Knight’s & Magic and the Value of Transparency in Wish Fulfillment

Knight’s & Magic wants you to want to pilot a giant robot more than you want to pilot a giant robot.

Knight's & Magic

I’ve been enjoying Knight’s & Magic a lot this season. As someone who really only got into mecha fairly recently, something about the wide-eyed glee of the show’s protagonist, Ernesti, at being in a world of magic and robots really resonates with me. That enthusiasm? I get it! That’s where I’m at. But over the past few weeks, I’ve also had the opportunity to talk with a couple of good friends about the show, its nature as a wish fulfillment, self-insert fantasy, and some of the less charming elements that arise from that. While I may personally self insert as the characters who want to hug cute moeboys, these conversations have been a good opportunity to step back from my affections for the show and think more critically about it.

The source of some of the criticisms that have been leveled at Knight’s & Magic has primarily been its nature as an isekai and wish-fulfillment story. Throw a male character into another world where he gets the chance to be cool and awesome? Not an unfamiliar set-up in anime as of late, and certainly not one that some people have become tried of seeing. At this point, the isekai genre basically serves as its own notice for wish fulfillment stories. And although isekai certainly doesn’t have a monopoly here, these kinds of shows almost inherently lend themselves to wish fulfillment (something Frog-kun has dug into in his post on the Japanese response to the genre).

With that in mind, it’s understandable that Knight’s & Magic should find itself subject to critique by virtue of its use of the familiar movements of the genres in which it resides. Wish-fulfillment anime haven’t exactly made a good name for themselves, as shows like Sword Art Online and The Irregular at Magic High School (Mahouka) have become immensely popular because of their ability to butter up the viewer by fawning over their self-insert protagonists (often to the detriment of their moral quality). Meanwhile, on the isekai side of things, titles like No Game No LifeGATEKonosuba, and Re:Zero have enjoyed a more complex fan response (although I certainly have my thoughts on the relative quality of each of them).

But this post is about Knight’s & Magic, which I think has, at least relative to the overall market, shown itself to be a far less troubling and thematically ugly production than many of its wish-fulfillment story compatriots. It’s not perfect by any means, but there are distinct elements within it that I think lend themselves to a kind of wish fulfillment that can be enjoyed without the moral compunction that accompanies similar shows. Specifically, where Knight’s & Magic differs and, I think, proves itself better than its peers, is in how transparently it communicates its nature as wish fulfillment and in how it uses some of its unique elements to undermine some of the typical tropes of its genre.

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As I see it, there are two kinds of transparency in wish-fulfillment. The first, and most common, is the kind that accompanies marketing; that is, the audience knows the story is wish fulfillment because it’s obvious that this is the kind of story this is. The second, and the kind that I think is far more rare (and far more real), is the kind that a story demonstrates within itself. In other words, real transparency in wish-fulfillment is found only in those stories that acknowledge themselves as wish fulfillment.

Of course, I suppose one might argue that the first kind of transparency is just as real as the second. After all, if the audience knows an anime is going to allow them to self-insert for the purposes of wish-fulfillment because it’s been marketed that way, isn’t that the same thing? I don’t really think so. You might know No Game No Life is a designed to be wish fulfillment for a certain kind of purpose, but that’s not the same as the show itself knowing and acting like the thing it is. The salient point here is that a lot of these shows only pay lip service to the fact that they are wish fulfillment – which is, in my opinion, a rather insidious thing.

With shows like Mahouka or Sword Art Online, even though you know they’re wish fulfillment and they don’t really make any effort to hide that fact in their marketing or whatever, they often don’t treat themselves that way. Instead, a key component in the execution of fulfilling wishes is the pretense that wish fulfillment isn’t actually what’s happening. To use Mahouka as an example (and because I have a great deal for distaste for the show and it gives me pleasure to make it my whipping boy), the dead self-seriousness with which it presents itself belies the fundamental fantasy that underwrites it. Mahouka, even if it knows it’s wish fulfillment, pretends it is not.

Why is that bad? Because a wish fulfillment story that presents itself not as wish fulfillment absolves the audience of the need to self-reflect while watching it. It activates the self-insert mechanism without bothering to keep on the limiters of reality. I suppose, thinking about it one way, that’s not inherently a bad thing. After all, one of the great joys of fiction is the ability to be absorbed completely into another world. However, when that world is designed to construct a delusion of validation around you, it risks blurring the lines between fantasy and reality when the inevitable return to the latter occurs.

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When the dissolution of those boundaries is coupled with ugly ideologies, gross attitudes towards women, and other sorts of nasty thematic underpinnings, it ends up reinforcing those ideas within the viewer’s worldview. That, to me, is an unambiguously bad thing. To use Mahouka as an example again, the message it communicates that “you’re awesome, and it’s actually society and others who are crappy because they aren’t capable of assessing your skills and you deserve to be lauded and constantly have beautiful women throwing themselves at you” is a pretty crappy one. The fact that it doesn’t even have the decency to recognize this itself (not that it would be that much better if it did), but instead treats this message as serious and legitimate… that’s bad.

