Monday, July 24, 2017

isekai 異世界

In Japanese, isekai 異世界 means "different world," but it also refers to a genre of anime that deals with going, ending up, being summoned to, or reincarnating in another world, particularly via high-speed truck-kun collision.

Translation

The literal translation of isekai 異世界 would be "different world." It's formed by the word sekai 世界, which means "world," and the prefix i- 異~, which means "different."

It's always translated as "another world," or "other world," however, because: a "different world" from the one you're in right now is, of course, "another world." There's this world, and there's that, the other world, which is a different world.
  • isekai ni tensei suru
    異世界に転生する
    To reincarnate in a different world.
    To reincarnate in another world.

This prefix is synonym with the verb kotonaru 異なる, "to differ," which's written with the same kanji, but has okurigana. And that verb is similar to chigau 違う. By using them as a relative clause we can achieve more-or-less the same meaning in Japanese:
  • kotonaru sekai ni tensei suru
    異なる世界に転生する
    To reincarnate in a world [that] differs.
    To reincarnate in a different world.
    To reincarnate in another world.
  • chigau sekai ni tensei suru
    違う世界に転生する
    (same as above.)

The word betsu 別 can also mean "different" as in "parallel."
  • betsu no sekai
    別の世界
    A separate world.
    A parallel world.
    A different world.
    Another world.

Some examples of other words with the prefix:
  • ijou 異常
    Abnormal.
    • seijou 正常
      Normal.
  • igi 異議
    OBJECTION!!!
    • seigi 正義
      Justice.
    • seigi no mikata 正義の味方
      An ally of justice. A hero.
  • iron 異論
    Differing argument.
    • seiron 正論
      An argument that sounds right. An agreeable argument.
  • iken 異見
    Different opinion.

世界

The word sekai 世界 means "world." Note that in the planetary sense it would be:
  • hoshi
    Star. Planet. Heavenly body.
  • chikyuu 地球
    The Earth. The globe.

The world sekai is "world" is a more general sense, just like in English.

Its first kanji, 世, is found in words related to society:
  • seken 世間
    Society.
  • sedai 世代
    Generation.
    • This generation is too lazy!
  • yo no naka 世の中
    In the world. In society.
    • E.g. when you get out in the world, it won't be as kind as school was.
  • kono yo この世
    This world (of the living)
  • ano yo あの世
    That world (of the dead)

The other kanji, 界, is often a suffix that very literally means a delimiting boundary, but less literally refers to all sorts of "worlds" or "realms." For example:
  • makai 魔界
    World of the demons.
    Hell. (sometimes)
  • reikai 霊界
    World of the spirits.
  • tenkai 天界
    Heaven.
  • gyoukai 業界
    The industry.
    The business world.
  • seikai 政界
    The world of politics.
  • gakkai 学界
    The academic world.
  • kikai 棋界
    The world of shogi. (shougi 将棋)

It also shows up in some common words like:
  • genkai 限界
    Limit.
  • shikai 視界
    Field of vision. (the limits of your vision.)
  • kekkai 結界
    Barrier.
    • Note that Blood Blockade Battlefront's Japanese name is:
    • kekkai sensen 血界戦線
    • But kanji for "blood," chi 血, instead, so you could interpret it as "blood-world battlefront" or "barrier battlefront."

Joining the two, we have the "world."
  • sekai wo sukuu 世界を救う
    Save the world.
    • Generic epic anime phrase
  • tikyuu wo sukuu 地球を救う
    Save the Earth.
    • Exclusively a sci-fi anime phrase, also used by environmentalists probably.

Some common expressions:
  • sekai seifuku 世界征服
    World domination. (conquest, subjugation, etc.)
  • sekai ichi 世界一
    Number 1 in The World.
  • sekai-kyuu 世界急
    World Class (often shows up in sports anime)
  • sekai ga horobiru 世界が滅びる
    The world will be destroyed.
  • sekai-juu 世界中
    All around the world.
    Between everyone in the world.

aru hi totsuzen sekai ni ana ga aita, one day suddenly a hole opened in the world. Panel from the manga Sen'yuu 戦勇.

You can also find it in some anime titles:
  • Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo!
    この素晴らしい世界に祝福を!
    Blessings For This Wonderful World
  • Shinsekai Yori
    新世界より
    From The New World
  • Kami nomi zo Shiru Sekai
    神のみぞ知るセカイ
    The World God Only Knows

Genre

Although the word isekai means literally "another world," the isekai genre that plagues anime, manga, and LNs isn't merely about that.

It's true that every isekai anime has someone somehow ending up in some other world. But a lot of stuff that's not isekai also has that. So what makes isekai isekai? And what makes not-isekai not-isekai?

