What I mean to say is, I liked Kemurikusa.
Okay, yes, the title is filthy, shameless clickbait. But hey, this post is late and I need to attract as many eyeballs as I can. And it turns out I actually do want to talk about ‘isekai’ anime — the ‘other world’ fantasies like, say, Sword Art Online — so if you came here for that you’re in the right place. If you’re here for Kemurikusa, you’re in the right place, too! You’re saying Kemurikusa isn’t an isekai show? Well, yes and no.
So let’s say you want to write a fantasy story. You’ve got this brilliant fantasy world fully designed. You’re just itching to tell your audience all about it. But you don’t want to just dump all that information on them. It’d be better to mix the exposition into the dialogue, but two residents of a world telling each other things they already know just for the sake of the audience would sound awkward and unnatural. So what do you do? Obviously, smart writer that you are, you invent a character who is unfamiliar with the world so other characters have an excuse to explain things. Now your audience will be able to learn alongside your clueless character! You’ll see this dynamic everywhere from swords-and-sorcery fantasy like The Hobbit, where the titular hobbit is forced out of his hole to go on an adventure in lands he had never seen, to the urban fantasy like Harry Potter where somebody thought it was a good idea to hide him from all things magical even though he’s supposed to be a super important magical person of super importantness. The isekai genre, such as we may call it, is simply an extension of this. Let’s not just stop at inventing a character unfamiliar with the fantasy world, let’s make that character actually from our world. Then the audience can experience the fantasy just like that character! Perfect!
It really was a great idea. Up until it began to ruin everything.
See, there’s two ways to think about writing fantasy. Is it a story about a world? Or a story simply set in a world? In the former, the story facilitates an exploration of a fantasy world, and the audience are also tourists, soaking in the exotic nature of the setting. In the latter, the setting facilitates the story, and its details don’t matter so long as it can drive the adventure or develop a character or embody some theme. It’s the difference between C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. For C.S. Lewis, Narnia was entirely allegorical, whereas Tolkien rejected allegory; he was inventing a language and it needed to belong to a world, hence Middle Earth. Neither kind of story is innately superior and it’s not really about choosing one extreme over the other. I would argue, though, that starting with a fully fleshed-out world, like Middle Earth, is decidedly more difficult and certainly less common. Take any given episode of Star Trek. For any given episode the planet the Enterprise visited was just there to facilitate whatever hijinks the crew need to get into. Or take Harry Potter again. Consider how comfortably Rowling invented some new feature of her world to facilitate whatever story she wanted tell and then promptly discards it when it’s no longer necessary (I’m looking at you, Time Turners). It’s simply easier to write that way, and in terms of effort:reward I’m sure the billionaire Rowling would highly recommend it.
No guesses as to which method anime prefers.
Now, there are perfectly good isekai anime. I’m not here to tell you that they’re all rubbish and you’re not allowed to enjoy them. But realistically, there’s limited market share and the glut of isekai anime we have today crowd out other fantasy. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, many of these isekai light novel adaptations have a lot lazy world building. As they would, because for them the world is, again, not actually that important. It’s beyond the world facilitating the story for many of these anime; it’s about the world facilitating a character. For many isekai anime, it’s about the story of the protagonist first and foremost, focusing on the everyman character transported from our world to become protagonist of their very own fantasy epic. Unsurprisingly, many of these isekai anime tend to be power fantasies, with the world there to facilitate their heroics. In the worst cases they fall back on fantasy clichés to short-cut the world building process, and it’s even been infecting other genres. Take Goblin Slayer, for example, which is tongue-in-cheek about fantasy clichés but that doesn’t stop it from using them shamelessly.
The art of meticulous world building is dying, is what I’m saying.
World-mysteries, the pinnacle of narratives based on world-building, are increasingly rare these days, even though treats like Made in Abyss show their power and potential. I didn’t think it’d be this way, what with the excess of isekai anime out there. The isekai genre should be perfect for world mysteries; what better way to explore the fascination and bewilderment of an unknown world than with a character from a mundane one? Log Horizon certainly made hay with it. This is why I’m so heartened to watch a show like Kemurikusa. I consider Kemurikusa to be an isekai anime, or at least have that sort of dynamic; a protagonist with memory loss (through clone reincarnation something or other) with the only thing he’s sure about being that he’s human fits the trappings of an isekai protagonist snugly. But Kemurikusa is a world mystery. And its world is not there just to facilitate the protagonist. Rather, the protagonist facilitates the world. He’s deliberately designed with equal measure of naivete and curiosity that makes his setting, for him, both fascinating and dangerous. And the storytelling values world building. You know how so many fantasy stories dump all this exposition on you, all at once, seemingly in such a hurry to give up all the details of their setting? That’s because they are in a hurry; since their world is just there to facilitate adventure and drama they want to get the establishment out of the way as quickly as possible to get to the meat of their story. But Kemurikusa was in no hurry. Its world was the drama, the mystery, and the central conflict. It made us want to learn about the world, which is what made the journey through it so engaging.
Kemurikusa was obviously not a particularly high-budget show and may not have been on many anime viewers’ radars. But I wonder if it was this lack of budget that forced it to rely on good storytelling to appeal to its audience. I think the anime industry can learn from this. Making anime is very expensive, and the industry is always struggling for viability. I love big budgets and flashy animation as much as the next fan. But at the heart of work should be a good story, and if you tell it well you can do a lot with very little.