How to Spot a Good “Isekai” Story

How to Spot a Good “Isekai” Story

There’s normally two reactions when you bring up the word “Isekai.” The first one is, “Isekai? What’s that?” and the second one is “Isekai? OH FUCK NO NOT ANOTHER ONE, IM OUT, BYE.” Both are very reasonable. So for the uninitiated in the culture of retarded weebdom, I’ll explain what isekai is. The word literally translates to “Another World” and the Isekai genre is associated with stories that revolve around a person or group of people being warped for whatever reason the author thought up on the toilet at any given time to another world. Now that I’ve explained it, I’m sure many of you have an idea of one story or another that fits the premise, let alone one you’ve just read. The reason being is that the Isekai genre is grossly over-bloated with mediocre stories that anime production companies for some reason think is a good idea to mass-produce anime adaptations of. I’m not talking the occasional copycat, every season has at least two isekai anime now, each production hoping that maybe this one will rake in the ridiculous dough that Sword Art Online did. In this flood of stories ranging from mediocre to god-awful, there are some isekai that gain attention just for not being designed by a board room of planks of wood. But that isn’t what I’m going to be talking about today. Today, I’m gonna be talking about how to spot a good isekai story.

Now much like spotting a good story in general, good isekai have common themes with each other. The only difference is that many isekai get glowing praise just because their story isn’t as abominable as run of the mill ones. The problem is that, although you end up enjoying the better plot, it can still be seen as somewhat lacking. For instance, it’s no doubt that Re:Zero last year swept everyone off their feet as being a very dramatic and smartly written take on the generic isekai format. Same with KonoSuba on the flip side, bringing a great deal of comedy from the same setup. But now that the hype for both shows have died down and there’s room to breathe, it’s a lot easier to spot the problems that both have. Both shows work a hell of a lot better when it’s not actually trying to parody the genre at all. Re:Zero works great because it isn’t afraid to cast its protagonist in an extremely negative light, and KonoSuba works when they’re just being dicks to each other. Once the actual parodies of the genre come back in, the appeal starts to weaken. Re:Zero’s parodying comes off less as funny and more as just obnoxiously obvious while KonoSuba’s parodying just isn’t that funny at all. These series both work because of their smart writing and careful planning, and are great shows because of it. But if we’re splitting hairs here, Re:Zero and KonoSuba still fall under “mediocre” when it comes to isekai. The world that Subaru and Kazuma inhabit isn’t very original and not interesting. That isn’t really the point of the shows, but it’s supposed to be part of the charm for an isekai to have interesting locales and designs.

So now that I’ve concluded being a bitch, let’s move onto the topic of the article. How DO you know whether an Isekai you just found by random is good or not? Well I think one of the minor things to get out of the way is that the story must sell you on its world. Great characters are nice, but ultimately a boring setting will stick out. Therefore about 75% of isekai immediately fail in this regard because authors play it safe and pull from existing mythology from all corners of the globe. Stuff like Elves and Goblins running around don’t really get gold stars for ingenuity in the creation department. This doesn’t automatically make the story bad, it just becomes something painfully standard. It sort of helps to draw from existing mythology, because that way it spends less time on lore explanation and more time on developing plot and characters. Unfortunately most of the time, these inspirations are drawn simply because it’s much easier to copypasta than to create entire new data and lore. This has made it incredibly difficult to find an isekai that actually has a cool setting, and I can’t even really recommend one.

Now that I’ve wasted a paragraph talking in circles, let’s move onto the second topic of plot. This is where things inherently get trickier, as again, most plots heralded as masterpieces of the genre are actually just noticeable because they aren’t actual dirt. A lot of isekai fall into the same trap that trick-premise manga fall into. They have a great premise and a decent twist at the beginning, yet fail to hold interest as the story goes on. But why is that? I can only think this is so because authors might bank so much on an interesting premise that they don’t realize the idea won’t work for a whole series. A guy goes into another world with his smartphone, great, app and high-technology hijinks ensue, nothing comes of it. A guy goes into another world and is absurdly overpowered, great, overly-exploding enemies and misunderstanding hijinks ensue, very little happens. A guy is transported to another world to become a barrister for a new legal system, great, at best some interesting turnabouts happen. None of these ideas are fashioned to last a long time, and this is why isekai with even decent premises are shot down so quickly. Good isekai have a premise and stick to it while rolling in new aspects of the story. Much like with any great plots, you can get someone to read with a premise, but you have to make them stay for the story. Stuff like Dungeon Seeker and Re:Monster (not technically an isekai, but roll with me on this one) have decent premises but immediately butcher the interest factor by only a few chapters in just because it feels like the author has no idea what to do with the characters after the initial pitch.

