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How did Isekai became the ‘BEST’ genre in Manga & Anime?

If you are used to reading manga or watching anime, you must have seen some titles that contain some Isekai. Which means ‘a strange world’ in Japanese. The genre gets that name from the many light novels that use this word in the title. 

It’s usually translated as ‘another world’ in English. So it’s a sub-genre of fantasy in which a protagonist, or group of characters, end up in a fantasy world from the real world.

It doesn’t have to be a physical world; this genre can also include venturing into a realistic virtual world, like Digimon. Or rather if you want a more western example there is The Nutcracker, Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Wizard of Oz, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, to name a few.

But for real Weebs, you may remember that this genre was very unusual a few years ago. Until mid-2010 and 2012, there was a massinve growth and several manga, novel and anime began to use the characteristics of an Isekai at some level.

That’s why mande this post, to explain a little more about the history of this genre and explain how a small concept could change the manga market forever.

First Isekais

Urashima Tarou is considered one of the first Isekai

Returning to Japan, the legend of Urashima Tarou is considered one of the forerunners of the genre. It is estimated that it appeared in the 8th century, at the time when the first written records of the region began to appear. Classic publications such as Fudoki, Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, books that document part of the country’s history and folklore, presented versions of this history.

The legend follows a man named Urashima Tarou. Seeing a group of children playing with a turtle, Tarou saved the turtle returning it to the sea. After a few days, the tortoise returned and offered to take him to the Dragon Palace as a way of thanking him for his gesture. In the palace, which was in an underwater kingdom, the man met Princess Otohime and spent a few days enjoying her hospitality.

After a while, however, Tarou began to miss his parents and decided to return to the surface. As a parting gift, the princess gave him a mystery box with the recommendation that it never be opened. When he returned to his hometown, Tarou found that many years had passed, and that his parents had already passed away. Heartbroken, he opened the lid of the box against the princess’s orders, and became an old man.

The journey to a fantastic world, represented by the Dragon Palace, is what characterizes the legend as a precursor of the isekais.

The earliest modern Japanese isekai stories include Haruka Takachiho’s novel Warrior from Another World (1976) and Yoshiyuki Tomino’s anime Aura Battler Dunbine (1983).

In the early 90s, some titles with the premise of alternate universes began to pop up across Japan. In 1992, Yuu Watase’s Fushigi Yuugi began to be published in a shoujo magazine, that is, manga aimed at young girls. The story fits the definition of isekai, as it follows two girls who are transported into another world.

The following year, Clamp released Magical Warriors of Rayearth, which was adapted into an anime in ’94, the same year as EscaFlowne was released. In 1995, it was El Hazard’s turn to debut on Japanese television with an original story.

After that first wave, the genre went out of focus until it returned with .hack. But what really brought this “new” genre with power would be: Sword Art Online.

How did Isekai got back into ascention?

The .hack franchise (2002) was one of the first to present the concept of isekai as an actual virtual world, with Sword Art Online following in its footsteps in 2008.

Reki Kawahara wrote the first volume of Sword Art Online in 2002 to enter the ASCII Media Works Dengeki Game Novel Prize competition. But exceeded the page limit and decided not to participate. 

Sword Art Online

Then, he published the work as a web novel using the pseudonym Fumio Kunori. A while later, he released three more volumes and several short stories. In 2008, he entered the competition again with Accel World and won the Grand Prix.

In addition to Accel World, the publisher also requested his previous work, Sword Art Online. Upon signing the contract with ASCII Media Works, he withdrew the web novel from circulation.

2012 when the Isekai started its popularization

But it wasn’t until the beginning of anime in 2012 that we started to see the exponential rise of the genre to the point of becoming a completely independent genre.

This led to other writers paying more attention to it and spawning an explosion of new titles like:

  • Ascendance of a Bookworm
  • The Rising of the Shield Hero
  • Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody
  • That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime
  • Isekai Izakaya: Japanese Food From Another World
  • How Not to Summon a Demon Lord
  • Isekai Quartet

Over time, the market has also got to understand what magic exists behind the curtains.

But why is Isekai is the ‘BEST’?

Isekai is far beyond being just a simple genre, it has come to be recognized as a Plot Device.

A plot device or plot mechanism is any technique in a narrative used to move the plot forward. A clichéd plot device may annoy the reader and a contrived or arbitrary device may confuse them, causing the loss of the suspension of disbelief. However, a well-crafted plot device, or one that emerges naturally from the setting or characters of the story, may be entirely accepted, or may even be unnoticed by the audience.

A well-known plot device in manga is, for example, training sagas that focus on justifying a future evolution to face an opponent. Or a tournament saga where you can present the progress of each character and compare them.

Here we go in another tournament

Isekai is a plot device focused on speed to plot.

When we’re reading we act as consumers. We want more and more content, in the fastest and most chewed way possible. If the manga is wasting our time we have hundreds of other videos, manga and novels to entertain ourselves.

