Imagine if the fondest memories of your childhood became the supernatural adventures of your adolescence. This is the central concept surrounding TO BE HEROINE, a sequel to the 2016 anime TO BE HERO with fresh characters and a new story. Because it didn’t start at the very same time as most other Spring anime, there are only a few episodes out. At face value, this may appear to be somewhat of a shortcoming. In actuality, it’s a great way to tap into a niche time for anime viewers. Between every anime season, there’s a week or two long lull in content. While many avid fans are likely familiar with this phase, it still feels harsh whenever it comes.

This steady lull refers to the period wherein anime from one season are airing their final episodes and coming to a close, but before anime from the next season premiere. That works out to about two weeks of transition, with some shows airing early but the vast majority simply falling off. Even continuous shows like some popular shonen anime tend to take a week off during times like this. Because TO BE HEROINE is in the middle of its season during this transitional period, it’s the perfect anime to watch and binge while you await the summer anime you’ll spend the next few months dutifully following.

What TO BE HEROINE accomplishes super well is take a new approach to the super common anime genre isekai. I’ll explain precisely what that genre is in the next section, but tons of recent anime have used it. Popular series like SWORD ART ONLINE, OVERLORD, KONOSUBA, or RE:ZERO fall into this genre. TO BE HEROINE is like those series in a lot of ways but puts more emphasis into establishing the thematic meaning of its setting rather than just focusing on the setting itself. This makes for a much more enjoyable anime in terms of character development, even if the story is somewhat lacking.

What is Isekai?

Isekai when literally translated comes out to “a different world.” That literal translation sums up the genre rather concisely. Any anime that has a story based around its main character(s) suddenly finding themselves in another world is an isekai anime. The style usually is presented as a fantasy world in order to be meaningfully different than the character’s normal one. This is to say, it would be kinda boring if an anime was about a protagonist with a mundane life being transported to another world where they had an equally mundane life. That wouldn’t give the new location any novelty and render the series unwatchable.

TO BE HEROIN and its unque isekai
Protagonist Futaba finds herself in another world | Image:TO BE HEROINE official website

With the examples I gave earlier, the world protagonists land in is usually chock full of unique characters and places. The appeal of the show stems uniquely from the fantasy world. Usually, these anime begin by doing some bare bones exposition of the main character. The anime’s appeal, after all, is not where the protagonist comes from, but how they react in the foreign environment. But this strategy has an issue. It relies too heavily on a genuinely understood conceptualization of what the “real world” is. Because it has to be generic enough to not require several episodes of early exposition, the characters tend to lack depth from their past. Instead, development is very much active in the present.

This by no means is damning all current isekai anime to mediocrity. If done right, this format is great. But, the reason TO BE HEROINE is so incredible is the unique and refreshing way it creates this contrast.

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A Colorfully Foreign World

TO BE HEROINE features the female protagonist, Futaba, as she finds herself in a strange place. The anime begins by discussing the strangely confining nature of choices. To Futaba, something as simple as a multiple choice question feels constraining. Why choose a, b, c, or d? Isn’t there a fifth, better option? Why does my freedom to choose still end in routes that amount to failure? These are the questions that plague her mind and make her beg for another route. Pretty directly, these adolescent curiosities set up the basis for Futaba’s character: a young girl struggling to reconcile the freedoms of the world with the constraints of adulthood and life.

TO BE HEROINE blends fantasy with real world flashbacks.
Futaba in the strange ‘other’ world. | Image: TO BE HEROINE official website

Milliseconds before walking out of her door and walking to school, Futaba slips her rain boots on and sends a text. She says she wants to go to another world, and her wish gets granted pretty quick. Walking out of her door, she’s suddenly in a brighter version of her same city. The people she encounters are mostly children running around in only their underwear. If that weren’t odd enough, she finds out that her wearing a full outfit is weird because in this world, “clothes equal power.” The only thing people in this world absolutely cannot go without is undergarments, as losing them kills you. While this conceptually is pretty weird, it has thematic significance tied to Futaba’s character. The strangeness of this fantasy world begins to make a lot more sense once we consider the unique forms of isekai in TO BE HEROINE.

Layered Contrast

Rather than think of the storyline as “the old world” vs “the new world,” TO BE HEROINE blends them together. Futaba, the show’s main character, oscillates back and forth between memories of her real world past and a fantasy world in the present. The past, normal-world her is pretty simple. She wears neutral colored clothing, has black hair, and a very normal aesthetic. In the fantasy world, her hair is purple, her outfit pops with color, and her voice is more bright. But even these heavy visual differences aren’t the most contrasting elements in the show. The real difference is language. TO BE HEROINE is produced by the Chinese animation studio Haoliners. The company mixes Chinese and Japanese styles throughout the series. To accentuate this, Futaba and those around her speak Chinese in her flashbacks.

