A brief history of isekai

There are few genres of anime that have gotten more attention in the last few years than isekai. Every season seems to have a mountain of them, but only a handful are more than a fun distraction from some of the other, more impressive shows that are hitting our screens this year.

Every anime fan is at least passingly familiar with the isekai format and most of us have our favourite shows in the genre, but where do they all come from? Why are there so many and what are the origins of isekai stories? These are the questions that keep me up at night, so I decided to do a little research into them.

The origins of isekai

Illustration of Urashime Taro, the first isekai story in Japan

If you’re not familiar with the isekai format, it is fairly simple. The word translates to “different world” and the basic premise is that a character travels from one world to another, vastly different one — normally one with fantastical elements to it. In anime, these stories are often due to an unfortunate traffic accident, which sends the protagonist into a fantasy world as a kind of “second chance” story, usually surrounded by a harem of busty women.

There are stories of this happening in mythology from around the world, though the story that is often cited as inspiring the isekai genre is the Japanese myth of Urashima Taro. He was a Japanese fisherman who saved a turtle. In return, his new scaly friend took the man to an undersea kingdom, full of magic, wonder — and, of course, a beautiful princess. After spending what he believed was a few days there, Urashima Taro returned to his village only to find that a full 300 years had passed, and the world was a very different place than he left it.

Other myths, such as Greek heroes travelling to the Underworld on their journey home, or stories of fairies luring humans into their chaotic realm, could be considered isekai tales. The fact that the genre is so closely tied to various world religions and myths certainly goes a long way to explain why it enjoys such popularity among so many different people — and why it’s an enduring part of popular culture.

Isekai in literature

Alice in Wonderland: an early isekai

It isn’t just mythology that has similarities with modern isekai stories. Literature is filled with them. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the earliest of these, first published in 1865. In it, Alice falls through a rabbit hole and winds up in a world full of weird parties and sinister talking cats, only to emerge from it unscathed — for it was only a dream all along. (Spoilers – Ed.)

Other stories that closely fulfil the criteria for an isekai are A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), and The Chronicles of Narnia (1950), with each of these showing someone either leaving their world or time to visit another. Japanese novels, like Haruka Takachiho’s Warrior from Another World (1976) continued this tradition well into the second half of the 20th Century.

What is the appeal?

So, we know that the stories have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, and that they enjoy a proud tradition in both myth and written work — but why do isekai stories have such lasting appeal? A lot of that comes down to the benefits of the structure.

Isekai generally includes a protagonist that is clueless about the world around them, allowing the storyteller to introduce different aspects of the world as the main character learns about them. This is an easy way to build the world, but it also puts the reader or viewer on the same level as the main character. We learn alongside them and never have to absorb more information than is necessary for the story to function.

There is also a strong element of escapism in isekai. Shows like No Game No Life portray their main characters as outcasts, looking to escape from a world that doesn’t understand or appreciate them for the comfort of a place where the rules are more to their liking. The real world is a harsh place at times, so there is a certain appeal to escaping from it for one with new rules — especially in stories where the traveller gains some form of power or gift when landing in the new world.

As much as people complain about there being too many isekai series out there, the genre is popular for a reason — so what are some of your favourite isekai shows, manga and stories?

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