A Beginner's Guide to Isekai
Hello travelers and adventurers! If you’re in the mood to journey to worlds unknown, then you’re in the right place! Here are the basics you need to know to delve into the wondrous world of isekai manga.
What is Isekai?
Isekai is a subgenre of fantasy in which a character is suddenly transported from their world into a new or unfamiliar one. The western world is no stranger to this concept as it appears in well-known works of western literature such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and even J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Like Alice, Dorothy Gale, and Wendy Darling, the main characters of isekai stories are taken to alternative fantasy worlds full of magic, swords, and adventures.
Help! I'm Trapped in Another World!: Isekai Introduction
Although the concept has been around for centuries, the term "isekai" is relatively new and has only been used within the past decade or so. Prior to using isekai to describe the genre, these titles were described as "trapped in another world" manga. That phrase hits on the core difference between isekai manga and other adventure stories.
In isekai stories, the main protagonist must be either physically/mentally spirited away to another world, or reborn into this new world in a new form more powerful than their previous one. Sometimes these new worlds may simply be a different time period like in Chie Shinohara’s Red River or Rumiko Takahashi’s Inuyasha. Video games have proven a new and popular setting in modern isekai with some characters becoming trapped or transported into their favorite games, as in Reki Kawahara's Sword Art Online, or worlds that are similar, like in Kugane Maruyama's Overlord.
The traditional plot of an isekai story revolves around the main protagonist trying to find their way back to their home world through a series of quests or adventures, such as CLAMP’s Magic Knight Rayearth. With characters who are reborn into their new isekai world, such as in Fuse’s That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime , the plot is more nebulous and may revolve around characters simply trying to survive in the unfamiliar setting.
Reverse isekai are stories where someone from a fantasy world is brought in to our normal, everyday world. These are not as common as regular isekai, but they do pop up occasionally, as in coolkyousinnjya's Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid.
Brief History of Isekai
Isekai manga was extremely popular among the shojo, or young girl, demographic during the 1990s with Yuu Watase’s Fushigi Yugi emerging as a breakout hit alongside works such as Kyoko Hikawa’s From Far Away, Chie Shinohara’s Red River, Shōji Kawamori’s The Vision of Escaflowne, and CLAMP’s Magic Knight Rayearth.
Isekai manga produced during this time all followed average teenage girls who were whisked away to high adventure in new worlds, where they encountered magic, epic battles, and, more often than not, romance. In finding their true loves in another world, these protagonists would often then be faced with the dilemma of having to choose between returning home or staying in the fantasy world.
Rumiko Takahashi’s Inuyasha became hugely successful in the west when its anime adaptation began airing on American television during the early 2000s. Unlike other isekai protagonists, the characters in Inuyasha could freely move between the two worlds, present-day and feudal Japan. This is probably the last well-known isekai of the era as there was a severe demographic shift in the market over the next decade.
Starting with the release of the light novel series, Reki Kawahara's Sword Art Online, in the early 2010s, the modern isekai boom was born. Modern isekai are now extremely popular among the shonen, or young boy, demographic and heavily feature male protagonists. These characters are usually apathetic, socially awkward young men who find their chance to thrive in their new isekai world. However, this has slowly been changing within recent years.
Isekai featuring female protagonists are becoming more and more popular. Often these stories will feature female characters who were reborn or reincarnated into a fantasy world loosely based off of their favorite real-world video games or media. Unlike their male counterparts, female-led isekai tend to not be very action-heavy or violent. Typically these stories tend to lean more towards slice of life.
Slice of life fantasy isekai is a subgenre that has been gaining much traction in the last few years. These stories focus on people who have been reincarnated into a fantasy world (usually one based off of a favorite video game), but instead of going off to fight dragons they choose to live fairly regular lives. They may choose to open up a print shop for magical tomes like the characters in A Witch's Printing Office, or they may decide to completely overthrow the entire feudal system in favor of a free market and democratic institutions like the characters in Accomplishments of the Duke's Daughter. Either way, they're having fun and so are we!
The sheer number of isekai manga now available is staggering, so here is a handy list of titles you should definitely check out if you are in the mood to journey to worlds unknown! (Note: All summaries adapted from the publisher. Asterisked titles have some volumes only available through interlibrary loan.)
Trapped in Another World: Shojo Isekai
From Far Away
Story and art by Kyoko Hikawa*
On her way home from school one day, Noriko is unexpectedly plunged into a strange and extraordinary fantasy world. Her troubles compound exponentially when she is rescued and befriended by a handsome young man by the name of Izark.
He may be brave and courageous, but inside Izark lurks the darkest evil imaginable. And according to an ancient prophecy, Noriko possesses the power to unleash that evil. Now, inexorably bound together, these two unlikely allies must navigate a world both wondrous and hostile.
Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play
Story and art by Yuu Watase; English adaptation by Yuji Oniki; touch-up art and lettering by Andy Ristaino
Fifteen-year-old Miaka Yuki is transported into an ancient Chinese kingdom by an old book, "The universe of the four gods." Following the legend in the story, Miaka becomes the Priestess of Suzaku and must find her seven Celestial Warriors before she can save the kingdom and return home.
Story and art by Rumiko Takahashi; English adaptation by Gerard Jones; translation by Mari Morimoto; transcription by David Smith; touch-up art and lettering by Steve Dutro, Leonard Clark, and Primary Graphix*
Kagome is an ordinary modern schoolgirl living an ordinary life. Who would have thought the dried-up old well on the site of her family's shrine would be a gateway to Japan's ancient past? Drawn through the gate against her will, Kagome finds herself battling demons for control of what she thought was a worthless trinket but is actually a powerful magical gem, the Shikon Jewel! Together with an unlikely ally, the half demon Inuyasha, Kagome begins a quest to recover the shards of the Shikon Jewel and learn more about her link to the past.
Magic Knight Rayearth
By CLAMP, translation by Anita Sengupta*
Hikaru, Umi and Fuu are Tokyo schoolgirls with nothing else in common, until one fateful day changes everything: the three are summoned to the magical realm of Cephiro and find that their lives are inexorably intertwined. Princess Emeraude, whose willpower keeps Cephiro safe, has been kidnapped by the sinister Zagato, and the three girls must become the legendary Magic Knights in order to save her. It's not going to be easy, as Zagato has sent his most powerful minions to stop the girls before they can fulfill their destinies. Protected by an ancient wizard's blessing and determined to find their way home, Hikaru, Umi and Fuu begin the adventure of a lifetime!
Story and art by Chie Shinohara*
Yuri, a pretty Japanese girl, is ecstatic after passing her college entrance exam and having her first kiss with her childhood friend-turned boyfriend. However, her luck soon changes. She starts to notice that water becomes agitated whenever she goes near it. One night, hands appear out of a puddle on the street and drag her into the water! Transported to an ancient village in the Middle East, she is then captured by armed troops and taken to the Queen's palace for a human sacrifice. Adventure and good-looking boys fill this great first volume!
Help! I'm Trapped in a Video Game!
Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody
Original story by Hiro Ainana; art by Ayamegumu; character design by Shri; translation by Jenny McKeon; lettering by Rochelle Gancio
Suzuki is a programmer in the midst of a death march-crunch time, when coders live on caffeine and pull 20-hour days. He just needs a little nap… but then he has a dream. A dream where he's in another world, with RPG powers right out of his game. A dream where he calls down a great disaster. A dream that, suspiciously, just won't end.
The New Gate
Manga by Yoshiyuki Miwa ; original story, Shinogi Kazanami ; original character design by Makai no Jumin.
THE NEW GATE--an online game transformed into a life-and-death struggle for its players. Thanks to the valiant efforts of Shin, the most powerful of them all, an end to the game and freedom for everyone seemed within reach. But just moments after Shin defeats the game's final boss, he finds himself bathed in an unknown light and transported some 500 years into the future of the in-game world. Thrown from a simple game gone wrong into a strange new land, one young swordsman of unrivalled strength is about to embark on a legendary journey!
Original story by Kugane Maruyama; art by Hugin Miyama; translation by Emily Balistrieri; lettering by Brndn Blakeslee
What do you do when your favorite game shuts down? Momonga decided to stay logged in right up until the very end. But when the servers go dark, he finds himself transported into the game world—and he's been transformed into his skeletal avatar, awesome magical powers included!
The Rising of the Shield Hero: The Manga Companion
By Aiya Kyu; original story by Aneko Yusagi; character design by Minami Seira
Naofumi Iwatani, an uncharismatic Otaku who spends his days on games and manga, suddenly finds himself summoned to a parallel universe! He discovers he is one of four heroes equipped with legendary weapons and tasked with saving the world from its prophesied destruction. As the Shield Hero, the weakest of the heroes, all is not as it seems. Naofumi is soon alone, penniless, and betrayed. With no one to turn to and nowhere to run, he is left with only his shield. Now, Naofumi must rise to become the legendary Shield Hero and save the world!
Sword Art Online: Aincrad
Art by Tamako Nakamura; original story by Reki Kawahara; character design by abec; translation by Stephen Paul; lettering by Lys Blakeslee, Terri Delgado*
In the year 2022, gamers rejoice as Sword Art Online—a VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) like no other—debuts, allowing players to take full advantage of the ultimate in gaming technology: NerveGear, a system that allows users to completely immerse themselves in a wholly realistic gaming experience. But when the game goes live, the elation of the players quickly turns to horror as they discover that, for all its amazing features, SAO is missing one of the most basic functions of any MMORPG—a log-out button. Now trapped in the virtual world of Aincrad, their bodies held captive by NerveGear in the real world, users are issued a chilling ultimatum: conquer all 100 floors of Aincrad to regain your freedom. But in the warped world of SAO, "Game Over" means certain death—both virtual and real…
Ah! I've Been Reborn into a New World
Accomplishments of the Duke's Daughter
Story by Reia; art by Suki Umemiya; character design by Haduki Futaba ; translation, Angela Liu.