This has a multi-part effect. First, when the anime starts, the language shift is shocking. Anime, unless it’s dubbed, is almost always distinctly Japanese. So, to start the first episode and hear Mandarin through my headphones was strange. But this achieves a sort of sensory separation of contexts that I had never seen before. The two worlds of TO BE HEROINE have the same events, just viewed in different ways. The giant fire-breathing dragon that nearly kills Futaba is analogous to the old man her and her friends had pegged as a Boo Radley-type. They even called him a Dragon out of fear that he’d eat them.

By looking into her childhood, we get access to some awesome emotional growth. Futaba’s drab life story comes alive and bursts with color in the fantasy world. Like it, she has to surpass the confines of her memory and overcome childhood fears and shortcomings.

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Thematic Strength

At first, the childish jokes and fears that are reflected in the fantasy world seem perverted and lazy. This anime’s predecessor, TO BE HERO, was ridiculously crude, but luckily TO BE HEROINE can be watched standalone. In this anime, a lot of the ostensibly ‘crude’ content is really just a thematic link between Futaba’s childhood and young adulthood. Though her flashbacks, we see her slowly learning to navigate her own sexuality and that of those around her. In the fantasy world, people use unique powers stemming from their clothes. By channeling your emotions into clothes, Futaba and those of the fantasy world can summon fighters reminiscent of Servants from the FATE series.

The fantasy world of TO BE HEROINE allows fighters to transform clothes into weapons.
A fighter created from Futaba’s boots and powerful emotion. | Image: TO BE HEROINE official website

These guardians, in contrast to the humans of the series, are somehow not able to ever actually wear underwear (but don’t worry, they still wear other clothes in general). While seemingly extraneous, this detail is important alongside the contrasted mundane youth and exciting teen-hood. Power comes from material goods in the fantasy world, but only if you have emotional connections to said goods. Basically, you can fight with sentimental value. The world’s fixation on underwear as essential feels childish, like a defense mechanism against sexuality and adulthood by extension. Futaba’s flashbacks and interactions with her lifelong friends add substance to that unease.

Every aspect of the fantasy world is tied to the real one. By linking the two via literal overlap, TO BE HEROINE achieves an almost Chinese folk story feel. In this regard, the themes achieve the same sense of wonder as with most isekai anime but without missing out on crucial exposition.

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The Comparative

But how does this solve the problems endemic to other isekai anime? TO BE HEROINE’s solution is the overlap mentioned earlier. The bright, colorful fantasy world is more an enhancement of reality rather than a departure from it. But, it’s different enough that viewers can instantly differentiate between the two while understanding the overlap. Most isekai, in failing to link the old world and the new world, rely constantly on the introduction of new characters and fantasy concepts. At the same time, they have to develop these characters in a fantasy context to compensate for the lack of real-world introduction. TO BE HEROINE accomplishes Futaba’s development using spaces that are familiar to us.

TO BE HEROINE protagonist Futaba still is learning about her own romantic feelings and understanding.
Explaining romantic nervousness is much easier in a real-world context than with fantasy. | Image: TO BE HEROINE official website

Using that strategy, something like using a rain boot to defeat a dragon doesn’t need a ton of fantasy justification or deep power scaling. We understand the context of Futaba’s action based on relevant flashbacks. Thus, the moment has thematic clarity. One noticeable change to run-of-the-mill isekai that stems from this is that the fantasy world is pretty simple. Because the story is simultaneously exploring Futaba’s childhood and budding adulthood, there isn’t a need for complex plot.

Anime like LOG HORIZON or OVERLORD derive some popularity from being interesting settings in the same way that video games are. While this certainly isn’t a bad approach, there’s definitely something to be said about anime that preference stronger character development. Plus, a lot of these shows make main characters dull and overpowered. Especially in action-heavy series, the excitement of battle hides a lack of character development. TO BE HEROINE’s strength lies in its characterization, so there’s no need to massively overpower its main character.

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You’ll definitely be looking to find new anime in the coming weeks, so why not find one you can binge a bit? TO BE HEROINE is unique not only in the timing of its release but also in content. From steady thematic depth to the incredible sensory contrast of language, the show is in a class of its own. With scores of isekai anime coming out in droves every season, it’s important to keep in mind which ones stand out. TO BE HEROINE is one of the only isekai anime with a well designed female protagonist. It has some of the most stellar animation of any anime this season. Most of all, it has plenty of humor and catches your attention within seconds.

Have you checked out TO BE HEROINE? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

Featured image from TO BE HEROINE official website.

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