Admit It: You Enjoy the Wish Fulfillment in Isekai Anime
While I listened to a video review of Stan Lee’s failed cartoon Striperella, I couldn’t help but think the author of the review was missing the point. It wasn’t bad merely because it featured eye candy for the gynophilic gaze. It was bad because the jokes were bad, because the plots of each episode were boring, and because nothing that happens is intense or high stakes. There was not a huge buildup of narrative tension, and nothing extraordinary happens. So if you watch it, you don’t end up remembering anything that happened afterwards. Compare that to a similar show, Drawn Together, which had a similar low-brow brand of humor and featured a similarly fanservice-y protagonist. But Drawn Together works better than Striperella because it’s so over-the-top and outrageous that it’s memorable. Striperella wanted to be pretty and do as little as possible, while Drawn Together, while flawed, was at least insane enough to stay fresh and entertaining. Thus, it wasn't the mere inclusion of low brow humor or fanservice that made Striperella a lame cartoon. It was a lame cartoon for reasons that had nothing to do with that, because there is a way to include those elements in a show and make it work.
What does this have to do with isekai anime? Well, I was thinking similarly, isekai anime, especially when it involves fantasy harems, is often similarly criticized not because it's bad per se, but because it includes elements designed to fulfill the audience's fantasies. This may sometimes hinder the plot, consistency, the internal logic of the story making sense, etc., to serve the needs of the audience's wish fulfillment. But, I don't think all anime that have wish fulfillment as a major part of their appeal are automatically bad.
The Origins of Isekai as an Anime Genre: 90s Isekai Were Different
I wrote about the history of the isekai genre before, but I'll reiterate the main points here.
When I thought about the anime of the 2010s, it was hard not to see it as the decade of the rise of the isekai genre. Isekai anime existed as early as the 90s. Reviewers cite shows like Vision of Escaflowne, Fushigi Yuugi, and Inuyasha as early isekai anime. These shows differed greatly from 2010s isekai anime, however. They had female protagonists, more emphasis on the wonderful strangeness of the different world, cultural mix-ups between modern Japan and that world, and the romance that would build up between the protagonist and her love interest in the other world. There was usually one single love interest, and a few different potential love rivals, as opposed to a harem.
You could also consider Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece Spirited Away to be an isekai. Similarly, it has the three elements mentioned above, and a female protagonist. But Spirited Away is closer to the main source of inspiration for isekai anime, children's tales.
The Origins of Isekai: Children's Portal Fantasy
Specifically, isekai borrows from children’s ‘portal fantasy’ isekai, such as Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Wizard of Oz. Many children’s books feature a plot structure that involves a child from the real world traveling to a fantasy world. Usually they have to go on a quest within that world. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is remarkable in that she doesn’t have a big quest to do, and nobody treats her like a chosen one type hero figure, destined to save the world. The stories are more episodic, focusing on her struggle to understand people who speak strangely and have customs that are impossible for Alice (and the readers) to understand. But The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is nearly the opposite; a story with four protagonists, who are all “the chosen one” fated to lead good to victory over evil, and become rulers of the fantasy kingdom of Narnia. Older myths and folk tales inspired these stories.
2010s Isekai Anime
2010s isekai plots are more about being a chosen one, a destined hero. Though there may be episodic world-building plots, they’re almost always about a person from modern day Japan becoming a hero in another world. The world is most often a generic fantasy kingdom, beset by monsters that the protagonist has to fight. There is also usually a harem subplot, because the protagonist usually meets multiple love interests, with varying, uh, tracts of land. The protagonist is often, but not always, a loser incel otaku type, who had no success with women in the real world. Thus, the series serve as romantic, sexual, and heroic, wish fulfillment for the target audience: straight young men who are disillusioned with their lack of success in life. And that’s also why the genre has gotten a bad reputation. Because many successful examples of the genre, like Sword Art Online, are all about the heroic fantasy wish fulfillment. They put aside the fun of exploring a different world, and the creative strangeness of the fantasy world, to serve that goal.
But isn’t all art and storytelling wish fulfillment? Is wish fulfillment always bad? How much is too much?
Why Critics Dislike Wish Fulfillment in Fiction
When critics say stuff to the effect of “wish fulfillment = bad”, they’re moralizing taste. They’re not just giving their opinion of what makes a story good. They’re moving beyond that, telling people what they should and should not consider a good story. There’s an “ought not” implied: You ought not to like stuff just because it makes you feel good. Or, you ought not to like stuff just because it provides a simulation of your desires.
That entails an assumption that seeking pleasure for its own sake is wrong. Since the West was founded on Christian beliefs, this is a cultural assumption common in Western culture. Medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian Christianity all favored self-sacrifice, endurance, and strength. People were not supposed to want things for their own pleasure. They demonized people who sought pleasure or beauty for its own sake. Art was supposed to teach moral lessons. When people criticize isekai, harem, or ecchi anime for fulfilling an escapist fantasy, they’re saying it’s wrong to fantasize. They’re not being all that different from the Puritans of 500 years ago, who forbade most forms of entertainment on moral grounds.
