Isekai is a subgenre of Japanese fantasy literature. The protagonist is an ordinary person who is transported to another world, summoned by magic, reincarnated as a different being, or indefinitely trapped inside a new universe. A group of people or an entire populace can also be transported into a new world. The new world must always be different from the protagonist’s homeworld. It can be ancient, magical, or futuristic. The new world can either have a similar culture and society to that of the protagonist’s, or a completely different one.
According to the book Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn, there are four types of fantasy: portal fantasy, immersive fantasy, intrusion fantasy, and liminal fantasy. As Isekai involves portals leading to fantastical elements, the genre falls under the portal fantasy category. Isekai protagonists also have a quest or goal to complete by exploring the fantastical world.
The common tropes of contemporary isekai stories are the main teenage protagonists from the real world, the process of being transported to a new world, video game-like world rules, growth into a legendary hero, romantic companions, and fanservice. That being said, an increasing number of isekai stories have attempted to deviate from the popular tropes.
Some of the most popular isekai stories over the past decades are Magic Knight Rayearth, El Hazard: The Magnificent World, Digimon: Digital Monsters, Spirited Away, The Familiar of Zero (Zero no Tsukaima), Log Horizon, KonoSuba: God’s Blessing on this Wonderful World!, No Game No Life, Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World, The Saga of Tanya the Evil (Youjo Senki), Overlord, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, and The Rising of Shield Hero.
The word “isekai” (異世界) is a compound word. It consists of i (異) or “different,” and sekai (世界) or “world.” Isekai literally means “a different world” or “another dimension.”
A Brief History
The isekai genre is not very new at all. It has been prevalent for several centuries. The first possible isekai story in classic Japanese literature is Urashima Tarou (浦島 太郎). Written by Iwaya Sazanami during the Meiji Period, this fairy tale is about a fisherman transported to the underwater Ryugu-jo (竜宮城, 龍宮城) or “Dragon Palace” after rescuing a sea turtle. The fisherman spent some time in the castle with the princess Otohime. Otohime gave a tamatebako (玉手箱) or “jewel box” to the fisherman but forbade him from opening it. The fisherman decided to return to his hometown, believing he just spent seven days underwater, but soon, he discovered that centuries had passed, and he opened the tamatebako out of curiosity. Smoke burst out of the box and enveloped the fisherman, who quickly aged into an elderly man. Urashima Tarou was so popular that it received literary and animated adaptations. The first recorded animated adaptation of Urashima Tarou was in 1918.
The other known Western precursors of isekai stories were Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, and A Princess of Mars. These Western stories may have also influenced Japanese pop culture.
The first isekai anime aired on television was Aura Battler Dunbine (聖戦士ダンバイン), a mecha anime created by Yoshiyuki Tomino in 1983. The first few isekai anime of the 90s centered around female protagonists. Anime and manga series such as Fushigi Yuugi, The Twelve Kingdoms, The Vision of Escaflowne, and Inuyasha have female protagonists with a magical link to a fantasy world. They have melodramatic tones, romance, and a wide cast of interesting characters.
The early 2000s brought the concept of virtual reality to the isekai genre, particularly the .hack franchise and the Sword Art Online light novels. Sword Art Online was later adapted into anime in 2012 and spawned several video games. At this time, the concepts of virtual reality and gaming were at the peak of popularity within the anime world. More light novels followed suit, copying the successful formula of Sword Art Online.
There was a point in the late 2010s when the isekai genre became too oversaturated. The tropes and elements of the isekai genre were repetitive for the sake of pandering to fans’ desires. A short story contest in 2016 by Bungaku Flea Market, an exhibition and sale of literary works held all over Japan, and Shousetsuka ni Narou, one of Japan’s largest contribution fiction websites, prohibited any isekai-themed entries. In 2017, Kadokawa Shoten also prohibited isekai stories in their novel writing contests.
Isekai is one of the most entertaining, engrossing, popular, and profitable literary genres today. It allows readers to enjoy a power fantasy and escape from reality for a while. It’s a form of wish-fulfillment entertainment for anyone seeking bigger things in life. Isekai also has the potential to encourage young writers to make original and engaging stories.
Pixiv Encyclopedia, https://dic.pixiv.net/a/異世界, Retrieved 20 March 2020
Mendlesohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. 2008.
BookWalker, Why Are There So Many Isekai/Parallel World Anime?, Anime News Network, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/advertorial/2017-01-31/why-are-there-so-many-isekai-parallel-world-anime/.111576, 31 January 2017, Retrieved 20 March 2020.
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Kamen, Matt, “Anime: the 10 must-watch films and TV shows for video game lovers”. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/02/anime-films-tv-video-games-watch-ghost-in-the-shell-dragon-ball-ah-my-goddess-initial-d, 02 October, 2017, Retrieved 20 March 2020.
Lefler, Rachael, Thoughts on the History of the Isekai Genre, ReelRundown, https://reelrundown.com/animation/Thoughts-on-the-History-of-the-Isekai-Genre, 12 November 2018, Retrieved 20 March 2020
Whalen, Amanda, Short Story Contest Bans ‘Traveling to an Alternate World’ Fantasy, Anime News Network, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2016-06-30/short-story-contest-bans-traveling-to-an-alternate-world-fantasy/.103755, 01 July 2016, Retrieved 20 March 2020.
Baseel, Casey, Anime-style novel contest in Japan bans alternate reality stories and teen protagonists, Sora News 24, https://soranews24.com/2017/05/22/anime-style-novel-contest-in-japan-bans-alternate-reality-stories-and-teen-protagonists/, 22 May 2017, Retrieved 20 March 2020.
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