To understand isekai anime first we need to understand otaku, in particular the hardcore ones: the guys who play games that have anime characters in it. Who have waifus. Who have a preference for tsundere that have ahoge and zettai ryouki. That sort of weird anime stuff.

You'll see that anime whose main audience are otaku feature a lot of weird character designs. They're cute, cool, hot, quirky, ridiculous and so on. They're completely different from reality, and that's kind of the fun of it.

A lot of fantasy anime and games mind their otaku audience by including such stuff. But in those anime, the otaku audience is just an observer. I mean, obviously, they're merely watching the fantasy main character deal with other fantasy characters.

The isekai genre is the answer to the question: what if I was the main character instead?

It focuses on throwing an anime-savvy otaku main character into a fantasy world that so many anime have. It puts someone similar to the watchers and readers interacting with that world. Even if only by the fact that they both come from modern-era Japan rather than medieval era anime-land.

That's why a lot of isekai anime have fantasy worlds that parody Dragon Quest and other famous RPGs. They often have magic, a "demon king" maou 魔王, as the final boss to defeat, who's getting "revived," fukkatsu 復活, yomigaeru 蘇る, and has risen a demon army, and there's a chosen "hero," yuusha 勇者, who's fated to defeat him.

Unfortunately, a lot of isekai stories are written by the otaku themselves, who can't divorce themselves from their protagonists, so they end up writing these pathetic harem-building sagas where the main character lucks out some super-powers because he's also the author, and every male character must look bad in order for him to look good.

As the genre became more popular, some titles which deviate from this norm also showed up. Like someone who has nothing to do with otaku dying and getting reincarnated somewhere else.

Examples

For reference, some examples of isekai anime. They're ordered from best to absolutely-one-of-the-worst-anime-I-have-ever-seen-in-my-life-seriously-it-disgusted-me.
  1. KonoSuba このすば
    Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo
    この素晴らしい世界に祝福を
    [Give my] blessings to This Wonderful World.
    • Comedy.
    • Via: reincarnation, Truck-kun.
    • One weak otaku protagonist.
  2. re: Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu
    Re:ゼロから始める異世界生活
    Starting Life in a Different World from Zero.
    • Drama. Psychological.
    • Via: suddenly summoned without noticing after exiting a store.
    • One weak otaku protagonist.
  3. Noo Geemu Noo Raifu
    ノーゲーム・ノーライフ
    No Game No Life. NGNL.
    • Gambling.
    • Via: summoned by the God of Games, Teto.
    • Two overpowered game-addicted protagonists.
  4. Autobureiku Kanpanii
    アウトブレイク・カンパニー
    Outbreak Company.
    • Comedy.
    • Via: there's a portal that connects to the fantasy world.
    • One otaku protagonist that teaches fantasy characters about manga and anime.
  5. Overlord.
    • Fantasy. Adventure.
    • Via: virtual-reality MMORPG.
    • The absolutely most overpowered protagonist with an army of extremely overpowered characters.
  6. Naitsu ando Majikku
    ナイツ&マジック
    Knight's & Magic.
    • Fantasy. Mecha.
    • Via: hit by a car, reborn as a baby.
    • One overpowered mecha-otaku protagonist.
  7. Youjo Senki
    幼女戦記
    Little Girl War Chronicle.
    • Military War.
    • Via: reborn as a girl, Train-kun.
    • One overpowered office worker as protagonist.
  8. Isekai Maou to Shoukan Shoujo no Dorei Majutsu
    異世界魔王と召喚少女の奴隷魔術
    The Demon Lord of Another World and the Slave Spell of Summon Girls.
    • Ecchi.
    • Via: summoned by two girls.
    • One overpowered otaku protagonist.
  9. Mondaiji-tachi ga Isekai kara Kuru Sou Desu yo?
    問題児たちが異世界から来るそうですよ?
    It Seems Problem Children are Coming from Another World?
    • Fantasy. Comedy.
    • Via: summoned by letter.
    • Three overpowered kids.
  10. Geeto Jieitai Kanochi nite, Kaku Tatakaeri
    ゲート 自衛隊 彼の地にて、斯く戦えり
    GATE: JSDF On That Land, Such Fought
    • Fantasy. Military.
    • Via: there's a portal that connects to the fantasy world.
    • The most ridiculously overpowered otaku protagonist yet. Because he never reincarnated or anything, he was overpowered in spite of being an otaku.
  11. Desu Maachi kara Hajimaru Isekai Kyousoukyoku
    デスマーチからはじまる異世界狂想曲
    The Other World Rhapsody that Starts from a Death March.
    • Harem.
    • Via: dude literally just slept.
    • One overpowered and most disturbingly, pathetically bland main character to have ever existed. It honestly disgusts me that someone actually created this character. It's just sad. I have never seen such a no-life push-over in my whole life and watching him act literally the most basic, most expected, and most boring way every time irked me to my core. All events that happened in the twelve episodes of this anime were initiated by some other force. The protagonist never did anything out of his own. Never showed preference or personality. Never showed volition, motivation or effort. It was horrible. Horrible!

