The Literary History and Significance of Isekai
Art by IG @_huiguorou
In this way, we have always had a predilection toward escaping reality for realms of wonder and delight.
Guest writer Kyle T. shares some of the history behind the beloved isekai genre of contemporary Japanese storytelling.
When Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online, or SAO, hit shelves in 2002, it brought with it a surge of interest in the isekai genre. Isekai, or “another world” stories, provided the kind of escapism and power fantasies that Japan’s ravenous otaku audiences devoured with gusto. Soon enough, SAO became a global phenomenon, sparking an interest in stories of young men with incredible powers accomplishing magnificent quests.
However, SAO wasn’t the first Japanese light novel to do so, or even the very first “another world” story in existence. From the 80s and 90s’romantic escapism of Inuyasha and Fushigi Yuugi to the so-called children’s literature of yesteryear, people have been living vicariously through ordinary wanderers in extraordinary worlds since the days of yore. Today, I want to talk to you about where and how isekai started, as well as how it will continue to evolve in the future.
In order for us to discuss the concept of isekai, we need to understand the core of what isekai looks like. At its core, isekai are “portal fantasies”—the collective group of fantasy stories in which a relatively ordinary or average person finds themselves somehow embroiled in a quest or adventure in a land of fantasy and myth. However, it is possible to subdivide isekai further into three specific strands: the typical portal fantasy isekai, the LitRPG isekai, and the reincarnation isekai.
As previously mentioned, the “portal fantasy” is the most typical of the three types of isekai, with the other two being variants of this subgenre. Some of the most iconic examples include Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, in which the protagonists fall into weird and frightening worlds, as well as the John Carter stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which are less traditional fantasy and veer more into science fiction. However, even before these literary classics, humanity had already spoken of venturing into worlds outside of our own. Myths and tales passed down through oral history tell us of wanderers into the land of fairies and witches, or even to kingdoms on the moon or beneath the sea. Japanese folklore specifically gives us the adventures of a fisherman named Urashima Taro who journeys beneath the waves to the Palace of the Dragon King as a reward for good service. In this way, we have always had a predilection toward escaping reality for realms of wonder and delight.
The boom in the isekai genre dovetails neatly with another boom: the Lost Decade. After having been one of the world’s top economies, Japan experienced a nosedive in the early 90s when it hit a bubble caused by massive inflation, leading its once stable workforce into a period of extreme uncertainty. Even well into the 2000s, the Japanese public were still trying to find a way to get back on their feet. Video games, manga, and anime saw a massive uptick in player base and viewership, and the growth of isekai was likely born out of the same reason of media becoming more heavily consumed—the desire for an escape. Away from impending thoughts of joblessness, away from the Japanese work culture of extreme crunch and subservience to one’s company, in isekai even the most average person could be an extraordinary hero.
Where the isekai genre typically differs from Western fantasy—although not always—is that the heroes who enter the world have some kind of inherent advantage or “cheat.” Not only are the protagonists special in having come from a world different from the story’s main setting, they also manifest a power or potential that is abnormal according to the world’s logic. The concept of the cheat in isekai can be most intimately tied to its overlap with the LitRPG genre.
LitRPG is a much lesser known term for most fantasy readers, but it typically encapsulates work centred around RPG-esque mechanics that are used and often exploited by the main characters. While not explicitly applied to isekai work as it has been with Western books such as the Avatar Trilogy by Conor Kostick, LitRPG neatly summarizes the massive boom in light novel works that both explicitly and implicitly draw from RPG norms, stemming from as far back as .hack or Gantz.
Typically, this comes in the form of a protagonist, usually male, who is given access to skill and magical development outside of the setting’s normal limitations. Usually, they are able to game the system due to some kind of inherent blessing, which allows them to level up and enhance their abilities in the same way a video game character could, though this can also be via a specifically named ability. While Sword Art Online leans hard into RPG mechanics as a novel based on a legitimate video game, levels, XP, and skill trees are also a typical short-hand for isekai enthusiasts to denote changes in status, to the point where the market is oversaturated with work that proclaims the S-Rank skill or Level 1 cheats of their respective protagonists. Some of the most notable works outside of Sword Art Online to include these mechanics are So I’m A Spider, So What? and Infinite Dendogram, showing the intimate and flourishing relationship between video game escapism and isekai escapism.
