The Moe-fication of Isekai

Trends come and go, and anime genres are no exception. Tracking the rise and fall of various subgenres over the years can be enlightening in a cultural sense, such as the fall of the mecha genre during the 2010s, or how magical-girl shows have arguably seen a similar (if not greater) decline within the same decade. The biggest success in the 2010s though was probably the isekai genre, which was a genre that was extremely fortuitous to explode in popularity at the same time when streaming revolutionized the entire industry and fandom, and has gone strong until just very recently. Now it’s regarded with an almost comical level of disgust (to the point where hating isekai feels almost as tired a joke as the genre itself), even though I’ll agree that the genre has started to run low on not just material, but what also feels like basic creativity. Which is why I’m not surprised at what we’ve started to see in just the past two years: isekai is now seeing its own moe-boom

I know this sounds strange at first, since moe has effectively become so widespread that seeing shows that don’t have any aspect of it are now rather rare, but I want to make it clear that while we have been seeing isekai with moe aspects since, well, the genre’s inception, isekai recently has started to show not just stronger aspects of moe, but full-on influence that’s setting it apart from what we’ve come to expect of the “standard” isekai experience. What is that experience, you might ask? Well… I’d argue it’s what made isekai such a driving force in the 2010s: it was the power-fantasy anime genre of the decade.

I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the mecha and magical-girl genres both saw their decline right as the isekai genre started to get big, and although there were other factors to consider (mecha’s rising costs of production, and magical-girl never quite getting over the deconstructionist masterpiece that was Madoka Magica), isekai was almost engineered to be a genre popular with people who wanted “identifiable action”, a genre where they can easily see themselves reflected in via the lead character(s). That basic rule said, it also has to be noted that despite the naysayers, isekai does have a good amount of variety to it, from standard shonen like Sword Art Online, to more complex world-building-focused stuff like Log Horizon, to subversive comedies like Konosuba, to even its own deconstructionist works like Re:zero and Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash. Now however, we’ve reached the point where isekai has become so saturated that there’s even a show that’s a shameless crossover between multiple properties, and it too works really well (for the record, I adore Isekai Quartet). Isekai is not just a genre solely focused on a stand-in protagonist, it is one where said protagonist can face a variety of scenarios and levels of difficulty, from a basic plot about beating the world, to even the polar opposite where the world actively wants to hurt the protagonist back for daring to face it.

However, another genre that did extremely well in the 2010s, perhaps even better than isekai, was the moe genre. Although it had existed for decades before as an visual style for anime, as an actual genre moe started to see a groundswell in the 2000s with shows like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star, and Clannad, but it was through the breakthrough hit of 2009’s K-On! that the genre hit its stride, and has not stopped since. Unlike isekai though, moe isn’t usually a power-fantasy; instead it’s a genre that’s… just pleasant to watch. Where isekai is like a mindless summer blockbuster, moe is more like a romantic comedy, something you can get invested in as well, but where you can also just turn your brain off too all the same. While cute girls doing cute things also has its own scale of variety like isekai (from the bizarre-ness of Nichijo to more competition based stuff like Girls Und Panzer, to much more thoughtful stuff like A Place Further Than the Universe), it also can and does fall into stuff you just want to turn into for when you want to turn yourself off. So, it kind of figures that we’re starting to see a heavier integration between the two genres.

Isekai has had moe influence throughout its decade of success, but as I said earlier it’s within the last two years that the melding between the two genres is kicking into overdrive, where we’re now actually seeing shows that are about cute girls doing cute things while being transported to a fantasy world. One of the most well-received recent isekai was last year’s Ascendance of a Bookworm, and one of the surprise hits of last season was Bofuri. Along with this season’s My Next Life as a Villainess, and previous outings like Didn’t I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life? (well at least they’re not changing their overly long light novel names… yay…), moe is now having a much more notable influence on isekai. And oddly enough, you could argue too was because of SAO, thanks to its spin-off show Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online .

I had no idea it was possible for SAO to ruin anime twice, but honestly I’m more surprised this didn’t happen sooner. Maybe it did take isekai overstaying its welcome for moe to come in and make its presence in the genre much more apparent, but really, the two go together like french fries and a milkshake: greasiness and sweetness, in surprising harmony. Because the two genres do manage to treat each other’s problems, with cute-girls-doing-cute-things removing (or at least lessening) the worn-out pretense of “we’ve got to save the world”, while isekai gives CGDCT some sort of heightened stakes, be it fighting monsters, or just videogame style progression in order to finish some sort of task or achievement. It might be a cynical evolution of a subgenre, but it’s a logical one all the same.

Now, I am not saying this to annoy fans/haters of either genre (… okay, maybe I am a little), but this is something worth paying attention to, since we could see another period of stagnation of what was once a fresh idea, and truth be told I have enjoyed both of the base genres in some instance. Log Horizon remains one of my favorite isekai (and I am so psyched that it’s finally getting a third season), and A Place Further than the Universe proved that CGDCT could have genuine substance, enough to be a standout show in what was a packed year for good anime. Hell, I’m still enjoying Isekai Quartet, and I’ll recommend Boarding School Juliet to anyone who wants a moe-influenced show that’s cute, while being a legitimately funny romantic comedy. But that’s the thing: adopting a new visual style and way of storytelling can only give isekai newfound life for so long. Like mecha before it, it will inevitably see a decline when a hot new thing comes along and knocks it completely off its pedestal (and the same goes for moe/CGDCT, given what happened to magical-girl). Neither genre will go away completely, but when they’re deciding to become close bedfellows with one another… maybe the end of their reign is coming sooner than we think?

Part-time writer, media essayist, and film school graduate residing in Portland, OR. He/his. As seen on Tay2, opposite-lock, and Unwinnble. @Dennisthatsit.

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