Review: Shangri-La Frontier – Why Shonen Magazine’s Latest Hit Isn’t for Me

Shangri-La Frontier volume 1

Hot on the heels of The Cuckoo’s Fiancee, Kodansha’s Weekly Shonen Magazine has another runaway success. Even before volume 1 was released, Shangri-La Frontier made several headlines by breaking 400,000 views on the Magazine Pocket app, taking first place in the Magazine reader surveys, and even boosting the sales of the magazine by 1.5%. It then went on to receive three color pages in a row, extended page counts for five issues, and an unprecedented early front cover – needless to say, the momentum behind the series was enormous.

Considering the amount of hype, I came into Shangri-La Frontier with fairly high expectations. How could something so universally loved not be entertaining? As it turns out, it was not for me.

Shangri-La Frontier Light Novel vs. Manga

And I mean this in the most literal sense. Looking at the data on Weekly Shonen Magazine’s readership, we can see that the early chapters of Shangri-La Frontier lead to a 30% increase in readers aged 10-19 and 20-29 – in other words, the teenage and young adult demographic.

I will be the first to admit that, in many ways, I have the media tastes of a grouchy old man. While I do enjoy some modern trends such as battle manga, I tend to prefer older works and hold them in much higher regard.

Naturally, one thing I also very much dislike about the current state of Japanese pop culture is the abundance of isekai and stories about video games – it’s probably not a good thing, then, that the manga Shangri-La Frontier combines both of these things.

Shangri-La Frontier chapter 1

Shangri-La Frontier is actually based on a light novel by Rina Kata, serialized in Shousetsuka ni Narou! and adapted for Magazine by Ryousuke Fuji. As a website where anyone can read and upload works of fiction, anyone familiar with the light novel industry will probably know the type of stories that are commonplace there: isekai, fantasy, and ones that are usually heavily influenced by video games. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, Re:Zero -Starting Life in Another World, and The Irregular at Magic High School should suffice as examples.

Now, there is nothing wrong with enjoying such stories, and the democratization of publishing is a great thing. Even I have been known to enjoy a bit of Slime and KonoSuba every now and again. Yet, on the whole, I find Narou stories to be quite unrefined and unappealing: they usually feature a heavy amount of reader gratification and focus on characters entirely based on their outward appearance or mannerisms, not their personality or development.

The Appeal of Shitty Games

In other words, Shangri-La Frontier could be said to signify everything I dislike about Japanese media right now. Taking place in a fantasy world, it follows the “shitty games hunter” Sanraku (real name: Hidutome Rakurou) as he takes on the “godly game” of the series’ title. So, not only is it about playing through a fantasy video game (if I wanted to do that, would I not just play one myself?), it also centers around a pretty uninteresting main character: there isn’t really much to Sanraku’s personality other than the fact that he is really good at video games.

Yet, this isn’t entirely the case. The first chapter, at least, gets off to a good start by following Sanraku as he clears through one of his beloved “shitty games” – Faeria Chronicle Online, which is full of bugs and gameplay annoyances.

The idea of a manga focused on shitty games, exploring how their flaws make for entertaining experiences, is honestly so much more interesting of an idea then what Shangri-La Frontier ultimately turns into. You get a glimpse of this in chapter 6, when Sanraku logs into another shitty game and fights one of his friends: the way that the bugs change the fight mechanics is honestly great, even if it is only explored for a second.

There is also a certain type of pleasure to be derived from how Sanraku progresses through the early parts of the game, much like the early portion of That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. Yet, Shangri-La Frontier is not nearly as entertaining as a video game as Rimuru testing out his powers: instead, it is a fairly middle of the road action RPG with fairly predictable mechanics. Probably the most exciting part was when Sanraku was afflicted by poison, and had to rush to the next town to change his save point.

Secrets to Shangri-La Frontier’s Success

There is more to say on why I didn’t like Shangri-La Frontier, but you get the idea. What’s more, as I said, this manga isn’t really made for me: it’s made for a modern day teenage and young adult audience, not a grouchy old man.

You may, therefore, ask the question: why read it in the first place? I’d also be lying if I said that that thought didn’t occur to me multiple times while reading volume 1. Yet, it is also part of my job as a journalist to track and highlight the up-and-coming, as well as explain the reasons behind its success.

So, what are the reasons behind Shangri-La Frontier’s success? Like most things, they can’t be boiled down to a single factor, but I can, incorporating the example of The Cuckoo’s Fiancee, make a couple of guesses: the situation surrounding its release, the constant news coverage, and the continuing appeal of Narou stories today.

Shangri-La Frontier

Shangri-La Frontier debuted in Weekly Shonen Magazine back in July, just before the beginning of the summer holidays for school students and during a time where many adults were already working from home. The same goes for those at university. In other words, the COVID situation, coupled with the school holidays, created a period where millions of Japanese people were on their phones or the internet – looking for something to do.

Undoubtedly, some of them turned instinctively to manga, but such a massive increase in readership as 30% does not come from the regular manga-reading crowd – it comes from normal people. The amount of news coverage, then, on such sites as Oricon and Mantan Web (Japan only) gave Ryousuke Fuji’s manga mainstream attention and got those precious clicks. The same goes for The Cuckoo’s Fiancee.

Only, that doesn’t really explain the sustained success of Shangri-La Frontier, nor The Cuckoo’s Fiancee. According to Shoseki rankings, the series’ first volume managed to get 90th place on its first week of release – constituting one of the only debut volumes in the top 100 apart from Jujutsu Kaisen, which is obviously being boosted by Studio MAPPA’s anime. If Shangri-La Frontier’s success was really just a product of circumstances, then its momentum would have faded long ago.

Shangri-La Frontier sales
Shangri-La Frontier volume 1 sales (highlighted)

Here, we have to admit that the type of stories popular on Narou are, ultimately, still enjoyed by a great many people. That much is obvious from the success of such series as Re:Zero and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, but Shangri-La Frontier makes it even more so: even if I can’t understand the appeal, many people are drawn to it. Similarly, even though I didn’t enjoy Cuckoo’s Fiancee, readers other than myself do.

There comes a time in everyone’s life where they find themselves outside of the mainstream, isolated from popular opinion and opposed to everyone else. In such a situation, you can do one of two things: either give in and be assimilated, or stand your ground and explain your reasoning. I prefer to do the latter, although I do recognize that it goes both ways.

What are your thoughts on Shangri-La Frontier? Are you enjoying it? Let us know via social media or our Discord server, linked below. You can read it in Japanese via Magazine Pocket and an English release is on its way this December.

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