Fiction is often an exercise in the art of escapism, offering distraction from the routines and difficulties of everyday life. The most extreme form of this escapism is the desire to leave this world altogether in search of a more exciting, fantastic life (pun intended). As a result, over time, countless stories have revolved around characters who live in the real world and find themselves in very different places. Japan developed its own tradition of portal fantasy, called isekai, which roughly translates to “other world” and is ubiquitous in modern Japanese culture. But that wasn’t always the case.
Isekai has roots that go back centuries, and elements of it have been present in anime and manga for several decades. However, this was only the case in the 1990s isekai became a significant part of the larger fantasy genre, with series like Inuyasha, Magicknight Rayearth, and Digimon adventures be popular examples. However, it was the 2000s that really set the stage for this isekai‘s eventual dominance. Part of this was due to the aforementioned series, but in reality there was a much bigger culprit: the internet.
How Isekai exploded
The increasing ubiquity of the Internet in the early 1980s set in motion two trends that would form the basis for it isekai as we know it today. The first was the massive rise in popularity of MMORPGs, the inspired series like .chop and the web novel version of Sword Art Online. The second was a single website launched in April 2004: Shosetsuka ni Naro or “Let’s Become a Novelist”, often abbreviated to “Naro”. Naro is the undisputed center for free light novel publishing in Japan. Users have written and shared nearly a million free novels on the site since its release, and users have been inspiring at the same time Trusted from zero began to submit isekai Stories about the site en masse after its inception.
Over time, many of the site’s most prominent novelists saw their work picked up for publication as light novels and eventually received anime and manga adaptations. In fact, Naro is responsible for a frightening percentage of acquaintances isekai Works, including the vast majority of those that have become anime over the past decade and a half. These include Titans such as Log Horizon, Mushoku Tensei, Re: Zero, Overlord, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, KonoSuba, The Irregular at Magic High School, and The Rise of the Shield Hero.
All of these series are fantastic, and they stand alongside the popular but flawed ones swordsmanship On-line as emblematic isekai Title. They stand for themselves and their quality justifies their adaptations in manga and anime form. Here’s the problem: Success always produces lower-quality imitations. And for each of these series there are several isekai Stories that somehow find popularity despite being grossly flawed in their premise, narrative, and/or characters.
This is worst if isekai mixes with the harem genre, creating at best unforgettable and at worst nauseating outings like Arifureta and With my smartphone into another world. While sometimes executed masterfully, as in the case of overlord or This time I was reincarnated as a slime, Isekai Stories are also often full of completely overwhelmed protagonists who have no real purpose. One could argue that this is a logical conclusion of the escapism that was pushed isekai first of all, but for the most part, a world without challenges is also a boring one. It takes an extremely talented writer to overcome that.
Many of these weaker shows are also getting anime, and since the mid-2010s that has often come at the expense of more traditional fantasy cuisine. Isekai has consequently faced somewhat justifiable backlash as a genre due to its oversaturation with Japanese culture, as well as from fans of Japanese culture abroad. It’s harder to argue this admittedly good slice-of-life isekai how Rise of a Bookworm and Restaurant in another world dig into traditional fantasy, but with the more straight-forward “boy or girl gets hit by Truck-kun, dies and gains god-like powers in another world” scenario, things definitely get boring.
That said, if this article showed anything, it’s that isekai is not a fad and is not likely to go away anytime soon. But it needs to be scaled back or approached more creatively. The best isekai of recent years have attempted to either undermine or ignore the tropes established by previous entries in the genre. Those tropes will be represented well enough as the series that got it right will continue to receive regular adjustments and eventually (ideally) end. And while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it may not be the best approach for writers looking to capitalize on the enduring popularity of early-2010s series.
That isekai Genre doesn’t need to die, but it needs to be reborn in a less caricatured form. This is already beginning, but the process needs to be accelerated. Anime studios in particular should also be much more selective about the number of isekai they want to adapt in a season and the writers who want to write isekai It would be wise to bet on trying something else. The sooner these changes are made, the better things will look for fantasy and sci-fi anime and manga overall.
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