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Isekai Anime: Explaining the Genre's History, and How It's Changed

Rachael is a passionate long-time anime fan, who enjoys writing about the storytelling aspect of anime, manga, and light novels.

From the anime "Trapped in Another World With My Smartphone".

From the anime "Trapped in Another World With My Smartphone".

If you're keeping up with current anime, you'll notice a few things all the worst anime of every season have. These include:

  • being based on a light novel
  • having excessive 'fan service', usually meaning improbably jiggly boobs, and
  • being either isekai or harem genre, if not both.

While the isekai and harem genres can be good, they often strictly adhere to a formula so writers can crank out a story quickly that will appeal to a male otaku audience, without much effort.

Isekai means 'a strange world' in Japanese. The genre gets that name from the many light novels that use this word in the title. It's usually translated as 'another world' in English. So it's a sub-genre of fantasy in which a protagonist, or group of characters, end up in a fantasy world from the real world. It doesn't have to be a physical world; this genre can also include venturing into a realistic virtual world, like Digimon, Sword Art Online, and .hack//sign.They are usually teleported to this other world involuntarily and suddenly, and usually want to find a way to get back home.

Often, they have to do something in the other world, usually saving it. This might also mean saving the real world as well, or stopping the bad guys in the other world from wreaking havoc in our world. Fantasy is about the interplay between the real and the unreal, the ordinary and the extraordinary. It explores what people will do in the face of strange things that are hard to understand. Like learning a video game, the isekai protagonist has to learn the ways of a very foreign world, navigating its politics and culture while overcoming villains.

Children's Lit Fantasy - Inspiration for Isekai?

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In children's lit, it's the story's premise will often be an ordinary child leaving the real world behind to have an adventure in some kind of fantasy world. I recently watched the Disney live-action Nutcracker-derived story The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and it hit me that this kind of story is extremely prevalent in children's literature. The Nutcracker, Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Wizard of Oz, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, to name a few.

Harry Potter is an interesting case. Hogwarts, and he wizarding world it's a part of, resembles a fantasy world. It has its own rules the protagonist must learn, the protagonist has to defeat a bad guy to save it, and the novels take a lot of delight in exploring the strange peculiarities of this world; the wonky currency system, leaping chocolate frogs, and a sport most Muggle PTAs would probably ban. But Harry Potter is technically urban fantasy, because it adds magic to the real world, rather than having it exist entirely somewhere else. But it shares elements with this other-world type of fantasy.

The child protagonist of such stories usually must defeat a bad guy, but a lot of the narrative's time is spent just experiencing the other world. Readers are taken in with the strangeness, uniqueness, and charm of this fantasy world. Much like an isekai anime, these stories are designed so that the protagonist is a stand-in for the audience. They are meant to be someone the typical viewer/reader can imagine themselves as. The closest thing anime has to this are Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away and maybe Howl's Moving Castle. But most popular anime in the West are aimed at teens and adults, rather than children.

There's not a lot of Western fantasy literature with character from the real world traveling to a fantasy world and back, for adults. Most Western fantasy literature aimed at adults takes place entirely within a fantasy world. I'm not sure why isekai in western literature is a setting trope nearly exclusive to children's lit. Maybe it's because writing a story that way is an easier way to make a story about a different world make sense to someone from this one. It simplifies the process of exposition — your main character is as new to this second world as the audience is. So you get exposition as the main character gets plot-relevant things explained to them. Giving writers a handy tool for exposition makes the genre a good starting point for inexperienced writers, who tend to work on light novels in Japan.

In Western children's literature, the ease of weaving exposition into the story can make it easier for children to understand. And a sense of wonder and awe when feeling like one is transported to a fantasy world is usually considered a childish feeling.

In fantasy, the protagonist is commonly a political outsider of some kind too. It creates narrative tension that they're up against the political establishment of their world. Since they're an underdog without wealth, fame, or power, we feel more sympathy for them. For example, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are not powerful in their worlds. As they progress in their journey, politics, and much about the world outside the Shire, must be taught to them. Therefore, they serve as good audience surrogate characters and a good reason for exposition.

But again, I'm not sure why most Western literature aimed at adults takes place entirely within a fantasy world. Or sometimes it takes place entirely within the real world, with fantasy elements added to it. But it rarely has the child-lit isekai setup, where the protagonist must journey from our world into an unknown fantasy world.

