Culture

Sgathaich: What is Isekai?

Normally I would be writing about another anime I watched. And indeed, there are plenty I could write about. I watched the Gundam compilation movies over the holidays and could write about each of them as a gateway into the franchise. But when looking at what series I could write about… So many were Isekais.

I have written about many Isekai and will write many more, and there are reasons for that. Isekai is often looked at as the most common genera of anime at this time, where previously things like Mech may have been. In fact, Isekai are so dominant that in a recent census by Crunchyroll one of the brackets of shows they had simcast was Isekai and the other was non Isekai, of which 20% were Isekai. That’s 20% of all the shows the service streamed that year were of this one genera.

Translated into English, Isekai means Different or Other World. Basically, meaning a world other than ours. When it comes to the genera an Isekai will feature someone being transported to a world other than our own and thus the adventures or life they live there. Sometimes it’s a way to find back to their own while quite often now it is a one-way trip.

The idea of this kind of story is not new and definitely not exclusive to Japan. Western literature has many examples of tales that would be classed as Isekai if from Japan and ones dating back far longer than Animation. Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz are both tales of a young girl finding herself in a fantasy land and it is this that is very reminiscent of the earlier examples of the genera.

Many of the early examples of what we would see now as Isekai series from Japan would be aimed at young women rather than the more male audience. Shows like Inuyasha, Magic Knight Rayearth and Escaflowne all had a leading lady whisked away to a magical world (or the past in Inuyasha’s case) often a romantic interest for the lead, maybe a love triangle but never the more harem elements of modern ones.

Digimon

In the late 90s we saw shows that began to mix video game elements into the concept and it can be argued here is where the gender shift starts. Both Monster Rancher and Digimon feature leads brought to a world related to a game in real life and much more aimed at the male market. Later on, in 2002 one of the first quintessential Isekai (though still predating the modern boom) featured an even more direct video game analogy. .hack//sign part of a multimedia endeavour featured the lead character Tsukasa finding themselves trapped in the video game with no memory of who they were and unable to leave. For those not wanting to get spoiled leap to the next paragraph. you still here? ok. It is worth noting though that in the end it’s revealed that Tsukasa is an actual a girl in real life so the big leap to male audience wasn’t fully there just yet, but the link with video games was.

It was in 2009 or perhaps 2012 were the modern age of Isekai can be considered to truly start then. 2009 was the first printing of the light novel series Sword Art Online and 2012 its anime premiere. Light novels are written work often with graphical images occasionally put in and are usually lighter reading than a full series but also more an ongoing series. At the earlier points of the series it started a male protagonist that along with a large number of people got trapped in a virtual reality game. Kirito was an OP nerd guy that suddenly in this world was one of the most important people as opposed to a less interesting life outside. I could go into more specifics but this is very much what a default Isekai protagonist is now thought of, person who travels to different world and is now an OP god life being that is far more successful than they ever were at home…. it’s worth noting if that’s ALL there is to the show and character, drop it its usually a pile of crap.

Overlord light novel by Maruyama Kugane (丸山くがね) and illustrated by so-bin

While SoA only could be argued at being an Isekai as later chapters moved away from being actually in another world and instead just being VR gamers stuff, many other series also being adapted from light novels would delve into the Isekai elements more even while also keeping the connection to games. Both LogHorizon and Overlord start the story with their leads now in a world that appears to be their online game but now living as their avatars and the world being real (Overlord’s a little more complicated), but rather than just being a tale of lead guy saves the day they tend to explore the new set up more, both having elements of nation building.

Another kind of method of being Isekaied (as its often called now) is dying and being reincarnated into a new world. This method is sometimes due to what has become known as Truck-kun, namely person dies sacrificing themselves to save someone against something (sometimes a truck). While not always a sudden violent death the reincarnation method (which has led to the genera being banned in countries that regulate against such beliefs) is definitely a one-way trip since they usually are reborn as another person, or even a non-human character.

The Slime Diaries

It’s worth noting that there is a wide array of different types of shows this genera can be, outside of the character now living in another world there can be little in common. I’ve seen ones that are clear comedies that outright make fun of the standard tropes like Konosuba. Some forgo the more fantasy element for a more modern one… but still with fantasy elements like the saga of Tanya The Evil being in an alternative WW1. Some forgo a focus on battles entirely, as mentioned earlier LogHorizon has more nation building and That Time I Reincarnated As A Slime pushes that even further, there are a few fights yes but that’s not the main part. Some shows abandon the fight completely and instead are just people trying to find a new life for themselves in this fantasy world. Sometimes that just happens because the lead is now so OP that a proper fight wouldn’t be much so the focus has to be on something else.

I have wondered why the genera is so popular and my mind goes back to one of the other key features in the modern day, the light novel. Every series I mentioned since SaO has been adapted from light novels and I suspect the nature of Isekai aids in the writing of those. For example if two people are in a fantasy world, it would seem odd if one had to explain to the other what should be well known to them, it’s part of something they should already know. BUT if one of those people is not from that world then explaining it to them makes more sense, and thus through them we also learn about the world. Basically world building comes far more naturally with Isekai than it would  in just regular fantasy genera. There is also the escapism argument that I can definitely see being a thing… sadly I’ve not yet suddenly been transported into my Final Fantasy 14 character to get away from this world just yet… but I remain optimistic.

However, the door swings both ways. While not as numerous, there is Reverse Isekai. These feature a being from another world finding itself in ours and having to get used to it. More often than not this is best used in comedy or social commentary (sometimes both) as they are used as a mirror to look at the world we live in, be it absurd or not. These have proved popular too just less numerous with Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid being a big example.

So there we have it, a short (yes it was) section on the genera of anime that is still currently dominating. For how long? I can’t say. We already have several shows that are deconstructions, many inverting what you think of from how you expect this to go. But it’s clear there is still lots of life in the concept and lots of people finding reasons to keep watching and making more stories of people traveling to another world. And if you say it’s just because they are popular that they make more, not like we can say any better, go on look at how many series were clearly copying Twilight after it made a bunch of money… big difference is a lot of these shows are considerably better written.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online




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