But Knight’s & Magic doesn’t have these problems. It is a wish fulfillment story, yes, but it is also joyfully, cheerfully, and earnestly so. Down to the voice of the narrator grandly explaining Ernesti’s heroic deeds, the show is constantly reminding the audience of the artifice of it all. It is completely honest about what it is – and in a wish fulfillment story, that transparency is invaluable because it serves as a natural (and, in this specific case I would argue, rather gentle) buffer between the fantasy of fiction and the truth of reality. The ultra-quick pacing, the eager silliness of events, the heavy cliche, and the very genuine excitement of Ernesti himself all serve as constant reminders that the show knows exactly what it is and treats itself as such.

The ideology that Knight’s & Magic proclaims isn’t anything so self-insert affirming as “you are special, but unrecognized because society is unfair” or “the only reason you don’t shine is because you haven’t been given the chance” or even just “hey, all girls secretly are in love with you.” As Peter Fobian puts it, the fantasy of the show is one “where an enthusiastic character is given the opportunity to live out their passion.” The message in Knight’s & Magic is a simple one: Hey, you know what would be a lot of fun? If you were a super genius in a magical land with big robots?

And, you know what? It’s right. That would be fun! It’s the same sort of appeal that theorizing with friends about wild scenarios go, the “What if…? Okay, but what if…!?” thing we’ve all done. The world of Knight’s & Magic is a sandbox, and it makes sure you know that. As I see it, that’s an invitation to join in the fun, and since the show has largely steered away from having that fun come at the expense of others, playing along comes easy.

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That’s not to say Knight’s & Magic is perfect. There are still elements mixed in with it that aren’t “fun” to me. I don’t like Helvi’s unnecessarily revealing clothing when the other (male) knights of her same rank get to wear actual uniforms. I was really uncomfortable with the way Ernesti seemed to justify taking Dietrich’s Silhouette Knight on the basis of Dietrich being a coward when he was clearly doing the best he could in an impossible situation. Playing around is all well and good, but things that treat other character badly cease to be fun.

And, alongside this, I can understand complaints about how the playground nature of the story glosses over human casualties to mack on its robots or how Ernesti’s combination of cuteness, cleverness, and purity of motivation earning him instant adoration from everyone trivializes the importance of hard work and forming genuine connections with others. One of the defining characteristics of wish fulfillment fantasies is often the erasure of nuance for the sake of making the self-insert feel good. And this oversimplification can mean the message communicated by a show turns rather sinister by ignoring important things.

But, again, this is where I feel Knight’s & Magic‘s transparency is a boon to it. Unlike Mahouka, which ignores nuance for the sake of pushing its message forward, or No Game No Life, in which a great deal of the “fun” is just really mean-spirited, Knight’s & Magic is a out for a harmless lark without pretense. And because of the innocence of its intentions, I find it difficult to fault the show for not being a serious examination of serious issues. It’s not trying to be a treatise on human relationships, so in some ways it feels unfair to criticize it for not being something it’s not trying to be.

To return to the show’s strengths, though, the final ingredient that makes this whole wish fulfillment thing go down well in Knight’s & Magic is the way it avoids glorifying Ernie as some kind of übermensch. Things like Ernie’s cuteness and the genuine nature of his relationships with other characters run counter to the way self-insert fantasies typically portray their protagonists as Awesome and Deserving Of Serious Respect. To use an example I’m particularly fond of, Ernie’s unwilling reception of Addy’s repeated hugs uses his appearance and reaction to make him the butt of a joke, (something Mahouka would never have done with Tatsuya, by the way). Likewise, goofy situations like in episode 3 where Ernie calls his desire to build a Silhouette Knight, a deadly serious matter for the world he’s in, a “hobby” in front of the king, make light of his one-track mind.

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Although the overall narrative bends towards Ernie’s will, these kinds of moments go a long way towards not only towards making him less of an all-powerful figure for the audience to imagine themselves as, but also towards humanizing him. Ernie’s passion, eagerness, and authentic love for robots, whether or not they’re shared by the audience, paint a very specific and human portrait of a character. Sure, it’s touched up and made adorable with white hair that covers his eyes and hilariously effective within this world, but it’s also hard not to love this earnest caricature of someone who loves something the way Ernie loves robots.

In short, the only business Knight’s & Magic is concerned with is that of granting your wish to have fun, live in a bright, celebratory world, and to make and ride giant robots. And that, in my opinion, is a wish well worth fulfilling.

