No matter how repetitive they can occasionally get, isekai anime are so popular right now that they definitely deserve a closer look! In this article, we explain what isekai anime is, including examples of popular shows in the genre.
Related: Anime Genres Explained
What Is Isekai Anime?
The Japanese word "sekai" means "world". Isekai means "different world" or "otherworld."
According to the Wikipedia definition, isekai, which is a subgenre of fantasy anime, manga, and light novels, follows a human character from our world who is transported, reincarnated, or trapped in a parallel, often magical world and has to live there temporarily or permanently, adapt to a different way of life, and assimilate.
In fantasy literature, an equivalent to isekai works would be "portal fantasy" as discussed by critics such as Farah Mendlesohn.
In this category of fantasy, a clueless character living a normal, non-magical life is transported to a world they know nothing about (or believe to be fictional).
Rather than being immersed in a fantasy world from the beginning and seeing it through the eyes of locals, the reader/viewer gets to learn about the world along with the main character.
Western equivalents of this type of story would therefore include The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and so on.
In Japanese works, in which the concept of reincarnation is often important, this subcategory of fantasy is divided into two types: Isekai Ten'i and Isekai Tensei.
Isekai Ten'i involves a character's physical transportation into another world, and Isekai Tensei (see Mushoku Tensei, for instance), involves a character that is only transferred in spirit, usually having died and then being reborn in another world or inhabiting the body of an existing resident of that world.
The Best Examples of Isekai Anime
One of the most well-known stories in the isekai genre that would fit the former Isekai Ten'i subcategory is Spirited Away (2001, dir. Hayao Miyazaki) in which a young girl, Chihiro, accidentally steps into another world, loses her parents, and even her name, and works in a resort for supernatural beings to set her parents free.
Another example is Inuyasha with Kagome's transportation from contemporary Tokyo to a parallel universe that is still Japan, but many centuries ago.
A story that would fit the Isekai Tensei category is That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. The title is self-explanatory here.
Of course, there are more ambiguous examples as well. Angel Beats!, for instance, could be described as isekai since the main characters all find themselves in a sort of afterlife, but they are still basically the same people.
The ultimate goal is for them to move on, making their relocation a liminal space between physical transportation and, possibly, eventual reincarnation.
Not every isekai is a shōnen, however. After all, there is plenty of isekai anime with a female lead.
Why Is Isekai Anime Popular?
While immersive works, such as Fullmetal Alchemist, that take place entirely in a world that is distinct, if partially influenced by ours, are also extremely influential, portal fantasies or isekai can be comforting for readers and viewers, particularly today.
Such works often respond to our need to escape when the real world becomes distressing.
When the main character comes from our world, it's often easier to identify with them and their problems.
Unless they're taken to a terrible world–just like poor Kumoko in So I'm a Spider, So What?–their adventures might function as wish fulfillment to a certain extent.
And, truth be told, there's nothing wrong with escaping into a fantasy world, particularly during these stressful times.