Can I enjoy competent anime with ugly themes? The case of slavery in How Not To Summon A Demon Lord

Ebook Cover
Notice the clear green highlighting on “dorei majutsu” – “slave magic”

I watched How Not to Summon A Demon Lord for the wrong reasons. I only picked it up because I was baffled by a more literal translation of the Japanese title: The Isekai Demon King and the Summoner Girl’s Slave Magic. Such an absurd cluster of words seemed to border on self-parody of the much-derided isekai genre. I had to show this madness to a friend that was uninitiated in anime’s less respectable tropes. I would “embrace the trash,” play devil’s advocate, and make his reaction the real show. As expected, he hated the first episode and felt we had wasted half an hour. But I didn’t get my show either. Instead of ranting and rambling like I had hoped, he just gave me wordless sighs of disgust. Where I had expected some “so bad it’s good” excess to enjoy ironically, he had seen an intolerable moral travesty in Demon Lord’s casual depiction of slavery.

That left me in an awkward position. I agreed with his assessment of the slavery themes, but as an episode of anime, I didn’t find Demon Lord so bad. Considered in the context its low-quality genre, I even worried that Demon Lord was good. I worried, because How Not to Summon a Demon Lord had established its erotic-comedy slave-girl premise with such casual crassness that I felt ashamed admitting… I maybe-kinda liked it.

Sometimes, I have to confront an unrealistic expectation that fiction with ugly messages should have ugly aesthetics. For example, Demon Lord’s isekai seasonal partner, Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria, disguised its weird authoritarian ideology under one of the lowest quality anime I have ever seen. But ugly ideas can have gorgeous packages (for example, see the energetic imagery in the proto-fascist “Futurist Manifesto”). Demon Lord is not “gorgeous,” but I would call it solidly “competent” despite its glib engagement with a concept as ugly as slavery.

That apparent contradiction made me uneasy, and that unease led me to a question. At what point do disagreeable themes in fiction preclude enjoyment of the work itself? Could Demon Lord justify its use of slavery by just being a good show? In other words, was it worth it?

I’ll take this topic in two parts. In part one, I will try to approach Demon Lord’s use of slavery on its own terms within its three main genres: comedy, isekai adventure, and ecchi. After all, before criticizing a piece of fiction for its ugly themes, I first need to establish how and why it does so. And in part two, I will loop back around to that question. Was it worth it?

If (big emphasis on if!) we accept the premise that slavery has a valid role in light-hearted television, I can imagine several ways to spin it as comedy. For example, perhaps Diablo and friends have some biscuits to eat. They enjoy the treats and finish all but one. Each character wants the last biscuit, so they work out some system like rock-paper-scissors to determine the winner. The details don’t matter: somehow Diablo loses, but he really wants that biscuit. So, he uses the slave magic to force the winner to hand it over but… surprise! Subvert the scene by having Klem steal it because of her childish obsession with biscuits. Time it well, add some over-the-top reaction faces (zurui yo~ !) and a bit of Diablo’s faux-arrogant monologuing, and voila, you have a solid 2-5 minute comedy bit.

Except, the show can’t do that scene. Diablo is a “good slaveholder” who respects the girls’ “freedom.” He never uses the slave magic to exploit the girls. As a result, the one gimmick that distinguishes the Demon Lord from all of the other copy-paste isekai comedies on the market does not actually support the comedy. Diablo’s reluctance to use the magic makes it impossible. Instead, Demon Lord has to fall back on the typical ecchi comedy mishaps: awkward sexual situations, inane misunderstandings, and jealous bickering between the harem girls. The show manages some solid satire of isekai tropes like overpowered main characters and silly game worlds via Diablo’s internal monologues, but even in the satire, the comedy almost never touches the slavery issue.

So, if slavery has little role in Demon Lord’s humor, how does the show incorporate it into the isekai adventure? A quest to free the girls from magical bondage would make a novel approach to a stale genre, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, Demon Lord devotes just a single episode to that goal. In the first half episode 6, Diablo visits a slave trader to learn how to break the collars’ magic. He suffers some ecchi hijinks while trying to untangle the arcane threads that bind Shera but discovers that the process requires more power or practice than he can conjure up in the present. That revelation represents real progress. However, the episode makes clear that Diablo will not solve the issue any time soon. In the end, he walks away with a new slave-binding stone, which he will later use to enslave Klem. Instead of liberating his human property holdings, he expands them!

