Friday’s Feature: The Reincarnation Dilemma

I’ve been wondering for awhile why so many trapped in another world stories have been using reincarnation as a vehicle for travelling between our world and another. The far easier option is just to throw the protagonist through a portal, summon them, cross over or whatever else is needed to get them there and then close the door behind them. Reincarnation creates a myriad of plot issues that a lot of the time just don’t need to be in the story at all and are seldom addressed in any kind of satisfying manner. So what are some of the problems I have with reincarnation as a story and are there any anime that get it right?

In Another World With my Smartphone - Touya

It Just Isn’t Necessary

Ernesti from Knight’s and Magicis a great example of a character who did not need to be reincarnated. He literally could have just been a born genius from the world he was on given the only bearing his past life had on the one we watched was that he was good at programming, and apparently designing robots. Both of these skills could easily have been acquired by a genius in the world he grew up in, and in point of fact given they offer an antagonist later on who isn’t quite at Ernesti’s level of over-powered brilliance but is still pretty good at developing mechs you have to wonder why they bothered.

Knight's & Magic - Ernesti

Now I mentioned this in my review of the anime, but adding the reincarnation aspect does nothing for this story. All it does is eat up precious minutes of air time showing us a former life that will have no importance on the overall plot and isn’t necessary.

Ernesti brings no external knowledge of the world he is entering into the world. As he has been reborn in a new body none of his physical abilities have gone with him. He has no contact with anyone or anything from his former world where knowing who he was previously might aid the story. There is literally not reason for him to be a reincarnation and it is pretty easy to forget that this is the premise of the story.

And while I’m kind of bashing Knight’s And Magic, it isn’t the only story guilty of this.

Now if we look at something like Sailor Moon or Kyou Kara Maou, while the reincarnation is from their former life/world and into the modern one, the fact that the characters are reincarnated has an impact on every part of the plot. Neither one of these stories would be able to exist except for the fact that the main characters were reborn. Their former lives are completely intertwined with the events they are facing in their present life and the power they use is tied in with it as well.

Kyou Kara Maou.jpg

Even In Another World With My Smartphone at least made use of his learned ability to use the phone and the fact that he chose to carry the phone with him into his next life. Then again, In Another World With My Smartphone created a whole other issue.

Have They Actually Been Reborn?

By its very nature, reincarnation requires you to be born again with the same soul in a different body. And that creates some interesting juxtapositions if you choose to reincarnate particular souls in bodies that just don’t match them, though this aspect of reincarnation is seldom explored. Nor is the influence of the body on the soul, though a light novel I’m reading at the moment, So I’m a Spider, So What seems to be getting into this issue by exploring the impact of having a male soul reborn inside a female and human souls being reborn inside of monsters so I’m kind of enjoying that aspect of it.

In Another World With My Smartphone

In Another World With My Smartphone just skips the whole rebirth thing. God just sends Touya to the other world, fully clothed and still fifteen years old, with all memories and learned knowledge in tact but with all his abilities boosted. I’m actually fine with this concept given it means we don’t have to watch the tedious growing up process or see his confusion with his soul memories and body memories colliding (assuming they bother to address that issue) but it kind of shoots the premise of being reborn or reincarnated in the foot. They might as well have just said he would be sent to or transported to the other world given there really wasn’t a reincarnation process here.

Does Entering a Game Count as Rebirth?

Now this one gets tricky because we’ve had a lot of characters transported into worlds based on game mechanics with levelling up and the like. The question is, have they really been reborn or is their soul simply trapped inside the game character. And if they can’t leave and the world operates as a world does it matter that it uses game mechanics at all?

How Not To Summon A Demon Lord  - Diablo

So what?

 I think starting That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime made me really think about how reincarnation works in stories. The first episode spends a lot of time in our world (comparatively) setting up a character that the episode then promptly kills and has him reborn. What I wanted to know was would any of the story later on be changed if we simply start with him waking up in his new body, realising he’s no longer human and moving on. Is seeing his self-intro as an ordinary guy going to make this any more engaging to watch?

And it isn’t just reincarnation. There are a lot of premises out there that get used to lead us into stories and then seem to serve no purpose. While I get that archetypes and cliches allow us to cut over a lot of fluffing about, I really do feel that narratives need to put more effort in sometimes and really use their premise. Otherwise, they just have me wondering, what’s the point?

Sailor Moon
This remains my favourite example of reincarnation in anime.

However, I’d love to know what you think of reincarnation in anime. What are some of the best examples? What are some of the worst?