What's Not Isekai

Just because something is on a "different world," doesn't mean it's in the isekai genre.

There are lots and lots of stories where a character ends up in "another world," but lacks the definitive element of an otaku bringing their anime-knowledge to a fantasy Dragon Quest-like anime-land, so you wouldn't call them isekai.

This is even though you could still make some ridiculous "it's in a different world" argument, like:
  • Digimon is an isekai, because the characters end up in a virtual world, which is a different world from the real world.
    • Sword Art Online is an isekai, because when you die in the game, you die in real life.
    • Ready Player One is an isekai too. Because why not? The OASIS is another world!
  • The Chronicles of Narnia is an isekai, because they end up in Narnia, which is a different world.
    • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an isekai, because, although Dorothy isn't hit by a truck, she's hit by a cyclone, and ends up in the Land of Oz, which is actually a country, but it's like a different world.
    • Summer Wars has a world of OZ too, so it's an isekai too.
    • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is an isekai too.
    • Coco is an isekai, because Miguel enters the world of the dead, which is a different world compared to the world of the living.
  • Hataraku Maou-Sama! is an isekai, because the demon lord leaves his fantasy world to end up in the normal world, which is a different world, but in reverse.
    • Death Note is an isekai, because shinigami come from another world.
    • Gabriel DropOut is an isekai, because Gab and Satania leave heaven and hell respectively to spend some time in the human world, which is a different world.
    • Yu Yu Hakusho is a an isekai, because Yusuke ends goes fights demons in the demon world, which is a different world. Also, he gets hit by a truck.
    • DOOM is an isekai, because there's a hell in it and that's about enough.
  • Dragon Ball is an isekai, because Goku is an alien, so when he's on Earth, he's on a different world.
    • Superman is an isekai, same reason.
    • Aria is an isekai, because it takes place in Aqua, formerly known as Mars, which is a different planet, and that's a different world, I suppose.
    • Suisei no Gargantia is an isekai, because the protagonist gets stranded on a planet he doesn't know exactly where it is or how to get out, nor how stuff works, so it's a different world.
    • LOST is an isekai because people get stranded on an island where they don't know how stuff works.
  • Harry Potter is an isekai, because Harry leaves the muggle world to join the magic world, which is a different world.
    • The Ancient Magus' Bride is an isekai for exactly the same reason
    • The Little Mermaid is an isekai, because Ariel ends up in the land world, which is totally different from the sea world she lived in.
    • Paprika is an isekai, because the world of dreams is a very different world.
  • Chrono Trigger is an isekai, because Chrono and his nakama time-travel to the past and the future, which look basically like different worlds.
    • Steins;Gate is an isekai, because different "WORLD" lines, so different worlds.
    • The Terminator is an isekai, because Arnold Schwarzenegger comes from a different world where Skynet has taken control in order to make sure that future happens and then to prevent that from happening.
  • Hajime no Ippo is an isekai, because Ippo leaves his normal live to enter the world of boxing.
    • Hikaru no Go is an isekai, because Hikaru is dragged by a spiritual entity into the world of go and honestly extremely epic soundtracks.
    • Zombieland Saga is an isekai, because Sakura gets hit by a truck and ends up in the world of idols.
    • Usagi Drop is an isekai, because the main character is dragged into the world of parenting.
    • Hinamatsuri is an isekai, because Nitta is dragged into the world of taking care of the most troublesome child ever. Also, Hina comes from another world.
    • Ben-to is an isekai, because a normal dude accidentally ends up in the brutal world of beating people up for a few dollars of discount on school lunch. Wait... he's beating up weaker guys for lunch money... did I root for the bad guy all along?!
  • Sakasama no Patema is an isekai, because their worlds couldn't be more opposite to each other.
    • Kuragehime is an isekai, because she's a poor nerd girl with no sense of fashion, he's a rich playboy with an inordinate sense of fashion, they belong to totally different worlds.
    • Your Name is an isekai, same reason, practically.
  • Violet Evergarden is an isekai because her past self living in a world of war died and she was reborn as a doll in a more peaceful world.

SAO vs. Overlord

If you were paying attention, you may have noticed that Overlord is isekai, but SAO is not isekai. Given that they're both anime where the protagonist is in a virtual world, one might wonder what is the difference between the two.

In SAO, Kirito is a living player in a virtual world surrounded by other living players. They're all from the same place. The NPCs are not living.

In Overlord, Momonga, who was in the virtual world, suddenly finds himself surrounded by much more real NPCs. They act and talk without commands, they suddenly have personalities of their own. It's like the virtual world became an actual, different world.

