When the time comes for the good Dr. Clements to update a revised edition of his insightful Anime: A History he will surely look back on the 2010s as the Decade of Isekai. Ever since Reki Kawahara became an overnight sensation with Sword Art Online in 2009 we have been inundated with a torrent of imitators carrying on unabated right up to the present day. Sword Art Online was certainly not the first anime story to take a modern-day character to a fantasy land - titles like El-Hazard and The Vision of Escaflowne were published over a decade earlier, and Sword Art Online's own 'trapped in a videogame' conceit has been used in the .hack franchise since 2002 - and the theme in wider literature reaches well past C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll and arguably all the way to the dream of Jacob's Ladder; however Sword Art Online distilled the familiar formula that has come to typify isekai or 'another world' stories, where an otaku or other unsociable loner is transported to a colourful realm ruled by role-playing game mechanics then discovers that either his insular, irrelevant hobbies have now become a unique prized commodity or just he's simply just been given incredible magical power, making him the centre of attention rather than hopelessly lost. it's a universally appealing and phenomenally effective template that's been used for everything from 2012's Riot Grasper to 2017's In Another World With My Smartphone. It's safe to say that the isekai genre, alongside its kissing-cousins the Battle Harem and the Magical High School, is a load-bearing wall holding up the entire Light Novel industry.
The isekai phenomenon has been so long-lasting and so pervasive that in both East and West there's been a palpable sense that it has gone through every possible permutation and is running out of steam - Nico Tanigawa, who also challenged otaku with some observations that hit uncomfortably close to home in No Matter How You Look At It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm No Popular!, satirised the cookie-cutter formulaic nature of isekai in a chapter of her other writing-about-writing manga Write Sisters. In awareness of this growing dissatisfaction there has been a recent glut of titles trying to keep the publishing machine turning over by adding little twists to the isekai theme. Isekai being as tremendous a trope as it is though even its subversions are still being jabbered out like machine-gun fire, and most are so self-consciously aware of their place in the industry that they continue to embody that all-too-true Light Novel stereotype of absurdly long titles that also act as the book's own synopsis. Seven Seas Entertainment has Re:Monster and Didn't I Say To Make My Abilities Average In The Next Life? on its own release slate, the eBook publisher J-Novel Club has The Magic In This Other World Is Too Far Behind! and Me, A Genius? I Was Reborn Into Another World And I Think They've Got The Wrong Idea! while Yen Press, in addition to its established line of straight isekai books, has no less than four different isekai-variants all coming out concurrently with each other: That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime; So I'm A Spider, So What?; I've Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level; and today's topic, which might just top them all, Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon.
No, I didn't mix that up with my text to Seb asking him to grab me something from the break room at UKA Towers. Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander The Dungeon is the actual title! But is the book printed from the shavings of a barrel that's been well and truly scraped, or is there a host of sweet treats concealed within?
It's not unfair to say that when you're asked for cultural images of Japan that in the same breath as ninja and samurai you'll also mention vending machines. Japan's curious love affair with mechanical conveniences features regularly on "oh, those wacky Japs!" skits on the news ... and not without reason when in Japan you can buy everything in them - and I do mean everything, not just Coke cans and Snickers bars but everything from underwear to cars. Our hero - we never learn his actual name, but he comes to be called "Boxxo" for reasons you'll soon see - is a vending machine otaku. Surely occupying the most obscure niche of Japan’s database animals, he feel that buying something new from a vending machine gives him the same giddy glee as a fantasy adventurer discovering a magical relic in a hidden treasure chest, and it's become his consuming passion to travel up and down the country cataloguing every model of vending machine that's been built and sampling every single product that's sold in them. Vending machines are his entire life - quite literally, as he's killed by being crushed under a vending machine that falls off the back of a truck.
After his death our hero wakes up to a new life in an amazing world of dungeons and dragons. However, he is not about to embark on a quest to cross the magic kingdom, rescue the princess and slay the demon lord, by simple dint of the fact that you can't march across the realm when you don't have legs. Or swing a sword when you don’t have hands. Or have the damsel in distress throw her arms around you when you don’t have a neck. Or be carried along by a crowd of cheering admirers when you weigh half a ton. Or give an impassioned valiant speech to rally the defenders against the orc hordes when you can only say half-a-dozen canned pre-set phrases through a speaker on your front side.
Because you are a vending machine.
Now that’s certainly an original concept, I won’t deny it! Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander The Dungeon immediately stands out from the pack of isekai also-rans by remaining resolutely committed to its high concept. While Ross gave a positive write-up to Vending Machine’s Yen Press stablemate That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime last year, personally I disliked it as it very rapidly gave the titular slime the ability to take on a human shape – a problem-solving cop-out that also defeated the entire point of the book in the alternative perspective of how a non-human creature - and the most disposable trash mob in the entire RPG beastiary, at that - would survive a max-level roleplaying adventure. A lot of these would-be ‘subversions’ of isekai lose their nerve and soon revert to default – as another example Re:Monster revives its protagonist as an evil goblin, but he eventually transforms from a snivelling ugly beast to a handsome buff near-human that has girls swooning, so I’m not reading an interesting struggle from a new perspective but the usual power fantasy. Credit to Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander The Dungeon then for sticking to its guns: “Boxxo” stays as a vending machine throughout, with no indication that he’s going to be recovering his human form anytime soon.
