Isekai, as a genre, has grown considerably in the weaboo realm in the past few years. Translating literally to “another world,” Isekai features characters moving from one world to another, whether that be from Earth to elsewhere or elsewhere to Earth. In the past 1 year, we got How Not to Summon a Demon Lord, The Master of Ragnarok, Hinamatsuri, Death March to a Parallel World Rhapsody, gdMen, Restaurant to Another World, Isekai Smartphone, and more I’m surely missing. However, the ‘trapped in another world’ concept isn’t even just limited to anime. The Iron King by Julie Kagawa features Meghan Chase who is revealed to be the daughter of a faery king and gets caught up in an ancient war from another world. The Song of Albion is a trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead that focuses on two university students Lewis and Simon who stumble into another world, dealing with Christian ideologies and Celtic mythology. Even Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, written in 1865, is technically an Isekai. Alice literally walks into a portal during a dinner party and is transported to another world wherein the entire conflict of the story is Alice trying to return home.
I think it would be ignorant to talk about Isekai before first explaining light novels and the trends within them. Isekai and light novels go hand in hand, as a majority of Isekai anime are actually light novel adaptations. The term ‘light novel,’ as opposed to its namesake, is defined by the strategy of its marketing.
I see many people claim that the ‘light’ in its name refers to the fact that many light novels are short; less than 300 pages. This is simply untrue, however, as there are myriad examples of light novels that exceeded this predefined length. Minoru Kawakami, for example, is notably infamous for writing light novels in obscene length. Well, some argue that light novels are defined by the ‘manga illustrations’ that so many light novels are akin to share. Well, that’s disproven as well as some regular Japanese novels also bear manga-like illustrations. Just take a look at Another by Yukito Ayatsuji, which was also adapted to anime. It’s classified and marketed as a regular novel but has every other facet that a light novel would have according to these definitions. According to Kim Morrissy of the Anime News Network, Keita Kamikita, a system operator of an online sci-fi and fantasy forum, initially coined the term light novel noticing how anime and manga fans were attracted to certain novels due to the appearance of manga artworks within. Many publications picked up on this trend and were quick to take advantage of it. One notable example is the Kadokawa Corporation, a familiar name if you’re into anime.
They’re famous now for publishing such critically acclaimed original work such as Kimi no Wa, Kill la Kill, and Neon Genesis Evangelion, and manga adaptations such as Mirai Nikki, Deadman Wonderland, and Nichijou. However, you may notice that they have published another group of popular work; light novel adaptations. Their popular series in this category includes works such as Re: Zero, the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Konosuba. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll notice that every single one of these works was published as light novels by the Kadokawa Corporation. This brand of intertwining media is known as mixed media, defined in business as a combination of communication channels businesses use to meet its marketing objectives. Typically, these include newspapers, radio, television, billboards, and website, however, in this case, the communication channels are anime, manga, and light novels, and the marketing objective is to appeal to the anime crowd using light novels as bait.
Now that we know more about the influence of light novels on modern anime, we can tackle the one question in the back of my mind; why are so many authors trying their own take at the classic isekai genre? Why do authors like isekai? The simple answer would be attributed to light novels as their point is to explore a particular idea and concept to the fullest. Different authors write about their own unique take on the subject matter.
Transported to another world, except you’re the demon lord! [Isekai Maou to Shoukan]
Transported to another world, except you have a smartphone! [Isekai wa Smartphone to Tomo ni.]
Transported to another world, except you’re a gyaru! [Gal Tensei]
But what about the concept of isekai itself is particularly interesting to authors? What about it appeals to light novel authors in a meaningful way? Imagine that you’re an author. You want to write an entirely new, fantasy world, completely separate to our own (much like a Song of Ice and Fire.) On top of that, you want to create a long-running series that spans over the course of multiple books, in some cases upwards of 13 books, for it to be serialized by a publisher. Isekai, as a genre, solves both of these wants in a single fell swoop.
When you’re creating an entirely new fantasy world, some issues arise. You cannot reference real-life events, people, or popular media. When your main character is from Earth, however, they can make references to or take direct inspiration from anything they learned on their home planet. In Gunota ga Mahou, the Youta discovers Magical Liquid as a child. To most people in that universe, it is a simple child’s toy that can be influenced by magic to form sculptures and shapes. However, the main character being from Earth immediately thinks to use it to create ranged weaponry, or ‘guns.’ In Isekai ga Saibai, Ryouji realizes that without magic spells and weapon training, he cannot live on this new planet. He does, however, have extensive knowledge in agriculture. In the new fantasy world, vegetables and fruit grow into ferocious plant-based monsters. No one in the world is able to grow them by hand except for the main character who uses his knowledge to grow them. In Tate no Yusha, NEET weaboo Naofumi and several of his classmates are suddenly summoned to another world. His classmates become almighty heroes, bearing weapons such as magical swords, lances, bows, and arrows, etc. while the main character is stuck with a magical shield. The “Shield Hero,” as it turns out is admonished in society due to his meager attack power, yet high defense, and is labeled as a coward. As a weaboo, the main character utilizes his knowledge of video games to grind harder than any other classmate, and as it turns out, the Shield bears the ability to copy the attacks of the monsters he defeats. He soon surpasses his fellow heroes in strength, and although the kingdom and its heroes despise him for reasons out of his control, they soon must learn to coexist as he exceeds their power levels. All of these stories have one thing in common; the main character references their Earthly knowledge to overcome some barrier of difficult straits, most of the time by amalgamating their prior life experiences with something that the fantasy world deems ‘worthless.’
If you look at popular, long-running Shonen action shows, you’ll notice one thing they all have in common; a long, overarching goal that span’s over the course of the entire show. The concept is usually something incredibly simple, and for as long as the show is running, the goal is never achieved. The story overall is told in small arcs that take place over the course of the hero’s adventure. The point of the purpose is not to be actually achieved – at least, not until the end of the anime, and sometimes the goal is never reached. In One Piece, Luffy’s goal is to become the pirate king. Despite being one of the longest-running Shonen Jump ports in the world, and achieving success worldwide, Eiichiro Oda still hasn’t let Luffy achieve his goal. In Boku no Hero Academia, Deku’s dream is to be the number one hero in the world. Throughout the journey, you witness him slowly increase his strength whether through the wise musings of elderly heroes or through rigorous training in the academy. In Hunter x Hunter, Gon plans to meet his father and become a hunter just like him. Technically, Gon did end up completing this objective but only at the end of the anime. And yes, I consider Hunter x Hunter to be over since it’s on indefinite hiatus. In Isekai, the author no longer needs to think of their own original over-arching goal, because inherently the goal is to get back home.
In short, the essential facets of the Isekai genre allows authors a preset hero’s journey, and much like adlibs, you just fill in the blanks. There are myriad presets that as an author you can take away from, and still make your own. How many times have you seen these scenarios in an Isekai? The main character:
- Dies in some unforeseen way on Earth
- Is transported to another world
- Gets to take something with them from Earth
- Meets God in their transference to another world
- Uses their Earthly wisdom to overcome certain obstacles
- Is granted special abilities no one in the Fantasy realm has
- Meets someone else who is also from Earth
- Has to kill the demon lord to return home
These are all common within Isekai stories because it’s just too easy not to do. The template is already there for you, so why not fill in the blanks? These options artificially create intense moments in the story without the author actually having to come up with any of it. In the end, they just simply plug in their original characters and make up their own twists as they go along. Let’s all call Isekai what it is; advanced ad-libs.