs W-words, and you’ve got a supporting cast that, in the space of one volume, outperforms quite a few anime.
Gaheret: In fantasy, powerful characters are mainly used for worldbuilding (Aragorn! Gandalf! Aslan!). I find it interesting that here, they come in threes, defined by a common cause or situation. The joyful Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and the more stern Mrs Which, different and odd celestial beings with a loving, heroic hierarchy, devoted to the fight against the Black Thing, as others across the ages, set the world of Wrinkle. The grandmotherly Witch of the North, the Wicked Witch of the West and the young and beautiful Glinda of the South are our compasses, and the rulers of colorful peoples under Oz, Great and Terrible.
I think that these female “triads” are relevant to Dorothy and Meg as young girls in formation (and in Meg’s case, understanding her loving yet unreachable mum), but most of their character conflicts (as Twwk described) come from the second trio of “fellow adventurers” (Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, or Calvin, Charles and Father). Friends with problems of mind, heart, and will, or family separation, incipient love, and a bond between siblings with problems.
The LNs, in contrast, have only one “triad” where the friendship/shipping element is more prominent. In Seirei, you have the original rescue party: Princess Christina (and her friend/clone Roanna), always conscious of her rank and political obligations, Princess Flora, kind-hearted but too naive in this grim world, and Celia, who approaches the poor with unassuming kindness, all of the “party of the king”, and opposed to less virtuous bullies and jerks among the nobles. Rio saves Flora, bonds with Celia, and (unintendedly) earns some of Christina’s respect. In that, he simultaneously explores the kingdom and grows as a character.
Lastly, there’s Aqua, Megumi and Darkness, three flawed yet fair friends, a crusader, a wizard and a deity, the three main kinds of adventurers that, with thieves like Kazuma, fight together against the Dark Lord and more stereotypical isekai heroes like the unfortunate Mitsurugi Kyouya… (Kazuma’s voice: “Forget about that! An ojou-sama, a loli and a masochist! Wow, boy!”)
sleepminusminus: Thinking about it now, what really is the deal with all the triplets in these books? Part of me wants to say that L’Engle was going for Trinitarian symbolism with the three celestial beings, but she also includes a scene where Calvin tries to bow before one of them and is rebuffed. And that obviously doesn’t explain the triplets in Seirei and Konosuba that you pointed out, Gaheret. I wonder if there’s something storytelling-wise (or isekai-wise?) to do with threes….
Other than that, I don’t have much to say. I think Twwk has it right—supporting characters in isekai light novels don’t get developed in the first novels of a series because no one expects that. So the comparison isn’t really apples to oranges.
How does the worldbuilding in these stories compare?
Jeskai: Well, Seirei Gensouki has the most elaborate world, with a fairly extensive history and geography of its own, though we only see a portion of it in this volume. Among our readings this time, it probably pairs best with the land of Oz, a fairy tale world with a variety of peoples and settlements, where much is mysterious but feels like it could be fleshed out into a vibrant, rich world. I should also note that herein lies one of the more interesting differences between The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its famous movie adaptation: the film goes out of its way to set up Oz as a mere dream world, where the characters she meets are all based on people she’s met IRL. In contrast to the movie’s all-just-a-dream setup, the original novel feels like much more of a pure isekai, where Dorothy is genuinely carried off to a fantasy realm.
Konosuba’s world is much like those found in other comedic or lighthearted isekai: flat and with details that exist mainly for the lulz. It’s a stage made of plywood and cardboard, constructed to set up comedic beats rather than to be a thriving, real place. This again aligns with the split between dramatic and comedic one often sees among isekai stories.
There’s a surreal, ethereal quality to the settings Meg visits in Wrinkle that sets the story apart. I keep wondering how much of what Meg sees is supposed to be taken as “real” versus as something beyond her comprehension that comes across strangely because she—and we—are only perceiving it in a partial way (much like Mrs Which).