Thanks for reading.

Karandi James

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43 thoughts on “Friday’s Feature: The Reincarnation Dilemma

  1. Not a critique but one of the reasons for reincarnation is such a big theme is because (most likely) the author/producers are Buddhist. I’ve always thought that obvious since I am Buddhist but this article makes me realize that I was pretty oblivious that not everyone is lol.

    All that being said, not every (in fact I’d argue most of them) aren’t necessarily Buddhist in themes or even religious. Most Japanese people aren’t ‘active’ practitioners in Shintoism, or Buddhism. It’s often argued that they’re really only practiced with marriage and death. However, seeing that reincarnation has become a popular in the media, it’s also a popular reason people practice Buddhism. The idea that you have more then one life to lead is incredibly appealing.

    Didn’t mean to get religious on you and hope this doesn’t come off too critical! It’s a really interesting theme/motif that’s cropped up over the years!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got the Buddhist connection, however even then I kind of feel if they are including that detail they should probably use it a little bit better as part of the story.

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  2. I agree with what you said about sometimes reincarnation not really being ‘needed’ like in the case of Knight’s and Magic (which I will uphold as a good story for what it is), but I always viewed it as a way of giving the characters a clean slate, since most of them are leaving dull and boring lives.

    You are right though that it seems to be a trope that people just tack on because it is somehow seen as required.

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    1. Well, these sorts of stories are basically wish fulfilment. So rather than saying suicidal, people are afraid of death and what happens next so ending up as an overpowered main character in a new world probably appeals as a fantasy.

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  3. I was thinking about animes I’ve that have reincarnation, but none of them came to mind. Even after looking through my list what anime I have seen that has something resembling reincarnation don’t have it in the forefront. It’s simply something in the story getting treated as a afterthought. I guess something Log Horizon has it with the characters being unable to permanently die within the game, but after like two, or three episodes they don’t bother to do anything meaningful with it.

    The idea behind reincarnation fascinates me despite being skeptical of it. In anime, I would like something that would burrow the idea of memories overlapping each other like it did in Steins;Gate. Just with reincarnation, and some kind exploration on it. Like would it cause someone to develop split personality, and would they be able to distinguish their current with their past lives. If there’s an anime like that, I sure haven’t seen it yet.

    I would like to see it be more commonly use in other genres other than Fantasy, or stuck in a video game stories which seems to like Reincarnation quite a bit at the moment. Probably a romance with a story about Reincarnated lovers or something. Because the only one I can turn too that had that was Green Green, and oh man, that one was rough.

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    1. I agree that the idea of reincarnation in stories is fascinating even if I am sceptical of the idea. There’s just so much that could be done with the concept. It would be good to see more done with it.

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  4. This made me realize just how little reincarnation-related anime I’ve watched, maybe because I’ve never had much interest in the current isekai boom. The only one I can think of is Le Portrait de Petite Cosette, and with that one the idea that the MC might be the reincarnation of another character was hinted at between the lines, but never explicitly confirmed. Now to be clear, I did watch Konosuba, but as far as I’m concerned having the MC “reincarnated” wholesale in his new world right down to the clothes he was wearing is not reincarnation at all; I don’t care what the writers call it. I have been meaning to watch Tanya the Evil, though, and my understanding is that the reincarnation aspect actually is very important to the plot of that series.

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    1. Tanya the Evil is probably a good example of a story that looks at the reincarnation aspect a bit more. I didn’t get all that far into the anime because I couldn’t stand Tanya’s voice but I followed along with reviews of the story. Now I’m kind of curious as to how reincarnation does tie into the plot because I think you are right from what I remember reading about it.

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  5. I think you hit the crux of the issue when you mention Spider. Using reincarnation in this way is really interesting so I don’t think it shouldn’t be used in stories altogether. With your other examples, however, I get where you are coming from. Those are instances it really wasn’t necessary.

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    1. Definitely not saying reincarnation shouldn’t be used. I just prefer it when they really use it and there are so many ideas that can be explored with it that seem to be seriously underexplored by so many stories that have adopted this idea.

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      1. I think it is like body swapping stories, they are underutilized and too easy to fall into traps with (like in this example, making it all about sex or something). That does make stuff that nails it loads more interesting though.

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  6. kind of disagree. i can think of a couple of reasons why you might want to choose reincarnation over standard transport, and i dont think it has to be lazy. you were kinda getting at one with the section about smartphone, which is that you live through life in the new world and build a legitimate identity in that world. take ernesti as an example. his relationship with ady and kid is one that cant be easily replicated with a standard transport setup. the fact that they grow up around a genius who has a lifetime of memories alters their development and shapes them into worthy allies for ernesti later. the other idea is simply that it removes the “return to the old world” plot line as an option for the story.

