One of the most popular genres today is isekai, which translates to another world. From Sword Art Online to KonoSuba -God’s Blessing on this Wonderful World-, fans have a lot of stories to experience. In fact, the isekai general has become so prevalent that some writing contests are banning isekai stories.
But, what started this inescapable trend? Isekai is all around us, but the genre’s roots are older than you think.
Isekai stories are older than anime. In fact, classic literature has had portal fantasy stories for over a century, with Alice in Wonderland being the most known. But, in terms of Japanese entertainment, we can look at 1976’s Ouke no Monshou. This shoujo manga stars a girl who is transported back to ancient Egypt after the discovery of a tomb.
Ouke no Monshou is not a pure fantasy, but the series sowed the seeds for future isekai works. A modern teen being taken to a strange world, but somehow having the ability to solve society’s problems are hallmarks of this classic manga. The series is one of the best selling shoujo manga of all-time and it undoubtedly played a role in the lives of current creators.
The first true isekai anime is Aura Battler Dunbine, which aired in February 1983. The series stars Shou, a normal Tokyo boy who is summoned to a medieval fantasy world that possesses insectoid mecha. Aura Battler Dunbine was more action oriented compared to Ouke no Monshou and blended fantasy with science fiction.
That same year, Manga Aesop Monogatari aired. The popular children’s show is about a boy who is lost in a fantasy world and is trying to find his way home.
These three distinct works laid the foundation for isekai, but the genre didn’t blow up until the late ’90s with El Hazard, InuYasha, Magic Knight Rayearth, and The Vision of Escaflowne.
InuYasha is the most known work of the bunch and is often credited with popularizing isekai on a global scale. The series follows Kagome, a modern Japanese teenage girl who falls into a well and is taken to a magical version of Feudal Japan. It’s blend of action, romance, and fantasy elements made the work accessible to a generation of Western fans that were being introduced to isekai for the first time. Not only that, but the manga and anime were best-sellers in Japan, influencing a generation of creators to follow InuYasha‘s lead.
InuYasha is a “classic” styled isekai, which dictates that characters are taken to a fantasy world with little-to-no science fiction elements. But, we shouldn’t discredit the influence of Magic Knight Rayearth.
CLAMP’s work did include mecha, but fans were enthralled with the video game elements of the story. In an interview with Soryuden, CLAMP talked about being influenced by RPGs in creating their world. Magic Knight Rayearth doesn’t take place in a video game, but the fantasy elements used were widely seen in Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy at the time. These video game-like settings and tropes would later be used by KonoSuba.
RPGs saw great popularity in the ’90s, so the fantasy and sci-fi worlds were recognizable by fans. Isekai and RPG elements would converge in the creation of the .hack//Sign series, which follows a group of gamers being trapped in a video game. The series paved the way for works like Sword Art Online and Log Horizon.
Different works gave rise to various styles – from classic fantasy to video game world. It’s too early to tell, but there are two new popular isekai trends. Deconstruction (which began with Now and Then, Here and There but popularized by Re:Zero) and “reverse isekai,” which is credited to Fate/stay night and The Devil Is a Part-Timer!
Isekai’s first roots can be traced back to Ouke no Monshou, but it wasn’t until InuYasha that the genre became a cash cow. These stories are insanely popular today, but they have been around longer than you think. Just thank InuYasha for making you notice.