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I’m not a fan of most Isekai stories – stories of a person ending up in another world and are very prominent in manga and anime. Yes, there are wonderful genre classics like The Wizard of Oz and Fushigi Yuugi. There are good ones in today’s anime world, like the stellar The Faraway Paladin (watch it and prepare to cry). Too many of them get right up my nose as obvious power fantasies without much else beyond wish fulfillment.

Something else I’m not a fan of is conspiracy theories. I’ve watched them consume people’s minds, poison discourse, and lead to a violent attack on America’s Capitol. In a recent fit of contemplation and podcast-binging, I realized conspiracy theories are bad Isekai stories.

It is not a pleasant realization – and writing this made it more troubling.

First, both bad Isekai and conspiracy theories are about victimhood. The more pandering Isekai are about someone getting to be great, mighty, find revenge or whatever in their new world. Conspiracy theorists are also grievance-ridden and looking for someone to take it out on – and in their fantasies they hurt real people.

Isekai (good and bad) and conspiracy theories are oft about being special. That makes sense as a manga titled “I Went To Medieval Times And Died Of Disease” has a limited audience. However, in too many Isekai, the power trip is the point, leading to a story that only works if it pushes your buttons. I find this no different from how many conspiracy theorists believe they’re on a special mission from God or a secret agency to fight evil (when really they’re just toys of grifters).

Both Conspiracy theories and Isekai promise simplicity and are usually gamified. Many modern Isekai are based on game ideas and thus have obvious villains and heroic goals – defeat the Demon Lord, get the girl, etc. Conspiracy theories promise to make sense of the complex world and as scholars have noted resemble LARPS (Live Action Role Playing Games).

Finally, find a lot of bad Isekai dehumanizing and most conspiracy theories to be dehumanizing. Too much Isekai is about the hero you’re supposed to identify and a world of cardboard cutouts to knock around. Conspiracy theorists are glad to dehumanize people, sorting them into simple categories and wishing or bringing harm on people they’ve turned into props.

What I see in all of this is a need for escape.  The more pandering Isekai – as much as I critique them – are fulfilling a need.  Conspiracy theories fill similar needs but in a very destructive manner.  Somewhere in there is a mental place where someone starts a side into the darkness, and I wish I understood it better.

But at least with this insight, I have a chance to understand it a little more.

Steven Savage

Heaven’s Design Team: God’s Blessing On This Wonderful Worldbuilding

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In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.  Then he outsourced the animal stuff.

That’s the Pratchett-esque premise of Heaven’s Design Team, an anime series based on a popular manga.   The story centers around Shimoda, a young angel assigned to relay God’s instructions to the titular Design Team.  Playing Metatron to a group of creative personalities ensnares our bean-bun loving protagonist in both office hijinks and hard-science explorations of how animals work.

It’s also a show that worldbuilders and writers should at least check out.

Creation Is A Double-Edged Comedy

The series episodes have a mostly familiar arc, but one that is varied enough to stay fresh.  Shimoda comes to the team with a vague request from God.  This request is relayed to a colorful group of beings named after the planets, each with their own specialties, obsessions, and neuroses.

The result is a fun, broad office comedy with some real-world teeth.  If you’ve ever worked on a complex creative project it will be more than familiar.  Prototypes fail, creative bickering ensure, and bright ideas burn out fast in the light of reality.  The likeable cast of characters is enjoyable, and the humor is refreshingly free from jokes about genders, sexual preferences, etc.

This office comedy part fuses seamlessly with hard biology.  The Design Team has to temper their enthusiasm as ideas run into real science issues and the advice of their engineering expert, Mars.  Brilliant ideas wither in the harsh light of reality, and when that reality is designing a surviving being, mistakes become painfully obvious.

This is where the show becomes something more than just a wacky comedy – and something for worldbuilders.

Weird Science, Weird People

Heaven’s Design Team’s first season is packed with many bits of great ideas falling apart due to biological truths, but the most illustrative is the team’s attempt to make a unicorn.  “Horse that fights with a horn” sounds good, but the various metabolic, psychological, and physical tradeoffs produce problems.  The final result is an aggressive idiotic beast with navigation problems – though it is salvaged to create the Narwhal, so cuddly-animal loving Neptune is thrilled.

