This article contains discussion about the use of nonconsensual sex, sexual abuse, suicide, self-harm, manipulation, and general violence in anime with relation to minors. If you are particularly sensitive to any of these topics, please continue at your own discretion.
Sekai Saikou no Ansatsusha, Isekai Kizoku ni Tensei suru (2021), translated to The World’s Finest Assassin Gets Reincarnated in Another World as an Aristocrat, is from the same author as the now infamous Redo of Healer (2021). I wasn’t privy to watch that show when it aired and I don’t intend to watch it now. I’m not squeamish about the idea of portraying dark and mature topics in media. Conversely, I greatly appreciate a nuanced narrative that does cover such themes. The reason I don’t intend to watch Redo of Healer is what I gather to be the underlying motive of its main character’s actions. From what I gather, the justification of his actions, i.e., rape, is revenge.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” or so we all quote from Hammurabi’s Code. I understand why many people continue to uphold this adage as an example of fairness. It’s simple and straightforward. I would almost dare to use the word logical. Unfortunately though, many people either have never known the context of Hammurabi’s Code or choose to ignore it.
“The Code of Hammurabi is often said to have been based on the principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” – as if this were some fundamental principle of justice, elaborated and applied to all cases. In fact, the code reflects no such consistent principle. It frequently prescribes the death penalty for offenses that do not themselves cause death (e.g., robbery and accepting bribes). Moreover, even the eye-for-an-eye rule applies only if the eye of the original victim is that of a member of the patrician class. If it is the eye of a commoner, the punishment is a fine of a quantity of silver (Brittanica, 2010, pp. 17-18)”
It’s certainly interesting to think that centuries-old literature is what we popularly cite assuming ethics is static, unconcerned with the state of the world or humanity’s progression. We understand that humans are complex creatures and that our consciousness and morality are unique to us [Though this notion can be challenged with good argument and evidence (Midgley, 1985; Singer, 1989)], yet we treat them as a part of the natural world. Think what you will of modern philosophers, but it’s evident that the objective reality is very much distinguishable from our constructed viewpoint(s) including our self-imposed sense of morals. All that to say- man made concepts change over time and Hammurabi’s Code, even assuming the punishment doled out was equal, is flimsy at best. There’s a reason documents like the Constitution of the United States are referred to as “living”.
In any case, that’s about Redo of Healer. Isekai Assassin, what I will be calling the obnoxiously long yet standard length LN title, has different problems. Nevertheless, ethics takes center stage regardless. First, we’ll talk about the ability to distinguish the real from the fictional via a brief critique about the use of child assassins. Next, we’ll discuss the discrepancy in mental and emotional age between the MC and his companions, preceded by a comparison to Youjo Senki (2017). Then, we’ll look at the MC’s manipulation of his companions and ultimately explain why his treatment or mindset about them, whether he regards them as tools or cherishes them, is irrelevant. Bear in mind that this discussion of Isekai Assassin only analyzes the story as portrayed in the anime adaptation. As always, expect citations which will be hyperlinked in-text if a PDF or web page of the article is available. Otherwise, see the list of references at the end of this article.
Distinguishing Fiction & Desensitization
When consuming media at large, the ability to distinguish fact from fiction is important. The term media is too large in this case though. I speak specifically about creative works: novels, television, cinema, and the like. Key though is that we indeed distinguish as opposed to crudely separating. Creative works are not merely ways to relax or entertain. Social commentary has always been a relevant use and today’s authors are no different. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and several of George Orwell’s works come to mind. That said, even renditions of the legend of King Arthur have historically functioned as an excellent tool. Wheeler offers a very quick and accessible overview at the Spokane County Library District website. For a more nuanced look, either see the books recommended at the end of Wheeler’s article or read Castleden’s King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend (1999).
There’s no innate reason why a character being a child assassin is “bad”. It’s no great feat to see that Isekai Assassin isn’t a means to provide social commentary. The use of child assassins isn’t indicative of anything in this case. There’s no inane argument trying to justify training kids to kill. Perhaps if there was a glorification of murder then a critique about its portrayl would have merit, but that’s a necessary qualifier. It’s a power fantasy plain and simple, directed at an adolescent audience; that’s why I take no umbrage with its implementation. A sane person won’t think that the MC or his role is a position to aspire to. Assassination Classroom (2015) was principally about a school of assassins that trained students to kill. It was met with very positive reception, but I seriously doubt there was any uptick in the assassination market.
