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Miscellaneous Whimsey – Kemurikusa, and how isekai ruined fantasy


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.

March 31, 2019 at 10:10 am
30 comments »
  • March 31, 2019 at 11:15 amAngelus

    Tolkien rejected allegory

    Of course Tolkien didn’t reject allegory. He certainly disliked it, but his letters show that he also grudgingly accepted that sometimes it was necessary. Is his short story Leaf by Niggle really about painting? No, it’s an allegory of the afterlife. And although Middle Earth itself could be regarded as exercise in philology that got a bit out of hand, The Lord of the Rings is by Tolkien’s own admission “an allegory of Power” and of religion.

    As for world-mysteries, though, surprised you didn’t mention Sora no Woto as that would have been my stand-out example.

    • March 31, 2019 at 6:41 pmPasserby

      Sora no Woto was great, but it was also from an earlier time before the current anime landscape.

      As for Tolkien, I’m sure you know the quote, but I’ll post it here for the benefit of the discussion:

      “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

      Of course, Tolkien also recognised that allegory was often largely unavoidable. How does an author avoid injecting their own interpretation of the themes and symbols they use in their story? They can’t and they shouldn’t. I think the key thing to focus on is that Tolkien most dislikes the ‘domination of the author’. Certainly, The Lord of the Rings has to be allegorical in some fashion; he was writing a mythology, after all, and a mythology has to relate to culture, nature, and spirituality. But Middle Earth was not an allegorical setting; it was the organic product of a mythology, no matter what that mythology may mean to the author or the reader.

      When Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory ‘…of Power’ he was correcting the notion that it was ‘an allegory of Atomic power…’ [emphasis mine]. He accepted that his stories had to embody some greater theme, because that’s basically what stories do. But he rejected the notion that stories should about one specific thing, like the world wars or atomic power. That would be the author dictating meaning to their readers, and hamstrings a story.

  • March 31, 2019 at 12:14 pmZen

    This is one of those situations where it’s actually possible to have your cake and eat it, assuming you’re skilled enough as a writer (and perhaps masochistic/*ahem*industrious enough to go to the trouble). It’s by no means a zero sum game. I don’t see why one couldn’t “organically” couch a a complex character drama, wherein the narrative is primarily driven by the motivations and actions of individual characters, within the setting of an intricate, interesting, internally consistent fantasy/sci-fi universe. Such that the world and the characters are complementary, instead of either subserviently “facilitating” the other.

    • March 31, 2019 at 6:13 pmPasserby

      Absolutely. Optimally, character, plot, and setting should be symbiotic, and even if not i’m not saying that facilitation necessarily has to be done at the expense of the facilitator. For example, curiosity about the world can be a perfectly legitimate and important part of a character even if it’s also transparently a tool of the writer.

      The problem with trying to do everything, though, is that there’s often simply not enough time, especially in anime. The modern 12 episode standard simply is not a lot and often something ends up being sacrificed, intentionally or not.

      • April 2, 2019 at 10:06 pmtheirs

        Maybe the episode count compounded the problem. I don’t remember Rayearth having that problem. Even if they did get an info dump at the start (Clef was it? That Mr. info dump).

  • March 31, 2019 at 1:10 pmMistic

    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!

    This hits close to home. When I write about fictional worlds, I face the same problem.

    I think it’s not just a problem for worldbuilding, but also character building: there is a reason so many protagonists fit certain archetypes (the naive newcomer, the everyday man, the generic nice person, the ordinary high-schooler). From a viewer’s perspective, they tend to be repetitive and boring. But from a writing perspective, they’re walking plot devices that help a lot to introduce the plot and the setting.

    Not unlike having a perfectly crafted world before writing (and let’s be honest here, not even Tolkien can claim that feat) is more difficult that creating new things as the plot demands, it’s also more difficult to tell a story from the point of view of an experienced character in their own world.