The show is thus a spiritual cousin to Cells At Work, being both educational, funny, and using a given genre to explore science.  The continual theme of “how animals work” and “why some ideas are good and some not” takes it to another level – and it’s why any worldbuilder needs to give it a look.

Heaven’s Design Team covers many kinds of animals and animal traits, and manages to keep it fresh and interesting.  One episode explores reproductive habits, another is about dolphins, and a third sees goth queen of grossness Pluto creating a surprising animal from her requirements.  Though the show has a pattern it usually hews to, it’s an educational one that often surprises.

If you’re a worldbuilder, you’ll quickly get ideas of what to think about what to do, and what not to do.  Because the show is about trial, error, and prototypes, it’ll help you think about animal biology.  It’s not hard to imagine how the Design Team might respond to you playing God – and how your requests might go awry.

The Whole (Earth) Package

I can heap praise upon Heaven’s Design Team, but the end result is “if you like worldbuilding and office comedy, you’ll probably like this.”

Can I say it’s “good?”  To that, I would say “yes” for two reasons.

First, the show knows exactly what it wants to be – an office comedy about biology with a bit of supernatural humor.  The show reaches the goal it sets for itself.  One might say it’s “well designed.”

Secondly, the show has a sweet, genial nature, much like the angelic protagonist.  Characters may argue and snipe, characters have flaws and quirks, but there’s no bullying or cruelty.  Even when bird-loving Venus and snake-creating Mercury square off for obvious reasons, it’s rivalry not meanness.  It’s a pleasant watch.

If you like worldbuilding (or indeed just science, but I know my audience) check it out on Crunchyroll.  It might be a creation you appreciate.

Steven Savage

Fanime 2018 Observation

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It may seem odd that as of late I’ve posted about animation, but my recent activities have put me in touch with some worth discussing.  My recent speaking engagement at Fanime 2018 gave me a lot to think about – because there’s some insights into where anime and animation may be going.

One of the things I do every con is scope out what’s popular in cosplay and the artists alley.  It gives me an idea of what’s going on, what’s popular, and what we may want to pay attention to.  What I saw has me thinking about a few shifts in anime, animation, and gaming.

My Hero Academia

This superhero show – deserving the praise it’s received – was huge.  Plenty of cosplayers.  Plenty of merchandise.  It was pretty much the dominant anime at the convention.

This has me wondering if the show gets a wider distribution or viewership if it’s going to be the new gateway anime.  I can’t think of anything that truly fit that definition for years (but see below), but MHA could well be it.  If we actually have a new gateway anime that’s a cultural game-changer, meaning more people get interested in the broader anime-and-related scene.

Land of the Lustrous

I only just started watching this gorgeous, hard-to-describe show about living gemstones in a strange world.  I have had friends recommending it, but started watching it because it was far more represented at Fanime than I expected.  I had been concerned that the “limitation” of being on Amazon would affect it, and apparently I was wrong about that or the word “limitation.”

If this representation indicates penetration, that’s excellent news for both Amazon and for unusual anime – because LotL may look like a CGI action anime/magical girl thing but it’s certainly not.  I have trouble describing it.  At this level of attention I suspect it’ll remain a fixture for awhile and shows there’s an appetite for more unusual things out of Japan.

Yuri On Ice

The famous skating sports drama/romcom was less represented this year, but still holding on in cosplay and merchandise.  Considering how it’s been represented in the Olympics, it still reaches people.  I consider it a minor gateway anime if only due to exposure.

But it’s not going away at least in American fandom.

Video Games

Overwatch was still well-representated in both areas, though I saw slightly less Cosplayers.  I think Overwatch is not only popular (in a justified way) but clearly its cast, its character designs and character “skins” encourage cosplayers.  Anyone doing a game wanting mindshare should keep cosplayability (which is now a word) in mind.

Fire Emblem, the game series, was also very well represented.  With a huge cast over many games, and a prominent current one, I met many cosplayers who’d dressed as characters from the series.  Again cosplayability and interesting characters brings mindshare.

Of course back when FFX-2 came out, it was clearly cosplayable.  This is just following in those footsteps.


So there you have it.  I think we have a new potential gateway anime, Amazon’s investment in LotL seems to have brought interest and passion, and characters and cosplayability produce some real passion.

– Steve