What is an Isekai?

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The graphic pretty much does the job.  Isekai is the term used when we’re talking about anime and manga.  Yet, this isn’t exclusive to those genres.  In fact, the concept of a person from one world being transported to another is fairly common.  We usually call them by their general genre, but the following would be Isekai:

  • Tron (Science Fiction)
  • Jumanji (Action Adventure)
  • Wizard of Oz (Fantasy)
  • Alice in Wonderland (Fantasy)
  • Chronicles of Narnia (Legendary Fantasy)

As you can see, the concept of Isekai isn’t new or exclusive to anime.  Though, I don’t think it’s ever been given an official subcategory that stuck like this one.  So, what are the cornerstones of this concept?

It’s fairly simple because it only requires that a person from one world (usually Earth) is transported to another world.  It’s typically a magical world, but you also see it done with high tech or mundane worlds.  The whole point is that a person is dropped into a foreign land and has to survive.  Sometimes, they’re trying to get home and other times they’re simply finding a niche with no urge to return.  I’ve seen a lot of Isekai start off the person dying on Earth and being transported in that instant to a new world.  Also getting drawn into a video game and becoming your avatar.  Regardless of the method, you have a person going to a different world.

Before you start pointing at time traveling, there’s a big difference.  Time traveling is when a person is sent from the present to either the future or, usually, the past of their own world.  They have knowledge of their surroundings to some extent, which makes it easier for them to learn.  Isekai has them transported to an entirely different world where they don’t know the cultures and histories.  Even when a character is transferred into a game that they know, it becomes clear that things don’t work the same way.  NPC’s have personalities instead of stock phrases, damage is real, new abilities are found, and the ‘rules’ are more flexible.  So, the transported character has to go through a learning curve even if they’re the most powerful being in the world.

That’s a current trend in Isekai that I want to touch on.  ‘That Time I Was Reincarnated as a Slime’, ‘Overlord’, and ‘How Not to Summon a Demon Lord’ are all stories where the main character is insanely powerful.  I actually gave up on ‘Overlord’ because I got tired of the way battles had no tension.  The issue here was that the main character had powers that nobody in he went up against could challenge and there weren’t any attempts to really put him in danger.  ‘Reincarnated’ almost had the same issue, but enemies were introduced to give the main character some trouble.  Also, personality is important because an overpowered character with flaws works better than one who seems to be perfect in every way.  ‘Overlord’ guy acts like the arrogant, gloating villain type with only an inner voice of awkwardness that doesn’t effect his actions that often.  ‘Reincarnated’ guy has made mistakes and visibly freaks out, so the power level can be undermined by a flawed mind. It’s hard to avoid that trap with Isekai too because a cornerstone is that the transported character is more powerful and special.

One criticism of this subgenre is that it’s entirely about a power fantasy.  A reason for this is a trend of it being merged with harem plots.  This would be that a male with limited or no social skills gets transported to this new world.  They end up gathering allies who are all attractive women that develop crushes on the hero.  ‘How Not to Summon a Demon Lord’ descended into this issue fairly quickly, which I found frustrating.  The story turns into an analogy for males who are ‘losers’ in our world becoming desirable gods in these lands of magic.  So, the stories appeal to incel culture even if that wasn’t the intended audience.  It ends up feeding that mentality, which creates a lot of controversy.  More so than a standard harem story like ‘Love Hina’ where the male character is surrounded by beautiful women who are attracted to him.  Probably because slavery and other unsavory aspects get added to the Isekai harem as well as the hero rarely having any qualms about indulging in this activity.

So, what are your thoughts on this subgenre?  Ever watch or read an Isekai without realizing it?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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11 Responses to What is an Isekai?

  1. L. Marie says:

    I usually learn something when I read your posts. The term Isekai is one I wasn’t familiar with though I’ve read and seen the series you mentioned. I also read this one: https://www.amazon.com/Once-Blue-Moon-Nunzio-DeFilippis/dp/192999883X. I think also of Spirited Away with Chihiro going into the spirit realm to save her parents. I’ve loved many of these stories, because they involve the protagonist having to grow in some way as he or she goes on whatever quest he/she was sent to the world to accomplish.

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    • These stories have good and bad versions. The better ones are when characters grow. Yet, there’s a category that’s basically power fantasy isekai. It’s when the protagonist starts unbeatable and stays that way. Overlord is an example of this.

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      • L. Marie says:

        This is a very interesting topic! I wonder if it depends on where you land and who you meet. Many years ago, NBC televised a miniseries called The 10th Kingdom, where a young woman was transported to a fairy land with many kingdoms. I watched it and read the novelization. Someone from our land entered that land and wrecked part of it after being mentored by someone evil there. Edmund in Narnia met the White Witch while the others met Aslan.

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      • I remember that miniseries/movie. It did work like Narnia, which is a good example. I think a lot depends on the author and their intention too. Is it a grand adventure of fun or a self-indulgent power fantasy? Makes a big difference.

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  2. I am familiar with Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz. I was not familiar with Isekai before this post. Looks like a fun sub-genre.

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  3. I’ve never heard the term before. There are a lot of these, from Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, to Buck Rogers in the 21st century. I’ve even published one myself without knowing the term. Ice Man might even qualify, but that was our world he thawed out in.

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  4. The way I think of it in SF and Fantasy is with the classification of a “portal fantasy.” For instance, the Narnia books and Wizard of Oz both feature Earth children traveling to fantastic places. I also recall Norton’s Witch World, where an adult man travels to Estcarp and joins a war.

    None of those series include hentai or harems, although Dorothy Gale (Oz) does have a knack for making friends with just about anyone. As you note, I think the hentai and the overlord aspects are designed to appeal to young men’s power fantasies, and are much more overt in anime.

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    • One aspect of Isekai that I notice is that the main character usually can’t go back too. Most times they transport by dying and leave a lonely life behind. That might be another reason for the harem thing. It takes a guy who has nobody and gives him several people, which is usually women. Definitely different than American power fantasies where it’s more just being perfect at everything.

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