So taking a long time to reach the goal of a plot can be very harmful. In addition to the ultra competitiveness that exists in the universe of manga and novels, since if you don’t have an almost immediate success, you are capable of losing your publication.

For that the writers try to achieve the optimal Time to Plot.

Time to Plot

Time to Plot (Time to Freedom) is a metric most used in games. It indicates at what point the player gains control over the character in order to start experiencing the game.

It can vary between different types of categories, but it is a great indicator of how much investment a player needs to make to start receiving “returns”.

The same goes for reading. The introduction is a way of building the world that the manga or anime takes place, but at the end of the day when reading something we look for a development and a plot.

The difference is that in a manga it is much more complicated to determine at what moment we enter the Main Story, but considering that it is when a “great journey” begins.

These are 10 examples of Shounens that are among the best of all time and the time it takes to start the “journey”:

MangaTime to Plot
Kimetsu no Yaiba10 Chapters
Hajime no Ippo3 Chapters
Boku no Hero Academia3 Chapters
Black Cover4 Chapters
Bleach3 Chapters
Kaisen Jujutsu4 Chapters
Enen no Shouboutai5 Chapters
Nanatsu no Taizai4 Chapters
Yakusoku no Neverland37 Chapters
Naruto9 Chapters

At least among these 10, we have an average of 8 chapters to start the main journey, even disregarding Yakusoku no Neverland as something out of the standard and switching to another manga that took only 3 chapters to start, it would still be 4 chapters on average to start a journey.

When compared to the average number of chapters a Manga has before being cancelled:

MangaTime to Canceled
Agravity Boys51 Chapters
Moriking35 Chapters
Cop & Dolphin47 Chapters
Phantom Seer30 Chapters
Builde King20 Chapters
i tell c21 Chapters
Nine Dragon’s Ball Parade20 Chapters
Candy Flurry19 Chapters
Hunter’s Guild: Red Hood18 Chapters
Neru: Way of the Martial Artist18 Chapters
Manga canceled by Shounen Jump in 2021

We see that on average they were canceled around chapter 31. If there was something that could dramatically decrease the need for an intro to lead to the plot focus, these manga would have managed to present an average of 14% to 28% more content. 

Which could have helped it not get cancelled.

Does this mean that having long intros is inherently bad? No. The introduction works as a means of building the main plot and when well executed it get us even more in-depth in the universe built.

However, many mangaka don’t have enough time to build this perfect introduction. Whether in an online publication or printing, you have to capture the attention of the reader or the viewer as quick as possible. Therefore having a good introduction that is short can be extremely necessary for the survival and success of your work.

Learning of a New World & Justification to Fight

Another benefit of working with Isekai is that it’s simple to justify advancing the plot.

In any story, unlike the real world, we expect perfect reasons for the progress of a story.

And when our dear author decides to go ahead with something that doesn’t make sense or wasn’t justified, we feel it when we see a “forced” plot.

This “forced” is your brain unable to connect cause and effect, where it seems that everything within the plot is a big Deus Ex Machina and everything just HAPPENS.

When things just HAPPENS

Unfortunately for those who are writing, generating “justifications” can sometimes be very time consuming, or in this case consume more chapters.

Hmmm how am I going to connect my current arc with the next arc hmmm… hey what if he just kept exploring cuz it’s a new world.

Well… that’s a lot simpler than introducing several new characters or conflicts that have never been introduced so far. (Use Bleach as an example which has some characters that never appear except when it is necessary to advance the story)

I only appear in battles and sometimes without any reason

Many mangaka resolve this through manga genre or plot details. Boku no Hero is a manga about superheroes who face super villains, it’s pretty clear that there will always be another super villain to face. One Piece is a storyline focused on exploring a world and finding a place that no one knows how to get to, it’s pretty clear that there will be a next island to go and something new to find.

On the other hand, Isekai allows you to add your Main Character to a new world or society, where it is constantly being discovered and therefore it is easier to connect the dots. Since you don’t know this world it is clear that you should seek to know more…

It’s no wonder that A GIANT part of the Isekais plays our character to be an adventurer. Where by itself it will focus on EXPLORATION!!!

Isekai may have been born as a genre, a detail in a plot. But today, 20 years later, he is clearly more than that.

Isekai is a tool for storytellers to have a little more chance of succeeding and continue their grinding.

The genre has become perhaps so cheat-like that it currently dominates the novel market, even being a banned genre in many contests. The tropes and elements of the isekai genre were repetitive for the sake of pandering to fans’ desires. A short story contest in 2016 by Bungaku Flea Market, an exhibition and sale of literary works held all over Japan, and Shousetsuka ni Narou, one of Japan’s largest contribution fiction websites, prohibited any isekai-themed entries. In 2017, Kadokawa Shoten also prohibited isekai stories in their novel writing contests.

But now it’s your turn to give your opinion. What do you think about Isekai? What’s good or bad? Leave it in the comments below.

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