The First Isekai Anime Had Female Protagonists

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Early isekai anime usually had female protagonists. Perhaps they were building from aforementioned Western stories like Alice in Wonderland. Examples include 90s - early 00s favorites like Inuyasha, Fushigi Yuugi, and Vision of Escaflowne. In these stories, girls had a psychic connection to another place or time. Their intuitive powers, and relationship by bloodline or reincarnation to the fantasy world, made them the chosen one. They were like child fantasy epics, but often involved, since we're talking about teenage girls here, the added element of romance. Usually this meant meeting an asinine jerk 'bad boy' who would, through the course of the plot, soften and show his tender side. Male tsunderes, basically. There would sometimes be a love triangle, of course, and a struggle to save the fantasy world from various villains and sub-villains.

When Did Isekai Stop Being About and For Girls?

'Isekai no Seikishi Monogatari' or, 'Tenchi Muyo! War on Geminar', a 2010 spinoff of the classic harem anime 'Tenchi Muyo!' may also have been a key early source of inspiration for this 2010s genre shift.

'Isekai no Seikishi Monogatari' or, 'Tenchi Muyo! War on Geminar', a 2010 spinoff of the classic harem anime 'Tenchi Muyo!' may also have been a key early source of inspiration for this 2010s genre shift.

I'm not sure why this happened, but those female-led isekai anime just stopped coming. For a while in the mid to late 00s, the genre appeared dead. Then in the 2010s, we saw new waves of a different kind of isekai, with male protagonists. These tended to use the other world as a place of sexual wish fulfillment and heroic fantasies for the male audience. Often this would overlap with the harem genre. This was a welcome change in the harem genre at first, because the school harem genre had become old hat. It is nice that the isekai genre takes us to a setting that isn't just another high school in Tokyo. And it's interesting and fun to explore another world that might have very different cultural taboos, or fewer inhibitions about certain things.

The main reason for this shift was the massive success of Sword Art Online. This anime was about characters trapped in a VR game. But it quickly became a romantic harem anime, in addition to being about fighting bad guys and developing a strategy to get through the game. Before Sword Art Online, there had been some anime about video games, .hack//sign and Log Horizon being the most well-known examples. But the success of those was limited and niche, but Sword Art Online achieved massive success. Suddenly, the writers of light novels and creators of anime series had a winning formula to copy.

This isn't the only time a massively successful hit will draw imitations, many of which lack quality. Often, they look like an incoherent jumble of lazily pasted together elements the writers believed would make a hit. Harry Potter, Naruto, Twilight, and so on also got a lot of wannabe imitators, some better than others.

The interesting thing is that Sword Art Online has 'imitators' that are better than it, or that are very different from it while having a similar premise. It's like how the works of Tolkien launched the entire fantasy genre, with each later fantasy novel or series acting as a response to Tolkien in some way.

Sword Art Online was also part of a bigger trend — the rise of massive multiplayer online gaming, and online gaming communities. In the 2010s, because technology getting better, and more affordable, we saw the rise of online game communities. They existed before, but around 2010 to 2015, they exploded in a way no one had seen before. Gaming had shifted gradually from a solo activity to a largely social, online activity. YouTube became flooded with gaming channels. Twitch streaming became so popular as to help provide the most well-liked gamers with a full-time income. Independent game development and modification have also taken off as major internet communities.

This trend causes questions to arise about the nature of reality. Many young people spend so much time, and get so emotionally invested in, virtual worlds. SAO and other anime like it are popular because they explore the question of what could happen if nerdy gamer otaku type fans became literally, rather than figuratively, consumed by the fantasy worlds they're so passionate about.

Current Isekai - How The Genre Changed and What It Is Now

From "No Game No Life".

From "No Game No Life".

The imitators and followers of SAO largely took the concept in a more overtly sexual direction. The fantasy is not just being a cool, badass "chosen one" but, frequently we see more recent isekai anime falling into this trend of having a loner, otaku, NEET, and/or hikkikomori protagonist, who is not only a hero in the other world, but a chick magnet. Thus you get the isekai harem genre. It's similar to the Western childhood fantasy concept, but with an added element of sexual conquest.