Gaheret: Oz is inventive, consistent, and artistically powerful, something between Wonderland and Narnia, yet distinctively American, as different as can be to the vaguely European/French, videogamey “monsters turn into magic stones you can store”, dwarves-elves-menbeasts, knights-wizards-assassins world of Seirei (to say nothing of the “just like a videogame, baby!” descriptions in Konosuba). It’s okay (I love my medieval fantasy), but also admittedly run-of-the-mill. In particular, I could do without the anti-commoner and anti-fox-girls social prejudice (come on, invent new ones!), but hey.
Both Oz and Seirei, though, feel like consistent worlds. The writers give us context and visual referents, showing how the pieces fit together. Four witches, two good, two bad, four Kansas-like fairytale realms made distinct by the personalities of their rulers. A color code, an Emerald City, and the ruse of Oz, who finds out that politics and parlor magic have their parallels. Or, three rival factions that allow the writer to show us a culture of honor and shame, and the political motivations and the hierarchy of the kids at the Academy, as well as the meaning of the conspiracies looming in the background: the warmonger Arbors, the ambitious but peace-keeping Hugenots or the “party of the king”, while outside the walls, crime runs rampant. Meg’s everyday world in Wrinkle, too, is breathing with life and full of referents.
Then there’s the more mystical and metaphorical part. Wrinkle has some luminous moments here (as well as an effort in creating a distinct space-age, American mythos): the centaur transformation, the introduction of the Shadow, and Meg’s father’s imprisonment in a pillar of glass are among them. But as compelling as the character moments are, the fantasy universe lacks that organic feeling (it feels a bit half-cooked), and thus the allegory, when it shows, is just too obvious. I just cannot picture other adventures in that setting. I’m kind of intrigued with Seirei magical and mystical elements, though. How has reincarnation affected this world? What about the mystical powers? Is there a supernatural threat against the kingdom? What’s in the East? What’s the meaning of it all?
Despite itself, Konosuba had the virtuous Lich guiding their souls at night, which I found oddly poetic. And Oz… Majestic winged monkeys living in jungle temples, bound by ancient magic. Living scarecrows, talking lions, fields like seas, powerful witches that command wolves who then fight against a Tin Man. In all, the perfect fantasy counterpart to the gray Kansas, which makes coming home all the more meaningful and adventurous.
Twwk: Maybe it’s no coincidence that I find it easiest to divide the four novels into a pair of Japanese ones and a pair of American ones. Seirei Gensouki and Konosuba share medieval-ish fantasy settings, though the former is a lusher world that hints at deep, historic backstories. Having watched the one-season anime, I know there’s much to be explored, and it’s exciting. The world itself pushes the characters forward and takes Rio along his journey. I don’t know if Konosuba’s world gains any great depth in later novels, but I would be surprised to discover if it receives a similar level of world-building.
Meanwhile, the American stories are more inventive in terms of playing around with rules that govern our real world. Nothing feels standard as Meg and company zigzag across worlds, and as noted earlier, science fiction feeds into A Wrinkle in Time as much as fantasy does. That makes it a creative and often thrilling read.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is, again, a fairy tale. But instead of being far away, Oz and the other lands feel like the midwestern and western United States turned upside-down. Woods, fields, and crevasses dot the landscape but are scarier, stranger, and more precarious than in our physical world. Imagination runs wild in this story and A Wrinkle in Time, while Konosuba and Seirei Gensouki are governed by rules of how anime and light novels adapt fantasy settings, though again, the latter still demonstrates great creativity.
sleepminusminus: Setting aside Konosuba, I’d say that Seirei Gensouki and Wizard of Oz both have wonderful, subtle worldbuilding, while Wrinkle in Time is more distinctive for its imaginative elements. It’s really cool reading this volume of Seirei having read the whole series beforehand because I spotted a lot of the foreshadowing and setup I missed the first time around. Kitayama does a great job of introducing ideas subtly in earlier chapters and volumes, only for them to become relevant much later. The world might be generic in some ways, but it does feel believable, almost alive.
Wizard of Oz is similarly subtle in the way it introduces its world, though it’s a little more imaginative than Seirei‘s is. I think it’s because that book is directed towards an adolescent audience while Wizard of Oz is directed towards children, who don’t care about realism as much as we do. I was surprised when reading the book for the first time because the world is a lot more expansive and diverse and exciting than you hear about in popular culture. I’m kind of interested in reading the sequels now!
