The Magic in This Other World Is Too Far Behind!, Vol. 1

By Gamei Hitsuji and himesuz. Released in Japan by Overlap. Released in North America digitally by J-Novel Club. Translated by Hikoki.

If you’re going to lure people in to reading another isekai these days, you need a compelling concept. Not necessarily a strong concept – vending machines and hot moms will also do – but a concept where a potential reader will think “that actually sounds like it might be interesting enough to wade through more interminable “you have been summoned here to defeat the demon lord” claptrap. Too Far Behind! (as I will call it going forward) isn’t lights out, but it’s a pretty decent idea. Our hero, his not-quite-girlfriend, and their cynical best friend are teleported to another world, and told to fight the bad guys. The concept is that we follow the best friend, who is not given tremendous superpowers by the journey, but does already have some secrets up his sleeve. As a result, we have the inverse of the usual isekai themes – the protagonist comes into the story already having cool powers, and finds the world he’s now in is completely inadequate.

Suimei is our protagonist, brought to another world with his friends Reiji and Mizuki. Reiji is the actual hero, imbued with tremendous strength that will help him to defeat the demon lord. Mizuki and Suimei were caught up in the summoning as well, but have no new powers. Mizuki will help Reiji anyway, as she has a crush on him. Suimei, however, heard the story of millions of demon lord foot soldiers hankering to hunt some humans and puts his foot down – there’s no way he’s getting involved in something this dangerous. And so, while the hero and his not-girlfriend (and the princess, who has already fallen for the hero almost immediately) train so that he can save the world, Suimei holes up in the castle and seemingly sulks. Of course, Suimei has a secret that he’s never told his friends, and that no one except the court mage has discovered – he’s actually a magician!

I’m going to say this right off the bat: this story introduces us to Felmenia, talks about how strong and powerful she’s gotten with her magic, and then proceeds to write her as a ditzy dojikko deep down. When Suimei reveals his true self, she’s so impressed by how big and powerful his magic is that she can’t help but fall in love with him – at least after a battle where he proceeds to humiliate her (which, I will grant you, even he admits was petty of him). Basically, it’s that kind of plotline for Felmenia, and I couldn’t help but sigh and sort of rub my temples. Once I got past that, though, I was surprised how enjoyable the rest of the book was. Suimei is a cool protagonist without being emotionless, and we occasionally see him make mistakes and let his emotions get the better of him. Reiji is not belittled by being the hero, and we appreciate his motivations and more straight-ahead “shonen hero” thinking. As does Suimei, who’s just concerned Reiji is going to die. Even the King is one of the nicest kings I’ve ever met in an isekai. And Felmenia is fine, once I got past what type she was going to be. She’s cute and very earnest.

The book ends with Suimei setting off to another kingdom to research how to get back home, and I suspect Book two will introduce a new heroine. This isn’t breaking any isekai rules, it’s just looking at them from a different perspective. Fans of the genre should be relatively happy with it.

Moteki: Love Strikes!, Vol. 1

By Mitsurou Kubo. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Evening. Released in North America by Vertical Comics. Translated by Ko Ransom.

Several years ago, when I was in New York City on a trip, I used to go to the Japanese bookstore to pick up random manga magazines and see what sort of things they had in them that would never be licensed over here. One of the more interesting ones was Evening, a magazine put out twice a month by Kodansha, meant as a complement to the mainstream Weekly Morning and the otaku-oriented Afternoon. Evening wasn’t as experimental as some magazines, but it tended towards manga for adults, with adult problems and solutions that didn’t necessarily come easily. Moteki is one of those titles, and I had bought it in Japanese back then thinking it would never be put out over here – it wasn’t the sort of thing publishers would look at. But then Yuri on Ice became THE PHENOMENON, and here we are. And I’m pleased, because Moteki is quite a good story, even if it can be extremely uncomfortable at times.

