The Japanese word “sekai” means “world”. Isekai means “different world” or “otherworld.” According to the Wikipedia definition, this subgenre of fantasy anime, manga, and light novels follows a human character from our world who is transported, reincarnated or trapped in a parallel, often magical world and has to live there temporarily or permanently, adapt to a different way of life and assimilate.
A recent successful Iseakai example is Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Incarnation, an anime that started airing earlier this year, and one of the most popular animated shows of the Winter 2021 season, with a rating of 8.38/10 on MyAnimeList. Both those who enjoyed the light novel and manga and new fans have followed the adventure of an unemployed man who is reincarnated as a magically gifted child since the anime started airing.
Many have been enchanted by the show’s magical system and atmosphere. But what are Isekai anime and what makes such shows so popular?
In fantasy literature, an equivalent to Isekai works would be “portal fantasy” as discussed by critics such as Farah Mendlesohn. In this category of fantasy, a clueless character living a normal, non-magical life is transported to a world they know nothing about (or believe to be fictional).
Rather than being immersed in a fantasy world from the beginning and seeing it through the eyes of locals, the reader/viewer gets to learn about the world along with the main character. Western equivalents of this type of story would therefore include The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and so on.
In Japanese works, in which the concept of reincarnation is often important, this subcategory of fantasy is divided into two types: Isekai Ten’i, which involves a character’s physical transportation into another world, and Isekai Tensei (see Mushoku Tensei, for instance), in which a character is only transferred in spirit, usually having died and then being reborn in another world or inhabiting the body of an existing resident of that world.
One of the most well-known stories in the Isekai genre that would fit the former Iseaki subcategory is Spirited Away (2001, dir. Hayao Miyazaki) in which a young girl, Chihiro, accidentally steps into another world, loses her parents and even her name, and works in a resort for supernatural beings to set her parents free.
Another example is Inuyasha with Kagome’s transportation from contemporary Tokyo to a parallel universe, that is still Japan, but many centuries ago.
A story that would fit the Isekai Tensei category beyond Mushoku Tensei, which also has an ongoing anime adaptation is That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. The title is self-explanatory here.
Of course, there are more ambiguous examples as well. Angel Beats!, for instance, could be described as Isekai, since the main characters all find themselves in a sort of afterlife, but they are still basically the same people and the ultimate goal is for them to move on, making their relocation a liminal space between physical transportation and, possibly, eventual reincarnation.
Many anime fans automatically think of Isekai as shōnen, given that Isekai's works will often have overpowered male protagonists, as is the case with Mushoku Tensei. Not every Isekai is a shōnen, however. After all, female Isekai protagonists aren’t unheard of as we’ve seen.
While Spirited Away and Inuyasha wouldn’t exactly classify as shōjo, I think it would be interesting to see more transportations to other worlds that follow shōjo conventions, as our understanding of genre and gender keeps expanding.
While immersive works, such as Fullmetal Alchemist that takes place entirely in a world that is distinct, if partially influenced by ours, are also extremely influential, portal fantasies or Isekai can be comforting for readers and viewers, particularly today.
Such works often respond to our need to escape when the real world becomes distressing. When the main character comes from our own world, it’s often easier to identify with them and their problems, and – unless they’re taken to a terrible world – their adventures might function as wish-fulfillment to a certain extent. And, truth be told, there’s nothing wrong with escaping in a fantasy world, particularly during this time.