On Watching Trash Anime
Recently, I watched several episodes of Mushoku Tensei (Jobless Reincarnation).
Having said that, dear reader, I would like you to now participate in the following exercise: Please purge the aforementioned information from your head. This show is garbage; the more you know about what transpires throughout its runtime, the less you will think of me as a person for having watched it. If you are unfamiliar with this show, I ask that you do not look it up, in an attempt to satiate your piqued interest and find out exactly why I am sidestepping discussing its details. You may think that I am using this type of curiosity-bait introduction as a literary device, egging you on implicitly to do exactly the opposite of what my literal words suggest — ha ha, it sure would be inconvenient if you thought about a pink elephant right now, or something along those lines. No. I implore you: please do not familiarize yourself with this show.
To say that this series is problematic is underselling things. Plenty of problematic consumable media exists in the world, and there are a number of reasonable ways to choose to engage with it. It’s fair to come to differing conclusions on such things, especially since the core reason why something can be off-putting can differ greatly in ambiguity. A show that depicts one individual murdering another, painting it in the context that “murder is wrong,” technically depicts brutality, but seems relatively easy to process; it likely doesn’t challenge your existing moral compass, unless you happen to be an unrepentant murderer. The murkier bits tend to come when contextualizing a work with an author’s personal actions, or — more relevantly, in this case — when something that would run afoul of the average person’s worldview is presented without commentary, or even promoted as a seeming positive. Attempting to reconcile this type of thing with a work’s redeeming qualities is the type of thing that leads people to write philosophical essays guiding further critical interpretation, or, alternatively, blog posts about an extremely sus anime that they just watched.
I’m no stranger to this particular song and dance. I listen to plenty of rap, a genre notorious enough for its artists failing to separate the construction of fictional tales of criminal behavior from their own, actual, criminal behavior that there are songs and comedy skits about this phenomenon. There are many tracks I enjoy made by awful people who have done awful things; sometimes the songs are about the awful things they have done. This isn’t genre-specific, though; if you listen to classic rock, there’s a reasonable chance some of your favorite artists are pedophiles, and might have even made a song or two about it. What you do with this information is up to you. I fall pretty far along the axis of trying to ignore all context and deriving all the enjoyment you can out of something, with some admittedly counter-arguable justifications: it would be a shame to completely discard all value in something just because part of it is rotten; I implicitly vow to not propagate or advocate for the problematic part of the media; I’m confident enough in my views to trust that I have a pretty good handle on when and why things are bad, at large. I understand completely that others’ perspectives will disagree with my own here, both on what constitutes “a thing that is bad” and the processes and consequences of dealing with it.
Let’s set all that aside for a minute, though, and talk about Mushoku Tensei again. This show is an isekai anime, which are two descriptors that should theoretically not set off any inherent alarm bells, but, in practice, are basically an air raid siren. Anime just means Japanese animation; the pedant in me would argue that “anime is not a genre,” but in reality, it has developed as such. Much of its popular material shares similar tropes, cross-actual-genre; most of them suck. For example, “fan service” would sound like a good thing if you were unfamiliar with the term, but in an anime context, it generally means uncomfortable hypersexualization alongside cut-rate jokes involving indecency and/or exploitation of women; popular anime is infested with this trash, because people that like it also tend to spend money on media and merchandise, meaning shows that engage in it get funded disproportionately to their inherent quality, causing more of said shows to be made — rinse, repeat.
I’m not here to talk about how the ills of a capitalist process can produce vicious cycles, though; I’m here to discuss bad shows. The bigger problem plaguing a lot of popular anime is relatively mundane, actually; it’s simply Bad Writing. There are many, many, many forms of this — flat characters, incoherent plotlines, stilted dialogue, take your pick — but it’s not as if those are genre-specific problems, although anecdotally I’d say they crop up more often (or more obviously) in anime than in other media. (The reasons for this could likely spawn an essay of their own.) As a viewer, then, you end up playing the game of extracting merit from the flawed whole — and there is merit! A large part of the appeal of anime is that (again, addressing it as a genre): anime tend to be excellent at coming up with inventive or wild concepts, or at least ones that have enough consistent intrigue to hook the audience, which brings us neatly to the second descriptor above.