And while I do sympathize with Gaheret’s point that Wrinkle in Time came out of the oven a little too early, I also think it’s fun enough that I’m willing to overlook it. Plus, tesseracts feature heavily in the story, and the math major brain in me loves that.
Given the different origins (current-day Japanese versus twentieth-century American), one would expect these stories’ otherworldly adventure to be quite different, but did you find similarities or parallels?
Jeskai: Our American isekai stories are journeys into the fantastical followed by a return home, whereas our Japanese isekai selections are about living in the new world because you can never go back. This connects to another major difference: the role of reincarnation in Japanese isekai. That’s a logical reflection of the relative prevalence of the idea of reincarnation in eastern vs. western religious thought, and probably a notable point of divergence not just for isekai but for eastern vs. western fantasy stories in general. As a point of similarity, I think that Wrinkle’s theme of nonconformity aligns with a lot of anime, which often challenge Japanese cultural norms and expectations of conformity. There’s the gameification of fantasy that we commonly see in Japanese isekai. Those elements are more prominent in Konosuba, but it’s representative of a vast array of stories. These video game elements are wholly absent from our American isekai, though that is to be expected considering that Oz and Wrinkle predate video games or Dungeons and Dragons by years.
Gaheret: I see a core similarly, which is the formative journey. In all four cases, the protagonists are learning or being educated about the world at large. How does a kid mature? Facing harsh realities, subtle complications, overwhelming evil, depth previously unseen, and the distance between their notions and reality. What do they do when they find out that this world is not all there is? There’s horror and uncertainty in that, and also joy, because (as Jeskai once pointed out) the world is not enough, and nevertheless, a longing for home.
Dorothy learns about heart, mind and courage, appearance, and truth. Rio acquires the abilities he needs and slowly develops human bonds when he was previously unable to. Kazuma develops his skills, gamer-style, receives the respect of others, and gets more girls on his team. Meg learns to deal with being different, with her family, with transcendence, with knowledge, with love. If all those worlds in space are wondrous and strange, won’t Earth be like that, too, under the surface?
Twwk: I do think these series also capture the values of their respective cultures. American know-how, gumption, pride, and intelligence are on display in the two books we read, and they guide the heroines on their journeys, even when facing unknown or otherworldly obstacles (time and time again) and antagonists that they shouldn’t be able to defeat. The girls are both some time from becoming adults, and perhaps it’s that childlike innocence that allows them to bear down on over-the-top situations without calculating the cost.
The young protagonists of the light novels may also have some of that naivete in them, but again, I think what stands out, particularly in relation to the American stories, is that they challenge other worlds with what they learned in their homeland. It’s interesting to see when villains are surprised that their efforts don’t work against the protagonist, like with Rio—but we aren’t surprised as an audience. Our values are seemingly different and give the protagonists the strength to endure and succeed in other worlds. Meanwhile, and this is seen again particularly in Seirei Gensouki (less so in Konosuba but frequently in other isekai), other characters admire the protagonists for qualities that Japanese (and Americans and others, too, for sure) value in their culture. And it leads them to change.
sleepminusminus: Like Jeskai said, the “going home” theme distinguishes the American and Japanese sides of the discussion. In fact, I think it also distinguishes the hopeful, optimistic tone of Oz and Wrinkle from the edgier tone of the Japanese novels. The American novels are progressing towards a final, happy ending, where the characters get “home” both in terms of their character arcs and their physical locations. And that colors the tone of the books. The characters are joyful and confident in hope; the settings are bright and colorful and captivating, and the relationships are richer.
The Japanese novels, on the other hand, come from a perspective where home is in the rearview mirror. First thing after he’s dropped into Axel, Kazuma hightails it to the Adventurer’s Guild after being thrown into the game world. No worries about his old life—just dealing with the hand he’s been dealt now, as hopeless and demeaning as it is. Similarly, Rio resigns himself to his fate in the Royal Academy and spends four years under the constant bullying and scrutiny of his classmates, barely complaining at all. “We’ve left home, and who knows if we’re ever going back, so let’s cope with the place we’ve been thrown into—that’s the mindset. And while there is hope, it’s definitely a little less bright.