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    1. It definitely takes away the find a way home issue that transportation stories always have. I still think Ernesti could have just been a genius without needing memories of a past life and Kid and Ady would have been just as affected growing up with him. There just never seemed a need for him to use any specific knowledge he may have gained in his first life that he couldn’t have simply learned in the next one (considering how much he did learn and how quickly).

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      1. i dont particularly see why that’s pertinent for reincarnation. if ernesti had been summoned to his world, he could very easily have failed to use specific knowledge from his previous life as well. “black healer” is an example of a series like that, where the main character doesnt really use any knowledge from her previous life, but she fell through a portal to her new world.

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          1. im mostly saying that this isnt uniquely a reincarnation-specific thing. you kind of dismiss his programmer past as well as his mecha obsession in his previous life, but i just see that as extra explanatory points that you normally wouldnt get if he was just another genius. a large portion of the series revolves around the fact that he completely breaks the ingrained assumptions of the world when he designs his own mechs. now, you can argue that it’s kind of trivializing genius to suggest that you could only accomplish this if you were from another world, but i would argue that this a fair question for a series to bring up to the audience.

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          2. Yet the guy on the other side of the war was also redesigning mechs in a way that hadn’t been done before. Are we supposed to assume he is also reincarnated or that he is just a genius? And I get that Ernesti beat him, but that wasn’t because he called on any specific knowledge set from his former life. He used what he learned in his current life to win (that and the power of friendship and plot armour).
            And sure, he was obsessed with mechs but he could have simply grown up watching them and developed the same obsession.
            If we actually cut the half episode given to Ernesti’s former life and death, almost nothing in the story is impacted at all. Which just makes me wonder why it needed to be included?

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          3. i can only make conjectures, since i havent read the light novel yet, but i would be extremely surprised if ernesti didnt base all of his designs off of things he’d seen in his previous life. im not saying that he has to do that in order to be the genius that he is. im just saying that it’s an explanation that the series offers, and i would argue that horatio is less developed in comparison. that being said, he’s barely introduced in the events of the anime, so im guessing he’s explored later. it doesnt necessarily have to be a perfect explanation, but the influences of ernesti’s past life serve a purpose. plus, ive already acknowledged that you can have a reincarnation story that doesnt incorporate its reincarnation aspect well with smartphone, but i dont see why this is a problem with reincarnation stories specifically. i dont see what the argument is.

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          4. Not really an argument, more an opinion that I have. Just a problem I have with stories that set up a premise and don’t use it for anything of note. Reincarnation stories aren’t the only ones that do this but they are ones that frequently do it.

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          5. i dont really have a problem with the idea that stories dont utilize their premises well, but if your point is just that reincarnation stories do it more…i mean, okay, i guess. there’s nothing wrong with having that impression, but it feels like nothing more than a gut feel. is there anything about reincarnation specifically that lends itself to that?

            and if ernesti bases his designs off of mechs from his past life, i would argue that it qualifies as using knowledge from his past life even if it could be done differently.

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          6. There’s little in the anime to suggest that Ernesti is basing his mech designs off of anything specifically from his past life and while I get that could be a link, it isn’t really one that is well used or established by the plot. However, I do understand your opinion on it.
            As to reincarnation stories specifically, it would just be the sheer number that don’t use the premise very well. And as I said in the article, it was something I started thinking about after watching the Slime anime’s first episode and I started wondering if half an episode introducing a guy and his death scene was really the best use of its air time. Maybe it will do something with the premise but and we could mount the argument that his dying thoughts dictated his form in the new world, but that could have been established a lot faster than it was. And if that’s the end of the use his death has in the story, then again it isn’t overly necessary but I guess I’ll see what they do with the story. I’d love his past life to actually have some impact on the plot, however past experience with these kinds of stories doesn’t leave me all that hopeful.

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          7. personally, i think that it’s within the realm of assumption that he would base things off what he’s seen. i dont disagree that the anime could have been more explicit, but i dont necessarily think it had to.

            i think it’s fine to say that a reincarnation story would do well to incorporate the reincarnation aspect more consistently, but i also dont personally think it’s necessary. i think the idea behind reincarnation is more the idea of introducing new ideas into the world, and i think both stories do that. arguably, transport-based stories can have a similar idea, but i would argue that they would tend more towards exploring the new world because the protagonists dont have that same common sense gained from being raised in the world. some series may choose to refer back to the death aspect more than others, but i dont think that’s the defining feature of the story type

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  7. Yeah, a lot of reincarnation isekai stories just feel like a lazy way of writing. Just start off in another world or give them amnesia or something if you’re not going to do anything with the whole “I grew up on Earth” aspect.

