You probably don’t need me to explain what an isekai is at this point. The term has become so widespread that even those outside of the anime community have picked it up now. Within the community, however, isekai anime are a divisive topic. Some will watch anything that comes out in the genre, whereas others groan anytime another one of these is released.
Much of the current hype for isekai anime stems from the Sword Art Online. SAO was a hit sensation at the time, mainly among gamers who were tempted by its premise of being trapped in the world of a fantasy MMORPG. The show became a hotbed for discourse as a counter-movement sought to bring the show and its fans down; a notable example being contemporary critic Digibro who dedicated multiple, lengthy video essays to critiquing the plot of Sword Art Online.
While I wouldn’t call every isekai anime that followed a derivative of SAO, it is notable just how many of these series suddenly popped up after it exploded in popularity. Log Horizon got an anime in 2013 and Overlord began in 2015, both building on the identical concept of gamers being trapped in their fantasy MMORPGs. Anime like No Game No Life, Gate, KonoSuba, and Re:Zero didn’t go so far as to copy the idea of being set in an MMORPG, but they did feature geek protagonists like Kirito who get to become powerful and important in a fantasy world. Even My Next Life as a Villainess—a cutesy romance story—is about a nerdy girl being reincarnated into the world of her favorite dating sim.
And those are just the big name series. There have been countless smaller isekai anime that used the themes popularized by Sword Art Online, though few care to recall such seminal masterpieces like Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody.
While I have enjoyed some of these anime myself, I have to admit that I share many people’s exasperation. The genre has become saturated with an overabundance of anime that all build on similar themes and seek to appeal to the same kind of crowd. And where it was once cathartic to see a fellow gamer become a stalwart hero adored by countless women, it has long since started to feel like pandering.
However, I am not prepared to give up on isekai as a whole, because I have seen what the genre is capable of. Sword Art Online did not invent the isekai as a genre. Hell, it didn’t even invent the idea of being trapped in a video game world.
Sword Art Online itself draws from the DNA of The Familiar of Zero and .Hack. The former being a story about a Japanese teenager being summoned to a fantasy world and becoming one of its most powerful heroes, whereas the latter is about an amnesiac hero who finds himself stuck in a virtual reality MMORPG. But even outside of the scope of what series may have inspired SAO, there has been a wealth of isekai anime going back decades.
Some of the oldest that I have seen are Tobira wo Akete from 1986, Leda: The Fantastic Adventure of Yohko from 1985, and Capricorn from 1991. And one quality that becomes apparent once you start digging into this older generation of isekai anime is how diverse they are in themes. Mon Colle Knights is a boyish adventure story set in the world of a real TCG that was popular at the time, whereas Magic Knight Rayearth is a fantasy adventure directed at young girls. Escaflowne is basically fantasy Gundam with a focus on shoujo romance, while a generation of kids grew up watching the Pokémon rival Digimon. And if you want a story about a nerd being taken to the world of a video game, then NG Knight Ramune has you covered.
From shoujo to shounen, from traditional fantasy to bizarre digital realms & steampunk; retro isekai could be about anything and they could be for anyone. It’s a fascinating part of anime history to dive into if you have the time.
So is modern isekai just bad then? Well, it’s certainly less diverse if you’re judging by the mainstream output. However, even today you can still find those few authors who genuinely want to do interesting stories with isekai settings. Saga of the Tanya the Evil is a perfect example of such, as its set in a magical alternative of World War-era Europe, starring a little girl who desperately wants to defy God. Some might take issue with the show’s subject matter, but Tanya’s story is a breath of fresh air in a genre that has long since grown stale. Something that makes her appearance in Isekai Quartet somewhat of a headscratcher for me.
Going forward, I hope writers take inspiration from Saga of Tanya the Evil and start experimenting with the isekai genre once again. With the amount of popularity that it has garnered in recent years, now is definitely the time to start pushing boundaries again. I certainly don’t want to be stuck watching crap like Cautious Hero for another decade.