Why Are There So Many Isekai/Parallel World Anime?
by BookWalker (Paid Article),
It's the middle of the dullest day ever. You pay for your toilet paper without even looking at the shop assistant who hands you the change. You're so bored with life, day after day doing nothing to speak of, except for gaining another few levels on that RPG at home. The shop doors slide open with a numbing musical jingle. You walk outside, and…
What's this? Suddenly it's dark, and the air is cold and clammy. You feel an icy stone wall at your shoulder, as if you're in a cave. A torch ignites in front of you, then another, then another. In the flickering glow, you see dozens of squat, armoured figures, all carrying nasty-looking blades. One gives a guttural cackle, and its fellows join in, their laughter bouncing off the walls. But for some reason, none seem keen to attack you first…
… Which might have something to do with the great big sword you're carrying, which seems to fit your hand quite naturally. Your body feels good, thrumming with energy, eager to swing and hack and slash. With a yell, you raise the sword as easily as you would a stick, and rush forward. You've completely forgotten about the shop, let alone the toilet paper. Besides, right at the moment, your enemies need toilet paper more than you do.
The above is the opening to a typical “Isekai” story; we made it up, but you'll recognise the type. “Isekai” means (roughly) parallel world, and has come to denote the sub-genre of 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, only with unlimited processing power.
In recent year, there's been an avalanche of Isekai titles in Japanese media, especially in light novels, anime and manga. There are several reasons for this. One is that Isekai in its current form is entwined with gamer culture, and plays to an audience that's grown up with epic RPGs, spending thousands of hours exploring fantasy worlds. Another reason, overlapping that, is the 'self-insertion' nature of most Isekai stories, in which the reader projects himself into the 'ordinary' character sent to a magic realm.
It's also likely that 'self-insertion' is why so many people want to write Isekai stories, which typically originate as labors of love rather than professional commissions. A well-known example is Sword Art Online, pictured right. Its author Reki Kawahara first wrote it as a novel competition entry, but then published it free online until he won a competition six years later for another Isekai saga, Accel World, which let him go pro.
Sword Art Online is now one of the most famous Isekai titles, in which the fantasy world is a massive RPG. Other leading titles range from the dark dramas of Re: Zero (pictured left) and Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash to the lighter No Game No Life and the all-out silliness of Konosuba (a second Konosuba anime series is playing this season). One of the newest Isekai titles is Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody, which is already a light novel series and a manga, with an anime in the works. In typical Isekai style, the “death march” of the title refers to the hero's drudgery as a games programmer in the real world, before he's whisked into fantasy.
But Isekai stories - and there are many more examples - did not originate with today's gamer culture or online self-publishing. It's a genre that's centuries old, and it comes from all over the world. The Wizard of Oz fits the Isekai definition in the West, as do Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the Narnia books. For a far earlier Japanese example, there's "Urashima Taro," a centuries-old legend about a fisherman (the titular character), who saves a turtle and is brought to a wondrous undersea kingdom… but there's a terrible twist in the tale! Many people who read or write Isekai stories grew up with these classics - and because they come from all over the world, that's a strong commercial motive for Japanese companies to produce more of a genre they can sell overseas.
And today's Isekai aren't just grounded in print classics. Some older readers may have grown up with the American Dungeons & Dragons cartoon in the 1980s (animated for hire by Toei Animation), in which the entrance to the title world lies through a theme park ride! Vintage anime examples included Magic Knight Rayearth, Fushigi Yugi, El Hazard and Vision of Escaflowne, before the genre was represented in one of the most famous anime, Spirited Away. Director Hayao Miyazaki blended nostalgic Japanese culture with Alice in Wonderland imagery. The Alice link no doubt helped the film to be embraced overseas.
The more recent slew of Isekai titles such as Sword Art Online are saturated in games culture – though again that's nothing new, as the first Tron film celebrated gaming back in 1982! In fact, "game" worlds go at least as far back as Lewis Carroll's Alice sequel Through The Looking Glass, in which the mirror world is a giant chessboard.
Most of the main characters in the new generation of Japanese Isekai stories are gamers (or in the case of Death March, pictured right, a games programmer). They've savvy with fantasy game conventions; when the characters are transported to a new world, they think (rightly or wrongly) that they know what kind of story they're in. Think of an anime like Sword Art Online as doing for Isekai what the film Scream did for horror. They're bringing in protagonists who know the genre as well as the audience does.
Of course, that doesn't stop these characters from being horribly surprised; indeed, that's the fun of some of these series. At the start of Sword Art Online, the characters know they're in a stupendously immersive fantasy game, they know the tactics and strategies… They just didn't know the penalty for losing! In Re:Zero, the world resembles a fantasy RPG in a different way, one that shocks and maddens the hero - we'll leave it for you to discover. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash takes another tack; once again, it presents a world which is like an RPG scenario. However, in Grimgar's world, the monsters don't vanish with a puff of smoke and a Mario coin; fighting them is messy, harrowing and bloody.
Many of the new Isekai stories begin very similarly, but the ways they change and mutate, and the conclusions they lead to, are far less predictable. One of the most extreme perspectives that you'll find in Isekai is the view expressed by the shut-in hero Sora in No Game, No Life (pictured left). At the start of the story, Sora declares that “real” life is the worst, most unplayable game there is, and he wants nothing to do with it. He then gets his heart's desire (or is it?), a fantasy world defined by clear rules and rewards.
At the other extreme, there's Judy Garland's Dorothy in the musical film of The Wizard of Oz. At the end of the film, she goes home to monochrome Kansas and declares her heart's desire was never any further than her own backyard. But what if a Sora could be converted to Dorothy's perspective, or vice versa? The permutations are endless, especially with the “meta” dimensions of characters who know, and can question, the stories they find themselves in.
Going from a grocery store to a goblin cave can be one small step, at least in an Isekai story. But what happens from then on can be a giant leap into the unknown…
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All titles mentioned have been adapted into anime, but it is recommended that you check out the original source, the light novel. Don't live near a bookstore and want too read it now? Check out BookWalker Global (https://global.bookwalker.jp/?adpcnt=7qM_Vshs), a legal source for digital manga and light novels in English.
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