It can be really inconvenient at times, when one’s thoughts just build on each other forever. When one has a blog to update, however, it can be a pretty decent blessing. 🙂
I recently made a few posts which were inspired by or at least involved the taken-to-another-world trope called isekai, and that got me wondering: with so much of it saturating the market, where, exactly, did it come from? My wonderful audience, I have a theory.
As everything in the present is an expansion on the past, especially in our stories, I thought to start with today and work my way backwards.
Right now, there are (of course) several isekai anime airing, including So I’m a Spider, So What? Which is turning out pretty well, I am delighted to say. It follows a number of Japanese high school students who suddenly found themselves reincarnated in a fantasy world, including the lead character, who comes back as a spider. Thus the title.
It is only the latest in an exponential explosion of isekai anime, including Overlord, That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime, The Rising of the Shield Hero, and, a particular favorite of mine, By the Grace of the Gods (I still think of it in my own head as Kamitachi). The explosion of this trend took off especially after the success of such shows as Log Horizon and Sword Art Online, which are spiritual heirs to the classic .hack//Sign, which came out in fairly close proximity to other isekai classics such as InuYasha, Digimon, Monster Rancher, The Vision of Escaflowne, and Spirited Away, all in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
(let me just take a moment to bask in how I’ve apparently been doing this long enough that I can link to reviews for most of the titles I just mentioned… ahhh! …ok, basking done)
Even before these, however, were tales which I am less familiar with, personally, but have heard about for a very long time. Among these are Magic Knight Rayearth, The Twelve Kingdoms, El Hazard, and Fushigi Yugi. There’s an interesting trend among several of these and their most direct successors: the protagonists were girls, or included girls prominently. There’s probably something to be said there about girls getting swept up in adventures in far away worlds of magic wherein they find true love. But, though the trend has moved away from that and more towards boys being taken, given overwhelming power, and showered with gorgeous women who want to give them babies, the earliest isekai manga/anime I could find mention of actually featured a male lead.
It’s called Aura Battler Dunbine, and, alas, I can only speak of it’s reputation, rather than from personally experiencing it. Apparently, it was first published in 1983, making the trope in Japanese media officially older than myself, albeit not by much. It featured a young man who is whisked away from our world to a fantasy world and caught up in the wars raging therein. There was action, warfare, romance, and a lot of death.
Now, here, the trail of published isekai stories departs wildly from Japan and goes into the West, especially to the USA and Great Britain. It makes sense that Western culture would have a sudden and significant influence on Japan in the decades following World War 2. Before, they had been fairly isolated, even after they were forced to open up a bit to the rest of the world, and then, suddenly, they were practically inundated with foreigners – even more, with foreign conquerors – including all the stories they brought with them.
The Phantom Tollbooth, about a boy who travels to another world to promote knowledge and reason, was first published in 1961. Before that, C.S. Lewis, a grandfather of modern fiction and fantasy alongside the likes of JRR Tolkien, published The Chronicles of Narnia in the time spanning 1949 and 1954. But a far more notable culprit, I think, would be none other than Walt Disney himself, whose studio animated the tales of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, both in the early 1950’s.
The original stories of Peter Pan, I had never realized, were published by Scottish author J.M. Barrie way back in 1902. And though I thought Alice first debuted at roughly the same time, it turns out that Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland several decades earlier, in 1865. (and my mind exploded for a moment to realize that I might well live to see Alice’s two hundredth birthday, if I can simply last another four decades)
Oh, and then there’s the quintessential isekai classic, published in 1900 on the nose, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Later than Alice’s adventures, more akin to Peter’s time, but definitely still one of the grandfathers of all such stories where the protagonist is taken to another world.
And, again, between these authors, there is a distinct trend of girls featuring heavily as protagonists. Interesting. Even Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, first performed in 1892, follows a young lady to another world and back.
Now, before I delve even further into history and theory, I want to pause in this era of roughly a century in the society of America and England.
It was, among many other things, a time of discovery, realization, and imagination.
