I’ve had an idea going around my head for a while. Let’s just say that by the title of this post that I’ve read something like 40 different manga this year that had Isekai in the title or were clearly that type of story.
For those who don’t know, the genre is basically about transporting a protagonist to a different world from the one they began with. It’s usually just a form of vicarious escapism for the viewer, reader, listener, player or whatever form of interaction the holder of the medium is having.
Since my view on things has been constrained to basically Twitter recently (okay not so recently), my take is that the most popular story of the genre this year was Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu. The anime aired this year and it’s about a NEET named Natsuki Subaru who is transported to another world filled with magic, cute girls and all sorts of things and people that want to kill him. The darkness of the series makes it much different from most in the genre as he has to experience death constantly to try to get what he wants.
On the other end of the spectrum is the light novel then accompanying manga Mushoku Tensei: Isekai Ittara Honki Dasu. In that story, a hopeless NEET dies in a traffic accident and finds himself reborn as Rudeus Greywolf, a young infant in a world filled with magic and uses the knowledge he retained to basically have a non-threatening series of adventures with friends he makes along the way. Or to make the worst of the story, a 34-year-old in a young boy’s body leering over the young girls he meets. Wish fulfillment people.
The point of using these two stories is really to illustrate that there is a large audience for these types of stories. Simply getting trapped in a game like .hack//Sign, Sword Art Online, or Log Horizon is simple compared to these stories. There isn’t a way back to the beginning, or if there is it isn’t pleasant. What is it about these stories that interests people?
These stories feel different from simple fantasy or action stores where an audience can escape for a brief instant before resuming their lives. In fact, it’s almost like there is a certain nihilism in enjoying them. “I want to live in that world,” or “I want to have the opportunity to start over like them,” and “If I could start over knowing everything I know now…” have to be common thoughts among the fans. Maybe there’s a simple desire to have more opportunities to do things in life. Rebirth means having another opportunity to make new friends, learn new skills that one never had the opportunity to learn, or even fall in love for the first time all over again.
I think opportunity is the key to understanding all of this. The modern world can feel like there are too many lost opportunities happening on a daily basis. It can feel like there are too many choices so it’s easier just to shut down and choose to do none of them. I certainly know that feeling and it’s really about being afraid to fail. That’s the great weakness of this genre. The protagonist cannot fail in the end because they are given every opportunity to avoid doing so.
Before I leave this particular post, there is one more story that I think really gets to the heart of this genre. Gun-ota ga Mahou Sekai ni Tensei Shitara, Gendai Heiki de Guntai Harem o Tsukucchaimashita!? is if you couldn’t tell by the inclusion of the word in the title a harem story. Hotta Youta is killed going home one day and is reincarnated in a magic world, but he can’t use magic. Fortunately, he knows a ton about guns and that’s all the story is, guns and girls