A Very GLORIO 2020: Random Manga Theatre’s Limited Time Comeback Tour

I have nothing to say about 2020 that we all don’t already know, but when all the anime was delayed and we had nothing to do in the middle of the year, I went back to ye olde manga sources and started reading some random stuff. In the depths of lockdown depression, it didn’t matter how bad the manga was; it only mattered that it was able to numb my brain for an hour or two. Just considering the sheer volume of releases available, that ended up meaning I read an inordinate amount of crappy isekai instead of the actual good manga that certain people keep telling me to read (I’ll read Chainsaw Man one day, I swear).

This exercise did get me thinking about isekai as a concept, including some of the other things we’re looking at today that aren’t technically about going to another world, but do involve some sort of reincarnation, time travel, or other elements that would certainly stand in a court of law as “definitely isekai adjacent, your Honor”. If we wrap the genre in cheese cloth and squeeze out the cheat skills and slave harems and other baser fantasies (though their spectre will be felt throughout this post), what is narratively gained by having an isekai protagonist? You bring in some amount of audience surrogacy – presumably the person reading the story is an average individual on Earth and not Erdrick, the Luminary, Hero of Erdrea – making it easier to relate to Salaryman or High School Kid #1312. And the average person presumably knows more about the laws of physics and tool-making and such than someone whose job class is Medieval Serf, right?

Putting aside the fact that I don’t think I’d survive two days in a non-modern world nor do I think many other people could actually build a steam engine let alone a fire with their bare hands, isekai and isekai-adjacent stories are really about putting the protagonist in a position of relative power compared to everyone else. They’re stronger than the rest, but not so strong that they cannot be threatened by conflicts only they can handle, possibly with a little help from their friends, but usually only with their powerful protagonist potential and the knowledge or unorthodox thinking that comes with being a schlub from the 21st Century or a reincarnator or a time traveler or whatever. They have agency, in a way that’s hard to have in modern society, much less modern Japanese society.

Yes, I essentially just said “I cracked the isekai code, people like relating with overpowered protagonists because it lets them roleplay as strong, important people!”. I never said I was that smart, okay? Speaking of not being smart, here’s a brief selection of some stuff I ended up reading during the rampage of self-loathing and depression of the past six months. I’d argue most of this stuff isn’t good (I’ll go into a bit more detail on each), but I think each one has at least one redeeming quality, even if that ends up being “well, this could have been way worse”.

The Galactic Navy Officer Becomes an Adventurer

I certainly don’t think this one is necessarily any good, it must be stated. It has all the trappings of every shitty isekai (and we’re going to be seeing a lot of that today), where the main character is overpowered for questionable reasons and puts together a harem of ladies while rising to the top of the societal totem pole, joining the Adventurer’s Guild, et cetera, all the usual bullshit. But what I did genuinely like is the broad reasoning behind how the main character gets isekai-d.

Rather than being some hapless high school kid hit by a truck or summoned by a vague and unexplained “summoning heroes from another world” ritual or some shit, the title says it all. He’s a space marine from the Galactic Navy fighting evil aliens, and an emergency exit from his destroyed battleship strands him on your cliche swords-and-sorcery world, where his laser guns and AI implants give him a huge natural advantage. He decides he’s going to spearhead their growth so that they won’t be murdered by the evil aliens when they inevitably come to claim this world and wipe it of sentient life. If you’re stuck writing an isekai, this is honestly a surprisingly solid starting base.

Unfortunately based on what I read, it just devolves into the usual like, “hot girls are all over me and wow I’m good at all types of magic thanks to my cheat skill nanomachines” faff. Not really anything worth continuing with, but I think with a defter hand you might be able to do something with the premise. Maybe just play Star Ocean instead.

The Hardships of a Sengoku-Era Beauty

This is the most classic form of isekai, a time-travel tale not unlike Lest Darkness Fall or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A modern agricultural student falls into a time warp or something and ends up in the Sengoku Era under the employ of one Oda Nobunaga, where she puts her modern knowledge to use to both stay alive and completely revolutionize life in the time period. Pretty standard stuff honestly.

