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Utopian Yearnings and “Real Life” in the Shōnen Isekai Tensei Shitara Slime Datta Ken (“Slime Isekai”): Community, Progress, and Nation Building

Brandon Murakami, University of Florida

Perhaps unsurprising to anyone familiar with the shōnen genre (a “marketing demographic” that was aimed at boys aged roughly 10-18 but now widely consumed by all, both in- and outside of Japan), the concepts of “community” and “community building” are a common theme in the vast majority of series. Indeed, many of the most iconic shōnen titles emphasize the value of friendship and bond-making—especially in the transformation of former rivals or enemies into comrades—as the protagonists continue ever forward in their seemingly never-ending journeys of finding the One Piece, inheriting the mantle of the “Symbol of Peace,” becoming the very best like no one ever was, or the like. The same can be said of the Fuse’s hit-series, Tensei Shitara Suraimu Datta Ken (That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, 2013-2016), popularly known as “TenSura” or the “slime isekai,” which has been adapted from its original form as a web novel into the media mix: light novel (2014-), manga (2015-), and anime (2018-).

Like many popular titles in the shōnen genre of late, TenSura features the “isekai” (“different”/”other” world) subgenre that transports the quite-ordinary protagonist, Mikami Satoru, a 37-year-old general contractor (and virgin with an elf fetish) living in Tokyo, into a RPG-fantasy-esque video game-world upon his death by random stabbing. After an unknown period of time, Mikami awakens in this new world in a cave and as a slime—a monster commonly found in RPGs and often one of the first adventurers face in their journeys—before encountering the imprisoned Storm Dragon Veldora, whom he soon befriends. As a symbol of their friendship, Veldora “names” Mikami, “Rimuru,” granting the slime status and even more power as a “named monster” while also cementing their bond. (Rimuru, likewise, gives Veldora and himself the family name “Tempest”.) Not wanting to leave Veldora behind, Rimuru uses his newfound abilities granted by his reincarnation to “eat” Veldora and analyze the “Unlimited Imprisonment” skill keeping the dragon sealed away. Doing so allows Rimuru free to exit the cave and the world.

Fig. 1 – Mikami as Human
Fig. 2 – Rimuru as Slime

Just as the protagonists of shōnen tend to be overpowered to begin with—or through much perseverance and hard work, they become so one day—Rimuru is classified as an immensely strong being despite being in the form of the world’s weakest: a slime. Yet, it is this strength coupled with Rimuru’s easy-going and peace-seeking personality that allows TenSura to explore community-building in a unique way for an isekai series. Because Rimuru has no “goals” like the typical shōnen protagonist—such as becoming stronger—the series also draws from the “slice-of-life” subgenre that Manuel Hernández-Pérez argues, emphasizes the “creation of emotional ties with the characters” though series that tend to employ this take place in the “real world” (1524).

TenSura, obviously, draws heavily from its fantasy-RPG aspects in many ways, but Fuze’s utopian yearnings and urges are more than palpable in Rimuru’s character, desires, and aspirations. Set against the longer historical and cultural context of Japan both pre- and post-World Wars, the representation of progress, peace, and community- and nation-building is a particularly relevant topic for contemporary Japanese audiences given the rise of neonationalistic and precarious social policies that mirrors the globalization of shōnen itself. (Granted, Japan is not the only nation to take up these neoconservative policies but noting how closely they relate to the “rise” of shōnen globally is particularly important when one addresses how core tenets and expectations of shōnen series have been influenced by such ideologies at the same time that they can also challenge and reject them.)

Yet, this is not a series without conflict and contradiction (as I will further nuance below). Peace and progress do indeed come at a cost, and consideration of this cost brings viewers to consider how power (in all its forms) is the prerequisite to change the world: both Rimuru’s as well as ours. Put another way, TenSura as combination of slice-of-life and isekai embodies what Nishida Masayuki argues fantasy is best at: “a means to express the “reality” of human beings under certain possible conditions” (29).