For full disclosure, it must be said though that Boxxo isn’t quite a simple lump of metal and he does benefit from some of isekai’s standard conveniences. Boxxo can imagine an RPG-style status menu in his mind and use that to manipulate things to a certain extent – he earns points whenever anyone buys anything from him and he can spend those points on replenishing his stock of products, gaining access to different items that he can sell, shifting to different types of vending machine (e.g. from a sweets machine to a coffee machine), and most dramatically activating a suite of magic powers – he gets ‘Force Field’ as a free gift to start off with, which is useful in preventing wandering monsters from smashing him open and looting the treats within. Now this admission might seem to be me contradicting myself from earlier on when I promised that Reborn As A Vending Machine, I Now Wander The Dungeon was free of the typical isekai tropes. While Boxxo does have some advantages though, they are sensibly balanced by some meaningful limitations as well. Boxxo still can’t move an inch himself – he gets pulled along behind in a cart to supply an adventuring party with provisions but is left behind at the camp while they go off to fight the dungeon boss, because he’s a vending machine. Points are continually draining as he also must spend them to maintain the magic that’s keeping him switched on – this means that he can’t just immediately upgrade himself into a battle tank because if his points reach zero he will be deactivated and die again. Boxxo thus needs to spend some time and thought designing his sales window – rearranging it also costs points – with a selection of goods that will appeal to those passing by so they’ll want to buy from him in the first place. The book thus provides a genuine sense of strategy: a lot more than, say, Sword Art Online’s Kirito being so absurdly high-level that he recovers health faster than anyone can attack him.
Another way that Reborn As A Vending Machine, I Now Wander The Dungeon bucks isekai trends is how Boxxo deals with certain irregular clients. He dispenses portable preventatives for the town's resident lady of negotiable affection (who in a later scene receives feedback surveys from satisfied customers) and he protects the honour of a girl about to be set upon by brutes by distracting them with a rack of lifestyle periodicals that can assist them with expressing their glands instead. It's surprisingly frank for a light novel, which as a class are notorious for emphasising the purity of their readers' waifus (even Spice & Wolf, widely cited as one of the most mature Light Novels published, had to promise a grumpy readership that its centuries-old pagan werewolf harvest goddess was as immaculate as the Virgin Mary, spending her entire existence waiting for protagonist Lawrence - and the reader) and it does raise a few chuckles - hey, if the porn mag trick works for Solid Snake it can work for Boxxo! While Boxxo's loss of human desire after losing his human body comes across as a transparent sop to his otaku readers' frustrations and is a direct rip-off of Ainz's own transformed stoic saintliness in Overlord, on the positive side it does mean that we can get on with the business of the bath-house fanservice segment - the girls wheel him in there to sell soap and they don't worry about him peeking in on them because he's a vending machine - without being interrupted by that old tiresome eek-baka-hentai! routine. The illustrations that accompany this are also a bright bouncy beaming bevy of busty bishoujo babes so overall there’s a bit of light-ecchi but not restrictive eye candy that unapologetically knows what it is and doesn’t pretend to more or less – a suitable accompaniment to Boxxo’s assortment of sweets and chocolate.
A further unusual trait is that Boxxo is remarkably patriotic, as vending machines go. There multiple reflections on how wonderful it is to live in such a brilliant country as Japan, so safe and peaceful that vending machines can be left on the street without fear of damage, and how the intuitive preparation of prepackaged vending machine food is proof of the superiority of the Japanese race and its inherent ingenuity (if they ever make an anime of this book, someone please make a skit crossing it with the “you underestimated the power of Japanese technology!” scene from Angel Cop). I can't say that a tub of cup ramen, with banners not stained by the blood of the foe but spilt packets of soy sauce, is the most dignified icon to bear aloft with a defiant conquering cry of "Nippon Banzai!" but I suppose that after your empire is nuked to oblivion you have to take your nationalism where you can get it.
Reborn As A Vending Machine, I Now Wander The Dungeon does have many interesting qualities then, but unfortunately vending machine food will never be haute cuisine and it doesn’t always make best use of its distinctive traits. While Boxxo does theoretically have a challenge to select the right menus that will give him enough customers to keep him active, in practice this is rarely a lasting problem as everyone who buys anything from him will all spend entire paragraphs falling over themselves exclaiming in uncomprehending wonderment how delicious his cans of Pringles are – it’d be more meaningful if he had to try and think about individual tastes and overcome some pickier customers. The book’s also a bit like Skippy the Bush Kangaroo or Lassie the Wonder Hound in that even though Boxxo is limited to speaking an effectively unintelligible set of random sales declarations (e.g. “Get one free with a winner!” when someone tries his slot machine function) the people of the world are logical masters worthy of the Vulcans and capable of spectacular leaps of intuition which mean they almost immediately understand whatever it is he’s getting at. The first adventurer he meets works out a Yes/No system with him near-instantly and it only gets easier after that. Some of Boxxo’s solutions to crises also are a bit pat – for instance, when he’s trapped in an airtight room with someone he keeps her alive by taking on the Oxygen Mask Dispenser form. Now, in all fairness these are genuine installations in some smog-choked Oriental sprawls (although the book needs an aside talking about their spread in the Sixties as if it’s admitting that even the Japanese readership will probably think it's pulling nonsense out of nowhere) but I’d have thought it funnier if he was spitting out cans of that “fresh Pennine air” that was a bit of a yuppie fad a while back.
“Funnier” needs to be remembered as the operative word. As much as Reborn As A Vending Machine, I Now Wander The Dungeon doesn’t always make the best use of danger and drama, I find it hard to hold it against the book too much because he’s a vending machine. This is a comedy, if you haven’t noticed already! The text trips along at a merry canter – most chapters are less than ten pages long – and is altogether cheerful and not too serious. As implausible as it was for Boxxo to be able to use it, it’s fun and different to defeat the villain with Diet Coke and Mentos instead of just firing a Saiyan blast at a higher powerlevel, and it genuinely invites a blast of fresh air to flush out the stale isekai genre. Boxxo may be a heavy block but he flies free in this light-hearted adventure.