Books

Step into another world with isekai, the fantasy subgenre ruling the manga market

by Eric Margolis

Contributing writer

Any devoted manga or light novel fan knows the story like the back of their hand: An average high school or college kid, usually a self-proclaimed otaku (nerd) obsessed with manga or video games, dies in a sudden accident. When they wake up, they discover they have been transported to a fantasy world. Often they have been transformed into a prince, duchess or legendary hero; sometimes an ordinary merchant or farmer. In some unfortunate cases, they start life anew as a sword, or even slime.

This fantasy subgenre known as isekai (other world) has dominated the manga and light novel markets in recent years. At the time of writing, out of the top 100 paid manga on Amazon Japan, 17 titles were isekai; on Amazon.com, there were a whopping 37. “Loner Life in Another World,” “Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation” and “My Status as an Assassin Obviously Far Exceeds the Hero’s” are just a few ranked near the top. Publishers such as Kadokawa and Alphapolis have doubled down on the genre, releasing hundreds of volumes of isekai titles a year.

Isekai has oversaturated both markets to the point where fans, editors and critics are practically sick of it. “Another isekai?” is a common remark on sites like Baka-Updates, a database that compiles new manga releases. One editor at a U.S.-based publisher says that isekai “make up a huge portion of new manga coming out. It’s been a driving force within manga and I don’t see it going away.” According to Kim Morrissey, a reporter at Anime News Network, isekai is “actually threatening the traditional light novel markets. There are less people buying other genres.”

“Popular genres have changed with the times,” says Yuichiro Takashima, a sales manager in the comics division at Kodansha. “The panic horror genre used to be popular, for example, but now isekai completely rules the day.”

While some trace isekai back to the 1970s manga series “Crest of the Royal Family,” where the protagonist is transported to ancient Egypt, the origins of the modern genre can be seen in the early 2010s trends for franchises based off of virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing games (VRMMO RPGs), such as Sword Art Online, which was first released in 2013. The genre rapidly expanded throughout the 2010s with international hits including Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World and The Rising of the Shield Hero, which were then adapted into anime.

The rise of the genre is intertwined with novel-posting sites that became popular in the early to mid-2010s, such as Shosetsuka ni Naro (“Let’s Become a Novelist”), where users can freely post stories. Stories that become popular on these platforms are scouted by Japanese publishers and turned into light novels, which are then adapted into manga, because the latter sell even better.

Isekai dominates these novel-posting sites. In 2020, isekai typically made up a majority of the top 100 novels on Shosetsuka ni Naro.

Critics say that the appeal of the isekai genre largely stems from how familiar it is to a generation raised on video games and anime. “A lot of the appeal comes down to how easy it is to write,” says Morrissey. “You throw characters into a world and things get explained to them as they go along. It hits the sweet spot of being very familiar to readers, but you can twist it just enough so that you don’t feel like you’re reading the same thing every time.”

In the U.S. and other international markets, where the share of manga readers tend to be fans of Japanese culture, this meta genre deeply immersed in otaku culture makes up a large portion of the manga market.

“These fans are introverts in general, so isekai is an extension of that introvert personality,” says the U.S.-based publishing editor. “Rather than going out and experiencing the world, they want to go inward and create their own fantasy world.”

The isekai genre also brings with it a host of deeply problematic tropes and ideas. Explicit misogyny is rarely called out, and slavery is often depicted with slaves that are content with their positions. Critics have dissected and analyzed these tropes to probe for depth, and while some argue that there is more nuance and significance than detractors claim, others have argued that problematic isekai represents an “incel’s fantasy” and a safe space for sexualization, the male gaze and even misogynistic rage.

“Despite that kind of glaring cultural disconnect, it’s really interesting how these books sell really well in America,” says Morrissey.

While isekai has certainly led the way in recent years, editors are confident that the manga market as a whole will continue to grow regardless. “Sales of magazines have dropped, but that’s been more than outpaced by the growth in sales of electronic comics,” says Takashima. “(In Japan) the average age of the reader has increased, so manga needs to do a better job of competing with other leisure activities for young people.”

At the very least, isekai continues to delight its fans, inspire a culture of online novel writing and offer a stream of new material for international devotees of Japanese pop culture. Online reviews and blogs show that fans love isekai not for the tropes, but for the characters, plot twists and worldbuilding — much like any other genre in literature. And as long as isekai continues to sell, it is likely to maintain its presence in the manga market, despite how problematic it is, or how tiresome it can feel.

“It comes down to capitalism, really,” says the U.S. editor. “Editors have to publish books that make money. There’s no secret to this.”

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