If you have watched any anime in the past 10 years, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the genre of isekai (meaning “another world”) fantasy. Ever since Sword Art Online became a hit back in 2012, there’s been a cavalcade of shows about ordinary Japanese guys who get transported to a fantasy world with RPG mechanics, are granted a unique and completely overpowered ability, and end up with a party of beautiful girls who all want to sleep with him. From Re:Zero to Konosuba to That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, this subgenre of fantasy anime has dominated the landscape of anime in the 2010s. So why has isekai become so popular, and what does its current popularity say about anime and the anime fandom in this day and age?
Of course, the idea of a story transporting an ordinary person to a fantastical world is nothing new. The timeless classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is probably the first of these stories to be successful. The “portal fantasy” genre of anime became popular in the 1990’s, with titles like The Vision of Escaflowne and Inuyasha being personal favorites of mine. Hell, Spirited Away, the highest grossing film in Japanese history, is essentially Japan’s unique take on the classic Alice in Wonderland story.
But these older stories are still very different from the isekai genre we know and (maybe) love today. For one thing, they all feature female protagonists, while almost all modern isekai heroes are male. They also lack the fantasy RPG elements that have become a staple in the genre. And in almost all of them, the end goal is for the main character to leaving the fantasy world behind and go back home. In today’s isekai, the characters often can’t go back to their original world, and may not even want to. Can you really blame them? Adulting sucks!
So while the “another world” genre of fantasy has been around for decades, and series like .hack experimented with video game-esque settings in the 2000’s, modern isekai as we know it didn’t really take off until Sword Art Online became a smash success and codified many of the tropes audiences are familiar with today. I’m not the biggest SAO fan, I can see it’s appeal. Its RPG fantasy setting helped it resonate with gamers and anime fans alike, and its high stakes and relentless action kept viewers begging for more. And by centering the story around everyman otaku protagonist Kirito, it gave viewers a character they could relate to and see themselves in, while also avoiding some of the potential pitfalls of traditional fantasy stories.
The biggest problem that fantasy writers run into, in my eyes, is the struggle of getting readers to understand and connect with a world that is completely unlike our own. Most fantasy series, from Lord of the Rings to Fullmetal Alchemist, have incredibly detailed worlds, with a rich history and a huge cast of characters. But it can be hard to introduce all of these things organically, without getting the audience confused or bored with exposition dumps. In isekai, though, the main character is a stranger to this world, so they can have things explained to them without it feeling like something they should already know. The RPG elements and Dragon Quest-style setting give these worlds a sense of familiarity to a game-savvy audience. And of course, making the main character an ordinary shut-in gamer means that fans can easily project themselves onto them.
Isekai anime is pure escapism. It gives ordinary people the chance to see folks just like them whisked away from their dull, stressful, or unfulfilling lives into a magical world where they can go anywhere and do anything. But as the genre has become more and more saturated with new titles, there’s been a backlash as the worst tropes of isekai become readily apparent. Their lead protagonists tend to be overpowered, boring self-insert characters. Their reliance on medieval European fantasy settings makes them feel samey and lacking originality. They prioritize fanservice and harem tropes over actually developing their female characters. And there’s just so, so many of them, and a lot of them are terrible. Sure, SAO and The Rising of the Shield Hero may have their defenders, but is anyone really going to bat for In Another World With My Smartphone or, uh, Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks?
While it can be easy to hate on isekai and write it’s success off as escapist pandering or lazy studios cashing in on a trend, I think there is another reason for isekai’s success that is all too real. Japan, like much of the rest of the world, is going through a period of tremendous upheaval. Their population is aging and shrinking, leading to a stagnant economy. Their work culture is so demanding that people literally die from overwork. Depression is widespread, but social stigma prevents those who are suffering from getting help. Isekai is escapism, yes, but it’s escapism to a world where the choices you make matter and ordinary people can become extraordinary. Is that such a bad thing?
And despite its shortcomings, there are a few isekai that I think have managed to stand out from the bunch. Re:Zero brilliantly turns the standard isekai formula on its head, showing how brutal a violent medieval world might be to a young, not entirely mentally stable otaku. Konosuba is a hysterically funny sitcom that just happens to take place in a D&D-esque setting. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime goes all in on its worldbuilding, giving seemingly disposable monsters like goblins and dire wolves rich personalities and complex societies. One of the isekai airing this season, Ascendance of a Bookworm, takes out the sword and sorcery entirely to give us a heartwarming slice-of-life story about a little girl who just wants to read, in a world where only kings and nobles can afford to. These anime are not without their issues, but they still manage to offer a unique and exciting spin on a genre that seemingly has been done to death already.
So I’m still glad that isekai exists. At its worst, it’s mindless, pandering, and problematic as hell. But at its best, it gives me that same sense of adventure and wonder that I got pouring hours upon hours into Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger as a kid. It draws on the tropes of beloved fantasy literature and updates them for modern audiences. And even though the genre is definitely oversaturated, I think there’s still room for it to improve and grow. Hopefully, we’ll get more anime like Re: Zero and less like the upcoming So I’m a Spider, So What?
Do you like any isekai anime? What are some of your favorites? Do you think there are too many isekai out now? Let me know 🙂