Photo/IllutrationNovels featuring protagonists reincarnated in different worlds (Yusuke Kato)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Works of fiction themed on bland protagonists who are reincarnated in video-game-like worlds are now dominating the market, a reflection of the desires of real-life young people to escape from their difficult lives.

Young readers are fueling this trend in manga, anime and other fiction. The number of such reincarnation-featuring publications has soared fiftyfold over five years.

At a shareholders’ meeting in February, publisher Kodansha Ltd. reported increases in both revenue and profit although book sales in Japan were generally sluggish.

When asked what was behind the surge in earnings, a senior Kodansha official said, “It can be attributed largely to the manga titled ‘Tensei Shitara Slime Datta Ken’ (That time I got reincarnated as a slime).”

In the comic, a dull company employee is stabbed to death by a stranger on a street. He is reborn as a mighty slime monster with special abilities and founds a nation with nonhuman creatures.

The manga is based on a popular novel originally released on a website for amateur writers.

Sales of its 12 installments and spin-off stories have reached 14 million copies.

“Tensei Shitara Slime Datta Ken” and other books centering on characters reborn in different worlds account for considerable portions of the manga and young adult sections of many bookstores.

According to the Research Institute for Publications, only around 10 works whose titles include the words “other worlds” or “reincarnation” were released annually until 2013.

But the figure surged to 128 in 2014 and hit a record high of 567 in 2018.

Some reincarnation-themed publications do not use those expressions in their titles, so the actual number of such works is likely much higher.

In most of the stories, a man living a plain life is killed in an unexpected accident, reborn in a different world and enjoys a fulfilling life there, such as gaining celebrity status and finding himself popular with women.

The worlds where the characters are sent typically resemble the settings of role-playing games filled with monsters.

Writer Satoshi Maejima, who is knowledgeable about young adult works of fiction, known as “light novels” in Japan, explained why reincarnation stories have grown in popularity.

“Reincarnation in other worlds is easy to use to depict video-game-like situations,” Maejima said.

Characters have been sent to different worlds in classics, including “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan” and “The Neverending Story.” Maejima, however, said light novels resemble Japanese TV dramas.

“They are more like costume dramas that are always based on similar story lines but feature appealing protagonists, rather than fantasy stories in unknown worlds,” he said. “The settings can be easily hit upon so various works are produced by various writers.”

Maejima said protagonists in light novels have been revived as slime, small girls, spiders, swords and other creatures and objects. In a reversed version of such a work, celebrated author Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) is reborn in today’s Japan.

Maejima said light novel writers appear devoted to “competing just on the novelty of settings.”

LINKS WITH BUDDHISM

Shintaro Nakanishi, a sociology professor at Kanto Gakuin University who is well-versed in studies on young people, said the popularity of light novels themed on reincarnation underscores the increasingly tough real life of young people despite the improved employment rate.

“More people are hired under temporary contracts, and students are becoming careful not to enter companies that exploit workers,” Nakanishi said.

“As use of social media spreads, they find it stifling having to communicate with friends and others at any time,” he said. “This prompts them to create secret accounts to post their honest feelings anonymously.”

Nakanishi said younger people are far more mentally fatigued than mature adults.

Before the surge in reincarnation-featuring stories, “Raki Suta,” “K-On!” and other works gingerly depicting the relaxing daily lives of characters caught the hearts of readers.

“Consumers used to dream of a relaxing life. But their real daily lives are currently very stiff, so stories based on daily life now appear to lack reality,” Nakanishi said. “Many recent novels show protagonists enjoying slow, unadventurous lives in other worlds, which indicates readers want to experience relaxing lives not in this world but in different universes.”

Although the idea of transmigrating to other worlds may sound weird, Buddhism traditionally has the philosophy of the transmigration of souls, so ordinary people suffering from famine and natural disasters can find hope and possibly paradise in the next life.

Ryohoji in Hachioji, western Tokyo, a temple belonging to the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, has become famous among anime fans for its use of anime-like characters on its guideboard.

Nichiko Nakazato, chief priest of the temple, said many young worshippers who are free from materialistic troubles speak about more spiritual problems, stating, for example, “I cannot find the meaning of life.”

“As psychological issues are difficult to resolve, stories of reincarnation may give hope to people,” Nakazato said.

He noted, however, that one should not give up on this world.

“Under the Buddhism principle of transmigration, people are given a good next life only if they do well in this world,” Nakazato said. “All humans are children of Buddha, and I would like them to cherish this life as well.”