Isekai Anime as Imperialist Narratives


This all started innocently enough, with me mulling yet again the fact that Miss Konayashi’s Dragon Maid plays very well as an immigrant story, what with Tohru having started life in “our” world after having left violence behind in her own. (This is another post I will be writing, someday.) But, viewed from another angle, perhaps it could be said that it falls within the umbrella of the isekai story, currently enjoying another upwelling, albeit primarily in “trapped in a video game!” garb? And the answer is – no, not exactly! Because if Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is an immigrant story (and even a refugee tale at that!), the isekai tale is instead most commonly the story of the colonist or imperialist.

Having found the crux of this post, let us consider it. The isekai genre as home to imperialist sentiment? Having noticed this, it strikes me as a fairly obvious point, but it isn’t one that I can find much discussion of, at least not within the non-academic discourse of anime fandom, even when analytically-inclined. Consider how often the hapless lads and lasses who fall into other worlds are then discovered to be the absolutely necessary saviors of those worlds (Fushigi Yugi, Munto, Digimon, Izumo: Flash of a Brave Sword, among many others). The great white savior! Except, you know, Japanese.

But, it isn’t as if paternalistic attitudes toward other peoples is something unique to imperial Britain, or the USA, or imperial Belgium, and all the other pale-faced empires (or would-be ones!) of old. I remember several years back people being quite upset with Night Raid 1931 for depicting Japanese people expressing beliefs that noble Japan’s quest on the continent had as its purpose the betterment and protection of non-Japanese Asians; the fact is, however, that this was a genuine tenet of Japanese colonialism. Japan viewed itself as a protector of Asia against the predations of the European powers and the USA, and in this capacity likewise viewed itself as a civilizing force for those poor backwards Koreans and Chinese. That brutal treatment of these occupied populations did follow does not negate this mindset.

Having said that, arguably, these stories represent vestiges of ultra-nationalism and the imperialist ideology that lead Japan to trample it’s way throughout East Asia. Some shows are kind enough to make this a very easy assertion – hello GATE! – but even ponderous and thoughtful efforts like Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash manifest elements of this. Why¬†do they all keep venturing into the mine to kill goblins and kobolds when the ones in the mine don’t themselves venture outside anyway?

A lot of these shows also conform to the idea of the colony as a place where one can go and not have to play by societal rules. Those Who Hunt Elves seems nearly the perfect example of this, as it concerns a group of people who are unceremoniously dumped into a fantasy world and then spend the entire runtime tearing the clothing off of bewildered elves who can’t really do much since the protagonists happen to own a tank. Maze~The Megaburst Space~ covers some similar territory in that the “lecherous” male-Maze is shown as being able to get away with groping women and otherwise sexually harassing them in the parallel world whereas he was shunned as a misfit delinquent in modern Japanese society. Usually, though, this transgressive behavior is made up of killing, slaughtering, and more killing – see everything from Magic Knight Rayearth* to Garzey’s Wing (!!) to Tenchi Muyo: War on Geminar, to Twelve Kingdoms, etc., etc., etc.

(*It is interesting that the OAV Rayearth instead opts for the bad guys to be invading Earth rather than having our heroines be entering Cephiro.)

This is not, by the way, to assert that ALL isekai shows are colonial stories; somehow, despite having watched anime for nearly two decades, I haven’t seen ALL of the anime yet (they keep making more – utterly maddening), and it wouldn’t be fair to make a blanket claim without having managed to even squeeze in all the isekai anime. I can also think of at least one of these sorts of shows which doesn’t really operate in this way – although Inu-Yasha’s status as “isekai” may be questioned by some, “modern girl who is a reincarnation of powerful priestess goes back in time and repeatedly pisses off the woman she is the reincarnation of” doesn’t quite cut it, especially not when she ends up having a litter of puppies. (Although maybe an argument could be made for why Inu-Yasha is basically the Tarzan stories? I leave greater minds [who’ve actually seen all of it] to ponder this one.) And shows like Sword Art Online represent a curious datapoint – the world is one which is “unpopulated”, after all. But can we see this as a reflection itself of the myth of unpopulated lands which have been fruitfully colonized (see: America)? I would genuinely say “no” but find it a potentially interesting line of thought nevertheless.

However, I would hesitantly suggest that more isekai stories are imperialist/colonist than not, and I hope it doesn’t distress you that I would suggest that beloved childhood shows of your like Digimon fall within this. I hope it will not distress you overmuch either when I say that because you love Digimon you are nothing but a filthy, foul imperialist and I would like you to please remove your colonist self from my precious, invasion-free blog. Thank you and god bless.

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2 Responses to Isekai Anime as Imperialist Narratives

  1. Twelve Kingdoms is, I’d argue, a mild subversion of the imperialist isekai narrative but a pretty strong indictment of Japanese sexism (Queen Youko is so cool).

  2. arbitrary_greay says:

    What does a non-imperialist/colonialist isekai story look like?
    – As you point out with Dragon Maid, one in which the fish-out-of-water protagonist is a refugee of some sort. Devil is a Part-Timer also falls into this?
    – Protagonist has to adapt to the world they fall into, rather than having the world adopt the ways of the world they came from. Interestingly, Marvel’s Thor therefore is not imperialist, but Loki was, and was villainized for it. On the other hand, it could be argued that Captain America is a form of imperialist isekai, albeit the “restoration” variant, a la Prince Caspian.
    – Protagonist does not gain significant political power in the world they fall into. There are some examples where the protagonist fully integrates into the culture they end up in, but excel within it as a figure of authority anyways, without necessarily using their old culture as an advantage. But is that still really imperialist? (Tanya falls into this, I guess.) Kyon is in the “the world is stranger than you know” variant, but ends up being important to Haruhi and therefore very influential.

    So a non-imperialist isekai story is the protagonist falling into another world, and simply finding a place as a person of relative non-importance? Content with the non-political niche they find.
    (An anti-imperialist one would be a case where the protagonist finds that the world they fell into is superior to the old one in every way, I guess. One could make the case for Sailor Moon kind of doing this.)

    Alongside Digimon, classic storytelling for children really likes the “kid turns out to be the savior of the world they fall into” structure. Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, etc.
    A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is notable in how they fail to avert the downfall of the kingdom.
    But it’s also interesting to see how there hasn’t been an anime with an explicit equivalent to Star Trek’s Grand Directive. Except, I dunno, Mushi-shi or Kino’s Journey or something.

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