Most of the stories we tell, indeed most of the genres of stories we tell, have roots that at least pass through this era and this region. The grandparents of horror were at work in this age, from Shelley to Stokes to Poe to Lovecraft. The same can be said for the grandfathers of political dystopian visions of the future, in forms of Orwell and Huxley. The proto-chicklit stories of Austen, the morality plays of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and The Purloined Letter, the adventures of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and the tall tales of Pecos Bill, John Henry, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed, all of these have shaped the stories and genres we have today. Even superheroes began here, from Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel to the incredible works of Stan Lee. So did science fiction, most notably in the works of Jules Verne and Robert Heinlein, and small wonder with veritable wonders of technology revolutionizing entire lifestyles. Locomotives, light bulbs, records, phones, automobiles, planes, weapons of war, vaccines, satellites and mankind reaching for the stars even while we worked to improve the world around us.
In short, it was the age of wonders which gave rise to our own, where hearts and minds were afire with the possibilities of what might become possible, and we reached out towards other worlds. Is it any wonder we started telling new stories about actually going to strange, new, fantastic worlds of magic as much as of science?
Isekai is, at least partially, the extension of that spirit of discovery and development which did not die even after we explored the New World, the wilds of Africa, the far reaches of the Orient, and the islands of the sea. It is not even satisfied by what we’ve seen among the stars overhead, and it found new expression.
And I think the root of it goes even deeper and further.
In researching this, I found that the earliest example of isekai in Japan actually dates all the way back to the 8th Century. As in, the 700’s. Only three digits. It’s thirteen centuries old, and that’s just what written versions have been found in historical texts. Who can possibly guess just how long it was told orally before then?
The tale has naturally gone through a number of changes over the centuries, but the basic gist is that a young fisherman, by the name of Urashima Taro, rescues a creature of the sea and, as a reward, is taken to a magical undersea kingdom. It is a wondrous time he has there, but he wishes to return home soon enough. Regrettably, when he does, he finds that it has been a full three hundred years since he left. When he opens a magical box that he was counseled not to open, he turns into an old man.
(ADD moment: that moment where I realized that Oda Eichiro drew on a tale that old when creating Fishman Island in One Piece… mind, blown)
Now, that may not necessarily fit what most of us think of when we think of isekai, but it does fit, including a normal human who goes to a supernatural world and comes back.
And it sounds quite familiar.
Rip van Winkle, anyone?
Which is merely an American echo of the tales of Medieval Europe, which were rife with such stories about the fae, those beautiful, dangerous hosts who invited mortals to dance and dance and dance entire lifetimes upon lifetimes away without realizing it until they, too, return to find that centuries have passed.
Our fascination with other worlds, it would seem, includes a rather justifiable fear of them. Indeed, for a very, very long time the smartest thing anyone could think to do when faced with the supernatural was to avoid it, hide from it, and pray for protection from it. Only the bravest, the mightiest, and those chosen for it by higher powers would dare to face the limitless perils and horrors of both the mortal and the supernatural worlds.
Only figures like the mighty Heracles or the crafty Odysseus, both of whom were driven by circumstance, would dare to descend as far as the Underworld, ruled by Hades. Unless one was chosen by the gods, as was Orpheus, and his tale turned out quite tragically. Better to keep one’s head down and get through life and do nothing whatsoever to attract divine attention. Yet, even then, back in Ancient Greece, we could not stop imagining what those otherworldly places would be like, and what it would take to go there and return again.
To go out, to leave home and enter the wide world, to grow and return home laden with treasures and tales.
It’s the Campbellian Monomyth, the Hero’s Journey. The hero leaves, has adventures, does something important, and comes back home. What departure from home is more pointed than going to an entirely new world?
And that is the root of isekai, I think.
It is as basic as human nature and desire to go and do things in the world, especially now that we know we don’t need to fear the bogeyman under the bed or the errant attentions of Zeus and Hera and whatnot. We’ve expanded and expanded into every corner of the planet, quite nearly, and still we want to go further. Until the stars become a bit more accessible, our imaginations are simply taking us to the closest possible worlds: the one’s next door, in alternate dimensions where dragons fly, wizards fight, shining knights make ladies swoon, and apparently gorgeous catgirls galore want to get with the overpowered protagonist.
So, if that is where it truly begins, then the question is: how will this be expressed in the future?
With technology advancing so far and fast, with our fascination with magic, with our desire to expand and grow, with the footsteps of all sorts of heroes lying before us… what will be the next turn that isekai takes? We’ve seen heroic journeys to the underworld, people being lost in the passage of time, mystical transportation, and now reincarnation, including reincarnation into creatures other than human… not to mention we’ve seen everything from pure maidens falling in love in other worlds to boys that have all the power and all the girls that they could possibly want… so…