Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Generic Isekai Towns

As the internet has all heard by now, isekai anime and LNs seem to have a strange trend of having the same "unrealistic and uninspired" designs for their fantasy towns. Here are some of the examples I've seen floating around displaying the genre's lack of originality:

Classic exemplar from Konosuba [1]

Hexagonal variant from How not to Summon a Demon Lord [2]

A River-without variant from Isekai Cheat Magician [3]

This, rather obvious, trend can generally be defined as a walled, roughly circular town with mediaeval Western European trappings. A river usually runs within or by the walls too. And, as others have pointed out before me, these types of cities are not unfounded in reality, with walled cities being commonplace throughout Europe and daresay the entire world.
Examples of these circular walled cities are everywhere throughout the lowlands of Western Europe:

Amersfoort old town [4]
Issigeac [5] (lovely place, visited once and bought a wooden stool)
But this rabbit hole goes deeper than mere mimicry of individual examples when we start looking at some more abstract visions of the "isekai town". While the most usual type of town is a rather higgledy affair, we do also have many examples of more perfect designs. Displaying some more pure design than the prior, possibly derivative examples. Often these city designs are built to reflect the nature of said city, with the prevailing trope being to place an fascination in the middle of the town, and have the areas further from the centre become less impressive.

Bakarina's setting [6]. The adjacent town seems laughably closeby
In this season's Bakarina (Hamefura) [6], we have a clear division of classes. In the centre lies the palace, home to the town's nobles. The peasantry are resigned to the outer ring, while between them lie more open stately homes, likely for secondary important citizens. The walls are perfectly circular and symmetrical, and the the main roads lie perpendicular to each other forming a cardinal cross. This is a perfect archetypal example of the "metromandala": a circular tiered city in which the layout reflects the society within to an almost comical degree.

This fascination point is always the centre of power for the settlement, but it does not have to be of a political nature. In many late republican towns, including Udine, Bruges or even Rome (if non-mandallic) we see the forum and market square as the focuses instead, symbolising their masters: discussion and trade.

We can see the idea turned on its head in both Made in Abyss [7] and Danmachi [8], where the fascination point is one of existential threat, being the eponymous abyss and dungeon (for some reason a tower) of their respective series. While being a magical existential threat to both, they nevertheless are the source of the cities' strengths.

Danmachi's machi and her tower (read dungeon?) [8]

Made in Abyss and the big hole [7]

A real-world example of this "evil metromandala" could be that of Nordlingen [9]. The old town of Nordlingen was built in a previously mysterious perfectly circular and concentric set of indentations in the world, the extent of which can be viewed from space. Built in the very centre, the town was built from a magical sparkling rock, mined from the area in the centre. Later excavations revealed that this mega-earthwork was the work of an ancient asteroid striking the earth leaving the geology we find today as well as hundreds of thousands of micro-diamonds, which were responsible for the characteristic sparkling stone. The city was built upon the remains of a celestial missile and there is evidence of settlement in the crater going back ten thousand years.

Nordlingen centre [9]. Concentric rings can be seen on a geological map

Another isekai city from this season is that of Princess Connect [10] (native isekai pardon me) which takes the striking shape of a pentagonal star:

Princess Connect [10] (One cute character design and that's it)
While this design seems childish, and the details of the execution may be so, the idea of a star shaped city is actually fairly common in 17th century national defence. Spearheaded by the Venetians but utilised heavily by the Swedes and Dutch, star shaped fortress towns can be found across Europe from Latvia to Italy to Belgium. There even exists an example in Hokkaido, built as the capital for the short lived Republic of Yezo in 1869 [11].

Goryoukaku [11]. Inspired by the works of France's mastermind military engineer Vauban
Daugavgrivas Fortress in the outskirts of Riga [12]. I visited here last year and we had the entire place to ourselves since it was "closed"... Oops
Palmanova Fortress design by renaissance Venetian architect virtuoso Scamozzi [13]

That final example is of particular note. Designed as not only a military fortress but as a city in its own right it was part of designer Vincenzo Scamozzi's ideal of "Universal Architecture" [14] intertwining the places we live and the ideologies we live by into a coherent ideal. If we wish to live perfect lives, then should not our quarters be perfect too? This radical sentiment of renaissance philosophy set the groundwork for the Neo-classical movement and later the more extreme utilitarian and more masonic city designs the 18th and 19th century would see with enormous city lineals (see Paris or Washington) or the "perfect" American block system (read misanthropic).

L'Arc de Triomphe and radial lineals in Paris [15]
The White House complex in Washington DC [16]

While in real life, our cities will always be humanly lopsided and imperfect, in fiction and in theory, the design of perfect cities as reflections of a perfect society hearken from time immemorial. In Plato's Critias [17], he tells tales of the lost city of Atlantis, a city of perfection and of utopia. He describes the city within as a city of concentric islands, each one built according to his strict class-structure, and the fascination point being the grand temple of Poseidon in the centre.

Diagram of Plato's Atlantis from Critias [17]. I have no doubt his ideal "Republic" would be set in a city of similar structure.

The archetype of a "city" in the collective mind is as such: one of perfection. Rings in rings of different function and gradation, centering on "God". Tommaso Campanella's City of God describes God's kingdom as a walled city in the heavens, centered around God himself [18]. And of course we have the doomed and prideful city of Babylon. The tower of Babel was built to honour themselves and was their fascination, but was itself a false idol. Ancient Sumerian cities of legend are described in myths and histories as being perfect in circularity, as are those from Oriental mythology.

Depiction of the City of the Sun by Campanella [18]

Artist's depiction of the city of Mari, ancient Mesopotamia [19]

These cities can be described as "mandala", an Eastern spiritual image of the universe and the soul. They comprise of a centre point and surrounding circle, with radial "gates", generally four, one for each cardinal direction [20]. In Shintoism they are seen more literally as maps of a kami's shrine: an bounded holy area under direct control of the kami placing his or herself in the centre [21].

Buddhist Mandala [20]

The utopian city as a projection of the perfect collective soul pervades every area of ideology. From Soviet constructivism to Hitler's Germania, city planning plays a strong role in the control of populations both physically and mentally. The perfect society can only exist within the perfect environment, and the beauty of the city is tied directly with the beauty of the citizens. An ugly world breeds an ugly mind and so to strive for utopia is to strive for a beautiful and perfect city.

And thus isekai's obsession with these seemingly unreasonable, samey, or "boring" city designs may not be purely out of "intellectual laziness" but from a place of striving for an ideal of perfection. Projecting a strong and passionate ideology of perfection, veiled in a social cloak of "it's just escapism". And while the work of individual authors can easily be chalked up to just copying the culture around them, that culture itself must be born from something. The isekai genre, at its core, is about complete redesigns of the laws and nature of the world in order to build a world where we, as otaku, could thrive. That's a noble purpose and while purely fiction, these ideas will implant collective forms in our heads as we stride on toward the newtype future.

So next time you see a ridiculously perfect city design in your isekai, take a moment to analyse it's ramifications on the citizenry and imagine what that design reflects in both the ideals of the story, the author and of otaku culture as a whole. Maybe you'll find something important.

Footnotes & References

  1. Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo
  2. Isekai Maou to Shoukan Shoujo no Dorei Majutsu
  3. Isekai Chiito Majutsushi
  4. Amersfoort, Utrecht, Netherlands
  5. Issigeac, Aquitaine, France
  6. Otome Geimu no Hametsu Furagu shikanai Akuyaku Reijou ni Tensei shiteshimatta
  7. Made  in Abysska
  8. Danjon ni Deai wo Motomeru no wa Machigatteiru Darou
  9. Nordlingen, Swabia, Bayern, Germany
  10. Princess Connect! Re:Dive
  11. Goryoukaku, Hakodate, Hokkaidou, Japan
  12. Daugavgrivas Fortress, Riga, Latvia
  13. Palmanova, Friulia, Italy
  14. Read "The Idea of a Universal Architecture" by Vincenzo Scamozzi (1615)
  15. Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
  16. Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, USA
  17. Plato's Critias. Read a translation here: 
  18. Read Tommaso Campanella's "The City of the Sun" (1602). Read a translation here:
  19. Mari, modern day Syria
  20. Read an introduction to Mandala and their symbology in C Jung's "Gesammelte Werke: Psychology and Alchemy" (1968)
  21. Read an explanation of mandala in Japanese Shintoism in WJ Tanabe's "Japanese Mandalas" (2001). Read an excerpt here: 

AN - I can't believe I hadn't written anything on architecture yet for this blog. It had all been welling up inside me for so long that I think I almost went over too many different points in this post, without going into detail on them. In the future I'd like to talk more about post-renaissance architectural movements focusing especially on city planning and design.

Maybe I'll do this through the facade of analysing particular fictional city designs, that seems like it'd work. Either way I hope there'll be more architectural content in the future.

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At 3 May 2020 at 20:16 , Blogger CammyJFTW said...

This is very interesting. Thank you


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