The Isekai genre has become so common in anime that there seems to be at least one new isekai series every season. It’s become one of those genres so synonymous with anime that it may be hard to imagine the concept outside the medium. However, the idea of a character being transported into a different realm isn’t new outside of Japan by any means.
In modern-day anime, this concept has been experimented with using a variety of plot devices and themes, some more common than others. This wide array of stories has made the isekai genre so prominent in anime that when asked, “What is the first Isekai?” anime fans sturggle to come to a proper consensus. Few fans have recognized the similarities in books like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, but there’s one Western “isekai” that’s gone completely unrecognized.
What Makes An Isekai?
In short, the definition of an isekai is a story in which the main character travels from one world to another. This concept has blown up in anime culture thanks to the success of series like Sword Art Online and That Time I got Reincarnated As A Slime, among others. As versatile as the genre is, it’s primarily used within the fantasy genre. Manga and anime creators have been trying to keep the genre fresh with new ideas, some brilliant, others bizarre.
In isekai, the protagonist often dies, though there are some series where the hero is transported to an alternate reality. Sometimes they are reincarnated as another person, species, or — believe it or not — an inanimate object, and in some intriguing cases, the hero becomes the villain. Since anime is known for its vast experimental ideas, the isekai genre fits perfectly into anime culture.
In Japan, there is one story that has led to the massive inspiration of isekai for the past several generations. During the Muromachi period of Japan (1338-1573), the isekai story Urashima Taro was passed down through verbal storytelling practices. The story shares the adventure of a fisherman named Urashima Taro who, after saving an abused turtle, is rewarded entry into a wondrous undersea kingdom. There’s more to this medieval folktale, but focusing on the main subject, it is the earliest version of a Japanese isekai. That being said, one famous Italian poet beat the storytellers of Japan in regard to this plot device.
Isekai Origins In Italy
Before the term “isekai” was ever concieved, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri was working on literature that would influence an entire culture of arts and philosophy in the West. Combining his religious philosophies with particular inspirations from Aristotle, Dante wrote poems about morality, the human soul, love, and truth, among other themes. By far, his most famous piece is Divine Comedy, which tells the story of a pilgrim’s journey throughout the three realms of the afterlife; Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
It’s argued that Dante’s inspiration for Divine Comedy was his own journey from Florence, Italy after he was exiled from the city in the early 1300s. Because of his firm beliefs in Catholicism, which includes the concept of an afterlife, many Catholic symbols and themes became a crucial part of what built Divine Comedy. Since the afterlife is essentially another realm, that makes Divine Comedy an isekai-like story.Divine Comedy was circulated throughout Italy by 1314, which is before the Marumachi period when Urashima Taro’s story was being told. This “isekai” is the first of its kind to be archived sharing the journey of the soul after death as well as telling in thrilling detail a protagonist’s adventures in another realm. To be fair, it’s possible that other storytellers, regardless of their culture, have come up with similar ideas. It could very well be that the only reason why their names haven’t appeared in historical archives is because their otherworldly stories either relied on oral storytelling that was forgotten or they didn’t have the same supportive community that upholds ancient or medieval folktales.
By being the first to archive his story, Dante is given credit for the inspiration of the West with Divine Comedy. There is no telling if his work inspired the East to further expand on the concept of traveling to another world or perhaps the idea happened to gain traction around the same century. Modern-day creators in the West have been inspired by Dante’s work, thus creating works of entertainment such as Se7en, The Sandman, and Over The Garden Wall. In Japan, however, writers were most likely inspired by the tales of Urashima Taro, thus leading to the creation of works like Spirited Away and The Twelve Kingdoms.
Universal Plot Devices Should Remain Universal
At the core of Divine Comedy is a basic storytelling concept that has been used for centuries, but today anime creators are marketing the plot device of dimensional travel and giving it the particular label of isekai. While the Japanese word does translate to “other world”, making its connection clear, the fact that the genre and plot device has become so closely tied to anime is a bit limiting.
The well-known concept of isekai has made anime famous, or infamous depending on the conversation, partly because of the repetitive storyline being told as well as the unhealthy anime tropes that have become associated with these series. This overused basic story concept is running its course on originality in anime, and by sorting through stories from only one culture, this being specifically from Japanese anime, there is a limit on storytelling.Granted, being the first to pen something or becoming the most famous in entertainment doesn’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme. A good story is a good one, but the over-emphasis and marketing tactics of labels need to be avoided to create these remarkable tales. The creators of the first isekai-like stories weren’t thinking about following a trend like how isekai is treated today. They were expressing themselves and the messages they wanted to share with the world and that is what made their stories so profound.
Every storyteller takes inspiration from someone before them because they saw something special in that story, like how Dante took inspiration from philosophers and religious figures of his time and storytellers after him found their own inspirations. The stories we come to love are not for trends or tropes, but rather to challenge beliefs, philosophy, and most importantly, imagination. Whether the idea has been done before or not, it’s up to the creator to find the right inspiration. Hopefully, the newest batch of storytellers can hold onto that purity and sense of expression in the near future and that the novelty of isekai is more carefully used.