For anime fans, the term isekai is something they are familiar with. It refers to an anime where the main character finds himself in a “different world.” This can be caused by playing a VR video game or dying and ending up somewhere new. It has to be a transition or reincarnation into the new world, but how that happens depends on the writer. This has been a popular genre in anime that they even made a show called Isekai Quartet which mashes four of the more popular ones together. At one point it seemed like you could not watch a new anime without it being one of these Isekai. I have to wonder though, has this genre reached such a level of popularity that it is spreading more into other mediums.
At DragonCon 2019, I was able to meet the author and creator of the book series Viridian Gate Online. I was skeptical at first, thinking that this was just some minor author’s scheme to get people to read his book. It did not help that I only went to his booth because some random person handed me a flyer for it. In the end, I’m glad I stopped by.
James A. Hunter wrote the first book in the series and it debuted in 2016 and was published by Shadow Alley Press. As he and the other writers of the Viridian Gate Universe described to me what the books were about and like I could not help but think that these were Isekai novels. The main story takes place on Earth. It is the end of the world, possibly. People are trying to either find ways to live, or making their peace and moving on with their lives. A CEO of a gaming company designs a way for people’s souls to live on, even if their bodies do not. They can upload themselves into the VR video game and live there forever. I could not believe it. To me, it sounded like he was ripping off Sword Art Online. However, as I read the book there were clear differences, don’t worry I won’t spoil it, and it even answers some of the issues presented in Sword Art Online. Viridian Gate Online is a great set of books and I highly recommend them to anyone looking for a fun and exciting book to read, but it brings back this idea that isekai are being found more outside of anime.
During this time of quarantine, my wife and I keep looking for new shows to watch when we finish one. While watching on Amazon Prime, a commercial for their new show Upload came on. It showed people loading themselves into a virtual reality game of sorts after they died. I had to check it out. I convinced my wife that it looked funny and we sat down and watched the entire first season in two night. Yea, it was fantastic, and again you should definitely check it out. It is a story that deals with death, what could happen after (to us and to those we leave behind), and how we as people react in situations that give us a sort of immortality. Again, though, it’s an isekai. The main character leaves his normal world and finds himself in a new “different world.”
When I saw that these genre was showing up more and more outside of anime, I had to wonder about how long this idea has existed. Truthfully, it has been around for quite some time. Alice and Wonderland was essentially an isekai. Some call it a girls drug hallucination, but when you get to the roots of it, the story is an isekai. She lives on Earth and by going through the rabbit hole, or the looking glass, she finds herself in a “different world.” Coraline could also be viewed as an isekai in my opinion. She leaves her world and ends up in a different version of her world.
I would like to add this note. I am not certain that science fiction stories where the characters travel from planet to planet would count for this. They are traveling to different worlds, but since it is not a parallel world I think that creates a difference.
It is my belief that the isekai idea was kept at the fringe of societal acceptance, with only some stories such as Alice and Wonderland gaining popularity among the majority. I believe that many of these stories found a niche audience and it stayed that way for a long period of time. I believe that anime helped to revive this genre. With works like Spirited Away, Konosuba, Sword Art Online, and That Time I got Reincarnated by a Slime anime has built a solid foundation on this genre. Anime has also seen a larger viewing audience in recent years, which in turn has caused many people to want more of these isekai stories. I like seeing some of the different takes that many creators have come up with, however, I have to ask myself one question. When will we stop creating new works in this genre and simply be recreating everything that came before? I hope that through these new additions to the genre that we will also see a revival of the older titles for all to enjoy.