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Isekai: Hit Japan anime genre offers escape, second chances

"Isekai" or "alternative world" anime has found a new popularity in Japan and beyond, with US speciality streaming service Crunchyroll reporting "great appetite" for the genre

Published: May 2, 2023 11:42:19 AM IST
Updated: May 2, 2023 05:40:14 PM IST

Isekai: Hit Japan anime genre offers escape, second chancesPopular series include "Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation" — the tale of a 34-year-old "jobless male virgin" who is hit by a truck and reincarnated as an infant with magical powers. Image: Photography Courtesy of Tokyo MX

Getting hit by a truck doesn't sound like anyone's favourite fantasy, but it's an idea central to an escapist type of Japanese anime exploding in popularity.

"Isekai" or "alternative world" anime covers a broad range of storylines in which a character is transported into a new life.

But one form of isekai often starts with a bang: a struggling protagonist, sometimes depicted as a loser, dies a violent death but is reincarnated as a hero with unique powers.

It's found new popularity in Japan and beyond, with US speciality streaming service Crunchyroll reporting "great appetite" for the genre that includes titles like "That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime".

"We've seen very strong performance of these titles worldwide," Asa Suehira, chief content officer for Crunchyroll, told AFP.

In 2021, five of the top 10 most-watched Japanese anime on China's video platform Bilibili featured isekai storylines.

And the genre is so popular that "isekaied" even features in the online lexicon guide Urban Dictionary, defined as "the act of being run over by a truck and reborn".

Experts and fans alike say the genre taps into the pent-up frustrations of people who feel undervalued and dissatisfied with modern life.

While traditional anime franchises tend to showcase heroes navigating hostile worlds, isekai focuses instead on a chance at a do-over of life.

"The prevailing mindset in isekai is that 'I'm better off just being transported into a world where I can excel'," Satoshi Arima, an editor with publishing giant Kadokawa, told AFP.

Living vicariously

Over the years, the publishing house has released a plethora of isekai-themed light novels, many of which have then inspired manga and anime adaptations.

The current iteration of isekai began to take off around 2012, and the rise of platforms from Crunchyroll to Netflix has helped make them a mainstay among today's anime fans.

Arima said a core audience for Kadokawa's novels is "salarymen" — Japanese office workers — in their 30s and 40s.

They may be dreaming of "just switching to jobs that recognise them better," in defiance of Japan's ingrained lifetime employment system, he said.

"Since this kind of way of living is not always possible, they might be fulfilling that desire vicariously through these novels."

The escapism has broad appeal, though, and is increasingly winning over female fans who recognise themselves in previously underappreciated heroines "living their lives the way they want to", he added.

Popular series include "Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation" — the tale of a 34-year-old "jobless male virgin" who is hit by a truck and reincarnated as an infant with magical powers.

At this year's AnimeJapan convention, a long line of mostly male fans of the series formed at a booth promoting the show and other works.

"Japan isn't at its best anymore, so stories like this make me think people might be looking for ways to vent their stress and escape," one fan, 50-year-old Shinya Yamada, told AFP.

'Free from regrets'

Such escapism "serves a therapeutic purpose, although I think it's kind of sad," Yamada said.

Still, isekai's popularity appears to be growing in Japan and abroad.

A search on a major manga-curating site turns up more than 4,000 works with "isekai" in their titles.

Over the years, the genre has spawned so many works it risked being "overcrowded", Suehira said, but the subgenres it has generated have helped keep it fresh.

While some isekai narratives start with protagonists escaping their current lives by dying, others are transported into alternate universes in a less violent fashion.

Some iterations see heroes put through gruelling battles for survival featuring outlandish transfigurations into a spider monster or slime.

The increasingly popular "slow life" isekai, however, showcases characters whose new life is stress-free and tranquil.

The variety means that isekai can tap into a broad fanbase — from those fantasising about a more leisurely lifestyle to those imagining a bit more excitement, said Suehira.

The genre offers a fresh start, "free from the regrets or mistakes every person experiences in life". 

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