[Minor spoiler warning!! I’ll discuss the events of the first few episodes and one or two details of later arcs from the manga here. It’s not really that important to your enjoyment of the show, but you’ve been warned.]
‘Isekai’ – Japanese: 異世界. Translation: ‘Different world’. Meaning: A genre of Japanese light novels, manga, anime, and video games that revolve around a normal person from Earth being transported to, reborn or trapped in a parallel universe, fantasy world, or virtual world.
Hooooo boy! I have something of a love/hate relationship with isekai. Now, I’m not the most super-die-hard anime/manga geek so I’m probably not familiar with a lot of prominent examples of this genre. For me though, I think my earliest experience of it was Sword Art Online, which I found a bit tiresome and predictable (especially that season about the gun game. Boooring, amirite?). I’ve really never understood the hype around that show. After that, I watched a few seasons of the much more cerebral and well paced Log Horizon, which I enjoyed. Other examples I would bring up of the genre being done well or at least in a funny or surprising manner would be Overlord and Kono Suba, both of which do a good job playing with this slightly haggard concept and making it fresh and interesting again. Kono Suba is especially funny since every character is basically a complete scumbag. There are some completely forgettable shows which left no impression on me at all such as Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? and No Game No Life. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime wasn’t bad. It had good character design and animation and the fight scenes were nice and cathartic, but I never felt an ounce of tension while watching it.
This is just my opinion, of course. You might disagree for totally legit reasons, and that’s fine. I’m not interested in calculating which is objectively the best anime, just giving my two cents. I’d like to think the criteria on which I’m loosely grading these shows is something like: originality of base concept, sense of humour, awareness and avoidance of genre clichés, and relatability of the main cast. Quality of animation also matters, but I’m much more a story/writing oriented kind of guy. For what it’s worth, out of all those examples, I probably like Kono Suba’s art style the best.
So with all that said, I think Doctor Stone – written by Riichiro Inagaki and illustrated by Boichi – absolutely excels in all those criteria that I just listed! It is an absolutely fantastic series with a premise so unique and exciting that I really think it has set a new bar of originality and inventiveness (pun intended) for other isekai shows to compete with. It is also the only one of these examples which has actually motivated me to get up to date with the manga as well as watching the anime, although I do intend to read Overlord at some point.
So if you don’t know, the premise of Doctor Stone is that a young scientific genius named Senkū and his smooth-brained but pure-hearted and indefatigably passionate friend, Taiju, awaken almost four thousand years into the future after a mysterious green flash turns everyone on the planet to stone statues. All man-made technology has rusted away to dust, the very geography of the land has changed, nature has reclaimed everything, and the two boys are all alone in an alien world of wood and stone. Senkū uses his scientific ingenuity first to de-petrify Taiju with nitric acid and then begins experimenting with rudimentary technology like crossbows, concrete, and gunpowder. Meanwhile during a moment of panic when they are cornered by wild animals, Senkū is forced also to revive Tsukasa, a world renowned martial artist and the villain of the series’ first big arc.
Tsukasa helps them at first, and they also manage to revive their classmate, Yuzuriha, but soon it emerges that Tsukasa plans to smash the statues of all the adults that he finds since he sees them as representatives of the corrupt society of the past. Senkū, as a man of science, intends to revive all seven billion inhabitants of Earth, and is naturally opposed to Tsukasa’s new world order. This tension soon leads to violence as Tsukasa claims the cave which holds the nitric acid necessary for the revival fluid, and the three friends are forced to flee. And so two competing kingdoms are born, a brute force vs technological arms race begins, and we follow the protagonists’ struggle to recreate the inventions of the past using only natural means, including guns, cars, cotton candy, radar, the camera, remote control drones, and even cell phones.
So that’s the gist of it. A little different, right? Not your standard ‘I died and was reborn in a video game’ plot. What I think makes this show so wonderfully engaging is the way it solves the problem of how to make an overpowered main character interesting and turn the risks and challenges they face into something that feels authentic and believable. In the post-historic wasteland of Doctor Stone, Senkū is a scientific superman. Even the modern day characters who get revived have no idea about the basic scientific principles which he employs to create his devices. This is the source of much of the comedy in the series, but also a great source of education for the audience, as the reason it’s so funny is because it’s true! If one of us had to start a fire from scratch, or bake clay pots, or build a structurally sound house, or create effective weapons for hunting we would most likely be dead within a week. The show knows this, and spends a great deal of its runtime actually explaining these things in a myriad of fun and innovative ways. No steps are skipped over, and as far as I know all the scientific knowledge that Senkū employs is factually accurate, although obviously it has to be dramatised in sometimes absurd situations, but it never broke my suspension of disbelief. Weeeelll, that is until the bit later on in the manga with the remote control rat-car anyway, but that’s a detail for another time.
This is an ingenious way of writing an overpowered character! He is the only one who can do these things. His knowledge might as well be magic to everyone else in the show, but he’s just an ordinary man. He can easily be killed, his plans thwarted, and his knowledge lost forever. His enemies are a collection of the strongest fighters on Earth, and he is also in a pitched battle with nature itself. This creates a wealth of tension, and I was constantly on the edge of my seat wanting to know what miracle he was going to conjure up next against those seemingly insurmountable odds.
With such a strong leading character you might think that Doctor Stone could get away with employing a comparatively lazy supporting cast, but this is not the case at all. Since our group of young scientists and Tsukasa’s band of mighty warriors are as far as we know the sole inhabitants of the planet, every time a new member is introduced to either group it literally changes the entire dynamic of the series’ world. They are given ample time to have their motivations and skill-sets fleshed out, and none of the central cast feel neglected even as the number grows quite large. In such a setting, each character’s abilities are treated as incredibly valuable and important since resources and skills are so limited, lending them a great sense of individuality.
All this combined with a fast pacing, an abundance of good humour, great-looking art and character designs, and enough fan service for everybody makes for a damn good watch/read. The ultimate mystery of the story – what caused the petrification – is always present but not over-referenced, and the future possibilities of Senkū’s scientific adventures loom ever-larger after each successful invention enabling the next. With a focus on hard work, determination, and respect for life and nature the show even has a nice moral lesson woven into it.
I seriously can’t recommend it enough.
Alright, fan-boying over. Just do yourself a favour and check it out. I’m giving this one a contextual score of 9 out of 10.
Thanks for reading.
Written – May 2020
Published – May 2020
Photo by Dustin Tramel on Unsplash