A year or two ago, I attempted to write an article titled Anime – Empathy or Desensitization, but it never reached completion. The goal was to see if anime, in this context Japanese animation and not animation in general, broadly portrayed violence in a way that could teach empathy or was correlated with desensitization. The problem is that I couldn’t find research done on this definition of anime specifically. There was research about cartoons and cartoon violence in shows for infants (Zhang et al., 2019) and there was research about violence in US TV for adolescents (Khurana et al., 2019). Yet, I couldn’t manage to find the middleground that I believe anime is. It’s quite possible that it exists somewhere, but as to exactly where I only wish I knew. What I want to make a point of though is that many things are a risk factor. That is to say, X does not cause Y. However, if a person is somehow predisposed to Y, X would be a factor to play a part in its manifestation. Could anime [not standalone] influence a particularly vulnerable individual to commit violence? Yes. So too could live action movies, television, novels, games, and a plethora of what is considered normal to consume.
There are actually a good handful of characters in recent years whose mental age and maturity are drastically different from their chronological (physical) age due to reincarnation into a younger body: Tanya from Youjo Senki (2017) and Rudeus from Mushoku Tensei (2021) for example. Interestingly, they represent an oddity in that their mental age and maturity are drastically ahead of their chronological age as opposed to facing a mental illness where the opposite would be true. Let me be clear by saying that I don’t have comprehensive knowledge about Mushoku Tensei or Rudeus’ character- I haven’t watched the show whereas I’ve seen Youjo Senki and so that’ll be my point of focus.
In Youjo Senki, the issue of this discrepancy is largely sidestepped. What is there to sidestep exactly? On a social psychology level I propose: interpersonal relationships and mental health as a reflection of constant residence in an out-group.
Tanya has an aptitude in magic and quickly obtained military knowledge in the world she was reincarnated into. Using this, she rose in the ranks as a proposed hero to some, devil to others. In addition, Tanya’s previous self adhered to a cold sense of logic and rationale. So long as it benefited them in the long-term, no sacrifice, even human, would be too great. Many viewers are of the opinion that Tanya exhibits psychopathic traits. I would go on to claim that those traits may help Tanya climb the ladder, but that’s a surprisingly tough claim to make. Whether it’s in the military or business, the research is actually a mixed bag despite popular belief (Smith & Lilienfeld, 2012; Landay & Frieder, 2018). That said, research determining psychopathy is difficult to conduct, partly because psychopathy isn’t actually a disorder and partly because businesses don’t readily jump at the opportunity to partake in these tests for obvious reasons (Babiak et al., 2010). The aforementioned cold logic would theoretically help in a military setting on the other hand. Coupled with a desire to do whatever in her power to better her socioeconomic standing and a degree of conformity to the military hierarchy, she seems like an ideal soldier in service of the Empire.
I say all this despite my previous mention of problems with interpersonal relationships and mental health. Given that one typically congregates with people generally around the same chronological age, this then applies to mental age as well. When this isn’t the case, it’s easy to be singled out and potentially ostracized. Without peers: this is what I refer to as residing in an out-group. This doesn’t really apply to Tanya though. For one, in Tanya’s squad is another woman named Visha (Viktoriya). As fellow women, this develops quite a strong connection between the two, especially in an environment populated majorly by men. This pairing alone functions as an in-group that can’t be entered readily. Additionally, since Tanya is in charge of a squad of soldiers during a war where they’re actively engaging enemy combatants, the group naturally develops a strong bond with one another as they collectively fight for their lives. Thus, it’s another tight knit in-group. Moreover, Tanya isn’t the type of person to be drastically affected by the opinions of others. So long as it didn’t hinder her capacity to live a comfortable life, it’s no sweat off her back.
Besides this, mental age and maturity also plays a role in the ethical dilemma of allowing what’s chronologically a young girl into the military. There’s a reason there’s a minimum age requirement for activities such as drinking or joining the military. The brain simply hasn’t matured enough and being introduced to the chemical effects of alcohol or the events a military deployment entails would understandably have a chance to cause the brain to develop or cognitively behave differently from the norm. In-universe then, it’s odd that Tanya is so young and that is mentioned on occasion; however, I don’t find it to be unfitting. A young hero serves such an exemplary role for advertisement and morale, both of which the military needs as the fires of war rage on. Besides, it isn’t as if what can be considered war crimes don’t come very close to fruition in Youjo Senki. Even if Tanya is so young, her skill far exceeds others and to not use her would be logistically foolhardy. It’s pragmatism that drives the brass and Tanya herself and so this is all in accordance with the core philosophy embedded in the show. It’s no wonder that Tanya is often described as a monster.
