Imagine you’re circling thirty in a job that leaves you so busy, luxuries like a love life and free time become increasingly rare until years have passed without so much as a date in almost a decade. Then imagine you’re Japanese, a nation where being reserved is the norm for so many young men, where the rates of births and marriage are dropping, and loneliness is becoming an epidemic. It’s easy to imagine and empathise with these lonely young men who feel powerless in society and their own lives. Suddenly the appeal of isekai in all its many clichés becomes obvious.
The typical isekai follows a set pattern wherein an otherwise unremarkable young man – or teenage boy, as is often the case – is whisked away to a fantasy land. Where in the real world they were just another cog in the machine, a NEET or just going nowhere fast, in fantasy land they’re a source of fascination and become indispensable. It’s a power fantasy in its most literal sense, a daydream captured on page or screen, providing an escape from mundanity and the powerlessness of real life.
One of the biggest criticisms of isekai stories is that their leading protagonists are, if you pardon the expression, two-dimensional. But that’s kind of the point. While not exclusively male-centric – see The Vision of Escaflowne – isekai narratives are predominantly centred around men or boys who are easy to project one’s own personality onto. They might be author inserts, but they act as a gateway for viewers and readers into the fantasy that they could be a hero, attract a harem of would-be suitors and save the world. I’m not saying these narratives aren’t problematic, but observed from this vantage, they can serve as comfort, inspiration and sometimes just a reason to keep going.
Isekai narratives are by no means a new phenomenon but are part of an older storytelling tradition. Here in the UK, the trope is most famously found in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and it has become a staple plot for the fantasy genre in the west. But as a narrative, the idea of going to another world – whether accidentally or otherwise – is part of our collective consciousness, a myth which has existed perhaps as long as humans have been telling stories. It’s woven in the fabric of human culture, emerging again and again over the ages and only changing to meet contemporary needs. But aside from a few notable examples in the west in recent decades, such as Outlander, The Magicians Trilogy and Every Heart a Doorway, the heartland of modern isekai stories is Japan.
The word itself translates literally as “different world” and covers an entire spectrum of stories, from the trapped-in-video-game trope, to more meditative examples such as Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World and The Saga of Tanya the Evil. Anyone who’s been paying attention to seasonal anime these last few years will have noticed that isekai anime of varying quality are becoming increasingly prevalent. It’s really no surprise given that loneliness is on the up as marriage and birth rates continue to decline, leading young Japanese men to seek out worlds where they are both needed and adored. The appeal of that power fantasy likely extends beyond Japan, to people who are stuck in dull jobs and feel they’re going nowhere fast. Many of these stories have issues with representation and are clogged with tropey nonsense, but before dismissing them, we should perhaps instead ask why they’re so popular, and what they mean to these viewers.
But isekai are hugely popular around the world and there’s more people invested in these stories than this one demographic. If you’re a fan of these stories, let us know why in the comments below.