How do the novels stack up to their respective audio-visual adaptations?
Jeskai: I think slapstick / comedy-heavy stories often benefit from the addition of audiovisual elements to help convey the humor, and Konosuba is no exception, which gives the anime an edge over the novel. I can laugh when I see silly stuff, but just reading the nonsense Kazuma gets up to and trying to imagine it leaves me feeling “This is stupid.”
For Oz, I’ve already noted what I consider the most significant difference: the “realism” of the novel versus the “all-just-a-dream-ism” of the movie. One point of overlap between the two surprised me, however: the movie’s famous transition from black-and-white to technicolor is a direct reflection of the novel’s emphasis on gray Kansas compared to colorful Oz. Oh, I also like that the novel’s Cowardly Lion was, you know, a real lion, and not a man in a silly suit. In the end, I feel like both the novel and the film have their merits, though I think I favor the book.
Gaheret: I’m afraid I have only seen Wizard, and Jeskai has already done a masterful comparison between the two works. I know, I’m behind on my isekai charter. Re:Zero is (occasionally) so good, though.
Twwk: Jeskai hit on major differences between the book and film for The Wizard of Oz, though in addition, the book travels much further and through more perils, I would say. And the film is certainly more personalized. The Scarecrow feels like a closer confidante in the movie; the same actors play Dorothy’s companions in Oz and in Kansas; and her uncle and aunt are shown with more loving-kindness. Judy Garland singing certainly also helps turn a fairy tale into more of a story, though I think she generally plays the part with the same gumption and innocence captured in the book.
I really enjoy the Seirei Gensouki anime. It’s nothing spectacular, but warm and lovely and engaging, much like the book. In fact, the series is a very close adaptation; it just doesn’t quite spark with the same level of energy and creativity the book does. It’s a little dull.
The Konosuba anime, on the other hand, isn’t dull at all. I referred to my issues with the opening fanservice-laden scene. I finally got past that only after reading volume one of the light novel and watching through the portion covered in that book. I don’t remember anything of particular note except that I felt Megumin shines in the anime and Darkness in animated form makes me more uncomfortable than written!
sleepminusminus: It doesn’t really count, but the 2013 movie Oz: The Great and Powerful gives backstory to the magician and how he ends up ruling over Oz. It wasn’t a great movie by any means (just read the bad reviews) but I liked how it added more depth to a character that kind of gets glossed over in the book.
Which I guess gets into a sort of criticism I had of The Wizard of Oz—the enemies/side characters are woefully undeveloped. It’s the only part of the world that doesn’t feel layered and lively. The Wicked Witch of the East literally just melts after Dorothy accidentally pours a bucket of water on her. The monkeys that chauffeured the party around are just that: chauffeurs. There’s no sense that they’re affected in any way by the events of the book other than being happy that the Wicked Witch is dead. Same thing for the mice earlier in the book. I mean, it’s probably just because Baum didn’t want to focus on the struggle of the main characters as much as the imaginative world he created for them. Still, it’s a little sad.
We mentioned The Chronicles of Narnia in the introduction to this article. It’s become quite popular in Japan, leading to more than one manga-style adaptation. Could you see either The Wizard of Oz or A Wrinkle in Time achieving popularity as a manga or anime adaptation? What changes could you see a mangaka or director making to adapt one or both these works to the Japanese medium?
Jeskai: I think that done properly (i.e., without taking undue license with the story), Wrinkle would make a better anime. It had deeper characters and a more tightly woven plot. However, for opposite reasons, I think Oz might be easier to adapt. The plot is meandering and episodic, and the characters receive relatively little development and are more open to interpretation.