The manga goes to almost comical extents to justify why the protagonist has the information she does. As mentioned, she’s an agricultural student and literally has modern seed samples in her bag when transported to the past. She also has a smart phone with apparently a full encyclopedia downloaded to the phone’s memory and an emergency hand-crank charger. To be clear, it beats the pants off any random isekai schlub knowing how to build a working pump or steam engine, but it is hilariously convenient. Another element that is also convenient but actually makes sense is being discovered by Nobunaga: the guy is famous for being relatively meritocratic and a huge Westaboo, receptive to less traditional technologies. It’s stated that any other notable lord of the time would have probably executed the protagonist on the spot.

It’s not necessarily amazing of course, but it’s one of the better isekai manga I’ve seen just for including actual historical elements instead of the usual “adventurer’s guild” bullshit. There’s some fun stuff with other notable figures and honestly I probably learned a thing or two about the actual Sengoku Period.

The Dragon, The Hero, and The Courier

Speaking of learning things about history, this one is written by an actual medieval scholar whose pen name is “Gregorius Yamada”. It’s your usual isekai-adjacent video game-like fantasy world where everyone has levels and stats, but it follows Yoshida the Half-Elf, the eponymous courier. She’s a beleaguered government employee, delivering everyone’s mail come hell or high water, and constantly running into goofy cliches from fantasy media.

The fun part is that this manga examines all these cliches with the lens of, well, a medieval scholar. What might have actually happened if the Hero defeated the Dragon? How was mail delivered in the Middle Ages? What would be the role of wizards in society? Who exactly tracks experience points? This manga contains the answers to all of those questions and more, and you don’t even have to suffer through any isekai bullshit to experience it!

Fun fact: the first draft of this post had a different manga also by Gregorius Yamada titled A Private Story on Third Street that has much of the same tone, just starring real life historical grunt soldiers all somehow living in modern Japan. I chose The Dragon, The Hero, and The Courier instead because it meshed better with the broader theme emerging from this post, even though the former is probably technically closer to actually being isekai.

Paladin of a Faraway Land

I firmly believe this would be improved if the protagonist was merely a precocious child rather than a reincarnated hikikomori from Japan. The first couple volumes of this I read were genuinely well done and had an impressive slow burn leading up to an emotionally affecting climax. The well just gets completely poisoned by revealing that the main character is from Japan. The only thing you’re gaining here is some roundabout justification for why this tween has the emotional fortitude of a teen, and even then it sort of gets forgotten as the plot picks up and the emotional consequences of reincarnation are completely overshadowed by those of the story itself.

The entire first arc revolves around a boy named William growing up, raised by his parents and grandfather. The twist is that the three of them are scary looking undead monsters, and Will is clearly living in some kind of abandoned ruin, long forgotten by civilization. A sense of unease is built over what precisely is happening here; this giant skeleton, this creepy eyeless nun, and this grumpy spectre are all unfailingly kind to their surrogate child, but they tell him nothing and refuse to allow him outside the broken temple grounds. Will studies martial arts, religion, magic. He becomes an Overpowered Isekai Protagonist. On the eve of his coming of age, the God of Undeath appears, ready to collect the debt of Will’s weird zombie family.

Unfortunately, the rest of the series so far seems to be generic “fantasy adventurer” faff, never reaching the emotional heights of the first arc. Will pledges himself to the little-known God of Reincarnation, goes to basically the most dangerous frontier city he can find, and becomes the eponymous Paladin. If anything does stand out as a solid positive, it’s the depiction of the fantasy religion and pantheon. Characters occasionally talk about the differences in interpretations of the teachings of various gods, and even discuss the differences in methods of prayer and how they’ve changed over time. It’s not super in-depth, but it’s more than I expected from some otherwise totally unremarkable-looking fantasy manga.

May I Please Ask You Just One Last Thing?

This one starts like a typical “Villainess” story (I don’t think I have the time nor energy to go into the entire like, villainess isekai subgenre, but suffice to say it is in fact a major subgenre these days, and basically the [broadly {probably, maybe?}] less harmful and more female-focused version of trashy isekai revenge porn) where the protagonist – a classy noblewoman engaged to royalty despite an inevitably cold and loveless relationship – is publicly jilted by her fiance for a stereotypical cute otome game protagonist. Other versions of this cliche (such as the manga next up on the list) would involve our heroine moving on with her life, or planning an elaborate revenge, or possibly assembling her own new harem out of angry defiance.