While Rimuru’s “condition” is one that is unattainable to us (that is: increasingly approaching the status of godhood), his aspirations are not. Thus, his intentions for peace and a multicultural, open world are translatable to TenSura’s audience. In this way, then, isekai with their tendency to fantasy worlds, are apt vessels to represent utopian yearnings of hopefulness, progress, and peace as a possible alternative in our increasingly intolerant, xenophobic, and insular world while also being consciously aware that utopia is a work in progress rather than an clear endpoint.

I cover two on-going series: the anime adaptation of TenSura (up to the second season’s first cour (episode 36 overall)), as well as the spin-off, TenSura Nikki: Tensei Shitara Slime Datta Ken (episode 7, at time of this writing). I also make ample use of screencaps from multiple episodes to illustrate the “progress” that is central to TenSura as a series as well as a significant driver to the shōnen genre as a whole.

Although it takes Rimuru a month before he can find a way out of the cave Veldora was trapped in—learning the extents of his skills, abilities, and the world he was reborn into—eventually the slime finds himself in the Great Forest of Jura, home to countless races of monsters. The first that he meets are a race of Goblins seeking protection from the Direwolves who have become emboldened by the disappearance of the Goblins’ god—Veldora—and sought to establish their dominance by taking over Goblin territory. As Veldora explained to Rimuru, “survival of the fittest is the prevailing truth in this world,” and for weaker races like the Goblins, without someone to protect them, their extinction is expected, inevitable, and justified within the logics of the fantasy world (S1E1, 20:07-20:10). At the behest of the village elder, Rimuru asks, “What will I get in return..? What can you guys give me?” though, he thinks, “I just need to put on a bit of a show” to which the elder and his son proclaim that they can offer loyalty (S1E2, 20:22-20:47). For Rimuru, compensation is never really considered nor needed; by his own admittance, the slime “just can’t say no” to those who need help (S1E2, 21:02-21:05). So, begins Rimuru’s role as leader of the Goblins but also, over time, the other monster races living within the forest. Rimuru not only recruits the Direwolves, but also Ogres, Orcs, and the Lizardmen while also securing diplomatic ties to the Dwarf Kingdom (Dwargon) and one of the many human kingdoms (Blumund).

Fig. 3 – Slime Diaries Recap

Yet, this community-building does not happen through peace alone. Rather, it is through conflict and rejection to Rimuru’s initial extension of peace that subsequently becomes submission and allegiance to the slime’s overwhelming (and almost god-like) strength. For instance, the first race Rimuru “subdues” are the Direwolves, whose Alpha is given the choice of “turning back” or suffering casualties by continuing their attack on the now-fortified Goblin village (S1E3, 05:11-05:12). The Alpha, undeterred and a little insulted that a “mere slime” would give him orders attempts to kill Rimuru by charging at him, only to be killed and absorbed. Rimuru thus gains the Direwolf’s abilities and ability to mimic the form of a Direwolf and warns the remaining members of the pack to “submit or die” (S1E3, 06:45-06:48). The Direwolves bend the knee and join the Goblins in their loyalty to Rimuru with him stating “It’s good that there’s no need for fighting anymore. Yes, yes. Nothing beats peace,” at the same time he realizes that both races need a leader to guide them (S1E3, 08:24-08:29). Embodying one of the most notable, generic tropes of shōnen—the foe to friend—Rimuru’s acts of community-building in every instance reifies the importance of turning “yesterday’s enemy” into “today’s friend” (S1E3, 09:25-09:27).

Over time, Rimuru’s adventures bring him into contact with more races as they each become a growing part of his community and subsequent nation. For Rimuru, his aspirations move quickly past a community that can feed, clothe, house, and defend itself into something loftier: “a nation that will serve as a bridge between monsters a humans…. [where] monsters and humans both exist and prosper together” (S2E3, 10;17-10:32).

Fig. 4. Figs 4-7. evolution of the village, to town, to city
Fig. 5. 
Fig. 6.
Fig. 7.

In hearing the plight of the nearly-wiped-out Ogre clan, Rimuru offers them positions as his “subordinates” given their higher-rank as a monster race where they might “stay and help… build a nation,” after they obtain their revenge on the Orcs (S1E10, 08:02-08:03).

