As a long-time MMORPG player, the isekai genre fascinates me for its almost complete adoption of video game tropes following the wild success of Sword Art Online. Though isekai, and even virtual world MMO isekai, predate Sword Art Online, that one franchise seems to have turned the entire genre into a wish-fulfillment fantasy playground for otaku. Especially in the light novel arena, isekai has become a Japan-specific modern analogue for the scandalous dime novels or trashy pulp fiction of the past. Every season seems to pump out another MMO-esque isekai setting, from shameless ecchi harems like Isekai no Smartphone to legitimate parodies of the current industry craze like KonoSuba.
This season is no exception. By my initial count, summer 2018 introduced three new isekai anime. The first, How Not to Summon a Demon Lord, grossed me out with its glib slavery premise and the second, Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria, exceeded even Demon Lord in eliciting disgust (I repeat: it is the worst television production I have ever seen. ). With that mess as competition, I immediately crowned the third, Shichisei no Subaru (English: Seven Senses of the Reunion), the best isekai of the season before even watching it.
But then I ran into a problem. After watching the first three episodes, I realized that Subaru didn’t fit my initial isekai genre label. Thought about 70% of the show takes place in a virtual reality video game world, the narrative remains well-grounded in an exploration of very real grief after the death and virtual reincarnation of a childhood friend.
I was too hasty in my coronation. Subaru is not just another cheap wish-fulfillment otaku exploitation flick set in an MMO-esque fantasy. It has a mystery! It has decently sympathetic characters! It even has identifiable themes! None of those features exactly impressed me; the first three episodes earn a solid “just okay.” However, it does deserve credit for trying to tell it’s own story in a genre full of generic copy-cat nonsense.
But then I ran into another problem. Subaru wasn’t just telling it’s own story. I had heard this premise before… the ghost of a young girl returns to haunt a reclusive otaku years after her early death, thus forcing him to reunite with his now-distant childhood friends to solve the mystery and overcome unresolved grief… hmmm… is this… AnoHana? Pretty much, yeah. Essentially, Subaru cuts the narrative out of AnoHana and pastes it into a generic MMO-inspired video game world. Again, Subaru isn’t exactly bad. It is just astoundingly unoriginal.
Subaru’s odd combination of a serious grief narrative with a typical farcical MMO setting did make me think though. Can a writer shove any theme into a video game world and produce a compelling story? Or does the setting only excel at generic self-insert wish-fulfillment? Have MMO-esque fantasies proliferated in the anime industry because they possess some genuine storytelling utility? Or are they just a cynical way to capture the gamer-otaku market?
Unfortunately, the first three episodes of Shichisei no Subaru push me towards the cynical conclusion. AnoHana does not fit well inside Sword Art Online. Video game settings should not simply replace straight fantasy; they need some thematic connection to the real debate over the meaning and value of virtual realities. Otherwise, stories like Subaru’s might as well simply exist in the the real world. But unfortunately for Subaru, AnoHana already exists.
Continue reading “Shichisei no Subaru: thinking about video game settings in anime”