What of Isekai Assassin? Again, the reincarnation of an older man into a younger body applies. The difference between this show and Youjo Senki is the amount of events that become immoral at best when we consider what this means. To start, it’s obvious that there’s a fair amount of fanservice. My comments on this will be short as the inclusion of fanservice in anime at large is quite typical and so isn’t a critique specific to Isekai Assassin. Whether this is detrimental to the ability of a show to convey its narrative is debatable and rest assured debate does ensue appropriately. The same can be said about the effect of fanservice, which mainly appeals to a male audience and thus centers on erotic depictions of women, and its place in teaching traditionally accepted sex roles. The conversation becomes a bit more complicated when we consider the age of the characters [in Isekai Assassin] who all principally seem under 18. From one minefield to another, the age and physical appearance of characters in anime is a hotbed of controversy. So much so, that I intend to refrain from giving my own opinion on the matter. What I will state are arguments I’ve heard anecdotally from what can be considered “both sides” of the matter. Perhaps there are more perspectives, but very broadly the arguments are:
“Anime is fictional and the label of age attached is merely a means to ‘trick’ viewers into being further immersed into a world. Moreover, the anime aesthetic of a character is only loosely similar to their real counterparts [a real person] in a variety of ways. Therefore, attributing real-world preferences is a misnomer.”
“The sexualization of underage characters in anime is morally reprehensible. Fiction is a gateway to explore ideals and fantasy which, to an extent, correlate with mindset. Additionally, this type of fanservice seems exclusive to anime-esque content which may suggest a deeper cultural dilemma and further conformity of those who consume it.”
These are comments on fanservice and so are largely irrelevant to the actual plot. That said, I’d like to see psychologists try and formulate an answer, but that is exponentially difficult. At a base level, anime just isn’t a topic that sees a lot of research. Popularity notwithstanding, you can’t really perform adequate research about the topic in my opinion. To obtain a sample size of participants who [are offenders and] all share more or less the same background and experience for reliability and validity seems impossible. I suppose you could do a case study, but even then, the most you could posit is declaring a potential risk factor. The limit of what one could do with the mass population is to gauge their perception on this material which would be interesting, but not necessarily beneficial at large.
However, Isekai Assassin’s use of underage characters is less fleeting than fanservice and instead they’re integral to the plot. It’s for this reason why I consider it noteworthy. The circumstances in which two female characters, Tarte and Maha, meet the MC and the end result of how that pans out is concerning. To give context to those who don’t know:
Tarte was a young girl formerly from a poor household. Given the onset of winter and the food scarcity it creates, it became a necessity to decrease the amount of people that needed to be fed. To that end, Tarte was thrown out into the wild and she eventually wandered long enough to end up starving and hunted by wolves in the region of Tuatha De. About to be killed and eaten, the MC Lugh, son of the lord of Tuatha De, saves her by killing the wolves and gives her food.
In the case of Maha, she was an orphaned child who organized fellow orphaned or abandoned children to assist and give tours to tourists in the city they resided in. The profit would eventually lead to them being able to buy a house for proper living conditions. That never came to pass however as they were kidnapped and forced to reside in an orphanage. This orphanage was in actuality closer to a mixture of a sweatshop and human trafficking ring where the kids were forced to work, beaten, sexually abused, and sold off to those with money. Under an alias, Lugh saves Maha and the children.
As an aside, Dia, Lugh’s teacher in magic, is also an underage character who comes to love him. The relationship is much better than that between Tarte and Lugh or Maha and Lugh considering there were no dire straits or obvious manipulation that led to a romance forming. It was relatively natural in fact, but the problem of age still does apply. The power dynamic is imbalanced. While the mental age is actually closer, there is still an insurmountable gap in emotional maturity.
That surface-level summary is dark, but that’s fine. Once more, there’s nothing wrong with dark and mature themes and their depiction in media. What’s omitted from these summaries is the part I find, for a lack of a better term, problematic. Tarte and Maha’s emotional attachment from being saved develops into a romance and Lugh ends up having a harem. Thus, we have a large age gap in a romantic relationship. What can stem from this? Manipulation.
Manipulation, Disney, & Zugzwang
To begin this talk on manipulation, we need to backtrack slightly again as I omitted another crucial aspect to the ending of Tarte and Maha’s backstory. In order for Tarte to escape her situation, i.e. being homeless, facing starvation, and physical danger (from wolves and other predators), her only perceivable choice was to join with Lugh. That alone isn’t grounds for purposeful manipulation, but Lugh goes a step farther with declarations like “I need you,” while maintaining that the condition of joining him meant aiding him in killing. When faced with this ultimatum, death or life, it’s clear that there wasn’t ever a real choice. It isn’t as if this wasn’t planned either, quite the opposite. Lugh’s internal monologue runs through the steps he took to secure her trust and submission while concluding it with the thought, “Brainwashing complete”.