(A note from the source material: as of the illustrations in volume 10 of the light novel, both Rem and Shera still wear their collars. With an 11th volume forthcoming, it seems obvious that the writer puts little stock in resolving the slavery plot…)

In the other eleven-ish episodes, the slave collars drift into the background. Demon Lord has three rough plot arcs: Diablo defends of the city from the Fallen, Shera has a family dispute with elven royalty, and Rem releases the demon lord imprisoned inside of her. However, the slave magic only has narrative consequence twice. In Shera’s arc, Diablo uses the collar to override a mind control spell and force Shera to speak her true feelings and, in Rem’s arc, Diablo enslaves Klem to protect her from persecution in the city after he subdues her berserk demon lord form. If we ignore the gross irony of empowering a woman by forcing her to speak and freeing a child by enslaving her, I suppose both arc conclusions made clever use of the show’s premise.  But as with the comedy, the slavery themes appear so infrequently as to seem almost unnecessary. Why bother with the slave collars when some other fantasy trope like say, soul-binding, would work just as well?

The obvious answer is, of course, ecchi. Demon Lord knows its target market and knows that sex sells. And whatever, that’s fine. Ecchi fills a valid role between “straight-up hentai” and conventional anime. I may not personally like it, but people can have their kinks as long as they do not harm others. I won’t condemn Demon Lord for its fan service when that is a primary goal of the show in the first place.

By the standards of the isekai genre, Demon Lord even handles it’s erotic scenes better than most ecchi anime (a low, low bar…). Each of the girls develop reasons to like Diablo and the ecchi often has narrative relevance, no matter how weak (why again do boobs recharge mana points?). When Diablo uses magic on the girls in some compromising softcore-sexualizing way, they agree to participate both because they trust him and because it will advance the plot. Demon Lord pushes boundaries on the child sexualization front by making the two main girls teenagers and Klem a… what is she? A millennia old loli demon..? (she is simultaneously the oldest ~and~ youngest character). However, keep that low bar in mind. I can’t believe I have to say this, but at least Demon Lord doesn’t plop a frightened elementary-aged slave-girl in a bath full of naked, sexually aggressive middle-to-high-school girls competing to seduce the main character like Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria did in its bath episode. If Valkyria’s bar is on the floor, I can slip a toe under Demon Lord’s. As far as isekai ecchi goes, it restrains itself fairly well.

But surprisingly, even here the show’s central premise barely figures into the apparent genre goals of the series. As with the comedy and the narrative, slavery has almost no relevance in the ecchi scenes. Though the girls wear collars, actual bondage only appears once in the erotic scenes when a slime monster attacks Shera. Instead, the show relies on fairly vanilla ecchi nonsense: panty and side-boob shots, accidental strip teases, and implausible misunderstandings layered with innuendo. The slave collars become nothing but an aesthetic tick that the artists could have satisfied just as easily with a cat collar on Rem, some elegant elven choker on Shera, or a hunk of neck armor on Klem.

So again, if the slavery has no role in the comedy, minimal significance in the isekai adventure, and only minor aesthetic implications in the ecchi, why include it? I have only one more guess: simple eye-catching shock value to sell books and draw in viewers. In English, the title How Not to Summon a Demon Lord looks innocuous. But remember, the manga-anime industrial complex focuses almost exclusively on the Japanese domestic market. We need to examine the Japanese title, Isekai Maou to Shoukan Shoujo no Dorei Majutsu or literally “The Isekai Demon King and the Summoner Girls’ Slave Magic.”

