By Carl Li, Associate Editor, YEN Press
When discussing popular manga, one of the major subgenres over the past ten-to-fifteen years has been isekai, or “parallel world” science fiction/fantasy.
Often adapted from Japanese prose fiction and light novels, isekai narratives typically involve protagonists who are trapped in, whisked off to, or reincarnated into a new world. The goals can vary, from getting back to the real world, to forging a new life, to simply surviving.
While “transported to another world” stories can be found in Japanese mythology, isekai as it is recognized today began to establish itself in the late 1970s and early 1980s with novels such as Haruka Takachiho’s Isekai no Yuushi [“Brave Warrior of Another World”] and Yoshiyuki Tomino’s The Wings of Rean series.
In the 1990s, isekai settings became popular in shoujo manga, as seen in CLAMP’s Magic Knight Rayearth and Yuu Watase’s Fushigi Yuugi. More recently, the subgenre has tended towards incorporating explicitly video game-like elements, and major titles such as Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online and Kugane Maruyama’s Overlord portray their worlds as MMORPGs made real.
A closely-related subgenre is “dungeon fantasy,” which typically involves characters born and raised in (as opposed to being sent to) a world where RPG-style dungeon-crawling is a way of life, such as Fujino Omori’s Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? and Kumo Kagyu’s Goblin Slayer.
The embrace of game-like worlds often extends down to the very nuts and bolts of these environments, and it’s not uncommon to see characters casually mention “experience points” and “magic points” as everyday knowledge. However, while this may seem strange to fans of more immersive fantasy, the spotlighting of game-like elements actual fuels the appeal of current isekai and dungeon fantasy works.
The most popular titles (many of which are listed above) adhere to a certain “power fantasy” aspect, but their ubiquity has also given rise to works that defy or play with readers’ expectations. So I’m a Spider, So What? features a heroine (most protagonists are male) reincarnated as an out-classed yet ever-sassy spider. Delicious in Dungeon is about a group of adventurers who survive being trapped in a dungeon by figuring out creative ways to cook the monsters trying to kill them!
Isekai and dungeon fantasy can often appear beholden to their conventions, but there is much room for innovative approaches to take root and garner an audience.