“Isekai” just means “different world.” It’s become a shorthand for an entire genre of anime/manga where the protagonist gets transported to, well, a different world. It’s not hard to see why it took off as a genre; there’s basically always immediate narrative stakes (how are they going to survive?), intrigue (why did this happen?), viewer relatability (hey, this is an everyday person who knows about things in Real Life but they’re dropped in a fantasy narrative!), and a bunch of other out-of-the-box story-building presets that have been proven to be effective at drawing an audience. It’s not even a new concept for a popular story — something like the Chronicles of Narnia is basically an isekai, with much the same hooks. In the abstract, it’s a rather innocuous premise.
Unfortunately, the paint-by-numbers nature of building an appealing narrative in this genre has made the usually difficult-to-attain table stakes of piquing viewers’ interest relatively low-hanging fruit, and like moths to a flame, has drawn in a bunch of Bad Writers¹. The tropes are numerous, and plague nearly every show of this kind to some extent. There are bland, blank-slate Gary Stu main characters, who can do no wrong, and are meant to be wish-fullfillment self-inserts; there are female characters with one-dimensional personalities, each of which is meant to appeal to the specific preferences of a different subset of viewers, who are attracted to the main character for no particular reason. If their plotlines were lighthearted fantasy adventures, these shows would merely make for bland popcorn entertainment, but inevitably these stories purposefully (or accidentally) try to handle heavy subject matter — things that require serious nuance to navigate properly, like genocide or rape — and offensively botch the execution of these narratives, in a manner somewhere between the realms of “off-putting” and “genuinely appalling.”
I’ve watched a fair number of these shows — enough to be familiar with the tropes, at least; feel free to judge me for that. Socially, we’ve lessened the stigma around watching trash; from B-movies to Bee Movie to the Bachelor (which also starts with a B do you see what I did there), there’s a proud consensus centralized around enjoyment of the lowbrow. I admit to being the type of person who revels in this particular brand of stupid — I’ve written multiple posts here cataloguing my experience watching Jake Paul fight — but that doesn’t actually fly as a justification for watching isekai. The problem with most isekai is not that they’re naively simplistic or low-budget or campy or just kinda weird execution of ideas that have merit, as with most of the socially acceptable “bad things to watch”; it’s that they normalize problematic behavior, usually specifically along gender lines. Shows routinely fail the Bechdel test. Main characters will engage in behavior that qualifies as sexual assault, but it’s played for comedy. Sometimes, new lows are creatively reached: in one extremely popular isekai, the main character buys a female character as a slave, but it’s cool because he treats her okay for a while; he eventually frees her from slavery, at which point she willingly reenslaves herself to him. I leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether such a storyline should be handled as this show does, which is to say, without any introspection or self-awareness; the protagonist owns a slave, but it’s for the right reasons! Quick, look over here, now he’s fighting a dragon, ooh, scary.
This pattern makes the average isekai-anime-watching experience pretty far along the scale of stoking the fires of uncomfortable engagement, psychologically. I should note that this is true for me, but it clearly isn’t for everyone; many of these shows are, as mentioned, extremely popular, in a way that suggests people are either unaware of (or unperturbed by) the depth of the issues with what the shows are depicting. This reaction is somewhat reminiscent of the viewer response to Breaking Bad, a show which clearly communicated that its protagonist was a horrible person, yet had viewers rooting for him anyway. Isekai tends to go one step further, and ask: how would we react if Breaking Bad hadn’t been overt that Walter White was a bad guy? What if the show had actually been “Walter White sells meth and murders people, but he’s justified because his initial provocation was somewhat morally okay; also, every female character is in love with him, and there are never any negative consequences for his bad behavior?” If this weren’t a prestige show on a major Western television network, it would have MyAnimeList reviews scoring 9/10, talking about the badass protagonist who made exploding meth.