In this manga, however, heroine Scarlet puts on her knuckle gloves and starts going to town with her fists. She has had enough of this shit and really, don’t all noblemen deserve to get fucking repeatedly punched in the face anyway? I mean, just look at how much corruption and slave trading and lord knows what other unsavory business they’re up to. A mere solid beating would be letting them off easy.

I feel like I got solidly bamboozled with this one. The base premise made me go “hell yes!” but later developments – including a surprise isekai twist – have not been particularly enthusing. The plot seems dead set on pushing Scarlet into a relationship with a different prince, when honestly I would rather see her smash in his face too. Eat the rich. Dismantle class stratification. Down with authority.

Accomplishments of the Duke’s Daughter

We’ve got another villainess story here, though it is more blatantly isekai. Protagonist Iris gets all of the memories of her past self as an office lady right as she is being denounced in the climactic scene of the otome game, blah blah blah, et cetera, why is this even isekai, I’ve typed it all up before and you’ve read it all before in this very post. Suffice to say that this time it serves as an excuse for some random noblewoman to conveniently be both in a position of influence and have distinctly modern ideas on how to improve society. Tax reformation, public schools, double-entry bookkeeping, et cetera.

But seriously, when isekai can be boiled down to an elaborate excuse for basically allowing a character to introduce modern ideas, I just don’t see the point. You could just make them a once-in-a-generation weirdo forward-thinker or something. I don’t subscribe to Great Man Theory, but shit, it’d be easier to swallow than the idea that Random J-Corpo Pencil Pusher #1312 is just so good at clerical work that they can single-handedly establish widespread societal change. Only adding to the dissonance here is that Iris relies so heavily upon her squad of former orphan kids who are all sexy experts at various fields; it’s made clear that they were all brought together by (deep breath) Pre-Being-Possessed-By-The-Ghost-Of-An-Office-Lady-From-Another-World Iris. She was clearly already thinking about social reform!

All that said, there is something satisfying about basically sticking it to the man via widespread empowerment of the lower class. The idea of the good noble who, ahem, really believes in noblesse oblige is always a little iffy and overly optimistic (and shit, these days it feels like any positive change in society might be overly optimistic), but I’ll take it over cheat skill slave harems any fucking day of the week. I just really do wish this was a “normal” fantasy story rather than isekai.

“The Principle of a Philosopher”, by Eternal Fool Asley

I’d categorize this manga as firmly isekai adjacent. It has a lot of the same trappings: an overpowered protagonist joining the Adventurer’s Guild and surprising everyone with their absurd abilities, possibly because of an unpleasant revenge-porn-like reason to stick it to everyone who bullied them in the past. About the only thing missing is that the eponymous “Eternal Fool Asley” isn’t actually from another world or anything.

The only thing that made me reconsider instantly moving on from this series was the relationship between Asley and his wizard’s familiar, a dog named Pochi. Since this series is what it is, Pochi is of course at max level, super strong, and can talk like a person; what makes it fun is that the two of them are constantly dunking on each other. Maybe I just have bad relationships, but a thing I find missing from a lot of anime and manga despite their supposed focus on bonds, friendship, et cetera is this sort of lighthearted, non-serious ribbing. Being close enough to someone that you can start bouncing a bit back and forth at the drop of a hat, or even to straight up laugh at their misfortune while simultaneously extending help unconditionally.

Add that Asley is, in fact, kind of a dumbass (example: even though his magical hyperspace inventory holds everything, it’s so disorganized that it takes him ages to rummage through it every time) and you’ve got something almost tolerable. It’s practically a novelty to see something take isekai tropes, pull out the isekai, and be mildly entertaining.

Cigarette and Cherry

Here we have the single manga on this list that’s got a contemporary setting. Not gonna lie, I checked this out purely because I saw the thumbnail and thought the female lead was attractive. I am obviously not that complex of a person and could even be categorized as kind of stupid, not unlike the protagonist of this manga.