    • March 31, 2019 at 6:01 pmPasserby

      I think this is why most stories will prioritise plot first or world first, but much less commonly character first. More often characters are called on to be workhorses, and it’s also harder to make the audience warm up to essentially strangers than an exciting plot or world.

    • March 31, 2019 at 10:52 pmStilts

      Amen brudda. Writing from the point of view of an experienced character, without the benefit of the classic fish-out-of-water pov, is hella hard. It’s hard in books, where you can cheat with descriptive text and narration; it’s even harder in manga or anime, where many or all of these techniques are shorn from you.

      • April 1, 2019 at 1:32 pmMistic

        Yep. I feel that a common solution is to have a non-experienced character alongside the experienced one. A sidekick and a hero, a newcomer and a veteran, a Watson and a Holmes. But even then it’s just another cop-out to avoid focusing the entire narration on the experienced character.

  • March 31, 2019 at 3:29 pmdanny

    I really enjoyed Kemurikusa. The beginning was a bit slow so I almost passed but I’m glad I kept at it and plan to rewatch.

    A thought I have about it is how it also challenges the harem trope in addition to the isekai: one mild-mannered, dispassionate young guy surrounded by a variety of girls, each of whom fills some sort of fragment of a persona and exploring those relationships with each. … That’s as much as I can say. It has a neat twist and for a non-romantic show, there is a nice sense of relationship by the end. I don’t mean a burning, romantic relationship but “relationship” as the valuing of another person and the shared history between them.

    • March 31, 2019 at 5:48 pmPasserby

      I think that Kemurikusa wasn’t actually a romance definitely helped. A proper harem anime often expends as much time teasing a relationship as on any actual relationship. Kemurikusa obviously didn’t feel obligated to do that.

  • March 31, 2019 at 3:40 pmPanino Manino

    Anime is so saturated with Isekai that people are seeing Isekai where there isn’t any.
    I can’t agree with this argument, at all, that Kemurikusa is Isekai.
    Wakaba is part of that world.
    He is just an amnesic hero. Having no memory automatically turns the story into Isekai? I say no.

    Kemurikusa’s world may be mysterious, but this was more a “road trip” than anything else, some could say.

    • March 31, 2019 at 5:31 pmPasserby

      It’s the storytelling dynamic that is important. Consider this: would the story have made sense if it was revealed that Wakaba was human and the Ri-s were alien instead of the other way around? Of course not. While on the ship the Ri-s were native and Wakaba was foreign, and that dictates their interactions with the world and each other.

      (In any case, Wakaba was not an amnesiac. He lost his memory because he went and died.)

  • March 31, 2019 at 5:43 pmNamaewoinai

    I’ll gonna make a little fanfare for this:

    Japanese Audience: TATSUKI WILL OUTPERFORMED MIYAZAKI!!!
    ME: Hey STFU PUNKS he is just another impressive yet trying hard individual…Period!

    Yeah…The show is really impressive and the director here also is impressive but not appealing. Hell, The Director of this show is much more appealing than this one!!

    And Isekai (Outworld)…this one?…I think NOT!!

  • March 31, 2019 at 8:20 pmsealouse

    So can i actually talk about Kemurikusa and it’s story? it all took place on a ship that was on Earth the whole time and there was a lone human using Kemurikusa to construct some kind of museum and there was a reincarnated human girl that wanted him to stop working so much so she created an evil Kemurikusa that destroys everything and then splits herself into multiple girls to save the original Wakaba. Later a reincarnated Wakaba joins those girls and long story short defeats the evil Kemurikusa and in the process of doing so discovers a hole in the ship and they eventually all leave.

  • March 31, 2019 at 8:55 pmArche

    I think saying isekai is about the world itself as opposed to how the main character is introduced is slippery logic. Right now when you say “isekai” to an anime fan they’ll assume it has to do with someone being reincarnated or magically teleported. If we identify it as being about a world that isn’t ours than the term becomes misused in the place of saying a series is fantasy or sci-fi

    • April 1, 2019 at 12:55 amPasserby

      I’m not saying that; I’m saying fantasy in general should be about the world itself. Isekai is about the dynamic between the protagonist from a familiar world in a world that is unfamiliar.