Through machinations of a third party, the Orcs were manipulated into attacking the other races within Jura Forest, nearly driving the Ogres of the southwest extinct and greatly imperiling the Lizardman of the forest’s wetlands until Rimuru intervenes. With the blessing of the Dryads—spirits of the forest—Rimuru defeats the Orc’s leader with the help of the Ogres—now Kijin after accepting names from Rimuru—and Lizardmen. In the aftermath and the surrender of the Orcs at the death of their leader, Rimuru is able to broker peace between the three races as well as establish a “mutually cooperative relationship” and a “nation where all races could exist,” the Jura Forest Alliance (S1E15, 04:26-04:36). It is not long before the famed Dwarf King Gazel Dwargo of Dwargon (where Rimuru recruited the dwarf artisans that accelerated the prosperity of his city) acknowledges the Alliance as a distinct nation, thus transforming Alliance into the Jura Tempest Federation.

While peace and peaceful coexistence are the goals of Rimuru and his nation, he does recognize the necessity of violence in order to prevent further conflict. In what becomes a major plot aspect of the second season, Rimuru’s “foreign policy” amounts to not starting fights, “but if the other side does, that’s another matter” (S2E1, 18:44-18:48). This is taken to the extreme when King Edmalis of the Farmus Kingdom and Archbishop Reyheim of the Western Saints Church collude to attack Rimuru’s nation.

Motivated by greed and racism, they declare war on the “unholy” city of monsters while Rimuru is away and kill the nation’s citizens without reckless abandon. Filled with grief and rage, particularly at the loss of Shion, one of the Ogres who proclaimed herself as Rimuru’s secretary, Rimuru learns of the powers that a Demon Lord—one of the strongest kinds of beings in the world—possesses: the fabled ability to resurrect the dead.

Fig. 8 – the casualties

Yet, to become a Demon Lord, Rimuru must consume 10,000 human souls, emphasizing the inherent barbarity of the monster races that is necessary for any of them to evolve into a Demon Lord. Flying above the encampment of the combined army of the Farmus Kingdom and the Western Saints Church, Rimuru says, “These are the ones who killed Shion and the rest… looks like there’s no need to grant them forgiveness” when he sees how the force is more than ready to slaughter innocents and noncombatants (S2E10, 01:16-01:20). Unleashing his spell “Megiddo,” (Hebrew for “Armageddon”), Rimuru soon eliminates all 20,000 of the invading force, save for Reyheim and Edmalis, who are taken as war criminals.

Fig. 9 Rimuru commits genocide

Rimuru’s act of absolute and undeniable violence in order to prevent more violence and potentially more of his citizen’s deaths seems out-of-character. However, in a meeting with his advisors and councilors—each representing the various races who call Rimuru their lord and the city as their home—Rimuru explains his motivations to completely eradicate the aggressive human forces:

Well, as I see it, humans can be either good or evil. It might just be in each individual’s nature, but they’re greatly influenced by the environment they’re in. Even if an individual is good, if the country they live in turns down an evil path, they’ll eventually feel its influence. So, I’d like to create an environment where humans can learn. Maybe if they learn more about us, they can be good neighbors, and maybe we can erase the boundary between humans and monsters. I want to believe that’s a possibility. Still, that’s just my hope for the future. (S2E9, 09:16-09:57).

By addressing how he sees the Farmus Kingdom and the Western Saints Church as a threat to his larger goal of erasing the boundary between monsters and humans, Rimuru’s act of mass genocide serves his “greater good” at the same time that this act of massive violence also accomplishes his aims of revenge and the means to ascend to a Demon Lord. (There are obviously parallels to this kind of thinking, both historically and in the contemporary moment, which are addressed later.) It is in this status as an even more superior monster (i.e. a Demon Lord), Rimuru believes he can better carry out his mission and eliminate threats to his nation (and by extension, protecting other peaceful monsters) by stopping humans who could never see the “humanity” in the monster races before they can act on their racism.

