Isekai anime is raging these days. Whether it be a video game or a parallel universe, isekai premises have inched their way toward the spotlight and topped popularity charts of the past few years. In fact, the market is so saturated with this genre that in 2017, the light novel publisher, Kadokawa, banned isekai from their short story contest.
With all these protagonists getting reincarnated or magically catapulted to another world, the question on everyone’s mind is this: what is an isekai? How do we define this rapidly changing genre?
Below, you’ll find three definitions that shed some light on isekai, settling the debate once and for all.
3. The Global Isekai
Translated from Japanese, isekai (異世界) literally means “different world” or “other world”. It is a term applied to all types of media outside of anime.
Case in point, one of the earliest examples of science fiction is The Blazing World, a 1666 work of prose fiction by Margaret Cavendish that tells the story of a young woman who travels to the North Pole and enters another world. Defined in the broadest possible sense, this story constitutes an isekai.
There are many more modern examples that come to mind such as Harry Potter, Spirited Away, Tron, The Matrix, and Space Jam. Yet, none of these stories capture the specific nuances of today’s isekai anime.
2. The Shoujo Isekai
Between the 1990s and late 2000s, isekai was a genre that, almost exclusively, featured young girls as protagonists.
The shoujo isekai plots from that period typically revolve around a girl (usually a high school student) who magically transports to an utterly unfamiliar new world. To survive in this place, she must undergo a series of trials and training. By the end of the anime, she learns the politics of her new world, acquires a romantic partner, and overcomes a nefarious adversary.
Inuyasha is the most popular shoujo isekai that meets this definition, spawning a sequel series (Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon) that premiered in 2020.
Despite its title, the story of Inuyasha is told through Kagome Higurashi’s POV. After falling back in time to the Japanese feudal era, Kagome embarks on an adventure that requires her to both befriend and kill demons while she searches for a magic jewel.
A lesser-known example of shoujo isekai is The Twelve Kingdoms, an anime in which high school student, Youko Nakajima, is kidnapped and taken to a fantasy universe resembling ancient China. She is promptly abandoned and left alone in this dangerous, unfamiliar world. Armed only with a sword and a monkey who repeatedly advises the protagonist to kill herself, Youko’s journey is long and bloody.
Shoujo isekai hasn’t truly died out yet but many would argue that in 2012, isekai evolved into something else.
1. Post-SAO Isekai
Sword Art Online changed the game. Created originally as a web novel by Reki Kawahara and adapted into an anime series, the show’s subsequent tidal wave of popularity sparked a plethora of changes in the industry.
The most obvious change? The various isekai animes that arrived in its wake.
The plot of Sword Art Online is, admittedly, intriguing. Kirito, the anime’s male protagonist, and thousands of other people find themselves trapped in a VR game named Sword Art Online after the game’s creator plants an explosive device in their headsets. None of the players can log off and should they die in the game, they will die in real life.
Two key elements are now embedded in isekai as a result of Sword Art Online‘s overwhelming popularity:
A.) The protagonist is transported or reincarnated in a world that utilizes the structural logic of fantasy MMORPG games. It might not actually be a video game per se but it, nonetheless, mimics a video game.
B.) The operation and logic of this world are already familiar to the protagonist, and by extension, the audience.
There are other features of post-SAO isekai that you’d recognize as SAO influences like each main character’s several romantic options. But by and large, most new isekai anime share the universal traits I outlined above.
Overlord, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, and The Rising of the Shield Hero are animes of post-SAO isekai, all of which take place in an MMORPG-style universe that the audience can easily comprehend.
Each iteration of post-SAO isekai is unique in its own right so don’t’ get the wrong idea. I am not implying that any of the aforementioned anime are simply cookie-cutter versions of Sword Art Online. Anime like Re:Zero – Starting Life in Another World introduces subversive elements that frequently challenge viewer expectations and force the audience to grapple with new patterns of thought.
Whichever definition of isekai you prefer, it seems that isekai will continue to grow and evolve so long as there are creators experimenting with the genre.
A weeb writer with a master's degree. Also known as the Otaku Analyst.