With every new season of anime, there are tons of newly made series that follow a certain formula. A subgenre known as ‘isekai’ has been on the rise for years now.
One of the most popular recent examples is Sword Art Online and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. If you’ve ever wanted to know how isekai came to be, keep reading this edition of #AnimeEncyclopedia!
So What Is Isekai Anyway?
Isekai means “different world.” The concept and word are Japanese and usually appear in anime, manga, light novels, and video games. The most basic qualification of what makes an isekai is when the main character gets transported or reborn into a parallel world or universe. It’s usually full of magic or fantasy elements and can sometimes include being reborn. A lot of times the character is somewhat familiar with the new world as well. Reverse isekai is similar but it’s when a person from a different world finds their way into our world.
Where Did It Start?
Jinjō shōgaku kokugo tokuhon
This is nothing new. Its origin can be traced back to Japanese folklore – especially the story of Urashima Tarō. It’s about a fisherman who saved a turtle and in return for his good deed, is sent to a magical underwater kingdom. He spent his time there happily but does eventually become homesick. He returns to his home only to find out that he spent centuries in the kingdom rather than a few days. This is a very well known folk tale that many isekai writers would have been familiar with. In fact, this very story was adapted into one of the first anime films by director Seitarō Kitayama.
The idea of being transported into another world isn’t unique to Japan, however. Stories like J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland follow very similar ideas at its core. However, Japan seems to be the only place that’s given a name to this type of story.
Girls Paved The Way
Sally the Witch
If you’ve read our magical girl edition of #AnimeEncyclopedia, you might remember Sally the Witch. Sally the Witch was not only the first magical girl anime but it was also the first to have isekai elements – in this case, reverse isekai. It follows the story of a girl, Sally, who is the princess of a magical kingdom. She gets teleported to Earth and eventually decides to stay there with her new human friends. Similarly, series like Minky Momo and Majokko Megu-chan feature magical girls that find themselves in the everyday world.
Many other early examples of isekai had a female protagonist. 1993’s Fushigi Yuugi, for example, is about two middle school students named Miaka Yūki and Yui Hongo. One day, they came across a book known as The Universe of the Four Gods which transported them into the book’s version of ancient China.
We also have series like Magic Knight Rayearth, The Twelve Kingdoms, Vision of Escaflowne and more.
Inuyasha was also a hugely popular isekai with a female lead. The series centers on Kagome Higurashi, a young girl from Tokyo who finds herself in the Sengoku period of Japan after falling into a well. There she meets a half dog-demon, Inuyasha.
Inuyasha was not only successful in Japan, but the dub airing on American television in the 2000s did extraordinarily well too. If other isekai up to this point did great in terms of sale, Inuyasha crushed them. Back in 2013, Inuyasha was said to have sold more than 45 million copies of manga in Japan alone. This series was probably the most well-known isekai of the era.
Isekai Is Pretty Popular With The Ladies
According to Amanda Pagan’s “Beginners Guide To Isekai,” isekei series was very popular in the shoujo demographic during the ’90s. Many of the stories followed young, mundane girls who found themselves suddenly in a world of adventure or even romance. It’s hard to say why there was such a big draw, and yet, it makes sense. These female protagonists were the center of their own stories and often fought their own battles. There’s a level of empowerment there for viewers. We can forget that this is also happening while magical girl series like Sailor Moon are on the rise as well.
Male protagonists were there from the beginning too. Sally the Witch was a reverse isekai situation but 1983’s Aura Battler Dunbine seems to be the first real isekai anime. It was about Shō Zama who suddenly finds himself in the world of Byston Well. This new dimension full of knights, dragons, and more bizarrely, huge robots known as Aura Battlers.
1995’s El-Hazard was the first shounen to make it into the subgenre. The story is about three high school students and their history teacher who get transported to the world of El-Hazard. This place is under the threat of war which these kids became a large part of.
With the rise of magical girl shows, isekai themed series with female protagonists seemed to come to a stop. The arena was highly populated with series, heightening the chance for many of them to slip through the cracks. There were more series that mixed magical girls with isekai, like Sugar Sugar Rune, but for the most part, the trend died down.
As a whole, isekai seemed to dip into nonexistence. Eventually, there was little to no isekai series to speak of until – you guessed it – Sword Art Online. There had series like .hack//sign, Log Horizon. However, it’s safe to say that nobody prompted the recent boom in the isekai series like Kirito.
Isekai Series Today
Sword Art Online
Sword Art Online isn’t the first show to play with the idea of a digital world. .hack//sign and even Digimon had the same idea of mixing reality with the power of pixels. Nonetheless, it’s Sword Art Online that marks the newest era of isekai. It’s hard to say what made Sword Art appeal to so many people. It could be the fact that gaming was, and still is, becoming more and more mainstream. The 2012 anime was hugely popular among young boys and men and that trend is continuing with other series like it.
The isekai formula was bringing in success once again. Since then we’ve gotten shows like Re:Zero, Konosuba and so much more (seriously, it’s a lot). The genre eventually became so popular that in 2016, a Japanese short story contest organized by Bungaku Free Market and Shōsetsuka ni Narō banned isekai entries. As mentioned before, nowadays almost every new season beings isekai animes. Usually, they tend to cross with harems and other subgenres too.
The draw of isekai seems to be that it could happen to anyone and that makes it somewhat relatable. Many of the protagonists are nothing special at the start – they’re just normal people who have found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Anime and gaming are more popular nowadays but they are still be seen nerdy. Many recent protagonists of isekai series enjoy these pastimes just as much as the people watching the show. It’s practically made to foster a sense of self-insertion and clearly, that idea is working.
It’ll be interesting to see if any other isekai makes a big splash as Sword Art Online recently did for the genre. Perhaps, with it’s growing influence they’ll be a return of more female protagonists. All that can be said is that this trend won’t die down soon.