This can be seen as an expedited portrayal of Stockholm syndrome with Lugh as the captor. While children aren’t generally seen as a typical hostage, see an excerpt from Julich & Oak’s paper on grooming and Stockholm syndrome (2016):
“While the general public would not think of children and young people as hostages, they can be victims and they can be held captive… Their hostage situation exists in both material and subliminal form manifested in: their perceived threat to survival and belief the abuser is willing to carry out that threat, the victim’s perception of some small kindness from the abuser within a context of terror, fear of isolation and the perceived inability to escape. These elements are the four precursors or conditions that Graham et al. (1994) identified as the precursors for Stockholm syndrome and Julich (2001) analysed her interviews of adult survivors of CSA using these precursors as a framework”.
While Stockholm syndrome doesn’t apply to Maha’s situation, I do believe there’s a large level of manipulation, even if it isn’t overtly disclosed as was with Tarte. Before Lugh saved Maha and the rest of the orphanage, he simply went there under his alias to hire a suitable assistant for himself. When he arrives, he sees Maha alone in a building, crying to herself with a blade nearly piercing her eye. She appears to be attempting to either gouge her eye out or kill herself entirely. Lugh calls out to her smiling and says, “You’d be cuter if you smiled”. Then, hardcut to see the lineup of girls. He chooses Maha from their assortment who seems to have overcome her trauma in the time elapsed and finds herself swooning over Lugh. However, he must wait three days while she is prepared for him. Before these three days have passed, Maha is in transit where her captors attempt to have their way with her. She tries to run away, is caught, and subsequently saved by Lugh who she sees as a dashing prince come to save the day.
There is a distinct possibility that what I critique now is the result of inconsistent writing and presentation, yet I continue to critique regardless as that is simply what the end product is. Lugh is explained to be quite smart. Is the audience expected to believe that he went to the orphanage simply to hire an assistant without knowledge of the location’s circumstances? If not, why else would he wait for Maha to be attacked? If we don’t accept his out of character naivety, we instead accept the fact that Lugh waited for Maha to be attacked in order to garner trust and devotion from her, thereby fulfilling her ideal of a prince coming to save her. This terminology is quite reminiscent from the controversy that stemmed from Disney movies which played a role in the adoption of traditional sex-roles with Maha being a damsel in distress in need of a prince (Coyne et al., 2016). The climax of it all is that Maha, after being saved from rape and abuse, is trained to be an assassin.
Zugzwang is a term most associated with chess and is essentially a position where a move is always detrimental (Winter, 1997). In my mind, this fits quite appropriately with Lugh’s situation. I’ve seen comments from the audience glad that Lugh is developing a more human side compared to his previous life, but that has little bearing on Tarte or Maha. At this point, when both his female companions are presented as loyal to the point of death, it appears self-evident that no action can be significantly helpful to them. Regardless of whether Lugh cherishes them or not, they will obey him completely. In short, the damage has been done and efforts to reverse that will largely fall short.
There are clear actions on the part of Lugh in order to manipulate his companions. Yet, the story pays this little mind. When it’s discussed, such as in Tarte’s case, it’s a matter of fact. While it is possible to accept this as the MC simply being cold and manipulative, assumed to be typical of an assassin, the show also wants to humanize Lugh at the same time. This results in a contradictory sway with the narrative, hopeful that everything can be idyllic when the time comes to settle down without regard to the long-term effects of manipulation. In truth, manipulation has become the Original Sin, the bedrock of the story.
I would like to recognize that the intentions of the original author were most likely not to convey ill intent. This should not be seen as an attack on said author or any other individuals associated with the work as a whole. Neither should it be seen as an attack on the audience that enjoys the product. However, this article stands as a critique of the narrative, themes, and possible conclusions that can be made from a close analysis. Whether or not all shows need to withstand such close-reading is surely a topic of debate. Nevertheless, I believe that depictions of relationships in media do function as a learning tool, especially to those prone to influence (i.e. children and those with mental disorders). By virtue of being an anime tagged isekai and harem, having a male lead, and being rated PG-13, this puts it squarely in an audience of male adolescents. No, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that dark themes or even discussed examples of manipulation should be thrown out of shows for adolescents. I instead recommend parental guidance when it comes to consuming and properly understanding the implications of shows that contain the aforementioned. When parents can’t monitor their kids or if there’s no parental figure, what’s to be done? That’s a good question, but I don’t have the answer for you today.
Any comments are welcome, especially critique on this article. I didn’t find any controversy about Isekai Assassin which actually surprised me. I don’t often criticize anime for its oversexualization, but it just felt different in this show. Seeing as how I might be the only one writing long-form about it, maybe it’s just me. In any case, I hope the read wasn’t too formal and that you could still enjoy it.
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