I watched How Not to Summon A Demon Lord for the wrong reasons. I only picked it up because I was baffled by a more literal translation of the Japanese title: The Isekai Demon King and the Summoner Girl’s Slave Magic. Such an absurd cluster of words seemed to border on self-parody of the much-derided isekai genre. I had to show this madness to a friend that was uninitiated in anime’s less respectable tropes. I would “embrace the trash,” play devil’s advocate, and make his reaction the real show. As expected, he hated the first episode and felt we had wasted half an hour. But I didn’t get my show either. Instead of ranting and rambling like I had hoped, he just gave me wordless sighs of disgust. Where I had expected some “so bad it’s good” excess to enjoy ironically, he had seen an intolerable moral travesty in Demon Lord’s casual depiction of slavery.
That left me in an awkward position. I agreed with his assessment of the slavery themes, but as an episode of anime, I didn’t find Demon Lord so bad. Considered in the context its low-quality genre, I even worried that Demon Lord was good. I worried, because How Not to Summon a Demon Lord had established its erotic-comedy slave-girl premise with such casual crassness that I felt ashamed admitting… I maybe-kinda liked it.
Sometimes, I have to confront an unrealistic expectation that fiction with ugly messages should have ugly aesthetics. For example, Demon Lord’s isekai seasonal partner, Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria, disguised its weird authoritarian ideology under one of the lowest quality anime I have ever seen. But ugly ideas can have gorgeous packages (for example, see the energetic imagery in the proto-fascist “Futurist Manifesto”). Demon Lord is not “gorgeous,” but I would call it solidly “competent” despite its glib engagement with a concept as ugly as slavery.
That apparent contradiction made me uneasy, and that unease led me to a question. At what point do disagreeable themes in fiction preclude enjoyment of the work itself? Could Demon Lord justify its use of slavery by just being a good show? In other words, was it worth it?
I’ll take this topic in two parts. In part one, I will try to approach Demon Lord’s use of slavery on its own terms within its three main genres: comedy, isekai adventure, and ecchi. After all, before criticizing a piece of fiction for its ugly themes, I first need to establish how and why it does so. And in part two, I will loop back around to that question. Was it worth it?Continue reading “Can I enjoy competent anime with ugly themes? The case of slavery in How Not To Summon A Demon Lord”