      But do people really define isekai by the method of transportation? This is usually a detail that is relevant exactly once in the story. The fact that reincarnation and magical teleportation both count as isekai seems to me to show that it’s not something people care about much at all.

      • April 1, 2019 at 2:19 amArche

        I misinterpreted the article then. That’s my bad. I’ll give it another read when it’s not so late.

        Although I didn’t mean to imply that how the protagonist gets to the other world is what makes an isekai. Rather the method of transportation tends to go hand-in-hand with an isekai series’ synopsis

  • April 1, 2019 at 8:21 amExukvera

    The Isekai genre always existed.
    https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/the-list/2017-08-19/.120298

    The problem is that it became too formulaic:
    * Guy is transported/reincarnated/revived into fantasy world.
    * Guy becomes OP thanks to a special power he obtained or the knowledge/abilities he already had when he lived on Earth.
    * Guy wins the heart of many hot chicks and becomes everybody’s hero.
    * Nothing else to see here, THE END

    On a second note. This show also proved how the greed of the guys who took Kemono Friends from the original team’s hands turned back at them.

    • April 1, 2019 at 9:37 ammac65

      Yeah, this is my critical opinion, too. I’d even go as far as to say it
      pre-dates Anime by decades: Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, etc.

      I know I have a liberal definition, but I think they all fit. What Anmie
      has done is amplify that genre to a very specific aspect of fantasy story
      telling, OP and harem gathering being the two top focus points. Most are
      adapted with that unique gentile cuteness that only the Japanese can do.

      I wouldn’t say isekai ruined fantasy; it’s just a template for a protagonist
      to act out his/her story. You can easily remove the whole “transplanted to
      a new world” part of the story and the story should stand on it’s own, if
      there’s a decent story behind the isekai.

      • April 1, 2019 at 4:40 pmPasserby

        I went out of my way to mention Narnia in the post.

        My hyperbolic clickbait title aside, I’m not saying that isekai anime necessarily have to ruin fantasy. It’s just that the formula they tend to follow leads to a lot of lazy worldbuilding that comes to dominate the fantasy genre.

    • April 1, 2019 at 11:35 amLyfe

      None of those points really apply to KonoSuba as of the end of Season 2. Kazuma is useless, he doesn’t have the girl, he doesn’t have that heroic quality either.

      • April 1, 2019 at 12:29 pmmac65

        Yeah, but isn’t that the parody of it?
        I mean, he selects a GOD as his weapon, and it
        turns out to be a complete hilarious cluster-$#%k, amiright?

        So, (almost) everything about the genre is “backwards” in
        KonoSuba.

        Nothing’s perfect, but I stand by my point; KonoSuba is
        a comedic isekai and (first season) did it quite well
        (2nd season was a tad weaker, but funny).

      • April 1, 2019 at 3:05 pmLyfe

        You are absolutely right. Everyone is a trainwreck in the series and thats part of the comedy of it. Its probably the least serious Isekai series out there and I was somewhat nitpicking jokingly by mentioning it in response.

  • April 1, 2019 at 4:39 pmDavid

    Saying that isekai is ruining anime is like saying that moe ruined anime. Some people just have some unreasonable hatred for the very concept being mentioned, and engage in a crusade to disparage anyone who likes it.

    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?

    What’s really interesting is what happens when they don’t. In particular, look at Shield Hero this season. Every major complaint about the show (other than the animation) devolved to people complaining that the show didn’t give you an exposition dump on any new problem that showed up. If something bad happened, or some aspect of the world didn’t make sense, and wasn’t immediately explained, it seemed to mean that the show was horrible. Or more generally, people aren’t interested in waiting for an explanation. If there’s no immediate gratification, it’s ‘bad’ storytelling.

