A Beginner's Guide to Isekai

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
July 15, 2019
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)

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? 

Fushigi Yugi book cover

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

Red River Volume 2 book cover

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

Inuyasha book cover

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.

Modern Isekai

Sword Art Online book cover

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!

Anything else?

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.)