Can I enjoy competent anime with ugly themes? The case of slavery in How Not To Summon A Demon Lord

Ebook Cover
Notice the clear green highlighting on “dorei majutsu” – “slave magic”

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?

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Ready Player One, isekai anime, and the value of cross-cultural criticism

[By now, I think I am beating this dead horse mostly to annoy my friends, but hey, I need something to do in the office between class periods!]

As a capstone on my mad hate-bender over Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, I figured that I ought to watch the movie adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg. It was… fine. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t hate it in the same way that I did the novel. Maybe that means Spielberg et al. deserve praise for achieving a rare “the movie was better than the book” moment. At the same time though, thrice 1/10 is only 3/10, so be damned with praise, I suppose (sorry, statistics pedants of the world, for using multiplication on an interval scale!)

The film corrected many of my biggest problems with the book especially because as a movie, it literally had no choice but to “show, not tell.” Instead of using Cline’s uselessly vague descriptors like “80s dance moves” the movie had to actually put the stupid dance on the screen for the audience to see. Even the awful pop-culture references, which were so annoying and lazy and unavoidable in the novel, mostly drifted away into the ignorable background because the animators crammed so many icons into the OASIS that focusing on any one of them became impossible (an upgrade from unavoidable to ignorable? damned with praise again!).

However, at 2 hours and 19 minutes, the movie dragged on for far too long through CGI cutscene after CGI cutscene. That excessive length might explain my lack of substantive commentary because after about 90 minutes, I started to zone out while twiddling on my phone and counting down every 10 minutes for the movie to end. Whatever. I am finally feeling a little fatigue discussing the franchise and don’t have anything special to say that professional critics haven’t so I’ll stop there with the movie.

I am more interested in seeing if I can make any meaningful comparison between Ready Player One and video-game setting anime. Initially, that was maybe my implicit goal. I grabbed the book as a self-conscious break from a month-long isekai binge thinking I could write about it. But, as much as I tried, I couldn’t force a comparison. This is not for lack of similarities. If Ready Player One’s virtual-world self-insert power fantasy had been published as a light novel, it would have cleanly landed in the isekai genre. Plenty of cynical forum posts have already noted how Ready Player One resembles a Western version of Sword Art Online. They fit together almost perfectly.

Instead though, I gave up on making a direct comparison because I stumbled across a much more interesting one. The works themselves did not differ much, but my cross-cultural styles of consumption did. As an insider in Cline’s nerd culture, I found myself far more critical of every little fault in the book: some lazy minority tokenizing here, a transphobic line there, and bad prose everywhere. Criticizing Ready Player One was easy like… uh… bullseyeing womp rats with my T-16 (what useless pop-culture reference would Cline use here?). By contrast, I lack that same cultural and critical context with foreign media. Despite the great similarities between Ready Player One and the isekai genre, the Japanese works genuinely challenged my analytical skills and resulted in far greater self-reflection.

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How Not to Summon a Demon Lord; or, how not to make a parody

Where do I even start with this? Hmmm… how about the title? When I was browsing through summer seasonal shows on MyAnimeList, my eyes glanced across the word “dorei.”

Slave.

I stopped. Oh my god, what is this about? My cursor felt drawn to the word. I had to click it.

MyAnimeList gives the original Japanese as 異世界魔王と召喚少女の奴隷魔術 or, for those of us still stuck somewhere on the mid-hundreds kanji plateau, Isekai Maou to Shoukan Shoujo no Dorei Majutsu. An English translator offers the very generous suggestion How Not to Summon a Demon Lord. A fine title for a comedy, but given the original Japanese, maybe not quite right. Let’s work through this word-by-word, shall we?

  • Isekai: different world, nowadays usually a genre label for fiction with a fantasy or MMO game setting
  • Maou: demon king, standard isekai stuff
  • to: particle, here meaning “and” or “with”
  • Shoukan: summoning, more isekai nonsense
  • Shoujo: young girl, an anime staple
  • no: particle, indicating possession or a noun used as a modifier
  • Dorei: slave
  • Majutsu: magic, part-and-parcel with fantasy isekai

Alright, the title seems decent enough. The translator made a stylistic decision to use the common English frame “How not to ~ .” That’s clever enough to hint at satirical elements in the show. Isekai is probably too clunky for a snappy title… Maou as demon lord is on point… summoning, alright check… shoujo, young girl, not in the title but perhaps removed for the sake of fluency… dorei majutsu, slave magic… Wait, what? Slave Magic? Oh my god, what is this about? How could a translator ignore that?

Because How Not to Summon a Demon Lord sounds so inoffensive as to not bat an eyelid, hopefully I can provide a more literal but less marketable English title: The Isekai Demon King and the Summoner Girls’ Slave Magic. Oh my god, what is this about?

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