    And I think this feeds back into why people prefer isekai to traditional fantasy. In traditional fantasy, it takes time to explore the world, and there will inevitably be questions for which there are no answers for quite some time. Isekai is less about exploring the world as a whole, and more about exploring the world directly in front of the protagonist. That means answers are usually quick and easy. Isekai is junk food storytelling because it (usually) caters to those wanting instant gratification.

    And this trend is something easily seen as correlating to modern technology and applications. Immediate feedback and instant gratification. The longer something takes, the worse it is.

    Thus I’d posit that the rise of isekai is not the cause of the fall of fantasy, but merely correlated with it. The same things that made fantasy less desirable made isekai more desirable.

    • April 1, 2019 at 5:27 pmPasserby

      Compare, perhaps, Kemurikusa and Shield Hero. Kemurikusa doesn’t explain things quickly. But it’s also transparently about the world and the main engagement is the mystery of it. On the other hand, Shield Hero is more protagonist-centric (consider the title). I can only guess at the views of the critics you cite, but perhaps when Kemurikusa hides things from the audience we accept that because the world-mystery is what we’re there for, whereas when Shield Hero hides something if it’s done for the sake of drama it feels like a cheat.

  • April 1, 2019 at 5:23 pmWanderer

    You know, a long time ago, before series with a character being transported to another world started being labled Isekai, the concept made for some fascinating stories. Take The Twelve Kingdoms, which I consider to be among the best anime ever made. This wa a series that didn’t just explore a character, or just explore a world, but rather did both.

    And that’s hardly the only example. Before “isekai” became a template that anyone and everyone could use and abuse, the shows that did use the concept were mostly well-designed, carefully planned-out works. There probably still are good ones, but they’re getting buried in the pile of dross.

    • April 1, 2019 at 5:32 pmPasserby

      This is indeed something I tried to imply in the article. ‘Isekai’ really shouldn’t be considered a genre at all, at least not strictly. A normal person finding themselves in an abnormal world is not inherently a bad device. But the more ‘genre’ conventions writers feel like they have to incorporate the unhealthier it is for fantasy as a whole.

    • April 1, 2019 at 7:50 pmDP

      Outside the anime bubble the term used for Isekai-type stories in literary criticism is generally “Portal Fantasy” as, rather than reincarnation, the people from our world often enter via a portal or gate of some time.

      Before the isekai boom there were plenty of these: Vision of Escaflowne, El Hazard, and Magic Knights Rayearth were probably among the most successful, all in the early to mid 90s, but there were others.

      Narnia is the classic 20th century example of heroic fantasy portals, although as mentioned by other posters, John Carter of Mars, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, and the Complete Enchanter are all early 20th century examples dating to before WWII.

      The Thomas Covenant series is a good modern but pre-Isekei of the “hero suffers accident/near-death and wakes up as the Chosen One of a fantasy world”

      What is “ruining fantasy” is not really the Isekai concept but the lazy world building concept of “AND EVERYTHING IS ALL BASED ON GAME TROPES” derived from lowest common denominator games. Sometimes this is done with reasonable wit (as in Overlord, Slime, Shield Hero, No Game, or SAO), often it is terribly lazy, and always it tends to destroy at least some of the immersion you’d get otherwise.

      Now, “gamers sucked into fantasy” is not new to Japan – I think the earliest example was possibly Andre Norton’s QUAG KEEP back around 1978 or so, and the D&D Cartoon ran with that as well. Anime started running with that with .Hack/Sign (slow story, great music) and likely it was the success of SAO that really jump started it.

  • April 1, 2019 at 7:29 pmDP

    I gave up with Kemurikusa after three episodes because I couldn’t take the male character constant “wow, what’s this?” “what’s that?” “this is so interesting!” blathering every minute.

    Did he ever get a clue and give up that up? If so, I might rewatch the rest…

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