Iris, an otome game addict with no time for romance, gets hit by a truck after getting out of work–but instead of dying, she finds herself in the world of a game she’d played just hours earlier. However, she’s not reborn as the game’s protagonist, the main heartthrob of the harem. Instead, she starts her new life as the antagonist, right at the moment she’s being sent to live in a nunnery–for the rest of her life!
I've Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level
Original story, Kisetsu Morita; art [and adaptation], Yusuke Shiba; character design, Benio; translation: Jasmine Bernhardt; lettering: Katie Blakeslee.
Azusa found herself reincarnated as an unaging witch and now spends her days hunting down the slimes, but after centuries of doing this simple job, she has ended up with incredible powers.
My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!
Story by Satoru Yamaguchi; art by Nami Hidaka.
A high school girl is stunned to find herself reincarnated as the conniving villainess from her favorite dating sim game, Fortune Lover. Now, as Catarina Claes, the impossibly rich and spoiled daughter of a Duke, her new life seems to perfectly sync up with the world of the game. This means big trouble! No matter how the game turned out, there were only two fates for Catarina: exile or death!
So I'm a Spider, So What?
Art by Asahiro Kakashi; original story by Okina Baba; character design by Tsukas Kiryu; translation by Jenny McKeon; lettering by Bianca Pistillo
I used to be a normal high school girl but in the blink of an eye, I woke up in a place I've never seen before and—and I was reborn as a spider?! How could something that's nothing more than a tiny spider (that's me) possibly survive in literally the worst dungeon ever? Are there no rules? There should be some rules! Who the hell is responsible for this?!
That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime
Author, Fuse; art by Taiki Kawakami; character design by Mitz Vah; translation by Stephen Paul
Average, unexceptional, 37-year-old salaryman Satoru Mikami has found himself in a gooey situation. After getting killed while saving his coworkers' lives, he gets a new lease on life—just not the life he was expecting. He has been reincarnated in a fantasy world as a magic-wielding slime creature. Under his new name "Rimuru Tempest," this once-normal man will have to learn to survive in this strange, new world—and with his incredible wit, affable nature, and a few powerful allies, he'll quickly ooze his way into the hearts and minds of everyone he encounters along his journey.
A Witch's Printing Office
Story, Mochinchi; art, Yasuhiro Miyama; translation, Amber Tamosaitis; lettering, Erin Hickman.
What nerd wouldn't enjoy exploring an RPG-style world? Not Mika Kamiya! She was just about to enjoy her post-Comic Market haul when fate whisked her away to a fantasy land. All Mika wants is to find a way home, so she's hunting for spells-but rather than search all over, they'll be coming to her to attend her magical-book-selling event, Magic Market! With a very "animated" catalog of guests, eccentric attendees, and out-of-control lines, what could possibly go wrong?!
Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid
Story and art by coolkyousinnjya; translation by Jenny McKeon; adaptation by Shanti Whitesides
Miss Kobayashi is your average office worker who lives alone in her small apartment―until a young and adorable dragon girl named Tooru appears before her. Upon saving Tooru’s life, the feisty dragon will do anything to pay off her debt of gratitude, including insisting that she move in with Miss Kobayashi, and serve her in any way she does or doesn’t desire.
Now Miss Kobayashi finds herself with a new, imposing roommate who is doing her best to help out around the home. But when you’re a dragon, nothing is ever simple. Kobayashi’s normal life just went off the deep end.
Story and art by Daisuke Ashihara; translation by Lillian Olsen
Destroy thy Neighbor! A gate to another dimension has burst open, and invincible monsters called Neighbors invade Earth. Osamu Mikumo may not be the best among the elite warriors who co-opt other-dimensional technology to fight back, but along with his Neighbor friend Yuma, he'll do whatever it takes to defend life on Earth as we know it.
Log Horizon: The Beginning of Another World
By Mamare Touno; illustrations by Kazuhiro Hara; translation by Taylor Engel
Thirty thousand Japanese gamers awake one day to discover that the fantasy world of Elder Tales, an MMORPG that was formerly their collective hobby, has become their cold, hard reality. Severed from their everyday lives, the gamers confront a new horizon filled with ravenous monsters, flavorless food, and the inability to die! Amid the chaos, veteran gamer Shiroe gathers his friends, the guardian Naotsugu and the assassin Akatsuki, and together they embark on an adventure to change the world as they know it!