A cornerstone of the isekai genre is that the protagonist must interact in a meaningful way with the people of this "other world." The protagonist knows things from his modern Japan life that other-world-ians do not know, and vice-versa.

If there's no such exchange, it's like the world doesn't have people in it, so the whole genre doesn't matter.

History

Historically, there have been isekai works since way before isekai was called isekai.

A lot of isekai anime we have today are adaptations of web novels published free to read in websites like syosetu.com. For reference, some examples with links to their respective pages, and the date of publication of the first chapter:

As you can see, nowadays you can just start writing a story online as a hobby about a guy who reincarnates in a magic world and goes around doing giant robot stuff, and then, seven years later, it turns into an anime.

This web novel world is vastly different from how professional serialization works. With a serialization, one person can't do it alone. They need a company, a publisher. They'll have an editor, deadlines. If their work isn't popular, they'll have to stop. It's a completely different environment.

It's simply easier to start writing a web novel, which is why there are so many of them.

But such isekai web novels couldn't have existed without the influence of isekai works that predated the web novel world. The isekai works from an era where isekai wasn't even called a genre.

For example, Zero no Tsukaima ゼロの使い魔 was first published as a light novel in 2004, adapted as anime in 2006, way before isekai was a thing, but it was an isekai story nonetheless.

It follows the story of an average Japanese boy that finds a portal in the middle of street, his superior intellect leads him to literally shove his hand into the unknown green blob of energy or whatever floating in front of him instead of just running away like a coward and screaming "THE WORLD IS GOING TO END" or something like that.

He ends up in another world, where he's treated as a honorable guest.

Anime: Zero no Tsukaima ゼロの使い魔 (Episode 2)

And given the best accommodations isekai can offer.

Anime: Zero no Tsukaima ゼロの使い魔 (Episode 2)

The world has magic, a school of magic, princesses, kingdoms, you know, the stuff. It also has fanservice, of course.

Anime: Zero no Tsukaima: Futatsuki no Kishi ゼロの使い魔 ~双月の騎士~ (Episode 1)

As you can see, Zero no Tsukaima was a typical isekai anime. It was popular enough to have three sequels:
  • Zero no Tsukaima (2006)
    13 episodes.
  • Zero no Tsukaima: Futatsuki no Kishi (2007)
    12 episodes.
  • Zero no Tsukaima: Princess no Rondo (2008)
    12 episodes.
  • Zero no Tsukaima F (2012)
    12 episodes.

If you recall the list of isekai web novels from earlier, you'll see the the third sequel, F, was adapted in the same year that Overlord, Konosuba, and Re:Zero had their first chapters written. So it's possible it was one of the biggest influences to the isekai genre, given its proximity to the isekai boom.

Of course, Zero no Tsukaima wasn't the first isekai. There were isekai from even before it, which might have influenced ZnT.

For example, the Ma Series ㋮シリーズ, a novel dating from 2000, which got the adaptation Kyou kara Maou! 今日からマ王! in 2004, was about a boy who, and I'm not making this up, was flushed down a toilet into another world. Where he finds out he's actually the demon lord.

But that's not what the anime is about. It's about boys getting married with boys. Or rather, boys sumo-wrestling other boys shirtless to avoid getting married with them.

Anime: Kyou kara Maou! 今日からマ王! (Episode 2)

Yeah, turns out they actually made isekai anime for fujoshi too. And this anime totals over 100 episodes with its OVA and sequel.

But that's not the first isekai either. Because there were other, even older titles featuring the same scenario. For example:
  • Chousekitan Maze☆Bakunetsu Jikuu
    Manga: 1996. Anime: 1997.
    A girl ends up in a magic world, where she turns into a guy a night, and her romantic interest is a hermaphrodite.
  • Magic Knight Rayearth
    Manga: 1993. Anime: 1994.
    Three girls were going to the Tokyo Tower but accidentally end up in another world.
  • Fushigi Yuugi
    Manga: 1992. Anime: 1995.
    A girl goes to a library, picks up a book, ends up in the world inside the book.
  • NG Knight Ramune & 40
    Anime: 1990.
    A boy beats a video game, which means he's the blood relative of the chosen hero, and so he ends up in another world to do heroic stuff. (wow, this scenario is old.)

And of course, those weren't the first isekai, either, they were influenced by something, but, seriously, you get the point. The whole isekai thing has existed from since before you were born.

And I don't mean 1990, I mean 1666, when Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, wrote the book The Blazing World, in which:
A young woman enters this other world, becomes the empress of a society composed of various species of talking animals, and organizes an invasion back into her world complete with submarines towed by the "fish men" and the dropping of "fire stones" by the "bird men" to confound the enemies of her homeland, the Kingdom of Esfi. [The Blazing World - wikipedia.org, accessed 2019-04-05.]

Wow... isekai is old.

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