I’ll answer the question in the title with another question: Given the current world climate, how would escapism not be a popular genre right now?
Whether you’ve been listening to Unwound for the past three season or you just started listening recently, I think I’ve made my excitement over isekai anime pretty clear. My love affair with the isekai genre began in my childhood because I fell in love with books like the Oz series by L. Frank Baum*, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, and the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As I got older, I got into stories like Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” and Disney’s Tron.
Isekai stories have been around for over 100 years in terms of literature and anime. Historically, the first isekai anime was the 1918 adaptation of Urashima Tarou, the tale of the fisherman who is taken to an undersea kingdom on the back of a turtle. It was directed by Seitaro Kitayama, who is considered by historians and researchers to be one of the founding fathers of anime.
In my own personal history as a fan of anime, however, my first isekai experiences came with my first viewings of the fansubbed versions of Fushigi Yuugi (1992) and Shinpi no Sekai El-Hazard (1995). While neither the story nor characters of Fushigi Yuugi resonated with me, I certainly found a better and stronger footing with El-Hazard, and have since re-watched it multiple times as the official OVA release became available via Pioneer. Even Studio Ghibli has embraced the genre with Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (2001), arguably one of their best films to date; the premise is pretty well-grounded in most all of the isekai tropes.
Although I’ve heard from many of my fellow anime fans that the isekai genre has become tired and overworn, I strongly disagree with all of them. Although there does tend to be a “been-there-done-that” mentality with some of the less successful titles, even now, with the more recent releases of Tensei Shitara Slime Datta Ken (2019) and Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari (2019), along with the crossover super-deformed comedy Isekai Quartet (2019), I feel that the genre keeps showing us that there are more stories to be had from talented authors and creators.
As with other genres of anime (mahou shoujo, sentai, etc), isekai tropes have become acknowledged and even lantern-ed within entries, from the use of “truck-kun” (and variations thereof) in speeding the protagonist to their new world through fatal impact (Knight’s & Magic, Youjo Senki), being trapped in a virtual environment or equivalent (dot hack, Overlord, Sword Art Online, Log Horizon), or the development of an overpowered persona (Slime, Tate no Yuusha), it’s refreshing to see the genre flex a little bit to show off some interesting stories to tell and absorb.
At the time of this writing, my favorite isekai anime is the uber-popular light novel-sourced Overlord, which I hope receives a fourth season very soon. As far as confirmed series as concerned, I’m avidly awaiting the Kumo desu ga, nani ka? anime adaptation coming out in January 2021. I’ve read through the fifth light novel in that series, and I’m enjoying the character development and the political intrigue.
But for every adaptation we get from the more popular light novels or manga circulating in Japan (and beyond) right now, there’s always a few future gems of the genre waiting in the wings. In particular, there are a few isekai stories for which I’m quite eager to have picked up for anime productions.
- The light novel series from Ren Eguchi, “Tondemo Skill de Isekai Hourou Meshi,” (Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill) is a great example of this, where the protagonist is accidentally summoned along with three others, but instead of being a high school student summoned to take on the evils of the world, he is a poor salaryman with nothing except a special skill called Online Supermarket, and his hobby of cooking. His (mis)adventures are pure comedy, as he bumbles his way through this fantasy realm with access to what is essentially an Amazon-dot-com superstore, that’s paid through the use of the world’s currency (a little slot shows up at the bottom of the screen. The English-translated light novel series is available through J-Novel Club right now, on the real life Amazon site, but there’s also a manga version in publication right now.
- “Risou no Himo Seikatsu,” (The Ideal Sponger Life) by Tsunehiko Watanabe, where the protagonist is another salaryman, who absolutely hates his job, or the idea of working at all. On his day off, he is unceremoniously summoned (along with his bicycle) to another world to find out that he’s the long-lost son of the royal bloodline. His dream of doing nothing for a living comes true when he’s offered the opportunity to further their proud bloodline through procreation… and nothing more than that! Of course, that would make for a boring story, so his knowledge of our world’s technology gives him a huge advantage in the fantasy realm where he’s adjusting to life of a high noble, and his skills as a professional salaryman are put to the test in helping his new wife, the queen, through diplomatic negotiations, both internal and external to the queendom. The series is available from Seven Seas Entertainment, and is also available for sale on Amazon. There’s also a manga version available of this story. Full disclosure: Yes, the hot red head on the cover drew my attention to it, not gonna lie.
- Lastly, I also would love to see Haru Yayari’s “Zombie Darake no Kusatta Sekai wo Seijo no Chikara de Jouka Shimasu!” (Another World’s Zombie Apocalypse is Not My Problem!) get an anime adaptation like yesterday! In this novel series, a bored high school girl fed up with her everyday life wakes up to find herself in the middle of the zombie apocalypse… on another world. She has been transported there via unknown means, and through circumstance comes to find out that she has the power to reverse zombification via touch. While others might find that to be amazing, she’s even more annoyed and bored with the idea, and though her new knighted friend wishes for her to use her gift, she cannot be bothered by the notion of being that world’s savior. Great read, and highly satirical… to me the best stories come from satire, no matter the medium. It is also available on Amazon, from Cross Infinite World. I was unable to find a manga of this, yet, but it’s pretty new (May 2019).
So, listeners, what are some of your favorite isekai anime? And conversely, which isekai anime do you think fell flat?
* A bit of personal history: I actually went to middle school with Baum’s great-grandnephew; he’s who I
blame thank for getting me into Doctor Who fandom. If you’re reading this, I’ll always be grateful to you for that, Steve!