Isekai and Fantasy Genre in Different Culture

Isekai and Fantasy Genre in Different Culture

Priandi Constadi

In Japanese, Isekai means ‘a strange world’. Many light novels have used the name of the genre in the titles. In English, “Isekai” means (roughly) parallel world, and has come to denote the sub-genre of a story in which a person from the real, mundane world finds him or herself in a radically different world. This parallel reality often has monsters and magic, and broadly resembles an epic computer or console RPG. It doesn’t always have to be a physical world; but can also include delving into a virtual world, such as in .hack//sign, Digimon, and Sword Art Online. Usually, it involves a sudden teleportation that involuntarily brings the characters to the other world.

Often, they have to do something in the other world, usually saving it from bad guys who want to destroy everything. This might also mean saving the real world as well or stopping the bad guys in the other world from unleashing hell in the real-life/modern world. Isekai is about the interplay between the real and the unreal, the ordinary and the extraordinary. It explores what people will do when facing uncertain things. Like learning to play a video game, the isekai protagonist must get the hang of a very alien world, navigating through its politics and culture, while overcoming villains.

A brief comparison

In some cases of western children’s literature, the story would put a simple and ordinary child who leaves the real world behind to have an adventure of some sort in a fantasy world. Much like Disney’s The Nutcracker, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Narnia, to name a few.

The child protagonist of such stories usually must defeat a bad guy, but a lot of the narrative’s time is spent just experiencing the other world. Readers are taken in with the strangeness, uniqueness, and charm of this fantasy world. Much like an isekai anime, these stories are designed so that the audience could relate to the protagonists. They are meant to be someone the typical viewer/reader can imagine themselves as. Perhaps the closest thing anime has to this are Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away and maybe Howl’s Moving Castle.

Yet for adults, there’s not a lot of western fantasy literature with a character from the real world who travels to a fantasy world and back. Most western fantasy literature that are aimed at adults take place entirely within a fantasy world. We’re not sure why isekai in western literature is somewhat exclusively targeted at children’s literature, but it’s probably due to the convenience and simplicity of writing a story about a strange world. It simplifies the process of exposition — your main character is as new to this second world as the audience is. So, you get explanation as the main character progresses through the story and gets plot-relevant things explained to them.

In western children’s literature, the ease of crafting exposition into the story can make it easier for children to understand. And a sense of wonder and awe when feeling like one is transported to a fantasy world is usually considered a childish feeling.

In fantasy, the protagonist is commonly a political outsider of some kind too. It creates narrative tension that they’re up against the political establishment of their world. Since they are a nobody without wealth, fame, or power, we tend to be more empathetic toward them. For example, Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings is not powerful in his realm. As he progresses in his journey, politics, and much about the world outside the Shire, must be taught to him. Therefore, he serves as a means to deliver the exposition.

But again, we’re not sure why most western literature aimed at adults takes place entirely within a fantasy world. Or sometimes it takes place entirely within the real world, with fantasy elements added to it (Harry Potter). But it rarely has the children’s literature isekai setup, where the protagonist must journey from our world into an unknown fantasy world.

How it has evolved

We think that in the mid to late 00s, the genre appeared dead. Then in the 2010s, we saw new waves of a different kind of isekai. At that time, the genre would coincide with the harem genre and added with heroic fantasies for the male audience. It is nice that the isekai genre takes us to a setting that isn’t just another high school in Tokyo, and it’s interesting and fun to explore another world that might have very different cultural taboos, or fewer restrictions about certain things.

Some argue that the reason behind the shift was due to the success of Sword Art Online. The anime was about characters trapped in a VR game. Pretty soon it became a romantic harem anime, in addition to being about fighting bad guys and developing a strategy to get through the game. Before Sword Art Online, there had been some anime about video games — .hack//sign and Log Horizon being the most well-known examples. Their success was a niche one, but suddenly, the writers of light novels and creators of anime series had a winning formula to copy.

This isn’t the only time a successful hit will draw imitations, many of which lack quality. Often, they look like an incoherent jumble of lazily pasted together elements the writers believed would make a hit.

The interesting thing is that Sword Art Online has ‘imitators’ that are different from it while having a similar premise. It’s like how the works of Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) launched the entire fantasy genre, with each later fantasy novel or series resembling the fantasy work of Tolkien in some way.

Sword Art Online was also part of a bigger trend — the rise of massive multiplayer online gaming, and online gaming communities. In the 2010s, because technology was getting better and more affordable, we saw the rise of online game communities. Gaming had gradually shifted from a solitary activity to a largely social, online activity.

This trend might have raised the questions about the nature of reality. Many teenagers spend so much time, and get so emotionally invested in virtual worlds. SAO and other anime alike are popular because they explore the question of what could happen if nerdy gamer otaku type fans became someone in the fantasy worlds they’re so passionate about.

If you want to have experience of isekai stories, you can download Memories games here for iOS & here for Android.