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Isekai: A Popular Anime Trend

Most forms of art today can be categorized within genres. Literature, for example, can be categorized as a fable, epic, essay, comedy, and many other forms. In film, genres are classified based on similarities between works: “We recognise genres by their narratives or their themes, but also by their iconography, characters and certain stylistic elements (for example, lighting, camera style)” (British Film Institute, n.d.). Genres are thus defined by distinctive elements (British Film Institute. n.d.). Horror, for instance, tends to provoke fear or disgust from the audience (Kuhn & Westwell, 2012, p.223). Subgenres may emerge within a genre (Kench, 2022). A zombie film is an example of a horror subgenre, with the commonality being the presence of zombies or zombie-like creatures. An often overlooked yet popular genre of film is anime. Around the world, around 36% of people watch anime (Ferjan, 2023) and it is valued at over $28 billion (Grand View Research, 2023). Anime contains popular film genres such as horror, comedy, romance, action, Isekai, and more. However, one genre stands out among the others: Isekai. In this subgenre, characters are transported into a new world: “Isekai translates to ‘different world’ or ‘otherworld’” (Stalberg, 2021). It describes an odd concept where the protagonist dies and is reborn, or reincarnated, in another world. The idea spawned 292 animes as of 2023 (My Anime List, n.d.). It should be noted that the website counts sequels as separate works, thus inflating the true number.


Several reasons may explain the popularity of such a peculiar genre. Isekai often presents a protagonist in their unsatisfying mundane everyday life before they die and are reborn in another world (Cardaro, 2023). From this thread, viewers can identify with the protagonist as the desire to escape their ordinary lives is an experience shared by many (Cardaro, 2023). Although possible, this reasoning is flawed as some Isekai protagonists do not lead boring lives prior to their reincarnation and some do not show it at all. In The World's Finest Assassin Gets Reincarnated in Another World as an Aristocrat (2021), the main character, the world’s greatest assassin, dies in a plane crash during a mission (19:27). In The Eminence in Shadow (2022), a boy fights and kills criminals before being run over by a truck (16:55). In Overlord (2015), the protagonist is already in a new world, a video game world in this case (10:08).

Figure 1: A truck runs over and kills Cid Kagenou in "The Eminence in Shadow" (2022).

Coincidentally, this discrepancy highlights why Isekai has so many entries: variation (Stalberg, 2021). The original idea of a protagonist being reborn in another world offers a great number of possibilities (Cardaro, 2023). The first parameter is the protagonist. A near-infinite number of protagonists can carry these shows (Stalberg, 2021). The World’s Finest Assassin (2021) and The Eminence in Shadow (2022) both feature strong and resilient heroes. Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World (2016) and KonoSuba (2013) have incompetent lead characters. The second parameter is the new world (Stalberg, 2021). While they are traditionally a fantasy world, any setting works (Facts.net, 2022). Once again, a near-infinite number of possibilities exist in that realm. The third parameter links the previous two: rebirth (Cardaro, 2023). It is true that Isekai writers can kill their characters in a number of ways, but the compelling quality of this parameter is the method of rebirth. This resurrection defines what previous experience the protagonist imports in their new life (Stalberg, 2021). In KonoSuba (2013), Kazuma, the main character, spawns as his own person: a physical replica of whom he was before. The real Kazuma from his birth to the time of death (age unknown), does not exist in the new world (Studio Deen, 2013); he simply appeared in this world exactly how he was on Earth as if he was simply continuing his life (Studio Deen). This would be considered a rebirth and not a reincarnation. In That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime (2018), the protagonist is reincarnated as a slime in a fantasy world. In both cases, the formerly Earth-dwelling character must adapt to their new world using their previous knowledge, depending on the story. A final parameter can be applied to the Isekai: genre (Stalberg, 2021). