We’ve reached a point where isekai shows are a turnoff to many, including myself. Every season seems to have a few, and for the most part, they’re all the same. Generic Japanese young adult man is killed in a freak accident, but thanks to the grace of God he’s allowed to reincarnate into another world that just so happens to resemble Tolkienesque fantasy. Along the way, he builds up a harem of girls and fights towards the goal of defeating the demon king. Some of these shows, such as Konosuba, use comedy to avoid the feeling of staleness, but self-awareness has itself become a trope of this genre to the point that it too is obnoxious. These shows almost never bring anything new to the table, so for those like me who don’t enjoy their formula, there’s nothing of value in there.
Given that, I was hesitant to start Isekai Shokudou when I saw it on the Summer 2017 charts. I was already worn out after realizing how much less I liked season 2 of Konosuba, and after a show like SukaSuka showed how well light novels can do straight fantasy, I was wary of anything with an isekai premise. Fortunately, Isekai Shokudou isn’t much of an isekai at all. It’s set in another world, certainly, but there is no reincarnation and there is no adventure. It’s merely a fantasy cooking anime, something which is much more interesting to me than comedic isekai romp #237.
Of course, not being what I expected can’t carry a show. Isekai Shokudou being unique pushed me to start it, but the fact that I’m still watching it comes down to the actual strengths of the anime itself.
Other down-to-earth cooking shows have failed me before, starting strong before slipping into routine and tedium. Most notable is 2016’s ‘Sweetness and Lightning’. At the beginning of Summer 2016, the show was easily an Anime of the Season contender for me, but I never even finished it. It simply got stale, too stuck in its focus on cooking, to the point where nothing else in the show felt important or interesting. Coming into Isekai Shokudou I was worried it would end up the same way. Fortunately, it avoids that fate, by using its premise as a means rather than as an end.
A show about cooking has two key choices. It can get absurd like Shokugeki no Soma, allowing it to craft an interesting and engaging narrative in spite of the rather boring subject matter, or it can take a more down-to-earth approach, behaving more like a slice-of-life series. Isekai Shokudou takes the latter path, but instead of focusing on a core cast of characters that it fleshes out during its episodes, it focuses on a large ensemble cast that comes and goes.
This is a very good thing. Isekai Shokudou is a good time, but I’m not convinced it has the writing chops necessary to keep a small cast interesting for a full season. Slice-of-life shows are rarely abysmal, but fairly often they’re boring, and that usually comes down to a stale cast. Isekai Shokudou avoids this by exploring many types of characters, so even if one is uninteresting, the next offers a totally new experience. This also allows it to go beyond its genre, as the different types of characters in the other world provide for a wide range of scenarios, including more action-oriented ones.
Most of the characters introduced in Isekai Shokudou are enjoyable to watch. They’re all very one-note, but they’re different enough to be interesting. Customers range from the Lion Man who eats katsudon before his gladiator matches, to the Lizardmen who fight for access to the restaurant, to the dragon woman who comes in late so as not to scare the other patrons. If they played significant continuing roles they would quickly grow boring, as their personalities and lives can all be described in about one sentence, but they do the job perfectly in the 12 minutes they have.
And while there is no protagonist to be sucked into the other world here, we still have the chance to learn a lot about it. To be totally fair, it’s still a fairly generic Tolkienesque setting, but the way we learn about it is what stands out. We get introduced to about two new characters each episode and they all bring something new to the table. Some come from different countries, many are of different races, and these traits are explained to us as we see their stories. At the same time, the characters’ lives and living situations influence the food that they pick in the titular restaurant, tying all of the show’s elements together and keeping the cooking theme relevant.
Generally, in an isekai show, the main character will experience culture shock for a brief time in their new world, before quickly settling into things. Given that almost all of those characters are otaku, it makes sense that they would easily adapt to a world which is practically the same as the ones they knew in their fiction, but it’s not a very interesting path to take. Isekai Shokudou presents the opposite direction of this, which I find far more intriguing. Time and time again we see how the residents of the other world marvel at modern Earth’s technology and food. Many of our plants and animals don’t exist in their world and the ones that do usually have different names. These elements contribute to the sense that this isn’t just our Middle Ages but with magic; it’s a wholly different world with its own ecosystems and way of life, even if they do eerily resemble ours at times.
While much of this world-building is explained directly to the audience, a surprising amount happens without being brought up. A great example of this occurs in episodes 4 and 5. In episode 4 we’re directly told that elves are all vegans, as they can’t even smell animal products without feeling sick. The next episode teaches us that this doesn’t apply half-elves, but it does so without explicitly saying that. All we get is Aletta expressing a bit of confusion when we see the half-elf eating parfait. This kind of subtle interaction between characters builds up over time, eventually reaching the point where we can have episodes without any new characters. Given how one-dimensional the characters are, it would be a real problem if these were a frequent occurrence, but when they’re merely a diversion from the usual formula they serve as a great refresher.
I feel like I’m ragging on ‘Sweetness and Lightning’ a bit too much here, but I need to bring it up again. ‘Sweetness and Lightning’ got boring primarily because it constantly focused on the same three characters and because it relied too heavily on Tsumugi being cute. Unfortunately, cuteness alone can’t keep a show interesting for 12 episodes, especially in a reasonably good season. Isekai Shokudou’s decision to focus on multiple characters was absolutely the correct one, and if they hadn’t, I’m fairly sure I would have dropped it by now.
As a whole, Isekai Shokudou hardly comes in as the best show of the season. Many of the shows I’m watching are more interesting, from Symphogear to New Game!! to Action Heroine Cheer Fruits to Princess Principal. It’s a season with plenty in the way of cute, character focused slice-of-life anime. Had Isekai Shokudou gone the route of ‘Sweetness and Lightning’, I would’ve dropped it by the fourth week. As it stands though, it’s a fun show to watch every Monday. I absolutely recommend checking it out if you have the time. It can be found on Crunchyroll as Restaurant to Another World.