Gaheret: I think a good anime adaptation could solve most of the issues with Wrinkle. Anime, after all, is good at creating diverse scenarios that feel thematically connected and reflect the feelings of the characters. I’m thinking of the worlds of Now and then, here and there, united by an industrial look and the sunset. The Camazotz dystopia could be memorable with an Evangelion or Akira touch (the brain, a little silly as is, could become horrifying). The bonds between worlds could be suggested using imagery and details. Instead of an Oz anime, though, I would like an Oz Ghibli movie, like a more joyous Howl meets Spirited Away.
Twwk: Can you imagine Oz done the same way Sinoalice does fairy tale characters or Sword Art Online plays with Alice in Wonderland? It could be a lot of fun to see a kickbutt Dorothy or a handsome warlock instead of a witch in an anime isekai setting.
sleepminusminus: Yeah, I’m kind of inclined to agree with you, Twwk. Anime adaptations of classic American stories usually just take the ideas of the original story and go crazy with them. Like BELLE, which just took the Beauty and the Beast motif and recast it in a bright and flashy VR world. In that sense, Wizard of Oz could become a really fun isekai show, with cool fight scenes and all.
I would love a Wrinkle in Time anime movie, though, if only because the scenes from Uriel would make for some wonderful wallpaper material.
Given the whimsical nature of Konosuba and Oz and the more serious tone of Seirei and Wrinkle in Time, what are some similarities/differences between Konosuba‘s comedy and Oz’s comedy, as well as Seirei‘s vs. Wrinkle in Time‘s tone?
Jeskai: Konosuba’s comedy is satirical, making fun of its own genre (isekai tropes, worlds that run on video game logic, etc.). I didn’t get the sense that Oz was making fun of anything in particular; its humor is of a gentler, more whimsical variety that arises naturally out of a child finding themselves in a strange and magical land.
Tonally, Wrinkle is lighter and more optimistic than Seirei. The forces of good feel more powerful and effective in Wrinkle, partly thanks to the three pronoun witches, but also thanks to the way Meg is able to challenge the monstrous IT 1v1 and triumph. The Murry family also provides a sort of grounding for goodness. On the other hand, evil feels more ascendant in Seirei, and the forces of good seem less numerous and weaker; this is reflected in the destruction of Haruto/Rio’s family in both his lives, depriving him of that most basic need and good, parental love.
Gaheret: Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison, but Oz and Wrinkle are just so much better. In Oz, the world as a whole is fun. There are good jokes, too, but the very concept of Dorothy being a savior because her house landed on top of the witch is inventive and funny. A name like the Munchkins or a concept like a talking cowardly lion are great nonsense comedy. Similarly, for all the dead bodies and cynicism present in Seirei, its darkest element is actually Rio/Haruto. Wrinkle knows this, and thus, Charles Wallace being possessed is the stuff of nightmares, and the Shadow around Earth feels really threatening. Plus, Meg isn’t a twelve-year-old martial artist with secret spiritual powers who may decapitate a minotaur.
Twwk: Like Gaheret, I really enjoyed the humor in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I was surprised at how creative it felt even all these years after it was written. I’d always assumed that Oz wasn’t a classic because of its literary merit but for being the right story at the right time in American history and then again in cinema, but I was wrong. It’s a great fairy tale and a lovely story, one that was quite funny in both the goings-on and the humor exchanges between characters.
Konosuba, on the other hand, is willing to go to places that a children’s book wouldn’t. Still, there’s that same sense of naivete punctuating much of the humor. Aqua is so ridiculous, Darkness wants adult things but acts shy, and Megumin is a child. So there’s some comparison to be made to Oz and its gentler humor.
If that’s a stretch, I find it even harder to see the tones between Seirei Gensouki and A Wrinkle in Time matching other than both having a relative seriousness to them.
sleepminusminus: Both Wizard of Oz and Konosuba are comedic in that sense that Gaheret mentioned, while Seirei and Wrinkle are more dramatic because of their developing character arcs and story progression. The differences in comedy/drama come from something I brought up earlier—the idea of finding “home.” Dorothy and Meg return home at the end of the tale while Rio and Kazuma won’t ever return. So there are some jokes in Wizard of Oz, but they’re more whimsical than those in Konosuba, like Gaheret mentioned. They come from hope rather than from despair. And it’s similar for Seirei and Wrinkle.