Critics never start out in their careers intending to sound like the fun police. But they’re educated in Western academia, and those old, stuffy, church-like colleges were all founded by the fun police. And descendant fun police types from old money families are big donors. So they can’t help that their education influenced them to think pleasure is bad. Academia teaches you that if people enjoy reading your work, if it’s easy to figure out, you’re not doing your job. It also professes that literature should be about the progression of mankind, about lofty ideals and big ambitions. Therefore, if you read something, or watch something, because you like it, it cannot be art.
In my criticism, I’ve been guilty of this kind of thinking. But I have come to understand that something can be showy entertainment with mass appeal and also be important literature or art. I feel that way about commonly disparaged genres and media, including comics, anime, manga, video games, graphic novels, science fiction, fantasy, action, and horror. Some people will say that a comic book, or a horror novel, can’t be “literature”. That’s that stuffy Puritanical talk again, a lingering effect of this country’s history. That’s also the reason the Academy Awards and other prestigious entertainment awards overlook certain genres. For example, Us, a critically acclaimed masterpiece of the horror genre, didn’t win a single Academy Award. With my blog, I aim to prove that genres and mediums often overlooked by institutions have substantial literary, artistic, and philosophical merit. People don’t appreciate this enough, and not enough people experience it, because they assume their “good taste” means they can’t just like something that’s too popular with the masses, too easy to like. They end up dismissing entire genres and mediums over a few bad apples. And that’s the thing I see is happening with the isekai genre. There are bad wish fulfillment anime, so they overshadow the good wish fulfillment isekai anime.
What Are the Best Isekai Wish Fulfillment Anime?
Almost all fiction is wish fulfillment. Without wish fulfillment, there would be little point in writing fiction. But the isekai genre of anime promises a specific kind of wish fulfillment - not just being strong and saving the world, like in most shounen anime, but going to an idyllic alternate reality. And then being strong and saving the world. And getting the girl or girls.
What separates a good version of this plot from a bad one? I would say the amount the protagonist is challenged or how much they struggle to achieve that idyllic happy ending. If the protagonist does not face enough challenges or scary enough threats, the conclusion feels shallow and meaningless. If they are sufficiently challenged and hit many places in the narrative that feel bleak and hopeless, and then overcome that insurmountable obstacle, that makes the ending of the show feel more satisfying. Character development also improves the wish fulfillment. How? Well, a story about a character who does not have to change or grow to get what they want is considerably less interesting. And, while we all want fantasy that gives us a simulation of what we want, it feels cheap and too easy if the protagonist does not have to change who he is to get it. Stories are not about pushing a big red button and having candy fall from the sky. They should be instead about our desire to be heroic, to help others, and to gain something vital by giving up less important desires. When I fell in love with Vash the Stampede in Trigun, it wasn’t because he had it easy and was powerful. He was powerful, but I rooted for him because he lived in a harsh world, and wanted to make it a better place. He was challenged, and forced to make tremendous sacrifices, to make that a reality. So a primary reason I can't get into a lot of isekai anime, is that the protagonist does not seem like they are facing enough challenges, or being required to make enough sacrifices for a greater ideal.
That being said, I enjoy some of them. The light-hearted tone provides a nice bit of escapism. These isekai shows, when done right, offer a kind of happiness hard to find anywhere else. You root for the protagonist, and want to be him, experiencing his gleeful victories. It's like the thrill of watching Goku fight in Dragon Ball Z, or Alucard in Hellsing. They might get challenged, but they'll always come out on top.
So here is my list of my favorite isekai anime that serve as wish fulfillment:
Rise of the Shield Hero
A shield seems like the short end of the stick when it comes to getting a random weapon. But in this anime, brooding otaku protagonist Naofumi Iwatani is stuck with just that. It's similar to Steven in Steven Universe, who also has mostly defensive powers. I like that it's a college-aged protagonist with a cynical, loner outlook. Like I said above, I don't like isekai anime that fail to challenge the protagonist. This one does not have this problem. Naofumi goes through a lot. He really struggles. First of all, he's not summoned to another world alone, but as part of a team of four heroes. They're all from alternate versions of Japan. The world they're in is like a light novel in Naofumi's Japan, and like different video games in theirs. Thus, from the start, the show emphasizes teamwork and social cohesion, even though those things aren't presented as easy or automatic.
Restaurant to Another World
Isekai wish fulfillment meets food porn wish fulfillment in this anime about a magical restaurant that connects people from different worlds. I like this, because instead of having a stock light novel hero protagonist, it mixes it up, with multiple important characters who are all interesting, from different walks of life. It really takes the concept of food bringing people together to a logical extreme.
This show is probably the best underrated anime series. It’s not a mega-dominant franchise, but it has its passionate fans. It might be making a comeback. Log Horizon uses the “trapped in a video game” plot setup, similar to Sword Art Online. There are many characters, representing different play styles and personalities. There is also a large variety of challenges the main characters face. I like that it focuses on many characters who are all distinct and interesting.
