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Searching for happiness in ‘other worlds’: Utopias and dystopias in Japanese isekai

This thesis focuses on the popular, but under-researched genre, of isekai. Although the wider medium umbrella under which isekai falls — anime, manga and light novels — have received increasing critical attention, the isekai is a genre that has only begun to be academically explored over the last three to four years, particularly from 2020 onwards. Literally translating to ‘another world,’ it is a branch of the familiar portal-quest fantasy category that has, particularly in recent years, formed its own, distinctive formulas and tropes. This thesis makes an important contribution to unpacking and understanding this surprisingly complex and nuanced genre that offers readers and viewers both entertainment, and a way of thinking about relevant issues to do with personal happiness and self-fulfilment. In this thesis, I will offer an analysis of three isekai narratives through the primary lens of utopian and dystopian discourse, highlighting the way in which the isekai explores both human desires and fears. Hybridity is a key finding of my analysis, with the genre not only juxtaposing and combining utopia and dystopia, but also, old and new worlds, portal-quest and immersive fantasy elements, and Western and Japanese literary and cultural perspectives. This hybridity points to the entangled, interconnected nature of utopia and dystopia itself. The three texts I have chosen all follow the contemporary isekai trend of featuring adult protagonists (as opposed to teenagers), the “Japanese Salaryman/woman”, worn out by work and modern society. The three series that I analyse are That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime (2014) by Fuse, By the Grace of the Gods (2017) by Roy, and I’ve Been Killing Slimes For 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level (2017) by Kisetsu Morita. Each of these new worlds is structured in a way that encourages the protagonist to embrace personal desires that were suppressed on Earth, and provides a sense of healing. With the skills and knowledge inherited from Earth, combined alongside the new abilities the protagonists gain as they are reincarnated or summoned into the new world, the central characters are granted the opportunity to create a new, utopian life for themselves. By extension, they exert an influence on the land and people around them to ultimately forge a more utopian world. The way that the protagonists navigate and explore their relationship between both old and new worlds, as well as their old and new selves, further reveals a more complex relationship between utopia and dystopia. The recurring cultural aspects present in these texts, most notably cuisine and business practices, emphasises the desire for cultural fusion, as well as offering insightful social critique. While the new world also contains dystopian elements, I propose that the isekai can be viewed as a new reimagining of a Japanese utopia.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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