Occasionally, I run into a topic I’ve already covered and think, “man, I wish I could rewrite that.” Every writer or artist is doomed to look back on what they’ve created and lament, but it doesn’t get easier to see ideas I had that I didn’t explore their full potential.
Specifically, I’m referring to an essay about Re:Zero and The Rising of the Shield Hero before the latter decided I had too much credibility and imploded mere weeks after I wrote a piece praising it. Isekai or portal fantasy anime are often chalked up to being vapid power fantasies, meant to assure the viewer that they deserve to save the world and get the girl.
I argued that a show as popular as those two demonstrate that this isn’t always the case. Subaru and Naofumi live hard, often grueling lives, and struggle constantly to overcome adversity. You might be able to tell from all the training arcs in anime, but the audience like characters who work for what they want. We want to hear that our efforts will pay off.
And more recently, I became obsessed with Solo Leveling, the manhwa based on the novels by Chugong and illustrated by the late great Dubu. My opinion on these kinds of power fantasies hasn’t changed, but evolved as I have now seen it in its peak form. Solo Leveling went ahead and leveled up the entire genre of isekai, while not even actually being an isekai.
A crowd begins to gather around the swirling vortex of ominous light that has formed just outside of a construction site. The throng is no group of gawking civilians, but a team of hunters sharpening their weapons and readying their spells. Since these portals began opening all over the world ten years ago, an industry of hunters raiding these dungeons for wealth and glory has prospered.
But not all dungeons are cut from the same cloth. They’re ranked by the strength of the monsters inside, and hunters of the same quality explore them, ranked E through S. On the high end are demigods capable of leveling entire cities with their bare hands. On the low end, you have Jinwoo Sung, who risks hospitalization in the weakest of E-ranked dungeons to pay his comatose mother’s medical bills and put his sister through school.
After a freak accident in a secret dungeon result, Jinwoo dies, along with most of his party. It’s thanks to his quick thinking that even a handful escape, and in his final moments, he reflects on his weakness and fear of death. Naturally, when a menu pops up, offering to save his life for completing the dungeon’s hidden quest, he accepts.
Jinwoo unwittingly unlocks a new world of possibilities. While a hunter’s abilities are determined at their moment of awakening, his now increase exponentially. The system that saved his life offers him dungeons and missions where he can accrue new weapons and experience. The world’s weakest hunter has a path to becoming the strongest, if he can survive the challenges that the system poses to him, and the hunters at the top who feel threatened by this E-ranker.
As I’ve already said, a good power fantasy isn’t about power. Starting out, Jinwoo is still an E-rank hunter. He’ll have to grind his daily challenges, clear special dungeons, and learn how to manage his newfound abilities. Unlike your average power fantasy, nothing ever comes easily for him.
Jinwoo finds the strength to carry on through self-loathing, oddly enough. Even as he becomes more powerful, he works harder to pull away from the scared kid he sees in the mirror. While the system offers him the means to acquire the wealth and status he never had, it’s only ever been about becoming strong enough to not be put in that position again.
That fear makes him a surprisingly grounded hero, despite regularly pulling off fantastic feats of strength. These accomplishments feel earned because the story takes pains to ensure we know how hard he worked for each and every level. When Kirito becomes so strong that multiple players can’t damage him faster than he can heal, it feels cheap because we didn’t see how he got to that point.
The series has a simple yet effective formula: Jinwoo trains, defeats a monster that’s out of his depth with cunning rather than brute force, and heads back into the world where he encounters another hunter in need of a quick murderizing. Oh, and that’s the best part of this whole equation.
But let’s continue that comparison to Sword Art Online, and talk about those villains. Both stories take similar approaches in making their antagonists so cartoonishly evil that you wonder if these guys eat puppies for kicks. Oberon literally kidnapped hundreds of people to mind control his child bride, and another hunter traps Jinwoo in the boss room so the giant spider will eat him and fall into a food coma, so he can loot the rare crystals without a fight.