(Also, Jeskai mentioned Rio losing both sets of parents, which relates him to Meg in terms of his bitterness towards the world. Of course, it’s not entirely the same. Meg does get her dad back while Rio doesn’t. And Rio acts with more sustained anger towards the world, while Meg still wants to believe in hope and love. But it’s fascinating how their initial emotional situations are similar in many ways.)
What do you think about the relationship between the fantastical scenarios and their realistic counterparts in these stories, considering the life the characters live?
Jeskai: Oz, Konosuba, and Seirei all feature a stark divide between the “real” and “fantasy” parts of the story. The latter two are entirely different worlds and lives, while Oz is just represented as geographically distant, but in all three cases, there’s clear delineation between our world and the fantasy realms. Meanwhile, Wrinkle blurs the line. The fantastical (angelic) witches first infiltrate our world before whisking the cast off to fantasy worlds. The divide between reality and fantasy is further blurred by references to things firmly grounded in our world (the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, etc.), communicating that the line between worlds is permeable enough that words and ideas from our world are relevant even in more fantastical locales.
Gaheret: I like how everything is so full of contrasts. Haruto was a student among thousands without a clear aim, failing to live a standard modern Japanese life. Dorothy lived among gray fields and serious people in Kansas. Kazuma, according to the goddess, was a laughingstock. And Meg felt trapped in her circumstances, being the weird one in a too-normal world. Everything is inverted on the other side.
Twwk: While Kazuma humorously falls into and adjusts to his new world and Dorothy navigates hers to return home, Meg’s journey has more character-developing implications. Her journey through space and dimensions is aligned with the personal journey of self-worth she’s traveling. The fantastic on the outside, in a sense, mirrors the fantastic within that we might not see, but which shakes up our own universes when we are similarly transformed. It’s an even more compelling individual journey, at least at this point, than Rio’s, which feels more like a continuation of what he started in his past life.
sleepminusminus: With Wizard of Oz, I found it fascinating that Kansas and the land of Oz are technically in the same world; they’re just inaccessible to each other because of the Impassible Desert. The gray, boring everyday world is just across the street from the magical, colorful world of Oz. It’s just that we’re not in Dorothy’s slippers to see it. And that’s part of the point of Wizard of Oz—reclaiming that childhood imagination and sense of wonder at a world that’s bigger and more beautiful than us, rather than letting us be closed off from that world by a desert of monotony and apathy.
How do you think the foreshadowing compares between the four stories?
Jeskai: Did Konosuba have foreshadowing? It was just one contrived situation after another, right? I’d say Oz went light on foreshadowing, sticking to an episodic narrative where almost any particular incident could be removed without seriously messing up any foreshadowing. Seirei had a fair amount of foreshadowing, but like many light novels, I know I didn’t pick up a lot of it the first time I read the series. Reading it now, with knowledge of later volumes, I could tell there was quite a bit of foreshadowing for future events. To me, Wrinkle had the most balanced (is that the best word?) foreshadowing. That is, events were foreshadowed and I recognized the foreshadowing as such.
Gaheret: Well, I find a logical progression in Oz, and I don’t think the order is random. I think that the feeling sleepminusminus just talked about is intentionally evoked, and prepared in advance. Kansas prepares Oz, the first evil Witch foreshadows the second, the same thing happens with the good Witches, the first meeting with Oz makes the second one all the more surprising, and so on. Contrasts and inversions keep the sense of surprise. Konosuba egregiously makes things up, like suddenly describing a lot of connections on the spot to make the headless general threatening random adventurers feel impactful. And Rio’s story had some missteps. Events are for the most part properly foreshadowed, and I feel that the story is going somewhere (suspicions now confirmed!), but the spiritual powers/magic distinction, and the fact that Rio can project wind due to the latter, if not the former, should not have been placed in the middle of the scene in which he falls down a cliff. Lastly, I fully agree about Wrinkle. That’s good writing work.
What do you think about the mystical or religious elements in these stories?