    But Please Save My Earth is my favorite reincarnation story. The whole thing is about dealing with their memories and regrets.

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  8. I think the story I liked the best was Re: Zero which is surprising to me since I really hated the main guy at the start. I did like the whole groundhog day approach to it and found it really interesting. Seeing him die on purpose to save someone, man that had to be maddening. I can only imagine having to relive the same moments over and over and in a track suit.

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      1. Yeah, I quit about 10 minutes in too. Then my subscription box had Re:Zero items so I forced myself to sit through at least 2 episodes. It is funny how this box has really made me watch some anime I probably never would have haha.

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  9. I was just thinking about this. I’ve been entertaining the idea of writing a piece about reincarnation as well, but more as it pertains to reincarnation endings than overall show premises and stuff. And why Reincarnation endings are extremely difficult to pull off and thus most of them tend to be… well… bad (I’m looking at you, DarliFra).

    As to this kind of example though, I don’t think there’s really a need to see the life beforehand. It varies from story to story, of course. I think the HOPE is that it can be used to create an easy route to understand and relate to a character (which, for someone like me, is already a modicum of wasted time because I don’t care about that most of the time, anyway). The problem with that is that if that *is* what they’re trying to do, it’s really just incredibly lazy. Slime, for example. Yeah, we don’t know enough yet about how that whole thing works and we also don’t know about anything of value from his prior life. So we can’t tell at the moment (without reading the manga/LN) that it’ll ever be important. But it’s just a slapdash shortcut that doesn’t actually have the wanted effect, if that’s the way it’s being used.

    How Not to Summon a Demon Lord is a weird example indeed. Not sure if it counts as being reborn or not because we don’t know the status of his physical body in his own world. Did they drag his soul through and effectively kill him? Did they pull his whole body through and he somehow transformed? It’s also implied that the world isn’t an exact 1-1 of the game he played, just 99.99% similar. So the situation is a bit weird.

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    1. I ended up leaving out reincarnation endings because the post started getting silly. But yes Darling in the Franxx and Gilgamesh probably both would have been hit as examples because killing off your cast and then trying to get the sweet and happy moment by reincranating them is kind of a cheap narrative move (Angel Beats kind of gets a pass because the characters were already dead).

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      1. Yeah. It simultaneously cheapens the more bittersweet/downer ending, while also usually not satisfying the qualifier for the happy ending. So it just exists in this grey area that leaves no one happy. I can’t think of any reincarnations, off the top of my head, that I actually like, honestly. Angel Beats *works*, narratively speaking, though I wouldn’t exactly say I *like* it, either. But it’s probably the best example I’ve got.

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        1. I think the issue is I’m either invested in the character and who they are, not who they get reincarnated as, or, I’m just not invested and don’t care if they reincarnate or not. At least that’s how I feel about reincarnation endings. The opposite is true at the start where I have to wonder why waste time trying to get me invested in a character you are about to kill off.

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  10. Wawawawa you’re reading that?! Okay. I think “”Average” Mile makes use of reincarnation quite well. (note the quotation marks.) FUNA sensei’s other works make use of reincarnation quíte well too. Also, Maine which the original tl of ‘I’m a Spider, So What?’ is currently tling makes use of the ‘common sense’ mixup. Although those aren’t anime yet.

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      1. Also, now that I think about it, ex-strongest swordsman incorporates reincarnation the best, in my opinion, the whole story revolves around reincarnation. Same with world teacher, but not as much.
        In both stories, the skills they have (both generes include action/fantasy) are, or developed because of past-life experiences. World teacher even has an entire arc only made possible because of the reincarnation. They also really don’t “invent” or introduce modern ideas to their worlds. Except foods, of course, but don’t publicize it that much. Those two are the only stories that really make use of the plot, ‘reincarnation’.
        https://bayabuscotranslation.com/ (both mentioned are there. They both are also WebNovels.)

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        1. For anime, I still think Kyou Kara Maou used the idea of reincarnation really well as the soul being passed on was a central plot point and explicitly tied into the climax and resolution. But generally speaking stories that do much with the idea of reincarnation are few and far between.

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