This is where the final and most important aspect comes into grading isekai. Characterization. Now let’s mention a highly controversial anime to prove my point like any good critic would (/s). Sword Art Online had both interesting locales and a premise that managed to not only carry through at least its first arc, but also threw in the concepts of reality vs. virtual reality and the idea that many people don’t even want to return to the real world. But SAO fell apart because it didn’t have the characters to carry the gigantic weight of those types of stories. This is the tougher part of picking out good isekai simply because characterization is the hardest of all plot attributes to nail and nail well. I could go on for about 4 hours on the proper way to characterize, organize subplots, and bring together clashing characters for even better dramatic development, but in the interest of both time and saving that for another article maybe, I’ll narrow it down to the most important factor in making a good character. How does the character struggle? What does the protagonist have to do to progress, and what amount of struggle do they put up? This can’t be something light or insignificant. Is the protagonist literally scraping by just to survive? If they are, then congratulations, you just found yourself a good isekai. Now they don’t have to be constantly at death’s door to generate interest, but it certainly helps for them to knock on the frame a couple times. The reason for this is it generates our innate desire to see someone really struggling to succeed, a la the underdog except with a lot more death involved and no one to surpass. It’s a situation in which with each passing battle or grasp for survival, the connection and enjoyment the audience has is multiplied. Emotions become more and more synced with the protagonists, and it begins to feel like every chapter is an adventure in its own, almost like how an isekai is supposed to make you feel.

So here comes the part where I finally recommend stories that succeed in these categories. I’m sure there are a lot more out there, but two I want to mention are ones that haven’t even gotten anime adaptations. One is Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari (“The Rise of the Shield Hero”) and the other is Kumo desu ga, Nani ka? (“I’m a Spider, What of it?”). Nariagari sports a sort of generic world, yet manages to create its own lore to fit the plights of the protagonist Naofumi. It manages to maintain a good plot and drama past its initial premise of Naofumi being blackballed for a crime he didn’t commit and becoming apathetic and hostile as a result. But most importantly, the plot is careful not to coddle him too much by letting him wallow in his own misery, as he is slowly being encouraged to become more patient and being the better man to save the world. With Kumo desu ga, the entire world that the protagonist Kumoko inhabits is the largest dungeon in that world, something she doesn’t even learn until about 5 or so chapters in. The reason she’s unknowledgeable is because the premise is she’s been reborn as a mob spider, a pathetically weak creature. Part of the humor is her weakness, but she does become stronger, increasingly accepting that this is just reality, and that feeds into a plot twist I won’t spoil but is damn near perfectly executed. But again, most importantly, she is constantly trialed and tested to think faster, be better, and use her limited powers to overcome whatever the labyrinth throws at her. Even after 40 or so chapters (if you count the weird numbering system the chapters have) she’s still challenged considerably. Both these stories are exemplary in not only plot progression and style, but how it takes the isekai genre and actually crafts a story that can only be in this genre.

Isekai is interesting to analyze because we have the rare opportunity to watch the true birth of a genre. Sure transportations to other worlds have been done for decades and even centuries, but it truly feels like now is the time that it becomes something that defines what people look for. We’re still in this awkward phase of having too many to let the true beauties shine, and although we still get shit like guys being reincarnated as a fucking hot spring, it’s an interesting chance to see a genre at its infancy shape into something more enjoyable. You still gotta weed through most of the dreg, but there are some goodies to find if you pay attention to the qualities I’ve listed in this article.

So with all this stated, do you have any Isekai you’ve discovered that fit the bill? Let me know in the comments, like this article, and thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on “How to Spot a Good “Isekai” Story

  1. I’m currently reading the second book of The Rise of the Shield Hero, and I’m so far really enjoying it. Though, I kind of want a bit more from the setting because while the character carried the first book, the setting itself has seemed pretty dull so far. Still, I am really caught up in the story at this point so will happily keep reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You more or less recommended the two “isekai” stories that are my favourites. Overall I agree with your point, and there’s too many mediocre “isekai” stories which are more or less an “OP-protag and his harem”, which saddens me since I would love if they actually did something more with them.
    One that comes to mind is “Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash” that I would place in a similar area as TnYnN and Kumo. I have a couple of more isekai-stories I do enjoy, but those are more guilty pleasures, not really the kind to be called “good” isekai-stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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