Picture it. Generic character x has just left their home to get something in the real world. Be it dinner, something to drink, or an anime/game related item. They go through the motions of existing and purchase what they need. You hear the chime of a store door as they leave, or the voices of people as the character is walking. Then suddenly, this shut-in character/hikikomori, turns around and something happens. *Flash flash flash* and boom. They are suddenly talking to themselves and asking where they are. People look different. The environment looks different. Suddenly, they are no longer in a familiar situation. Welcome to the setup for almost every single isekai anime out there.
Through the last five years or so, Isekai (異世界) or “other world” anime has been taking many an anime in our fandom by storm. Of course there are many more isekai novels and manga than there are anime, but anime seems to be the most prominent version. Where does it come from though and why do some people eat it up so voraciously? Also, when will we reach a saturation point where we say “Enough is enough. Make us something new.”? Well, the truth is, is that the powers that be might pull the plug on isekai anime sooner than we realize, but we will get to that later. First, where does Isekai Anime come from?
In the beginning there was a show with a character who was transported to another world…
First, for argument’s sake, let’s define isekai for this article. Isekai anime will be defined as an anime where “The main character, with no control over what happens to them (yes, girls can be main characters of isekai anime), is forcibly transported to another world where they have no experience whatsoever with whatever the laws of this world are, and they must learn about the new society that they are a part of. Some characters will learn how the world works and stay, while others will choose to try to find a way home.” The most obvious to shows that pop in our minds under this definition are Sword Art Online and Re: Zero Kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu. In fact, a lot of fans credit SAO with being the birth of isekai anime. Sadly, this is not true as the concept of isekai has been around for decades.
The first official isekai anime that was produced is none other than Seisenshi Dunbine (Aura Battler Dunbine). It came out way back in 1983. It was well before I was alive! After that, other shows like Magic Knight Rayearth, Escaflowne, .hack//Sign, and Zero no Tsukaima came paving the way for more isekai stories to come forward. However it did not really take off as a concept until a few more later when we were given Sword Art Online. While we all have our own feelings about SAO, none can disagree with the fact that it put the isekai trope on the map. Suddenly people were talking about it and we were given shows like Log Horizon, GATE, and the beloved Overlord. Then we were given Konosuba which was comedy gold along with a lukewarmly received Hai to Gensou no Grimgar. Though, if SAO put it on the map, it was not till Re: Zero Kara Hajimeru Isekai Sekatsu that isekai was solidified as a concept. It does not hurt that we got best girl Rem either. However, the successors after that took a rapid, sharp turn showing that it is difficult to emulate the same story over and over for isekai and make it interesting. The general story, as it is not always true, was that a character was sent to a medieval world with action, monsters, magic, and weapons. Re: Zero could have been relegated to a not-as-good Overlord/Log Horizon, had it not had the crucial lynchpin of the story resetting at Subaru’s death. That made the series all the much more interesting as we tried to figure out what was going on with everyone around Subaru and what happened when he could come back and try to convince others to not do what led to his death.
Who is making it?
There is a famous Japanese site called 小説家になろう(Shousetsuka ni Narou) which essentailly gives anyone with a computer/tablet a place to go and write their online novel and get feedback from other users. This is much like how our site Honeyfeed works. It was founded way back in 2004, but many of the works that are published there are read, and to date, more than 100 novels have been selected my publishers to be picked up and published as regular print light novels! You know all of the big titles. Shousetsuka no Narou has given us Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, Log Horizon, Re: Zero Kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu, Konosuba, and more. What’s more, when the series are picked up as print light novels, more often than not, they get a manga adaptation or anime adaptation. Shousetsuka ni Narou is so popular, that it gets over 1 billion pageviews a month, and they now have their own publishing label because the site is doing so well. These authors at Shousetsuka ni Narou are the ones making their isekai dreams into reality.
Recent Works & Future Status
As we mentioned above, we are now living in a post-Re:Zero world. That means then that if series really want to have a chance at becoming big and memorable, then they need to stand out. That is why, when we look at isekai anime after Re:Zero, we have two that aired recently: Drifters & Youjo Senki. They are technically isekai anime, but they stray to the very far edges of the genre as we know it as it is not the typical setup. While both were very well-received, you have to think about it to acknowledge that the isekai setup that we know, has to evolve. You can only show the same setup of a character being dragged into another world so many times before people get dissatisfied.
So then summer should be bringing us new twists on the isekai trope correct? Wrong. Well, kinda. There are three coming this summer. Knights & Magic, Isekai Shokudou, and Isekai wa Smartphone to Tomo ni. Knights & Magic is your typical setup within the isekai trope in that the main character is dragged to another world that looks medieval-esque. The difference is that there are robots everywhere in this one. Isekai Shokudou is about a restaurant that is only available once a week to those who find it. Supernatural beings come to eat there. Still isekai though, and it has it in the title. The last one however, I take a bit of offense to. I know that we are needing more isekai anime as, for the most part, the setups for these series are doing well. However, the pretense for this next show is a bit lacking. In Isekai wa Smartphone to Tomo ni, Tomoya dies, much like how Kazuma does in Konosuba, however it was an error that the gods made, so they let him live another life in another world. What does he get? A smartphone that is just like one made by a certain company with a fruit logo. We have not been told if he is going to have to charge this phone or if it is going to have some sort of magical battery or what, but that is the entire setup and pretense of the story. He has a smartphone that works in another world. Surprised? I am not. It seems like the isekai trope may be starting to run out of fresh ideas.
The other point I want to make here is that isekai setups are becoming a bit of an unliked pretense for stories in Japan. While they do sell well, one company is distancing itself from it. Kadokawa runs a contest where they are looking for the next best thing under a new label called Novel 0. The theme is that this is going to be a light novel that adults will want to read. The reason being that light novels’ appeal wanes fast among students once they leave high school. Sure, many adults do read light novels, but if Japanese news sources are any indication, a disproportionate amount of light novel readers are middle and high school students. The winner of this contest wins 300,000 (~$2,700) and the novel will get a book deal. There are but two rules: 1. You cannot have a teenage main character. The main character MUST be an adult. 2. No Isekai.
Why no isekai? What is wrong with isekai? Well, there are many theories. The most commonly held one is that it is because this is a contest about novels that adults want to read. Why you ask? This is because of how more and more, with changing social attitudes towards anime and manga in Japan, younger people are growing up and keeping their otaku hobbies. Doing so allows them to enjoy what they want at their own leisure while not being ostracized. However, what happens if you make a book that targets adults? Think about the market that could exist if people are interested in your novel. If they can inject themselves into a character that is near their age, there is no past high school nostalgia to look back on and they can live their fantasy life right now.
It may be a long time before we see an anime with an adult main character like the ones that this contest is looking for, but if it is possible, it is something that could be welcomed by a lot of people in the anime community across the globe. No one is young forever, and seeing a character near your age go on a journey is exciting.
We are not calling the isekai trope dead. This article was to shed light on where the isekai trope comes from, when the isekai trope started, and where it is heading, at least for Kadokawa, or could be heading overall. What do you think though? Is the isekai trope something that has been beaten to death? Or do we need more isekai anime before we can judge it? Personally, I think it has been beaten a bit to death when we have series like Isekai wa Smartphone to Tomo ni coming. But what do you think? Be sure to let us know down below!