Yukiyo is our hero, though I use the term loosely. He’s almost thirty and seems to be coasting his life away – content to work temp jobs that are easy to get and easy to quit, living in bachelor-land, and having no luck with women, or so he thinks. Then all of a sudden his co-worker seems to be coming on to him; his old classmate is back in his life and going on trips with him; the girl he crushed on is back in his life as well; heck, even the high school delinquent girl is back and screaming at him that he’s a moron. It’s his moteki, which is to say that period in your life where guys suddenly tend to get very popular. There’s just one problem – Yukiyo is a passive wimp who keeps waffling about what kind of signs he’s getting from the women, and thus doesn’t really accomplish much of anything.

There is a certain self-awareness to this manga, both in the comedy extras – the author hooking Yukiyo up right away, and being reminded that this manga is supposed to be read by fellow losers – and in the main text, with everyone happy to point out to Yukiyo just what he is or isn’t doing. I think this is a very good thing, as it saves the manga from being a bit too didactic. Yukiyo can be very hard to take, and thus we appreciate it when the characters say this for us over and over. He does seem to be improving by the end of the volume, but… is he really? The girls also get some focus on their own where we can hear their own frustrations and insecurities – Itsuka is my favorite, and also probably the closest mirror to Yukiyo, but none of them are purely there as props.

Moteki is a relatively short series, and the second omnibus will wrap things up. I’m not sure if it will resolve a romance – this sort of title is the kind that tends to go for “I don’t need to resolve the relationships as long as I show personal growth” – but given how much personal growth is needed, I’m fine with that. If you don’t mind excruciating passive guys getting called out on their shit a lot, Moteki is an excellent examination of adult love lives.

Infinite Stratos, Vol. 1

By Izuru Yumizuru and CHOCO. Released in Japan by Overlap. Released in North America digitally by J-Novel Club. Translated by Holm Hinners.

I knew this one was going to be difficult, and kept repeating to myself as I read it, “Remember this came out in 2009, before all those other ones.” But it’s hard. I never saw the Infinite Stratos anime (I know, you’re shocked), which itself is almost five years old at this point. And we’ve had endless works of a similar type or variety since then, intentional or not. Guy arrives at a school, lots of girls, his relative is a higher-up, gotta pilot a giant mech… I should go re-read my review of Hybrid x Heart to see if I’m repeating myself from there. I have no doubt this series was a big influence on them. Which is fine, and I tried, but man, this feels really tired. There are too many tsunderes, the lead’s obliviousness had better be faked or else I’m going to have to rip his arms off, and the occasional interesting plot moment gets derailed at every point for harem antics.

So: in the near future, powered suits have been invented that revolutionize the world. However, only women can pilot them. As a result, men are somewhat second-class citizens now. But guess who is, for some unknown reason, the only man who can pilot an IS? That’s right, our hero Ichika, who is now going to be attending the all-female high school where he can learn how to be a fearsome mech pilot. The mechs, judging by the illustrations, are more Bubblegum Crisis-style suits than Gundams, and the documentation on them is thick and difficult to memorize, particularly if you are a dense male lead. Fortunately, Ichika will have help from his childhood friend Houki (grumpy tsundere), the British Cecilia (haughty tsundere), and his OTHER childhood friend Lingyin, aka “Rin” (standard garden-variety tsundere). Oh, and his older sister, who hits him in the head a lot, but means well. We think.

There are a few things this does well that I can appreciate. Ichika may be the only man in the world that can pilot an IS, but that doesn’t make him immediately the best pilot in the school, though a lot of that is implied to be simple ignorance of how the suits actually work. It is also refreshing, though perhaps unappreciated by me, that the book doubles down on the harem antics so quickly. Most of the stories of this sort that I’ve seen before try to balance out the plot and the harem equally, but IS doesn’t really seem that into its plot, which is a shame as it’s implied that enemies were trying to either kill or kidnap Ichika towards the end – likely related to why he’s the only man who can pilot an IS. And, it has to be said, in 2009 harems and tsunderes were HUGE. Not so much in 2018. I can easily see why this got an anime.

We’ve only had about 12 volumes of this since it began, mostly due to the author’s poor health (which he discusses in the afterword), so it’s not as big as it could be. I will say this: most of the series that have derivative plots that we’ve seen over here before are manga-only, so if you wanted to read actual harem prose, you’ve come to the right place. I’d recommend this book to those who like the anime as well.