The endurance of the isekai genre as an institution in fiction has necessitated evolution of the concept. The idea of someone from our world being transported to another, fantasy-inspired one is now less a plot on its own and more a base setting that innumerable stories start from and run in their own direction with. Welcome to Japan, Ms. Elf!, itself a manga adaptation of a light novel that exists in that specific sphere, seems to start with the idea of heading in the other direction with that core concept, dealing with the ‘what if’ of a fantasy-world character being brought over to regular Japan, fulfilling the requirements for the fabled reverse-isekai. It’s an idea that provides the differentiation entries like this need these days to stand out from the crowd, even if thus far, that concept is basically the only thing this first volume has going on.
The setup that plays out in the first chapter of the Ms. Elf manga comes off rather refreshing, anyway. I find the idea of being able to traverse a firmly RPG-based fantasy world via dreams perpetuates the wish-fulfillment angle in a nicer, more low-stakes way than the usual setup of our hero being killed and reincarnated in the other world. I enjoy both sleeping and playing video games, so I can relate to Kazuhiro even apart from the fact that he’s an actual grown-up protagonist in a story like this. The ease with which he slips into the world makes his implied years of adventure there and the relationship he’s built with Marie feel lived-in just from the first few pages. This is all the more ‘standard’ isekai content that frames the main selling point of this story, sure, but they still came off pleasant enough that I never felt like I was rushing the story to get on with the premise. Though even that arrives with its own amusing twist: Marie was effectively isekai’d over to Japan via getting obliterated by a dragon, which I guess is the logical fantasy equivalent of being run over by a truck.
So that’s all to lead to the primary selling point of this manga: Marie being in Japan, being led around by Kazuhiro in taking in the sights, sounds, and foods of this very different world from her own. There’s another point of relatability; as someone who loves sampling new dishes anytime I find myself travelling somewhere else, I totally vibe with Marie’s drive to try out different cuisines. It’s an appreciable element of cultural exchange that this series is out to illustrate, and overall reflective of Marie’s delightful eagerness to learn about and engage with this new place she finds herself in. A lot of ‘regular’ isekai hones in on its heroes learning about the world they’re in as a way to exploit its systems to win combat and conflicts, but Ms. Elf turns things on their head not just by reversing the setting, but by using that to illustrate how simply learning about a new place can be its own reward. And that itself rounds back by the end, when exchanging a communication of culture turns out to be the key to diffusing the dragon-based danger that caused Kazuhiro and Marie’s dimension-displacement in the first place.
That’s all perfectly pleasant and downright enjoyable for what it is, but even my manner of overt analysis can’t carry me through how thin all the content in this volume actually feels. As I illustrated, there’s plenty to read into just in the concepts, but the actual goings-on feel light to an almost untenable degree. The middle chapters of the manga, the section this whole concept is constructed around, really consist of not much more than Kazuhiro and Marie going around Japan, reiterating their odd situation, and eating some different foods. There’s ‘healing’ stories, and then there’s just taking up space, and it’s hard not to regard this manga as the latter, even as I’m appreciating the cute illustrations of the clever high concept. The issue, I’d say, is borne out of the point that Welcome to Japan, Ms. Elf! does have an actual plot it regularly reminds us of, but makes no hurry in explicating or elaborating on how it actually works or where it may eventually go.
Still, even if we’re lingering on long stretches of nothing really happening, everything at least looks very nice. Manga artist Shimo Aono has taken the task of visualizing this story to heart, firstly featuring robust use of backgrounds (important for a story whose entire point is about taking place across different worlds). The character reactions to the settings and shifts therein (particularly from Marie) are plenty adorable, with all the food itself rendered well alongside seeing how Marie feels when she actually tastes it. Even little touches like the sound effects get in on the action; Who doesn’t love the cute ~FIIIIIISH~ effect to communicate all the fishy flavor she’s feeling at one point? As well, things like the transitional effects of travelling between the worlds via dreams show some nice imaginative effort. Purely as a visualized version of a previously textual story, this manga version of Welcome to Japan, Ms. Elf! justifies itself well.
Overall, I find it challenging to fairly evaluate this manga. What’s here is perfectly fine – equal parts clever, pleasant, and interesting in places. But for a full-length volume, it feels like they could have fit in even more of that content that worked instead of multiple chapters of meaningless-feeling meandering. I’m sure there are readers out there more receptive to these incredibly languid storytelling choices than me, so I can confirm that the Welcome to Japan, Ms. Elf! manga is completely inoffensive in that format. But as a story selling itself on an admittedly compelling hook, it’s hard for me not to come away feeling like they’ve hardly done anything with it so far.