Additionally, Rimuru sees himself as becoming the literal and figurative target for these “racist” humans, thus, shielding the weaker monster races, or at least becoming a beacon to shelter under. Thus, Rimuru’s longer utopian vision of acceptance and peace is not a wholly simple one as it hinges upon the condition of human’s recognition of the (monster-)other made enforceable by Rimuru’s exercise of near-absolute power to ensure the fulfillment of lasting peace. Put another way, Rimuru is conscious that peace must sometimes follow destruction, as evidenced by ’s fondness and predilection for peace is one he knows must “cost” something if necessitated: the elimination of humans unwilling or unable to see monsters as equals.

Although there is much more to address in terms of the ways that community- and nation-building are key aspects of the series, I quickly touch upon some problematic aspects of TenSura when read with aspects of Japan’s own national, political, and social histories—those from its time as an imperial power as well as from the current contemporary moment. This is not to say that there is no value in watching the series (which the above ending on Rimuru’s necessitation of violence of the greater good might suggest), but rather that, like all longer-running shōnen series caught between the nexus of a domestic and international audience against the background of Japan’s own complex and complicated history as aggressor and “pacifist,” TenSura, depending on the viewer’s context, exemplifies how these popular narratives are enriching sites of inquiry for us to examine.

The word “progress” invites many interpretations, particularly when one considers the significance of the term in the context of Japan’s national history. From the frenzied Westernization of the Meiji Era (the country’s attempts to not become colonized like its close neighbor, China), Japan aggressively embraced the West and its ideologies in order to secure its sovereignty. This is particularly palpable when one examines both late 19th– and early 20th-century Japan’s colonial and imperial policies. With its conquest and colonization of Hokkaido (Ezo) in the north and the Ryūkyū Islands in the south modeled off British and American ideologies, Japan’s conquest over those both “like” and “unlike” the Japanese “race” was the forerunner of the nation’s experiments in imperialism and colonialism practiced conquests across Asia and the Pacific (Lu, 44).

But, after the nation’s defeat in World War II, the word “progress” is also applicable in a different sense: the recovery of Japan, it’s “re-Westernization” (read: “Americanization”), and reintegration into a new world system as the rising superpower in mid- and late-20th century Asia. However, the last thirty years seems to definitely challenge some aspects of and the nation’s understanding of the word “progress.” This is especially so as a string of disasters—those natural and “unnatural” (the Asian Economic Crash of the 90s, the Wall St. Crash in 2008, the 3/11 Tohoku Nuclear Crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, to name a few)—highlight how neoconservative and neonational policy, and the doubling down of it by successive administrations, ironically, has impeded progress across sectors of society.

Since the 1990s, Japan’s government has slowly cut away its social welfare programs at the same time that the economic crisis saw countless companies and businesses close and gave rise to the phenomenon of hikikomori, NEETs, and the root of the nation’s precarity problem for its young(er) generations—many who could not find steady work and thus, perpetuate the growing economic insecurity and falling birth rates, creating a feedback loop of social and economic precarity (Suzuki, 151).

While the situation is not as dire in TenSura—indeed, flashbacks to Rimuru’s life as a human avoid mention of the dire social situation that the “real” Japan faces—progress and its problems are reflected in different though also problematic ways. By this I mean certain aspects of Fuze’s worldbuilding that seem benign, but within the context of “progress” in the Western sense of nation-building and race(ism), reflect how deeply ingrained notions of “progress” might go unchallenged and even valorized.

The most obvious instance of this is the logic of the monsters themselves and the system of “power” in place within the fantasy world Rimuru finds himself in. For example, early on in the series, the Goblin village’s elder—like the majority of monsters in the world—is unnamed. He explains to Rimuru, “We monsters do not normally have names. Even without names, we can still communicate our thoughts to each other” (S1E3, 10:04-10:10), to which Rimuru responds that, to him, “it’s more convenient… so I’d to name you all. Is that okay?” (S1E3, 10:14-10:19). Unbeknownst to Rimuru, his naming of the Goblins—and every race that pledges their loyalty to the slime—the imparting of the name also grants the monster an increase in their power level and prompts their evolution to a “higher form”.