I have a pretty high tolerance for garbage, and I’m willing to hold my nose in diving through this particular dumpster, because the payoffs are there. I mentioned the overall proclivity toward inventive concepts earlier, but it can really be anything — a show will have tropey and/or problematic arcs interspersed with well-written, genuinely touching character development, for example. Suffering from the symptoms of Bad Writing does not mean everything in a particular show is written poorly. Viewing and enjoyment exist on various axes, including how far you’re willing to detach yourself from events transpiring on screen, and how much mental stimulation you happen to be deriving from said events; at any given time, watching a show (or reading a book, listening to a song, etc etc) with anything potentially offensive or troublesome is an implicit calculus between these axes — am I not off-put enough that I can still enjoy this? Do the stimulating parts here counterbalance the deadweight? Was the part that I like the equivalent of the blind squirrel author accidentally stumbling upon a grain of good storytelling, given that this part over here should have been immediately scrapped by anyone with a functioning sense of morality?
There isn’t a perfect answer to these questions, which I admit is somewhat of a copout. Hopefully by this point I have convinced you that, if I say I like a show, or if I say I watched it — an implicit admission that I found enough redeeming values within to keep not-watching — it is not a condonation of any of the particular actions, events, or attitudes that happen to be on display. It is easy to conflate things as such, though. I often find that this nuance is lacking in anime reviews, specifically, even in ones that portend towards criticism; people will mention that they didn’t like a particular arc, but it won’t be because a female lead, previously established as a strong, independent character, has been gratuitously reduced to a damsel in weirdly, specifically fetishistic distress. (This is the plot of the second arc of another extremely popular isekai.) Rather, it will be because of something surface-level (“the action scenes were less well-animated”), or, perhaps stranger, they will recognize a different, specific, singular branch of the tree of Bad Writing — e.g. “the plot didn’t make as much sense” — and ignore the rest of the forest smacking them in the face. Even more commonly, they just leave a positive review, liking the show straight-up with a worrying lack of reservations. Charitably, I ascribe this to the idea that the people writing these reviews are likely 14 years old, or thereabouts, but I’ve been to a few anime conventions: there are many adult fans; it isn’t always so.
The flip side of this coin is that anime tends to get a bad rap in outside contexts, too, for the opposite reason — a perception that these shows are childish, with little redeeming value. There are entire social circles I’m in where I could never, ever, ever talk about watching most — if not all — of the anime and/or isekai I’ve seen. This is not altogether unfair! To take a thought experiment: were I to argue successfully for the merits of watching an isekai of choice, effectively enough that I was able to convince my counterparts in these circles that they should, in fact, watch it, most of them would (rightfully) be horrified by the awful tropes prominently on display, right alongside the things that I assured them were the reasons I was engaging with the content. I would be cast under suspicion, and subsequently thrown out of the airlock separating “the company of people who like normal things and function in society” from the desolate space of the other. When the majority of people that like your thing seem to like it for the wrong reasons, the Bayesian prior is that you are probably also in that group, and the immediacy of prevalent degeneracy stacks the deck against you; you are given very little space to argue that you’re “not like the other girls.”
I have wondered what this mindset says about me, as a person, on a meta level. I’ve described it above as the equivalent of dumpster diving, which begs the question: why are you diving through this particular dumpster? Lots of media exists in the world; there are many other dumpsters, many of which likely smell less bad, and — in fact — there are things that aren’t dumpsters at all! I could be watching critically acclaimed shows; it’s not as if sci-fi and fantasy are unpopular genres. Perhaps this is sophistry — maybe this entire post is, I don’t know — but my justification is something along the lines of why people watch the more acceptable form of lowbrow entertainment: the high points of the particular type of cheese in these shows are higher, and thus more entertaining, than their polished counterparts elsewhere. It is an ongoing process to check myself, reaffirming that this is actually the reason: that I haven’t slipped, relaxed my guard and normalized that I am not repulsed by, or comfortable with, or — God forbid — advocating for the questionable parts of these shows. I worry that I’ve in part fallen into one of the first two, since my usual reaction to yet another problematic trope showing up on screen is just to wait for the scene to blow by, so that the show can get back to doing whatever it does well, instead of immediately turning it off and never watching again. There are a few shows I’ve seen that have crossed the line, though — where the value judgment of “there aren’t enough intriguing parts in this” juxtaposed with “too much sus content” meant that I did, in fact, turn off the show and never watch again — so I think I’m okay; the calculus is still there, even if I’ve been desensitized somewhat, and the bar for the latter is much lower than it should be.