I'd like to take a moment to point out that in the actual past, all people were shorter and uglier, skin diseases were much more common, and women didn't shave their legs and armpits. Bathing in Europe died with the Roman Empire, and the scarcity of clean water meant that people and their clothes smelled, and people went potty pretty much anywhere. Women had some pretty ghastly fashion ideas, like wearing lead-based cosmetics that slowly killed them, the use of arsenic to make pretty green-dyed dresses, and the ingestion of the belladonna poison from a toxic flower to make one's pupils larger. But fantasy is fantasy, so that means having a world where the dark realities of past centuries' beauty, fashion, and cosmetics is ignored, replaced with a world where all women effortlessly look like dolls, even in worlds with a very primitive level of technology.

There's nothing wrong with having a character look unrealistically attractive. And there's nothing wrong with an anime being about wish fulfilment. All successful anime has an element of wish fulfilment in it. That's a major reason for its appeal.

But, isekai has become something critics like myself are just tired of at this point. That's because it became a formula hacks could use to create a really low-effort anime or light novel. You just have your loser otaku protagonist, put him in a world with some demons to fight and some babes who want his uh, sword, boom, you've got a hit.

What I like to see are isekai that avoid being overly formulaic by doing one or more of the following:

  • Explore how the fantasy world interacts with and affects the real world.
  • Have a protagonist who grows, develops, and learns something meaningful from his or her experience in another world.
  • Have a romance that feels genuine.
  • Have people in the other world who seem like real people who exist for their own reasons, not just to marvel at how great the protagonist is.
  • Have the protagonist genuinely struggle and be challenged. Many of these have infuriating self-insert Mary Sue or Gary Stu protagonists.
  • Have more going on in the fantasy world than just what the protagonist is doing. This makes the world feel more real, and not just like a holodeck world where everything is made just for the protagonist.
  • Have a compelling and/or psychologically complex villain. A lot of these shows suffer from boring villains, whose motivation is not fully explored or revealed.

What Are Some Good Examples of Isekai Anime?

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So what isekai anime are doing that right now?

If you go to the past, the aforementioned trio of Inuyasha, Escaflowne, and Fushigi Yuugi are nice for someone who wants a female protagonist, also good for their interesting world exploration and magic.

How (Not) to Summon a Demon Lord is widely praised as one of the better isekai harem anime.

My personal favorite isekai anime, and the one that actually caused me to give it a chance as a genre, is Re:Zero. This anime has a protagonist who starts out weak, but through immense struggles, he learns and grows a lot through the course of the series. Side characters seem like real people, who exist for their own reasons, not just to serve the plot or praise the protagonist. If you're sick of Gary Stus, and want to see a protagonist who actually struggles and is actually put into real danger, I recommend Re:Zero.

Drifters is interesting to me as well. The characters taken from our world are historical ruthless badasses. They use their tactical and other battle-related knowledge from our world to help oppressed elves cast off their shackles and rebel against their masters. There is fanservice, but it's no harem, and the focus is on warfare, not sex or romance. It also focuses more on factions and groups than on a single protagonist. Which is nice because it's realistic - wars aren't fought by one person and it takes more than one person to completely revolutionize a society. And it means if you find the protagonist boring, you're not stuck with just him for very long, as the focus shifts to different characters fairly regularly.

For video game lovers, either those who loved or hated SAO ,but want more like it, I'd recommend the .hack franchise, Log Horizon, and the Digimon anime. Though the latter is aimed at children, and the original American dub's humor got a little cringey, it's an often-overlooked but quality show, with a lot of quality heartfelt interactions between characters and some really special tear-jerking moments.

I also feel that Accel World, from the same creator as SAO, is a stronger anime, because I emotionally connected more with the main characters.

Overall, the trend seems to be using the basic established formula of the genre and playing with it in new ways. For example, Overlord is what happens when the protagonist is a demon king, who would be a bad guy in a different story. There are bad isekai that come out a lot, but there are also ones that explore the tropes of the genre in interesting ways.

Further Reading: Some Good Recommendation Lists for the Isekai Genre

How many isekai anime have you watched? Which ones are your favorites?

Some of my favorite isekai anime include Re:Zero, No Game, No Life, Overlord, Konosuba, and Log Horizon.

Please let me know yours!

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Thank you for reading!

© 2018 Rachael Lefler