While attention is temporarily all on Evangelion on Netflix, I thought I’d slip in a few thoughts on the increasing genre of “isekai”. 異世界: another world, a parallel world, a different dimension. Literally the kanji (異) for “different” “other” or “extraordinary” (it’s used in the word 異なる, to differ or vary); plus the kanji for “world” (世界).
There’s an additional layer to “isekai” that’s more cultural than part of the literal world: it’s about a person from one world (usually ours, a “normal” world) who gets dropped into another world (such as a video game world, a generic fantasy world, etc). So for example, Slayers isn’t isekai; it takes place in another fantasy world but it doesn’t have a person who has a perspective from another world.
So you could define isekai as “a story featuring a person who transfers to a different world.”
If you’re relatively new to anime you might see isekai as a fairly new genre, and certainly the quantity of isekai titles is new. Every season seems to have at least two or three new entries these days.
But this is actually the second isekai surge that I’ve seen as an anime fan, the first taking place in the mid-1990s. Interestingly, while the current isekai mania is largely shounen-oriented harem series, the ’90s trend was more mixed; the biggest titles— Magic Knight Rayearth, Fushigi Yuugi and Vision of Escaflowne —were shoujo with strong romantic elements. Meanwhile a few others, like InuYasha (whose manga started in 1996), El-Hazard or (god help us) Garzey’s Wing were more shounen-y. “Trapped in another world” was basically a known anime cliché when I started getting into the media way back when.
Sword Art Online is definitely the biggest reason for the latest tsunami of isekai shows (though whether it really counts as isekai itself is a point of contention for some), but there have always been shows with the theme popping up even when it wasn’t the biggest trend. To name a few, you’ve got: the less-than-loved Final Fantasy: Unlimited TV anime (2001); Gainax’s weird world-hopping OVA Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (2001); charming shounen rom-com Zero no Tsukaima (original LN started in 2004); and of course, various iterations of Digimon from 1999 on (it might even be thought of as a holdover from that mid-90s surge).
AND there were titles like this before that rush in the ’90s too, like Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Aura Battler Dunbine (in which people from another world get sent to earth) or Genmu Senki Leda from the 1980s. Rumiko Takahashi also did a short manga that got an OVA called Fire Tripper that most fans would recognize as a predecessor of sorts to InuYasha. Even Mazinger got into the action; the manga God Mazinger featured a jock getting sucked into another world with dinosaurs.
So, where did isekai really come from? A few older possible examples exist— Ouke no Monshou, a shoujo manga from the 1970s, featured a girl who gets trapped in ancient Egypt— possibly part of another trend, since Osamu Tezuka’s sexy Cleopatra also dates to the 1970s and features people sent back in time to relive the era). But looking at fantasy and sci-fi anime and manga prior to the 1980s, I haven’t found a clear path of predecessors.
You do, however, start to see adaptations of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland in the early 1980s; both had become popular in Japan during its post-WWII westernization period. So perhaps the adaptation of western content inspired the creation of new original content that borrowed the isekai idea? Either that or the adaptation of these western “isekai” was itself a response to some kind of demand.
I took a look also at popular films of the late ’70s and early ’80s to see if there were any hints there. You certainly started to see more sci-fi making big bucks— Star Wars and ET in the west; Gundam and tokusatsu works in Japan —but again, no clear starting point for isekai.
So the mystery remains…and for now, so does the isekai trend. Stay tuned, sometime later I might talk about all the different manga versions of “I got sucked into an otome game world as the villainess!” that have popped up in the last couple of years…