In the past decade, isekai has dominated the charts with undeniable consistency. Though the genre isn’t new, we’ve seen a new rise with shows like KonoSuba and Shield Hero. Many plots in the past had an ultimatum — proceed, learn a lesson, then return at all costs — and now we’re seeing something different. The trip to an alternate universe is no longer a timely mistake. Female protagonists have been replaced by mostly males, and home couldn’t be more boring. Why the shift, and why now?
Visions of Escaflowne and the Founding of Isekai
In the 90s, the genre (as we know it today) didn’t exist in anime. We had isekai, but it was from the perspective of a schoolgirl, more closely resembling movies like Alice in Wonderland. The trip to an alternate universe was often a mistake — think Wizard of Oz — and though the mission was daunting, it was necessary to return home. Most of us know Inuyasha, but it’s safe to say that Escaflowne is a lesser-known tale. In this classic adventure, Hitomi is called to Gaea by a distant voice and she ends up in a mecha. She builds meaningful relationships with people we grow attached to, and although the need to go home is still there, it doesn’t stop the audience from wishing she could stay. Gaea is fascinating. There’s new people, friends, love interests, legends. Yet, the most important thing about her journey is the lesson (not the land). That is the main ingredient. She ended up in Gaea by mistake, and each person she encountered learned a lesson viewers could take with them. As she lifts into the sky and it hurts because we knew it wouldn’t last forever.
Our adventures with characters like Hitomi were running on a time limit. Now, the protagonist can hope to stay and that wish is somewhat granted. Instead of schoolgirls, we see reclusive characters who are bored with everyday life. The fantasy land they sometimes choose to go to is a perfect escape from that. The trope of the social reject transforms this new world into a perfect and faultless place, rich with beautiful women, weapons, and battles. Better yet: the protagonist is still set up to be the hero.
Why Not Regular-Schmegular Fantasy?
One of the most glaring points of this discussion is the dichotomy between fantasy and reality. The world still loves adventure — we certainly haven’t fallen out of love with the mystical — so why are these shows so determined to transport everyday people into that world? Why not start there in the first place? Well, think about it. When watching shows, we get attached to characters because they spark something within us. Whether that be shock, pain, affection, or fulfilled longing, we make sure to keep our eyes glued to the characters that speak to us. Most of us aren’t swordsmen. We aren’t fire-wielding angels capable of slaying a massive army of dragons in one fell swoop. But I bet we dream about it. I bet we play the soundtrack to our favorite show and thrash around the room, imagining what it would be like to be the hero.
Isekai does that for us. It sits us down and it says, “Why not you? It could be you! Society’s wrong for not seeing your potential. I’ll give you everything and more.” The power, the inexplicable riches, the women. Everything.
The Perfect Storm
In 2012, the world met Kirito — a gamer who was chosen to test the first Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (or VRMMORPG). We follow him into the game and meet other beta testers so it feels like an isekai when, really, it rides the line. The reason this show was so monumental is simple: it created the perfect storm between gamers and longing fans of the isekai genre. We’d already seen the normal protagonist land bottom-first in the fantasy realm, and we knew the battle that would inevitably take place because of it. What we didn’t know was the deep, resounding effect of agency and choice. Kirito chose to be in this alternate world (through games). His soul is trapped in the game, but he made the choice to slip back and forth between reality and play. For gamers, it was the perfect set-up. Have the protagonist be a regular-schmegular doing what gamers do, then show him experiencing all the isekai tropes, regardless.
The genre morphed into a new creature post-SAO, and now we have an extremely recognizable yet modern formula. With shows like Re:Zero subverting tropes in 2016, it’s clear the genre will continue to morph, but with so many new shows to watch, there’s no telling where the speeding truck will take us next.
Lauren is a 23-year-old cosplayer and writer from Chicago. Her favorite shows include Wolf’s Rain, Terror in Resonance, and Samurai Champloo. If you can’t reach her for whatever reason, she’s probably reading or figuring out how to turn her kendo skills into functional ones. She’ll be back in a minute.