In the past couple of years, anime has been dominated by isekai. Isekai, if you’re blissfully unaware, is the Japanese word for another world, and refers to the genre that was previously known as portal fantasy. The common factors have been well known tropes: an otaku protagonist is transported or reincarnated into a fantasy world governed by JRPG design and stats. This main character usually learns a new magical power, and dedicate themselves to slaying the Demon King that threatens their new home.
This formula is simple enough to have produced a flurry of classics in its short lifespan, from its relatively humble origins with Sword Art Online, and isekai grew so prolific that it was quickly followed by parodies like Konosuba or Cautious Hero. Even straightforward takes on the genre like No Game No Life or That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime have cut a niche for themselves amidst the wide array of new seasonal isekai.
But I am searching for the appeal of this recent anime titan, and to do that I must distill it down to its purest form. As anime has become more diverse in story and characters, how has this near monolith become so dominant? To answer that, I can compare the qualities of two successful series, Re:Zero, and The Rising of the Shield Hero. This essay contains spoilers up to the mansion arc of Re:Zero and the first cour of Shield Hero.
The most common criticism levied at isekai is that it is escapist fiction power fantasy trash, and that’s more than fair. For every masterpiece of the genre like Re:Zero, there’s many more series like Master of Ragnarok and Blesser of Einherjar, which stands as one of the few anime that is not so bad it’s good, but instead so bad that it is bad. Now, isekai writers and creative teams are clever enough to realize that a majority of their audience is composed of late teen to young adult men who enjoy video games and light novels. Therefore, they design their protagonists to be similar enough to their demographic, while still being empty enough to reliably self-insert oneself into the story.
When you see that the majority of isekai protagonists are absurdly talented, lacking in any flaws, and have a long line of marketable waifus hanging on them, you can come to the conclusion that these shows are meant to make people feel better about themselves and dull their minds for a couple hours at a time. Certainly, those are elements in play, but they don’t define the whole of portal fantasy. Otherwise, series like Re:Zero or Shield Hero would never exist.
Re:Zero’s central hero, Subaru Natsuki, certainly fits the archetype. He’s a high school drop-out and otaku shut-in, he’s the lowest common denominator for isekai. He has the ability to rewind time back to a checkpoint every time he dies, making him de facto immortal, and his close friends and allies are by and large attractive women. However, the series mixes things up by combining isekai with segments of psychological thrillers and body horror by making each of Subaru’s deaths painful and traumatic, causing many subsequent mental breakdowns.
Subaru is not, in fact, a hero. He’s a self-absorbed coward who has gotten this far in life by wasting his inborn talent and intelligence, and doesn’t plan on changing until he is sent to another world. Re:Zero is not intent on making the audience feel better about their shortcomings, author Tappei Nagatsuki is holding up a mirror to them and showing that refusing to change holds disastrous consequences. Subaru can only press forward by paying attention to the moving gears of each arc, and communicating with his allies until he can devise a solution. Deviation from this solution is punished quickly and painfully without exception, at least in the first season.
Naofumi Iwatani, the titular Shield Hero, likewise has a rough start to his new life, and spends the majority of the first season getting absolutely destroyed. His reputation is destroyed by false sexual assault allegations followed by accurate allegations of engaging in slave trading. He overcomes the obstacles put before him by working hard and helping out the townsfolk who give him a chance while unaware of his identity as “The devil of the shield”. His party is made up of women, but their relationship is more akin to little sisters or daughters than romantic.
So despite many isekai pandering to otaku looking for an escape from their lives, more popular shows are willing to put their protagonists through the ringer. What does that say about the wants and viewing habits of the anime fans that have made isekai skyrocket to this level of cultural dominance?
This can be best determined by examining the early stages of each series, where they set the tone for what is to come. In the mansion arc of Re:Zero, Subaru arrives at the mansion of Lord Roswaal after narrowly avoiding a fourth death in the capital city. He must contend with the lord himself, as well as his twin maids Rem and Ram, who don’t trust Subaru and are willing to kill him over it. In addition to that, a shaman plans on attacking the manor and the village in a few days, and Subaru must prevent disaster while avoiding the suspicions of the manor’s inhabitants.
Subaru initially acts very suspicious and is killed several times before he gets the hang of acting covertly, as he is unable to divulge his ability to Return by Death. It is not until he breaks down in front of his only friend Emilia that he realizes that by efficiently communicating with the others, he can avoid getting brutalized by an oni maid girl.
Likewise, Naofumi has to change his approach radically as he discovers this world does not govern on the rules he assumed it did. As his fellow Cardinal Heroes discard him and his name is dragged through the mud, he sheds any pretense of being a hero. This in turn makes him much more effective in helping the common folk and improving their way of life. He often picks up the pieces after the other Cardinal Heroes “help” a village and leave the problem worse than they found it like when Sword Hero Ren slays a dragon, and leaves its festering, mummified corpse to poison the nearby town, and Naofumi must put it down.
No proper escapist fantasy would put their leads through hell just to get through arc number one, or to get a basic level of recognition for their actions. Those stories pamper their protagonists, handing them immense magical power on a silver platter or their modern knowledge giving them an edge in an ancient environment. These series instead demonstrate the grit needed to survive in these new worlds.
Thus, isekai is not about taking the easy way and cruising through life, but getting what you want through hard work. This audience isn’t daydreaming about casting spells or having a harem (any more than usual), they want to be told that by applying yourself to an objective and standing firm, your efforts will be paid off. That’s an appealing message to students and salary workers, for whom the daily grind can feel pointless and unrewarding. Young people are more likely to scoff at the idea that hard work can get you anywhere, deferring instead to some intangible special quality, wealth, or privilege as being the material of success.
Subaru and Naofumi get shafted regularly, but their circumstances are never completely beyond their control. That is as empowering as any shonen battle series, that whatever may be your lot in life, the final say in if it defines you is yours. We could do with more media propagating the lesson that life is hard and often unfair, but everyone has enough potential and wit to push through, if one only applies themselves.
So maybe isekai is about more than getting a fanservice scene from your best girl or living vicariously through a hero mowing down hordes of badly composited CG monsters. Isekai, and a lot of anime in general, pushes the message that putting in the necessary work goes a long way. That can be attributed to the recent cultural shift of anime towards the mainstream in the west, where this sort of bootstraps mentality is popular.
I’m excited to see how the next part of Re:Zero season two continues to develop the elaborate trap Subaru found himself in, and how Naofumi and company will continue to never work with the other heroes in the next season of Shield Hero. If you agree or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and don’t be afraid to drop a like or follow The Otaku Exhibition for a notification every time a new essay or review gets released.