I recently bought Sekai-kei to wa Nani ka by Maejima Satoshi, a book on theory of nerdy culture. It somehow made its way to my wishlist – I’m pretty sure Twitter is to blame, but I can’t remember how it exactly happened. Have you ever heard the term sekai-kei? If you’re a hardweeb, you probably have, even though it seems rather unknown in the West. I definitely have and… before I say anything else, I’d like to say that before reading What Is Sekai-kei? I’d been very sceptical towards this buzzword. I make a point of not using words I don’t completely understand, unlike some people who always seem eager to jump at every new piece of netspeak, so sekai-kei is not in my dictionary. If you google around a bit in an attempt to understand what it is, you might piece together that it’s a genre of stories where there’s a boy and a girl, and their relationship influences the world around them. Or something. Why did they pick the word “sekai” (world) to name the genre? Is there a genre in the first place? Does it necessarily have to feature a boy-girl couple? Why? It’s all very mysterious. Mr Maejima tries to answer these questions in this book on postmodern theory.
The book’s author comes up with the same idea I did: he has the internet define the word for him. What he gets looks like this:
A romance between a boy and a girl has a direct connection to the world’s fate. Only the girls fights, the boy is excluded from the battlefield. The depiction of society is omitted in the story.
Rather vague, isn’t it? What’s more, Mr Maejima points out that the internet definition has next to nothing to do with works of art usually shelved as sekai-kei! This definition only hardens my conviction that sekai-kei is only a bit of worthless internet detritus. Mr Maejima accepts the possibility that there is no sekai-kei – it takes courage to admit that the subject of your book might not even exist, the author already has my respect for doing that. The book could end after the foreword but, Maejima won’t let it.
The word turns out to have a documented first written mention – in 2002, a blogger called Purunie wrote about it and offered a short and not very scientific definition: sekai-kei equals “Eva-like”. That’s the definition the book takes and runs with it. Sekai-kei equals post-Evangelion. When buying Sekai-kei to wa Nani ka I did not expect to read a book about Neon Genesis Evangelion, even though I should have seen it from a mile away, now that I think of it. The entire first chapter is about Eva – the giant milestone in the history of anime, and Japanese nerdy culture which acknowledges anime to be its “bread and butter” to this day. Thanks to this book, I even got stuck for a few days reading the collection of source texts revolving around Evangelion that you can find at gwern.net. Again.
Maejima breaks down Evangelion and its popularity into several simple elements. Eva’s key feature number one: introversion. Year 1995. You might remember the globally detectable millenial atmosphere of impending doom from the nineties and early twothousands. First, Slobodan Milosevic was the Antichrist, then it was Saddam Hussein… As if that wasn’t enough, early that year, the major earthquake in Koube happened and the bizarre cult consisting of nerdy losers in life called Aum Shinri-kyou orchestrated an act of terrorism in the Tokyo subway using a chemical weapon. If you consider that context, Anno Hideaki having created a story about a futuristic city (it can hide underground in case of danger!) built after an apocalyptic event in year 1999… stops being that strange. Hello Nostradamus. The apocalyptic themes of Evangelion owe their existence to the Japanese media, which instilled upon the nation the impression that the world’s falling apart and tore down the myth of Japan being the safest, most peaceful country in the world (which was narcissistic fiction anyway). It shouldn’t be a surprise how introverted, self-reflective a story Eva turned into.
Feature number two: nerdiness. Evangelion starts like a rather typical Gainax show: there’s epic spectacle, plenty of original technical vocabulary and intertextual references… The opening sequence is filled with quickly changing static images because a normie wouldn’t bother paying attention to them or even pausing to have a closer look – it’s there to repel the non-nerds. However, the deeper you go, the more Eva gives up on pandering to the otaku. And thus we reach the third feature: depression and spite. The protagonist is too busy introspecting to care how nifty it is that the mech’s pilot steers it from its spinal cord. The “monster of the week” structure, typical of mecha anime, proves helpful in writing a story about depression. Every next Angel does more damage to Tokyo 3 and gets closer to its goal, Lilith, being kept deep underground by NERV. Meanwhile, every battle emotionally depletes Shinji more, sending him deeper into his mental downward spiral. Depressed Shinji never really gets over his mental ruin. Or maybe he eventually does, and everybody says “Congratulations” to him.
Feature four: moe! Eva was a landmark waifu anime, a harbinger of the absolute domination moeblobs enjoyed over the 2000s. When the first heroine is introduced into the story – she proves to be an emotionless doll. And yet the nerds love her. The second heroine is an aggressively insufferable parody of a human being – and nerds love her too! In End of Evangelion she’ll tell the audience that they disgust her.
Evangelion’s success was big enough that the period between its premiere and Purunie’s blogpost – the symbolical birth of sekai-kei, as well as several years after that, was wealthy in works inspired by Anno’s anime. Maejima mentions dozens of them, but offers a detailed look into the best ones, made through a creative misreading of Eva – the ones which caused the term sekai-kei to be invented.
Number one: Boogiepop. The Evangelion of light novels, which showed the fantasy novel scene, dominated by unimaginative D&D session logs, how literature is done. Boogiepop wa Warawanai is a piece of misanthropic urban fantasy about highschoolers accidentally stumbling upon a hidden, supernatural layer of reality. The phenomenon knows as light novels was never the same again.
