by Cameron Morvant
The world can often be a cruel, unforgiving place. Especially during a pandemic, no one particularly cares about your situation unless it is a health risk. This environment can be stifling, straining, even suffocating. If there’s one thing we all need right now, it’s an escape.
There are plenty of options for escape, fiction being the foremost among them. Stories are designed to transport the reader to another world. Any piece of fiction doing its job should distract the reader to some degree. To do it right, though, one needs to find something with spectacle and wonder that allows the viewer to actively experience a brand-new world. This brings to light a much more immersive kind of fantasy experience: the Isekai.
A spiritual successor to Alice in Wonderland, Tron and Inuyasha, Isekai is a genre of anime that follows a protagonist being sent to another world, usually a world that is either fantastical or post-apocalyptic. While this genre could ultimately refer to any instance of a character travelling to a different world than their own, it typically refers to a young adult travelling to a video game or video game-like world. They then have quests to complete with a motley crew of allies gathered from their adventures to defeat some embodiment of evil and restore peace to the land. This formula is often changed in newer Isekai to differentiate them from previous entries; however, said formula is never changed to such a degree that it can’t be tied back to the original concept.
The idea of an Isekai is not new, nor is it unique to anime. Alice in Wonderland is considered to be the first to utilize the concept in 1865. It naturally follows that other stories emerged to replicate that success soon after it rose to fame. Indeed, The Wizard of Oz and The Chronicles of Narnia received immense praise by following a similar formula. The term Isekai, literally meaning “other world,” wasn’t coined until much later. Even in the 1990s, when Japanese animation was on the rise and animated shows began to feature this idea more frequently, it was still less of a genre and more of a popular concept. Shows like Hack and Magic Knight Rayearth utilized the concept to great effect, with Inuyasha championing the form during that decade. Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away is also considered part of the genre, and it has received great critical acclaim since its premiere in 2001.
It wasn’t until 2012 that the genre truly began to gain both traction and definition. The immensely popular anime Sword Art Online by Reki Kawahara was the inspiration for the modern Isekai genre. It utilized a similar premise to Tron, following a beta tester for a virtual reality fantasy game who becomes trapped in the game when it launches. He and the other players must then beat the game to be return home, with the stipulation that death in the game will cause them to die in the real world. The original light novel was a great success, and the anime helped to popularize the Isekai concept. Sword Art Online opened the door for many new forms of Isekai, and provided many aspiring writers with an avenue of entry into the anime industry that evolved into a proper genre of Isekai anime and manga.
Interestingly enough, many of the modern Isekai copy the video game themes of Sword Art Online, despite not being set in a video game. Experience gauges, health points and levelling systems have become ingrained in the Isekai formula. This creates a certain expectation for how events will unfold; an expectation that can be changed, subverted, or even broken by a particularly inventive author. For example, most Isekai begin with the hero dying tragically or else being summoned without their knowledge to another world. Konosuba subverts this by making the protagonist’s death unceremonious and comedic before giving him time to plan his departure to another world. The hero will then have time to hone their powers and grow stronger, facing successively stronger waves of enemies on their journey. The Overpowered Hero is Overly Cautious instead has its hero train preemptively, using all of his strength on even the most minute enemies. Alternatively, the protagonist of Re:Zero never gets stronger, but instead uses his wits to fully utilize a single high-cost ability. In all of these examples, though, it is assumed that the protagonist is a hero; such is not the case with Tanya the Evil’s titular protagonist and Overlord’s band of monstrous invaders. The hero need not even attempt to save the world. Kemono Michi’s protagonist just wants to open a pet store. These new choices and directions help to build off of a well-established idea, creating new and exciting worlds that are all built to be different from each other without being indistinguishable from their base concept.
The reason for the success of the Isekai genre is also what makes it perfect for us in the time of the pandemic; it is designed to be an escape. The fantasy genre has always provided a new world for its viewers to explore through the protagonist, but an Isekai experiences that journey with its audience. The protagonist is just as lost as the viewer, and so their experiences are just as new and exciting and terrifying for them as it would be for us. We no longer need to inject ourselves into the story, since the story is based around our someone entering a world they don’t know. They always take care to contrast their new world with the dull and drab normal one. The protagonists are rarely special in the real world. They are students, office workers, or no-named twenty-somethings going about their lives. Assuming you are a student or office worker, these characters become even easier to relate to and empathize with as they react to the worlds around them. In this way, Isekai has been about escaping a repetitive reality long before the pandemic, providing the protagonist a retreat from their boring lives along with their viewers.
The Isekai genre is, admittedly, not for everyone. They are geared towards male teens and above, so they are most immersive and relatable for that viewer group. These stories also rely heavily on fantasy themes and video game-like plot devices to function. This makes these shows incredibly effective at appealing to their existing demographic, but it can also be a barrier of entry for newcomers. Since many of them build off of a similar formula, understanding and appreciating that formula can be necessary to fully enjoy what they are doing. However, the beauty of most Isekai I’ve mentioned is that they are fairly easy to pick up. Re: Zero and Konosuba don’t rely on video game mechanics or convoluted fantasy worlds for their stories and are still incredibly entertaining to watch. Tanya the Evil almost forsakes the Isekai formula entirely, and while Overlord is a typical Isekai in many ways, it is careful to start its story from a place of exploration nonetheless. There may be elements or properties of these shows that seem off-putting at first, but that does not mean they are any lesser in quality. If anything, with there being so many Isekai in the anime industry, there is a much clearer understanding of how to utilize this formula correctly.
The reality of being in a pandemic is weighing on us all. If the weight becomes too much to bear, just know that there is always an escape waiting for you. Fiction is a great way to travel when you have nowhere to go. But if you want to take it a step further and actively experience that journey with your chosen protagonist, then look no further. Whether it’s the challenges of living in a pandemic or the struggles of everyday life, there is no better way to find yourself in another world than with an Isekai.