While there’s no clear reason as to why the concept of the isekai “cheat” evolved the way it has to this day, it has obvious roots in video game culture. From the Konami code in 1985 to the exploitable glitches and hacks of today’s video games, using exploits in order to make a game easier was par for the course for the more technologically inclined. It makes sense as a natural extension of both video game and tabletop RPG culture, in which protagonists are naturally exceptional in defiance of the norms of a world.
While not as well known as Japan’s video game culture, the 1980s saw a major boom in TTRPG play heralded by light novels such as Slayers and Record of Lodoss War. They weren’t isekai in the strictest sense, where characters are transported into the setting, but Recorded Play—dramatizations of players and their characters within a world’s setting. Interest in TTRPGs died down until web and light novels such as Log Horizon and Goblin Slayer helped revitalise the genre in Japan, with superstar creators such as Kinoko Nasu of TYPE-MOON, Gen Urobuchi of Madoka Magica, and Ryogo Nahrita of Baccano and Durarara fame citing TTRPGs as formative of their own work.
One of the most interesting forms of an isekai work—and one which lacks a clear Western influence or analogue—is that of the reincarnation isekai. Rather than a typical portal fantasy wherein a still-living protagonist ventures into another world, the reincarnation isekai’s protagonist has met some kind of tragic fate and is reborn again into another world, either as themselves or in the body of an existing character.
While ostensibly a portal fantasy since they retain the knowledge of their past lives, it also holds a very Buddhist/Taoist sensibility. The cycle of death and rebirth, of reincarnation far away from the troubles of our world, expresses a different kind of escapism. Not only does one escape reality and find adventure in a world of fantasy, one is rewarded for the trials they had previously endured with access to immense power (such as in the case of Arifureta) or with repentance for previous sins by living out much more difficult lives (such as in The Saga of Tanya the Evil). Works like Musoku Tensai have popularized the reincarnation isekai, to the point where the notorious Truck-san hitting students or office workers has been satirized to hell and back. Of course, this isn’t to say that it is indicative of a collective philosophy concerning repentance for previous sins—merely a reflection on the ongoing trend.
Isekai works are not without their quite vocal detractors. Many new authors don’t submit their manuscripts in the traditional sense, with editors instead scouring websites such as “Become a Novelist” and hosting competitions to bring new blood into the publishing game. Often, these amateur authors are then thrust into the publishing world on the strength of their ideas alone, churning out new light novels every few months in order to satisfy a voracious public demand. Some complain that the market is oversaturated with copycat riffs on the X goes to a new world and gains Y skill formula, which is not an unfounded complaint. Literally thousands of new isekai novels go to print each year, with some of the most popular usually revolving around that very formula with minor variations.
Even so, much can be said of fantasy publishing as a whole—there will always be a market oversaturated with cliches, whether they be werewolves, wizards, or blood and guts. It’s merely a matter of sifting through them all to find diamonds in the rough.
There is a clamor for isekai still, and it’s easy to believe that it won’t ever go out of style. So long as there are people who wish for an escape from our world and an easy entrance into another, there will be fans of the genre. Still, what constitutes an isekai story has already diverged from its humble origins in portal fantasy, and it will continue to do so as video games and novel ideas continue to enter the light novel sphere from up and coming writers. I look forward to seeing what worlds isekai brings me to next—just need to remember to keep a watchful eye out for Truck-san.
KYLE T. is an author, dreamer, and full-time complainer. Her nonfiction work has previously been published in Rejection Lit, Planet Scumm, and 100 Words of Solitude, among others. Her usual character class is Healer or Support. You can find her on Twitter at @PercyPropa.