In our ever-expanding anime world, it feels like you can’t turn a corner without seeing a story about a young man in a fantasy world, often with a title as long as this sentence. Where have they all come from, and why does this otherworldly river never seem to run dry? Just why is isekai anime so popular, and why now?
If you feel like you’re suddenly seeing way more isekai anime than usual, you’re not wrong. There’s a reason for this recent boom, and it’s both charming and cynical in equal measure.
A Brief History of Isekai Anime
Before going into detail about the contemporary isekai anime landscape, it’s important to provide some context.
For those who are unaware, isekai (literally meaning ‘different world’) technically refers to a series where the main character is transported from the real world into a fantasy world.
This genre of storytelling isn’t unique to Japan. Many of the earliest examples of this genre were ‘portal fantasies’, such as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.
Isekai as a genre in Japan started to distinguish itself from mainstream fantasy when video games became a core component.
Nowadays, the vast majority of popular isekai anime involve a videogame world, or at least one heavily inspired by videogame ideas and ideals.
The majority of these stories are also adapted from Japanese light novels that first found success as web novels on community-based sites.
Many isekai series have gone on to be hugely successful franchises earning considerable sums of money both in Japan and abroad.
Why is Isekai Anime So Popular?
Fantasy stories have always been popular, but what makes isekai anime enjoyable for many is a common template, particularly in an era of content hyper-consumption.
There are many literary reasons why isekai series achieve success. The main characters are instantly relatable. Also, the videogame-inspired format allows for complicated mechanics to create new scenarios.
However, many of the basic advantages of isekai anime can also be leveraged in other fantasy anime. What sets isekai apart, in particular, is its well-trodden path.
The Isekai Template
The isekai story has been repeated again and again, and many of the stories follow a similar basic template.
Audiences know what to expect from an isekai anime to a certain extent. This predetermined knowledge doesn’t exist in many other genres and provides an advantage both for stories that follow and subvert the trope.
For ‘standard’ isekai stories, there is the instant comfort of understanding. We know roughly what’s going to happen with minimal explanation. This platform allows for the unique aspects of each story – a character, setting or mechanic – to shine.
The isekai storyline also allows for a growing number of stories that deviate from the path for increased impact.
Reverse isekai such as The Devil is a Part-Timer are becoming more common, while The Executioner and Her Way of Life is another series that flips the isekai script by focusing on other aspects of the trope.
Why are there So Many Isekai Anime?
Ultimately, there are so many isekai anime because they have proved to be reliable successes, and not just when it comes to anime.
The rate at which we consume media, both written and visual, is a crucial part of isekai anime’s success.
The genre took off initially in Japan thanks to web novels, which themselves spiked in the early 2000s.
Shōsetsuka ni Narō, a free web-novel site founded in 2004, can be regarded as the birthplace of modern isekai anime.
Narō is one of the main sites for web novels, and isekai stories made up so much of its popular titles when it emerged that the genre is also known as Narō-kei, or Narō-type stories.
However, Shōsetsuka ni Narō is also a fanfiction website. Many stories blend popular characters and worlds.
Eventually, writers on Narō started to blend, rip and fanfiction other isekai stories, leading to an explosion of well-loved stories that were very similar.
In an interview hosted by Comic Natalie (in Japanese), the author of Mushoku Tensei admitted that the ending of his story on Narō was inspired by what was happening in Re:Zero on the site at the same time.
Isekai is Big Business
Many of the popular series on Narō, such as the two mentioned above, were then picked up by publishers who went on to publish their stories in print. The most successful also got lined up for an anime adaptation.
Kadokawa is a company that has had particular success with this model. Publishers of the four Isekai Quartet series and others, they said in a business seminar that this model has provided a ‘major source of growth’.
Funnily enough, many industry people in Japan are reporting much of this growth is outside of Japan. The editor of In Another World With My Smartphone tweeted that their light novel series was now selling better abroad than domestically.
As digital consumption of books is becoming more popular in the West, isekai novels may be about to experience a growth spurt similar to that seen in Japan a decade or two ago.
The biggest area of potential growth for anime is abroad. At the same time, many content organisations in the West – notably Netflix and Disney – are looking to produce more anime content.
The fact that isekai is being seen as a genre with high-growth potential, not just in Japan but across the world, must provide a huge incentive to increase the amount of content in this area.
According to Crunchyroll, 20% of their series simulcasted in 2021 were classed as isekai anime. It might not surprise you to also hear that they were involved with ensuring The Rising of the Shield Hero was animated, according to reports.
With business signs pointing to more success for this genre, in particular, it’s unlikely we’ll see a reduction in the number of isekai anime being created anytime soon.