Glancing at the physical manga and light novel volumes, the Japanese characters for “dorei majutsu” or “slave magic” shimmer a bright green in the title. The English words “slave magic” even appear as the largest and most prominent on the cover, title page, table of contents, and most of the promotional materials. In a bookstore aisle flooded with such uninspired nonsense as “isekai labyrinth,” “isekai foundation,” “isekai magic,” and yes, “isekai smartphone” this series will draw eyes. The eBook version especially succeeds in this regard by highlighting “dorei majutsu” in solid green while the rest of the title fades out into pink. Given that manga and light novel sales have shifted towards the digital market, I suspect publishers wanted the title’s keywords to pop out on even more on a small cellphone screen.

That’s it. The publishers know that consumers will judge a book by its cover and settled on “slave magic” to get as many people looking at that cover as possible. It’s just a cynical marketing move. And well, I can’t argue with success. As I said in the introduction, I only picked up the show because the words “slave magic” baffled me. The cheap pulp sensationalism worked on this sucker at the very least…

Demon Lord Back Cover
Do I need to point out the emphasis on “slave magic?”

But was it worth it?

To answer, let me start with a myth. I’ll call it the “happy slave” myth.

It goes something like this. A paternal, or sometimes maternal, master comes into possession of one or more human beings. The master places literal emphasis on the paternal/maternal feature of the relationship, claiming to love the slaves as children in one big happy family. The mythmakers suggest that the slaves made a good, honest living, laboring in the fields or kitchen or wherever else. In return, the master provides “fair” compensation: housing, food, medical care, and maybe even a small stipend to save up and buy their freedom someday. The enslaved can live in full security, in an ironic way free from the economic anxiety of obtaining their daily bread. If they work, the master will provide. Ah, an idyllic time! (a time that is, for some people, still the present).

Of course, that description tacks more towards the dishonest fictions of American racialized chattel slavery common to Confederate apologists. But the myth is easy to twist into a cruel justification of slavery across history and cultures. Since this is primarily an anime blog, I will give two Japanese examples:

  1. I once had a professor of Japanese literature appeal to the “happy slave” myth by suggesting that the covert sex slavery of Meiji period Japan, depicted in Fumiko Enchi’s novel The Waiting Years, represented an early form of female empowerment, as if pillow talk with powerful men counted as a form of independent female power.
  2. The same professor used the “happy slave” myth to argue that wartime “comfort women” employed by the Japanese military did not qualify as slaves because they volunteered as prostitutes for money. Of course, he ignored that many were tricked or forced into bondage.

I won’t go into depth with rebuttals of the various “happy slave” myths. Given the vast diversity of human experience, I am sure some minority of slaves considered themselves happy. But that does not exonerate the entire institution. The historical record of atrocity speaks for itself. Suffice to say, owning another person is wrong.

But here is my point: slavery still exists in the world and modern, educated people like my old professor continue to use the “happy slave” myth to argue that historical instances of the institution “weren’t that bad.” Even worse, the myth carries an insidious implication. If the mythmakers can salvage the moral respectability of some historical abuse, they can use the same argument to justify that same behavior in the present or future. For example, a false historical claim that Southern plantation slaves were “happy” suggests that if slavery had never been abolished or were even resurrected today, it might benefit the enslaved. That sort of argument can extend into the realm of fiction, where narratives that employ the “happy slave” myth can reinforce misunderstandings about the historical brutality of slavery.

The role of fiction brings me back to How Not to Summon a Demon Lord. The show never once depicts slavery in a negative light. The girls come to love Diablo because he does not abuse his power as a master and even treats them as equals, like he should as a modern man with modern morals. But Demon Lord doesn’t show other slaves suffer under different masters that do possess the authoritarian worldviews that Alicia laments in the final episode. Beyond the main cast, the only slaves that appear in the show are the cheery cat girls sipping tea at the slave market in episode 6. It’s the “happy slave” myth with an isekai paint job.

True to its genre, How Not to Summon a Demon Lord is a power fantasy. As a level 150 character, Diablo has no challengers in the mortal realm. He easily defeated Galford and Saddler, two of the strongest human warriors in the empire and, by the end of the series, has even subdued a literal god supposedly capable of killing every mortal in the world. Diablo has the power to do whatever he fantasizes. So why does he not fantasize about abolishing slavery? Is he indifferent to the suffering it causes? No, because as presented via the “happy slave” myth, it does not actually cause suffering. That isn’t slavery. It’s a crass whitewashing of what may be the ugliest economic institution that humanity has ever produced.