The Goblin village elder is now “Rigurd,” with his son being re-christened as “Rigur,” and each member of the village receiving their own names. So too with the Direwolves, and eventually the Ogres, Orcs, Lizardman, and other monsters who call Rimuru’s growing nation home. The problem at hand with the naming of an individual monster is that this established a hierarchical relationship between the giver and the receiver, the power difference between Rimuru and his retainers is vast and they refer to him constantly with honorifics as well as by speaking humbly. On the one hand, this showcases their loyalty to Rimuru, who has “saved” each race in some way or another. On the other hand, it also subtly reinforces the bare truth of this world, “survival of the fittest,” a truth Rimuru greatly exploits as he easily massacres 20,000 humans with little effort.

Another problematic aspect with  “evolution” and its linking to progress is that this evolution reveals anthropocentrism as the seeming “end” and the ultimate “form” that monsters will take are ones that become “closer” to the human form. For example, the stereotypical form of the Goblins becomes much more “human” upon their evolution to Hobgoblins, just as the Ogres transform into Kijin and their “ogre” aspects are lessened.

Fig. 10. Figs. 10, 11, 12 humanization
Fig. 11
Fig. 12.

This “humanization” affects some races and individual monsters more than others: some of the Lizardmen upon evolving to Dragonnewts look entirely human while others remain “beastly,” and the Orcs lose some of their more “animal” features—like their hoof-like nails becoming more like human nails—when they turn into High Orcs.

 

Fig. 13. Figs. 13, and 14 Geld’s hands from Orc to High Orc
Fig. 14.

Even without knowledge of the racist logics that drove the justification of colonialism and imperialism in Japanese empire (especially of the Ainu in Hokkaido) the “humanizing” of the monster races falls in line with the metaphor of the “non-human” in the fantasy genre as the “non-white” races. (Particularly if these races are “bestial” in mannerism and physique.) This is further complicated when one considers that relations between the humanoid—or at least human—races and monsters are strained and the factual recognition that, “With their human forms comes intelligence which will make them quite formidable foes” (S2E4, 16:29-16:36). On the other side, one of the “Beastketeers” of Eurazania retorts her displeasure at learning Rimuru’s willingness to ally with humans, “Dwarves are one thing, but humans, too? Anyone who pals around with puny, insolent, cowardly humans is a disgrace to all monsters!” (S2E1, 18:10-18:18).

Along with the issue of “evolution” as well as “naming” that also establish an (often) unequal relationship between the namer and the recipient is the linking of a “good life” to modern concepts of civilized life and convenience. After the recruitment of the Dwarf craftsman and artisans, Rimuru excitedly notes that, “we even have flushing toilets and both water and sewage systems! We’re building roads, too,” that soon transforms the quiet village to quaint town into a bustling city and soon-metropolis (S1E15, 12:07-12:11). The quality of life in Rimuru’s nation even surpasses the Farmus Kingdom—the center of trade—for Rimuru brings with him his knowledge as a general contractor but also as a citizen from the 21st century of our world. Thus, the normality of his life in metropolitan Tokyo as well as the conveniences and pleasures of life in Japan (in the Slime Diaries, Rimuru introduces more elements of Japanese life to his people such as summer festivals) is not only “modernizing” the Federation but by extension this otherworld.

This extends too to the behaviors of the monsters themselves. Early on in the series, adventurers from Blumund stumble upon the burgeoning Goblin village. On Rimuru’s way to meet them, Rigurd explains that he gave them food to which the slime exclaims, “Hey, that’s great! Helping those in need is a good thing!” to which the village chief energetically exclaims, “Yes, sir! Thank you very much! I hope to dedicate myself to doing just that!” (S1E6, 12:48-13:00). Many episodes later in the second season, Rimuru’s nation welcomes refugees from the Eurazania with Rigurd providing them with “lodging and food” though admitting to Rimuru that he hesitated to act without a direct order while the latter exclaims, “Oh good. I can always count on you” (S2E12, 12:50-13:00).