Jeskai: Konosuba‘s biting satire pretty well negates any sense of wonder or mysticism for me. Oz has the sense of wonder of a fairy tale, albeit skewing more toward the humorous end of the spectrum. It offers a world that is magical and governed by unfamiliar or mysterious rules, but is still a little too silly to really evoke all that much of a mystical nature. Seirei features the sort of demystified magic that borders on science. However, there are indications that there is more of a mystical nature in the setting than just the academic magic we mostly see in the first volume, which lets it feel noticeably more wondrous than Konosuba where everything is a joke.
Wrinkle has a surprisingly Christian flavor that brings to mind C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, which likewise does sci-fi/fantasy in an openly Christian context. With a number of explicit quotations or references to the Bible, plus a strong implication that the Mrs Pronouns are angelic beings, the fantasy elements are really interwoven with the Christian parts. I don’t recall picking up on how overtly Christian it is when I read the story as a kid. Anyway, Wrinkle encourages us to remember that even in our seemingly prosaic world, there are greater forces at work than we can see.
Gaheret: So you thought of the Space Trilogy too! I actually find this aspect of Wrinkle to be a little weak. I have my problems with Space, too, but at least the spiritual elements were clearer. A centaur who was a star who also seems to be an angel who quotes long passages of the Bible seems a little bit convoluted to me. Plus, unlike Lewis, who refers to Christ as “Maleldil”, a majestic figure known in all worlds, Wrinkle puts him in parallel with… Leonardo Da Vinci. Nothing against Da Vinci, but I’d have preferred something either clearer or more subtle.
Tolkien once noted how the fairytale, in itself, is a very Christological narrative. Providence aids the hero or heroine. The connection between man and Nature is restored in part, then threatened. The fight between good and evil depends on some mysterious condition. The individual soul is important for the deep powers of the Cosmos. There is a “good catastrophe”, a revolutionary miracle that brings the happy ending. I find much of that in Oz, up until Dorothy sees her usually emotionless aunt and uncle running toward her.
I find it interesting that Rio considers himself an atheist due to the death of his mother, rejecting “the Wise”, the gods. Especially given that Haruto happens to abhor violence. And in Konosuba, the guild-style gods and goddesses, the help of the priest, who helps the heroine in the belief that she’s a devout follower, and the Lich who graciously leads the deceased to the afterlife (jab at one of the guild churches included) were some of the most interesting elements.
Twwk: I’d long wanted to read A Wrinkle in Time because I knew about the Christian elements. I’d also read about Madeleine L’Engle’s intentionality in speaking about her faith, and also how it might differ in key aspects from the beliefs we share here on the site. And you can perhaps see some of those differences in how she equates faith somewhat to other figures that might be considered “spiritual” in their greatness and impact. Still, it’s wonderful to read about Christ and scripture woven into the fabric of a series that shows a picture of how the very universe works.
I think it’s really difficult to develop an enticing work that expresses a worshipful posture and a Christian view of the universe and still makes it widely appealing to Christians and non-Christians. A Wrinkle in Time comes close, though from what I’ve read, the recent film adaptation removed many of these elements. So maybe Hollywood (and specifically Oprah Winfrey) didn’t think it successfully did so.
sleepminusminus: It’s funny—as you mentioned, Twwk, what stood out to me most about Wrinkle in Time was the way that she places Christ and other spiritual figures on the same level as forces fighting the dark powers of this world. It’s a comparison that made me cringe a little when I was reading the book.
Actually, I don’t think Protestant authors in general have done a great job of creating a literary imagination. We have authors like Lewis who create worlds that allegorize the moral vision of the faith but falter when it comes to subtlety or worldbuilding. And then we have authors like L’Engle here who bathe their stories in a vaguely Christian aura but don’t quite stick to orthodox beliefs. Catholic and Orthodox writers (e.g., Tolkien, Chesterton, Dostoevsky) have a better track record when it comes to applying Christianity to imagination, and that’s something Protestants can definitely learn from.
And with that, here we are back in Kansas, safe and sound. We hope you enjoyed our discussion! We invite you to participate as well. Feel free to add to it by either answering any of our questions above or proposing new ones!