This brings us, again, full circle, to Mushoku Tensei. You may notice that I have provided specific (and really awful!) examples of some of the story beats in other isekai anime above, while carefully avoiding talking about what happens in this particular show. That is because it is worse than anything I have previously described; the events in this show are not defensible, at all. The protagonist does horrible things, and is presented in a sympathetic manner; the best I can say is that the show tacitly recognizes some of the bad parts of what’s going on, but completely glosses over others, in a way that creepingly-awfully reveals that it doesn’t actually intend to address its major underlying issues. As of writing, this show has an 8.3/10 on MyAnimeList, ranking it within the top 200 shows to ever air, according to anime reviewers. This is incredibly worrisome.
And yet I watched it! It takes less than a minute into the first episode for an event to happen that does not pass the bar of common decency. A normal person would have turned it off at that point. I did not; further, worse things happened, and I persisted. I will say that the high reviews are not the reason why I sought out this show to begin with. It was actually the opposite: I went in with the mindset (expressed verbatim, at the time) of “yo, what if I watch some trash, though.” I read the plot of this show; sure seemed to qualify as trash — the tropes were there, staring me in the face, not even hidden behind the veneer of a generic description of a fantasy story. I was shocked by the depths to which the show immediately sunk. In some senses, I was content-farming — what’s out there? How bad is it, really? But that is legitimate sophistry — the reality is that I was actually intrigued by other parts of the show, and trapped somewhat by its sneakily clever ability to bait its audience with the promise of good storytelling. Something awful and nauseating would happen, followed by five to ten minutes of effective worldbuilding, and a faintly alluded-to carrot of self-awareness at the end of the stick. The protagonist recognizes a lesser flaw in himself; maybe this will snowball fixing the greater issues, and we can cut back on the disgusting shock value scenes until only the “interesting fantasy world” premise remains; play the next episode, and the show does something even more repugnant — one step forward, many steps back.
I did stop watching this show, at a moment where something completely unconscionable was supposedly about to happen onscreen, somewhere around seven or eight episodes in. This show had proven itself to be written in a manner predisposed towards baiting its viewers, so I suspect that this thing would not have actually happened, but the particular waters it was treading in were so far beyond the bounds of anything acceptable that I didn’t want to stick around and find out; this wasn’t even its first foray into this particular subject matter, but it was certainly the one that went the furthest.
It is entirely possible that, by sticking around for seven-ish episodes, I have ended up on a watch list somewhere. This post, in its entirety, could be interpreted as a pretentious justification of my actions, to be read later at my arraignment as unimpeachable, accidental self-incrimination; I am left wondering whether that viewpoint might, in fact, be correct. I assure you that I was horrified by this show — the question of “why wasn’t this enough to make you cut and run earlier?” eats at me. My answer lies somewhere in the confluence of: I was actually intrigued by some things, morbidly intrigued by others in the same way that you rubberneck while driving past a car accident, and — despite both of these — that, also, my value judgment system might legitimately be broken, and need recalibrating. The real trick of this show, then, was not that it made me uncomfortable with its events, but rather that it caused me to distrust the reliability of my own internal narration; I’m contemplating watching some (different) trash, to decompress.
 I recognize the inherent irony of using trite analogies when talking about other people’s subpar writing.