On the one hand, the evolution of Rigurd’s character—to act in a way that Rimuru would approve of—emphasizes how the leader of the Goblins has naturalized noblesse oblige. On the other hand, Rigurd can only do these things and make these kinds of decisions because of the prosperity and power he has available to him that seems to turn away from the ideology of “survival of the fittest,” he was well aware of as an unevolved Goblin, but one that also runs counter to Rimuru’s willingness to sacrifice humans to bring back the fallen citizens of the monster races.

Indeed, what is the darkest turn of the anime series so far offers striking and stark parallels to other acts of genocide, both those historical and contemporary and on-going ones. In this particular moment, Rimuru acknowledges how his arrogance has led to the deaths of his people despite the evil machinations of the scheming human leaders, a negligence that Rimuru’s advisors also feel the blame and burden of. What this moment of TenSura’s plot exposes is a running, but unremarked upon question that becomes crystalized as Rimuru looks at Shion’s corpse: is Rimuru still a human? Overcome with grief and filled with anger, Rimuru thinks, “All these intense emotions are raging in my head, but at the same time, I’m painfully calm. I can’t even shed a single tear… Oh, I get it. I’ve become a monster at heart too” (S2E8, 08:29-08:46).

Yet, Rimuru is not the only one to act barbarically. In retribution, several of his advisors also seek vengeance on the humans and leave no survivors, thus bringing into question the conventions of the fantasy genre as well as paralleling the concept of “progress,” “evolution,” and “civilization,” tied to colonializing, imperializing, and modernizing narratives. The blur between the “monster” and the “human” is all too apparent in Rimuru’s actions as well as the actions of King Edmalis and Archbishop Reyheim. Even if this is a fictional narrative, its representation of genocide and violence, particularly within our current contemporary moment underscores the difficulty of achieving utopian ideals when the power becomes a tool to achieve one’s goals in human—or inhuman—ways.

In this way, for viewers of TenSura, the building of community and nation on the notions of peace do come at a cost, particularly when confronted against bigotry and racism and the inability to recognize the other as equal. Thus, Fuze’s series, with its utopian yearnings in its otherworld uncannily mirrors our own, perhaps a bit too closely, as Rimuru’s noble goals are, at its current point in the anime adaptation, questionable at best given the fuller context of Japan’s own colonial and imperial history on the one hand and its contemporary neoconservative and neonationalist governmental policy and track record on the other. In a more positive light, TenSura does indeed explore the possibilities of reimagining a more peaceful and inclusive future. Within the context of Japan’s own domestic history of (settler) colonialism as well as its own acts of racism against ethnic minorities who have long called the island chain home, perhaps the yearnings for utopia that Rimuru wishes for might also be possible here, if only that we remember that we have more in common with others than just our humanity.

References:

Manuel Hernández-Pérez, “Otaku Tourists Out of Japan: Fictionality, Shared Memories, and the Role of National Branding in the Japanese Pilgrimages of Anime Fans in the United Kingdom,” The Journal of Popular Culture, 52(6), 2019.

Yuji Ikuhara (dir.), TenSura Nikki: Tensei Shitara Slime Datta Ken, Eight Bit, 2021-.

Yashuhito Kikuchi (dir.), Tensei Shitara Suraimu Datta Ken (Season One), Eight Bit, 2018-2019.

Sidney Xu Lu, “The Making of Japanese Settler Colonialism,” in Malthusianism and Trans-Pacific Migration, 1868-1961, (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Atsushi Nakayama (dir.), Tensei Shitara Suraimu Datta Ken (Season Two), Eight Bit, 2021-.

Masayuki Nishida, “Locality in Japanese Animation: Transboundary Interactions Between the Animation Tamayura and Takehara City in Hiroshima, Japan,” jsn Journal, 6(1), 2016.

Takaaki Suzuki, “After Neoliberalism? The Curious Non-Death of Neoliberalism in Japan,” Asian Journal of Social Science, 43, 2015.

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