I am not a prude and I often tire of the social media purity quest to declare anyone and anything “problematic.” Slavery has a place in fiction if treated with the gravity it deserves given its historical role in destroying millions of human lives. However, Demon Lord’s glib treatment of the topic just doesn’t cut it. The show doesn’t even pay lip service to real harms inflicted on the enslaved. Instead, it gleefully commits itself to the “happy slave” myth and pretends that nothing is wrong. To be clear, I don’t think Demon Lord’s mere existence is necessarily harmful. People can separate fantasy from reality to enjoy questionable fiction while still disagreeing with certain ugly themes. But I just don’t understand how Demon Lord seems to have escaped popular critical scrutiny.

I just don’t understand how so many people on forums and blogs and review sites and reddit threads could ignore the slavery issue in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord. I read so many reviews and comments that tossed out some half-hearted statement along the lines of “the slavery makes me uncomfortable but…” before engaging with the show as if it were just another mediocre isekai loaded with fan service. The slavery element gets explained away as nothing more than cheap ecchi appeal to otaku with a bondage fetish. Of course, the ecchi part holds up to an extent, but as I discussed in the first part of this post, slavery has a smaller role in the erotic scenes than it would appear with a cursory glance.

I just don’t understand how Demon Lord became the most popular series of the summer 2018 season (excluding sequels). Take these statistics with a grain of salt because of probable self-selection bias, but consider this: Demon Lord has about 140,000 “members” and a solid 7/10 rating on MyAnimeList. On AniDB, it is the #1 most popular show of 2018. The reddit discussion thread for its final episode drew 643 comments. On this blog itself, 55% of all views have gone to my impression post on the first episode. How Not To Summon a Demon Lord dominated the (non-sequel) summer 2018 season in the English-speaking anime community.

I just don’t understand…

But that’s a lie. I do understand. I understand the reviewers that papered over the slavery issue to focus on more savory features of the series because part one of this post did precisely that. I understand the many positive reactions to the series because, as I said in the introduction, I agree with them. Demon Lord exceeds my expectations for a video game isekai anime. It had solid art and production values, decent enough narrative arcs, and some fun-enough comedy. Hell, I even liked the awkward, modestly self-aware protagonist for his satirical take on overpowered anime heroes and copy-cat video game settings. I understand because when I closed my eyes and ignored the slavery, Demon Lord became the most enjoyable anime of the season.

I understand, and that understanding ashames me a little. Just as the “happy slave” myth cannot justify the abuses of historical slavery, my enjoyment of How Not to Summon A Demon Lord cannot justify its flippant treatment of such a serious topic. Again, I am not saying that slavery has no role in fiction or even sexual fantasies. But slavery shouldn’t be fun for everyone. At the very least, fiction that employs the “happy slave” myth should approach it with appropriate nuance by depicting any good with the overwhelming bad. By failing to examine what it means to own a fellow human being, Demon Lord makes slavery benign. And for what? To establish a cheap premise and cash in on a cynical marketing move? Was that worth it?

To answer, I have to ask another. For who? For the writer and publisher, the answer is a clear “yes.”  With a ten volume light novel, a seven volume manga, and a twelve episode anime, Demon Lord has already made it’s million bucks, both metaphorical and literal. For the fans that can swallow the slavery without any of my stomach ache, the enthusiastic following online suggests a “yes” too. But for me? Oh no, absolutely not, because I suspect that for the victims of slavery both dead and living, the answer would also be “no.”

Ultimately, I suppose it doesn’t matter. Unlike Diablo trapped with the absurd power to rule a world in which he does not belong, as a foreign resident commenting in the wrong language, I have no power to change the Japanese anime-manga-light novel publishing industry. Even within the English-speaking anime community, I can’t tell people what not to like and I won’t condemn anyone that did enjoy Demon Lord because, sure, I enjoyed it too. But I also have a conviction that the show’s thematic use of the “happy slave” myth tars it with an irrevocable black mark.

I don’t know what to do with that contradiction. In a perverse way, the power fantasy has made me feel powerless.

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