There are no shortage of anime which put a mecha genre spin on the “modern-day character ends up in fantasy/alien world” (isekai) theme. From Aura Battler Dunbine through arguably series like Orguss into ones like Magic Knight Rayearth or The Visions of Escaflowne it has strong precedent, and it is a genre that brings a few additional interesting themes to the traditional science-fiction and fantasy ones. I am personally very interested in stories of culture shock, or outsiders to a society trying to fit in; it is for this reason I was quite disappointed in the TV adaptation of Crest of the Stars because it hinted at being a story of a human living as the ward of aliens and learning their culture, and then did not really deliver so much on that. One could almost consider, actually, a story like Crest of the Stars as the pure science-fiction equivalent to the isekai story – a human living among aliens.
As soon as a story involves rebirth or awakening in a new world, the logical thematic questions are how important is getting home, how does the person fit in and is the link two ways? The most interesting series of the type use these as jumping off-points for something beyond the usual. Orguss is all about exactly how bad it is that someone has jumped into a new world, because it ends up causing all manner of paradoxes and strange phenomena. Dunbine has its protagonists – and villains – get back home and this causes its own crises. As to the cultural side, I rather liked Rayearth‘s having very genre-savvy heroines and a generally light tone. I have studiously avoided mentioning Escaflowne here for good reason; it is a confused series that has some excellent moments but is thematically a mess. It strives to be extremely interesting and ends up never reaching its potential narratively. So, where is all this introduction to robot-isekai leading? The answer is Knight’s & Magic, the latest entry in the genre I have watched and one which in its first episode seems to breeze over or ignore anything potentially thematically interesting about isekai stories – and at the same time neatly avoid some of the usual pitfalls or stock plots.
Its setup is covered at lightning-speed; an ace programmer and avid science-fiction fan dies and is reborn as the son of a noble family in a fantasy world. There, there are combat mechs. He is happy, and devotes his life to getting to pilot one. This enthusiasm is quite welcome, to be fair; extended sequences of people disbelieving their new surroundings can add little to a story (I am reminded of the again similar Gargantia, a story about a space pilot who crashlands on a strange new planet and which spends a lot of time with him comedically running around and causing trouble because he doesn’t understand what anyone is saying). But what the reincarnation angle which permits this does is change the focus away from a stranger in a strange land (so to speak) and more into just a narrative excuse for a child prodigy to be one; he has all the scientific and technical expertise of a skilled coder filtered through the lens of a fantasy world upbringing and directly applicable to his new desired skillset (piloting a robot needs you to be a skilled wizard, and magic is almost directly comparable to computer coding). Indeed, the fact the person that becomes Ernesti is dead, and this is some kind of an afterlife, completely removes questions of getting home and fitting in and thus leaves only how can prior knowledge help you make your way to success?
Kei in Orguss was able to directly transfer his skills across to the new world, but there it was very different; a fighter pilot lands in a science-fiction world where planes and mechs are similar to the plane he flew for a living. Ernesti in Knight’s & Magic exists in a world that feels narratively created to give him all the advantages; he is of a privileged family (rather than being a 9-to-5 office worker), he is able to use modern knowledge to improve the fantasy tech level and skip years of school, and he ultimately cheats his way through the setting. It feels very much a power fantasy for STEM graduates – from 9-to-5 to genius dilettante nobleman at an absurdly young age all because you know coding. It is hard to dislike Ernesti as a character, he is cheerful, invents absurdly powerful weapons, obsessed with mechs and generally has a lot of likeable mecha hero traits which will make his future in the setting a likely entertaining adventure. But at the same time I find stories of characters who are just given good fortune a little convenient and uninteresting. Ernesti has, it feels, everything given to him for a brilliant fresh start within minutes of the episode starting. He is not just clever, he is not just able to apply his other-world knowledge to his new life, but he also becomes rich, popular and with the contacts needed to build experimental weapons from the start of his schooling. This level of engaging competency walks a fine line with precocious, unsatisfying wish-fulfilment. I think the scene that confirmed this was his showing up of his teachers after a montage of magic research – it had the sort of smugness to it that never quite works for me.
Episode 1 of Knight’s & Magic glides through a lot of story – Ernesti at school, his learning about magic, etcetera – to get to the meat of the story, his first encounters with robot pilots. It is, after all, a mecha story. But what this highly accelerated prologue does, I feel, is make everything feel too easy and unearned. With so little time given to his childhood friendships forming or his process of becoming the magical genius that can outsmart his teachers and skip years of school, the tone of the story is less “here is how someone uses their new life to do better than their old one” and more “here is how a person is reincarnated in a world where everything apparently exists to give them all the advantages possible.” I know full well this rather comes with the genre; to complain that the latest iterations of teen power fantasy fiction offer teen power fantasies is churlish in the extreme. And, indeed, I rather like that it is a story about being smart and good at your job and having hobbies being what gives you the edge – the brief scenes of Ernesti’s former life show he very much earned his expertise.
But the rapid pace of this prologue is the problem. It would feel more earned, more welcome, if it had time to breathe, to show his failures and his successes in some detail. Without that space, it feels like someone simply breezing through a charmed life and makes him less sympathetic as a result. And, indeed, a longer buildup would show the viewer more of the world, let them feel like they were being as immersed in it as Ernesti is. Half a series of Rayearth is about the girls learning the rules of the world. Orguss has some interesting, if occasionally hamfisted, attempts to use science-fiction culture shock as a kind of wakeup call for the protagonist. Escaflowne‘s strongest parts are the early episodes where Hitomi is very much the outsider unable to reconcile modern values with fantasy ones. That is what I like about stories of other-world rebirths or transformations.