I’ve criticized SAO’s villains before, and rightly so, but I wouldn’t do the same for Solo Leveling. That’s not a double standard, but the difference in how these characters are used. What do you gain by making your villain an awful, irredeemable person? So it feels more satisfying when your hero beats them, it’s writing 101.
Consider the format of each story. SAO’s arcs lead up to a fight with the big bad, dragging out their role in the narrative. Simple characters like Oberon or Quinella don’t have the depth to fuel a whole season of television. Solo Leveling’s maniacal villains, on the other hand, show up for a couple of chapters, establish their villainy, and get murked soon after.
Think about it like a Dark Souls game, where the player is pitted against the environment. The conflict of Solo Leveling derives from the encounters Jinwoo has grinding in the dungeons; his fight against Igris the Bloodred is more harrowing than any of his fights with another hunter. The battles with other hunters are just the pay-off for that training; he honed his skills clearing a path to the boss room, and now gets to use those abilities against a big bad.
The hunters who take savage glee in killing those weaker than them are as one-dimensional as characters get, but that’s only a problem when you view them as characters. They’re plot devices to measure Jinwoo’s progress, shown in a flashy fight. This, as it turns out, is a remarkably effective tool for making your morally ambiguous protagonist likable, and lending weight to a fight that might otherwise feel empty.
Your average isekai protagonist is devoid of personality. If his character is clearly defined, the audience won’t be able to self-insert as him, or so these light novel authors think. The problem is that it fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of power fantasy; it’s not about being the protagonist, but believing that we could be like them. No one wanted to be Harry Potter, they wanted to go to Hogwarts and not nearly get killed by Ralph Fiennes every year.
One of the most effective power fantasies in recent years is My Hero Academia, even though Deku is clearly characterized from the very beginning. How is it a power fantasy? Because it claims that anyone can be a hero, as long as you don’t give up.
Deku isn’t an avatar for audience wish fulfillment; he’s an example of what you could be. The audience is encouraged to identify with any of the characters who each have their own problems and reasons for wanting to be a hero. If you’ve ever felt weak, trapped, or alone, you don’t have to be that person forever, and that’s what’s so appealing about power fantasy.
So many isekai anime rely on the hero getting his powers and a harem of girls immediately, but Solo Leveling has a keener understanding of what makes these stories work. Jinwoo gets strong and handsome, and the series flirts with the idea of this translating to romantic success, but that’s not really the focus.
Jinwoo is inherently likable because he’s humble in spite of his strength, and he avoids faux modesty because he isn’t underselling his power either. In his everyday life, he’s kind of a slob who oversleeps and forgets about stuff like his sister’s parent-teacher meeting he’s supposed to attend, which contrasts with the unshakeable badass we see in the dungeons.
Progressing as quickly as he has means he is painfully aware of his shortcomings, and how much work he has to do. And I am all too willing to watch him do that work, as it makes for some of the best fights I’ve seen in manga (or manhwa).
I’m glad I got a second chance to tackle this topic, because for a hot minute I was just staring at Solo Leveling, wondering what the heck I was going to do with it. Some anime and manga are just so good I have a hard time finding anything to say except, “it’s real good, yeah?”
That may well be my biggest shortcoming as a writer, at least as far as this blog is concerned. It’s easy to pick apart bad anime, but for a story of Solo Leveling’s caliber, where the pieces connect so well, it can be hard to see what gears actually get every other piece spinning.
I’m trying to work on that, as you may have noticed I also wrote an essay on my obsession with the soccer manga Blue Lock. I don’t just want to give you a pitch and tell you to watch or read something; I want to understand why I love these stories. So, if I may be so bold, I’m going to write an essay soon breaking down my white whale of perfect anime, Link Click.
I expect you to hold me to that, dear reader, so you can pester me in the comments below or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku about when you should be expecting that. Until next time, thanks for reading.