The eponymous “cherry boy” is making his debut at college in the big city, and decides that now is the time to hit on women and maybe even get a girlfriend. The first person he tries to pick up is a long-haired beauty smoking a cigarette, and he strikes out completely. Utter failure. He still tries his luck a few times though, and she seems at least broadly amused by his absurd desperation, which might possibly be the least realistic thing out of any of the manga highlighted in this post. Still, it’s meant to be a romance manga, so Mr. Cherry scores a job at the same cafe where Ms. Cigarette works and realizes he needs to at least try to be less of a total dingus.

There’s also a beta couple involving some of the other cafe workers, and it all sort of slides into the exact kind of plot you’d expect. There’s some manufactured drama, some wacky times, some romance, et cetera. It’s not the worst, I guess? Sheesh, I’m sure giving some ringing endorsements here.

Freiren of the Funeral

If you’re trawling the better known western manga aggregators and such, you’ve probably already seen this. It had a sudden explosion of popularity, and at least on the sites I use, it regularly tops the weekly charts.

The premise starts with your usual offbrand Dragon Quest party heading off to fight the generic Demon Lord… and succeeding off screen. The four warriors are lauded as heroes, becoming legends as the years pass. They all grow older, except for the eponymous Frieren, for she is an ageless elf. She lived for thousands of years before meeting Hero Himmel, and will live for thousands of years after. Their decade-long quest might as well have been a day trip to her. Yet, she still attends Himmel’s funeral, still cries for the times they shared. Alongside the disciples of her former party, Frieren embarks upon a new quest to retrace her steps from nearly a hundred years ago, looking for a way to perhaps contact the afterlife.

The prevailing melancholic tone of the story really stands out. Even when it suddenly swerves into action scenes or mediocre toilet humor, Frieren comes off as solemn and level-headed, as though she’s seen it all before and is merely humoring the situation. I suppose she has, after all. Time will tell if this manga can keep it up, since it’s been running for less than a year, but I think there’s a fair amount of potential here.

Old Frontier Knight – Bard Loen

This is by far the most, uh, me thing on this list, which is why I saved it for last. That is to say, I don’t think it’s necessarily the best work of the ones featured today (don’t ask me what is, hell if I know), but it might be the one that appeals the most to my specific sensibilities.

The eponymous Bard Loen is a knight of the people, sworn to serve the citizenry over the word of even the king himself. He’s been in service for decades, personally oversaw the Princess’ education, and might as well be a legendary folk hero to everyone else. He’s so beloved, in fact, that his very presence affects diplomacy in the region. Thus, Bard Loen decides that maybe it’s time to retire and take a nice long journey, the likes of which he’s never been able to before now. See the sights, eat the food, you know. Of course, things are never quite that simple, and the departure of a popular war hero might cause more problems than it solves.

I wouldn’t call the plot of this manga super deep or anything, but it did cause me to reach some kind of understanding: a lot of why I like older characters in media is because of the implied weight of their experience, implied depth to their emotion. It comes off differently when a teen character is furious, weeping, or screaming than when a senior citizen is. Plus, as I’ve gotten older (though I’m still honestly fairly young in an objective sense), I’ve started to understand the regret of things not turning out how you wanted, of having your body simply not function as it ought to, of watching everything fall apart around you (or perhaps just coming to the realization everything was always broken).

Isekai tries to pick this lock on living a life. It’s a cheap way to have your cake and eat it too; a way to shoehorn a lifetime’s worth of experience into your marketable, sexy anime teen. Not only does it let the reader roleplay as someone with power and agency, but it lets them roleplay as someone who can “do it better this time“, someone who can put their skills as a cog in the machine to tangible personal use, while just maybe extracting retribution from childhood bullies and getting a bunch of attractive suitors in the process.

I fully understand this desire to get away from it all. With isekai, responsibility is removed from the equation. Read the descriptions of a random selection of isekai stories; how many of them include a variation on the phrase of “this time, I’ll live as I like”? They want to leave reality without making the choice and facing the consequences of leaving. They all want great power without great responsibility. I also just want to hang out and live free from the yoke of capitalism, but it’s really just not that simple. Certainly not as simple as being summoned to another world that works just like my favorite video games.

All which is to say, uhhhh, go vote? Take responsibility for your surroundings? The world ends with you, so expand your horizons? [Some other platitude that doesn’t actually help anything]? I don’t know, I’m just some guy who reads bad manga and sometimes writes about it. You should definitely read everyone else’s year end posts, though.

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