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18 thoughts on “Knight’s & Magic and the Value of Transparency in Wish Fulfillment

  1. Wow, you took the words right out of my mouth. I normally hate those isekai stories because of their deep underlying hatred of real society. Knight & magic so far haven’t got any of that. It’s just one guy showing his love for mecha. Highly relatable.

    Another thing: this anime satisfy my need of fantasy mecha. For some inexplicable reason, fantasy mecha anime are rare, and good ones are rarer than unicorn. I watched/watching most of them: escaflowne, rayearth, break blade, galient, demonbane, dunbine…Knight & magic isn’t very good, but it definitely benefits from the lack of competitors.

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    • Yeah, and as an isekai story Knight’s & Magic is totally weird, coz the isekai aspect might as well just not exist at all. The “programmer” thing that Ernie has going on could just as easily be explained as him being a precocious genius child (not a rarity in anime!), but for some reason it had to be isekai. Well, that’s true at least in terms of the story. When you get up to the meta level we’re talking about here, the isekai thing perhaps actually plays into the show’s transparency…

      Escaflowne‘s on my shortlist of things to watch sooner than later.

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  2. It’s nice to see a post on this topic that doesn’t just make a blanket statement that “wish fulfillment is bad” and instead looks at what makes certain wish-fulfillment stories work or not work. There’s certainly a lot of bad examples that make a bad name of it, but I still believe that wish-fulfillment stories have their place and can be genuinely good stories.

    With that said, how well do you think Dog Days works as a wish-fulfillment anime? That’s the one anime that really jumps to mind as “wish-fulfillment”, and given that you’ve watched some of it, I’m curious about your thoughts on it.

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    • Yes, they can be! As far as Dog Days being a wish-fulfillment, I guess I never thought of it that way because it’s never been a wish of mine to be surrounded by a bunch of dog/catgirls! But the fact that I generally enjoyed it despite that might be a point in its favor as a show that can operate either as wish fulfillment or not. For me, it was just a fun fantasy adventure with a lot of cute characters – pleasant to watch just because it was populated by pleasant people. I don’t think that necessarily qualifies it as wish fulfillment, but if you think about the fantasy it creates (a teen boy gets transported to a fantasy world where he gets to be a superstar in fairly low-stakes war sports matches), it’s certainly not one I would consider as harmful as something like Sword Art Online or Mahouka‘s versions of wish-fulfillment.

      So, yeah, in conclusion, I think it’s pretty alright! It definitely leans more towards the harmless fun of Knight’s & Magic‘s side of the spectrum for me.

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  3. Maybe I should watch this show to make a proper comparison (if one can be made!), but the honest nature you mention kind of reminds of Love Live Sunshine. It’s not trying to be realistic at all, but the show knows this, and tries to have as much as fun as possible, while trying to scream to the world that idols and being idols are amazing. Chika herself loves idols with all her heart, and it’s always willing to share her love and excitement for them, which makes me love and cherish idols as well. LLS has its flaws, but its fun, honest nature is the thing that makes me love it so much in spite of those.

    Great article, Bless. I’ll give this show a try now that I know a bit more about it.

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    • Hmm… having seen LLSS, I don’t know if that’s a comparison I would have drawn necessarily, but it seems like we might have different opinions on LLSS anyways. I see your point, though (I mean, heck, I wrote a whole article on Sunshine’s relationship to OG Love Live!)

      In any case, though, I’m glad you enjoyed the article and I certainly hope you enjoy Knight’s & Magic too!

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  4. If you’re comparing Knight’s and Magic with SAO and Mahouka, I’d say you’d need to take into account that K&M isn’t shounen. We don’t have a teen stumbling into the new world; and all the better. For a freshly-baked salary man being a child and getting to play again looks like a fun fantasy. For a teen? A mortifying embarrassment. Too close for comfort. From that perspective Gate might be the closer cousin, here. I mean, the hobby is basically military hardware in either case.

    At that point, I’ll have to admit that I tuned out of K&M as soon as the first robot appeared, so I can’t really make the comparison myself. But I find the disgusting elements in shows like SAO or Mahouka easier to forgive than the blatant militarism of Gate, for example, because in a sense it’s just overcompensation for insecurities about geekiness. For as long as I could bear to watch Mahouka it felt more like a power fantasy than SAO, which felt more like a typical angst trip (what with Kirito’s social ineptitude being a key part of his characterisation). In either case, it’s a bit like: “You all look down on me, but I’ll show you!” And then you grow up and find that mostly you’ve been hard on yourself.

    And then you get your first job, the first disappointments roll in, and you start to realise that this is the beginning of the rest of your life. Hobbys suddenly look attractive, and so does childhood. Ideally, it’s the child in you that hasn’t forgotten to have fun.