Number two: Shizuku (and its twin, Kizuato), an apocalyptic horror eroge – a landmark work showing how eroge, together with ranobe, became the medium asking nerds who they are. And how the “ero” part in eroge was becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Number three: Saishuu Heiki Kanojo. An introverted, monologue-driven story of the titular girl fighting for the sake of the weak male protagonist. While talking about SaiKano, Maejima directs the reader’s attention to the depiction of war in sekai-kei stories. It’s a phony war, simplified and infantilized for contemporary teens and nerds who do not know war. Ikari Shinji had to go to school in breaks between battles with Angels, which would be unthinkable in real life. The enemy he fights in that war are non-sentient monsters. In Saikano, war is even phonier. The identity of the enemy is unknown, and practically ignored until the very end of the story. The economic and political aspects of war are ignored too – the story is ahistoric and completely devoid of realism.
Number four: Hoshi no Koe, which Maejima calls “Gunbuster, if it was made after Eva”. A girl who goes to space and a boy in a long-distance relationship with her. A story about two people for whom time flows differently and their inner emotions. The difference between Hoshi no Koe and Gunbuster is where Maejima tries to look for the essence of sekai-kei.
Number five : Iriya no Sora – a boy’s frustrated about not being much of help for his cutting-edge fighter plane-piloting girlfriend who depletes her life force fighting a vaguely defined enemy. Iriya is definitely the story to which the internet definition of sekai-kei fits best and probably the true originator of the term, after which it started being a consciously used trope. One of the milestones in the history of light novels.
At this point, sekai-kei is an established term. Why not some other piece of vocab? A word was needed for works inspired by Evangelion and it just so happened that sekai-kei became that word.
Number six: Nishio Ishin. Evangelion had plenty of influence on subversive mystery novel (the shin honkaku current) writers gathered around Faust magazine, and the most successful and nerdy one among them is doubtlessly Nishio Ishin. His representative work is the Zaregoto series, with its solipsistic unnamed protagonist, but he’s later written novels consciously playing with elements of sekai-kei, like Kimi to Boku no Kowareta Sekai. His works are shown as proof that light novels became the forefront of nerdy culture.
Long after 2002 and the term’s peak of popularity, number seven appeared: the biggest hit among the otaku since Evangelion, Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu – the story of an omnipotent girl unaware of her power and a boy forced to keep her stable. The highest achievement of sekai-kei, if some people are to be believed… The fourth novel in the Suzumiya Haruhi series, later made into a film, was a loop-mono, a subgenre which Maejima looks closer into, saying that loop stories can be contained in the definition of sekai-kai, as fundamentally egocentric and introspective.
Sekai-kei to wa Nani ka was first published in 2010 – for a few years already, sekai-kei had been then, in practice, a dead phenomenon that has run its course and stopped being a good fit for the epoque. Today, it’s a “subgenre” at best. The industry noticed that sekai-kei‘s fundamental trick is a bait-and-switch: lure in with a promise of entertainment, then introspect. That does not bring in the money. The only place where it was still arguably alive was in discussions of postmodern theorists – it’s probably thanks to their literary life support system that this book came out. Maejima could be counted as one of those people – he constantly references people like Okada Toshio, Ootsuka Eiji and (last but not least) Azuma Hiroki, THE nerd researcher and author of Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, the most popular and least understood book in the genre, known in the West as well. Your mileage may vary, but personally, I can’t stand his brand of weakly argumented bullshitty po-mo discourse. Which, sadly, permeates this book. My advice: treat their claims and the terms they pull from thin air with scepticism. Sekai-kei to wa Nani ka belongs to a genre of non-fiction books that forces you to ask yourself “does this even exist?” every few lines. Monogatari Shouhi, Database Shouhi and other inventions of Japanese cultural pundits should be approached just like Maejima approaches sekai-kei itself.
Since the subtitle of the first printing of this book, later discarded, was “The Otaku History After Eva”, the books does more than consider the sekai-kei term. The last chapter and the afterword is spent mostly on observations on cultural trends that have little to do with the book’s title. Or do they? Maejima writes a bit about the phenomenon of Touhou and Niconico, but there is a moment towards the end of the book which deserves more attention than it gets. It’s an opinion on sekai-kei by Asaba Michiaki, a cultural critic, which I’ll allow myself to translate (it’s on page 184):
They blame their lives being hard to live on the entire world being twisted, and believe that if the world changed, happy and interesting days would come to them as well. They become convinced they overcame their own smallness and weakness through the awareness of having submitted themselves to some great mission – the nation, the class, revolution. Since the success of “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, stories where a personal crisis and the crisis of the entire world become synchronized are called “sekai-kei”, but the representative ideologies of the Left and Right might have been “sekai-kei” from the very beginning.
Now that’s a good, thought provoking definition. In Evangelion, the worsening situation of the world is definitely synchronized with the protag’s failure. The world (sekai) is reduced to the level of a person’s inner world. That’s narcissistic as fuck. That’s saying “my failure is the failure of the world”. If that’s not the ultimate “I’m a loser” line, then I don’t know what is. The book only mentions Narou novels once in the afterword, but Mr Asaba’s bit made me think that the path from Neon Genesis Evangelion to Re:Zero and its lesser ego-fueling brethren is surprisingly short.
So, in the end, what is sekai-kei? Maejima summarizes it in a nifty way saying that late 90s and early 2000s were the adolescence of Japanese nerdy culture and works of art labeled sekai-kei were the symptoms of this introspective process. As for me, I’d like to say that we could have just said that Eva, Iriya, Haruhi and all the other monumental works of otaku culture were just representations of the zeitgeist of the epoque. Those subversive and uneasy times after 1989. We did not have to cook up suspect buzzwords for them and then agonize over how to define what we invented…