When I think about escapism in a light novel or isekai anime, I think of this beloved show. It’s pure comedy, subverting the expectation all that fantasy adventures are serious business. The plot starts with a similar setup to that of Ah, My Goddess!. In both, a goddess comes to a human, he gets a wish from her, but he wishes for the goddess herself to accompany him. Here, it’s protagonist Kazuma Sato and the goddess is Aqua, the goddess of water.
Even though Aqua is a goddess, we soon learn that she’s far from perfect, and she’s not even that powerful. She’s obsessed with getting attention and followers. She has low Intelligence and low Luck. But, luckily, she’s an expert at slaying demons and the undead.
They team up with Megumin, a mage who only does this one powerful Explosion spell that she can only do once a day, and Darkness, a crusader with a weird masochistic streak.
My favorite thing about KonoSuba is that it’s silly. It does two things well: comedy and building relationships between characters.
No Game, No Life
In this one, gamer prodigy siblings Sora and Shiro end up in a world where everything is decided by games. This one is pure wish fulfillment. These characters pummel enemies using intelligence. They are formidable due to their knowledge of games, skill, and teamwork. Similarly to Sherlock Holmes or the Doctor in Doctor Who, they win many of their games by cleverly uncovering ways the enemy is trying to cheat. They commonly trick enemies into giving away their own ruses. Thus, similarly to the Sherlock Holmes franchise and the Doctor Who franchise, the wish fulfillment aspect here is that intelligence will always win.
Problem Children Are Coming From Another World, Aren't They?
In this anime, similar to No Game, No Life, three prodigy children with psychic powers are transported to a world where politics comes down to high stakes games called Gift Games. The human "problem children" join a guild that's down on its luck, and help to overthrow oppressive demon rulers. I'll admit it, I watched this one for the cute rabbit girl. And you probably did, too. And that's okay.
This is pure wish fulfillment in one sense, but the protagonist's back story is sad. His name is Momonga, but in a fantasy RPG, he goes by the name Ains Ool Gown. His character resembles a giant skeleton, and he was part of a guild of monstrous baddies with cool powers and items. But, as he got older, participation in this guild dwindled, and the anime starts on the night the last person besides him leaves the guild.
But then, he finds himself trapped inside the game, as his character. He has god-like abilities, beautiful women lusting after him, and subordinates fawning over him. When he offhandedly mentions that it might be cool to take over the world, said subordinates rush forth to help him do that. Gradually, Momonga grows into accepting his new role as Ains Ool Gown, a conquering demon lord. What's interesting is that he's not really a villain. He tries to do good, even though he has followers who vehemently hate humans. This show has funny parts, fanservice, and surprisingly heartwarming parts as well.
There are many isekai anime, and many of them are good. I could probably keep going with recommendations. Although, I didn’t choose Re:Zero which is one of my favorites, because it’s not really about wish fulfillment. It teases that, but it challenges the protagonist with intense, often stressful, struggles. Nothing comes easy to Subaru, because for him, every day is Groundhog Day.
Instead, I focused on lighter series. That’s not to say the heavier stories aren’t good, but the focus of this article is on wish fulfillment as a trope or concept in storytelling. Like I’ve said before, I don’t think fiction would exist if not for wish fulfillment. We all want things reality cannot give us. And stories are a way to cope with the disappointing aspects of reality, by imagining ourselves in another one. Isekai will endure as a genre as long as people keep longing to live in a better reality.
One thing I see often in isekai anime is that the alternate world rewards an otaku or gamer protagonist for their intelligence, knowledge, and strategic thinking. Otaku and gamers enjoy fiction where these qualities are rewarded, because they often feel like the real world does not appreciate them. These anime show them a world where their knowledge and skills are appreciated, when the real world just treats them like losers.
So, you’re not bad for enjoying the escapist, wish fulfillment fantasy that drives the isekai genre. And shaming people for liking it can sometimes be bullying. But then again, we do all have to live in the real world. And maybe it’s better to make the best we can of that. But that’s hard, especially for people considered “losers” or outcasts. It’s easy for some people to say things like, “just get out more” or “talk to real people”. But people saying those things probably don’t struggle with mental illness, or an interest or hobby that makes them judged harshly by society.
Anyway, you’re not bad for liking shows like this. Escapism and pleasure are not bad by themselves. They can become bad when you’re neglecting important things in real life, when they become addictions. But many people enjoy these kinds of anime and light novels without becoming the stereotypical depressed, lonely, unhygienic NEET. It sometimes seems like the world is constantly criticizing us for liking things like this. But I say, isn’t NASCAR a power fantasy? Isn’t it unhealthy how obsessed some people are with sports? Why is it okay for an adult to use sitcoms or romantic comedy movies for pleasure and escapism, but not to like anime, video games, and light novels? After all, all fiction has an element of wish fulfillment in it. Even tragic stories like Madoka do, because even Madoka experiences great power, strong friendship, and a triumph over evil. In other words, everyone consumes fiction because fiction has something in it that everyone wants.
© 2020 Rachael Lefler