    Maybe I’ll come back to K&M one day, but I’m sort of hampered by the fact that I don’t enjoy robots very much. I’m almost as enthusiastic about piloting one as Ikari Shinji.

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    • I don’t know that Ernie not being a reincarnated teen makes the show not shounen, but that’s quibbling on ultimately meaningless details. Regardless, you make a good point that it does play differently when it’s an adult.

      Well, I think if you get far enough into Mahouka you get the same sort of military fetishism that you get in GATE, and for me GATE is somewhat more forgivable for how hapless the show itself is (what with its ridiculous splitscreens and the like). GATE is largely a cheery affair, and it’s actually in moments when it tried to double down and get serious that I felt it was the worst. Other moments, like the battle against the dragon, hew perhaps more closely to Knight’s & Magic“s side of things.

      I will say that if you don’t care for robots, then Knight’s & Magic probably isn’t for you. As the lead to this article says, it really, really wants you to like robots.

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      • Technically, the only thing that makes it seinen is that its manga incarnation runs in a seinen mag. But the biggest hint is the age and social status of the MC before his death. When I get a salaryman opening I immediately think seinen. (Recently: Tanya the Evil)

        Also, it’s not “not being a teen”, it’s specifically being a child. That’s a social status that your target audience has just left behind and is busy distinguishing itself from. Teens are often quite vocally “no longer children”, especially in the 13 – 15 bracket. I don’t know of any research, but my hunch is that around that age bracket you watch the fewest shows targeted at children, too.

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  5. Here’s a thought that your article has sparked: one way to put this is that as the otaku audience stand-in, Ernesti is in a world where he’s useful but not one where his view is right and everyone standing against him is wrong and mistaken. Being useful (and powerful) is wish fulfillment, but it’s far less toxic than ‘everyone who pushes me down is wrong’.

    (I don’t know if this entirely makes sense; I’m sort of waving my hands, trying to convert a feeling to words.)

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    • That’s an interesting thought, and the more I think about it, the more I agree. Although, I will point out that the show while the show doesn’t seem to uphold Ernie as always right, I do think it could never place him in a situation where he is wrong. Bless already pointed out the one unsavory moment that cooled me on Ernie for a while (him taking Dietrich’s robot) and that was a lost opportunity for the show to show to rebuke his behavior in some way.

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    • This is a nice way of seeing it – and perhaps to take it one set further, “power” is not even really a scale of merit in the show’s worldview. Everything is only good as it relates to robots, and least when we’re seeing things through the eyes of Ernesti.

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  6. […] Knight’s & Magic and the Value of Transparency in Wish Fulfillment Kakegurui’s Yumeko In The Spotlight It should go without saying that Kakegurui remains one of the more attractive titles to watch this summer. Its writing is tight enough to maintain and breed audience’s attention, while its character work through Yumeko fills in most other gaps. Out of the pounds of content on this series that came out this week, we rummaged through and found a piece that illustrates what makes this series so magnetic – that being the lead herself: Yumeko’s Twisted Insanity Makes Kakegurui Both Fascinating and Terrifying Let’s Wrap This Up With A Bit Of Hero Academia We really like straight to the point content here. No nonsense, no fuss just insight and well positioned thoughts packaged together in an easily consumable blog. Below is giving us all of that as our final entry for this week’s Clarity will take a quick look at My Hero Academia’s Hero Killer: Understanding the Hero Killer as more than an obvious anti-villain clarity: sharing Please forward this issue of Clarity to a friend who could benefit from it. Or use the easy sharing tools below. Thank you for reading! […]

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  7. It’s always more interesting (my friend and I actually DM two-man Roleplays for one another that have a deliberate wish-fulfillment quality) and fun when the wish-fulfillment isn’t in being proven “right,” but being proven “valuable.” Or when the person does indeed have godlike skill and power but they’re just as flawed at figuring out how to use it and the consequences of that use as they normally would be. This kid, though, just loves robots, and for once that’s great. :} You could say that the problem with Mary Sues is not the enthusiasm, but the insistence on putting a damper on everyone else’s fun by propping yourself up. When you create a character like Kirito, who’s too “cool” and too “amazing” to really live, in many sense you destroy the true point of the fantasy for the superficial point of the fantasy.

    So yeah, awesome post. :}

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  8. Wish fulfillment, self-insert, and so on are frustrating terms for me because they’re so ubiquitous in their use with regards to anime while also being extremely nebulous ideas. Isekai is an easy example of a super magnet for these words, but at what point exactly does an anime earn wish fulfillment or self-insert as a main descriptor? I can think of dozens and dozens of series that fulfill wishes or invite you to project into characters that never had any of that ever mentioned. It’s annoying because they’re becoming these kinds of axiomatic statements with regards to certain strains of show that seemingly don’t require any sort of analysis beyond simply stating that they’re apparently it.

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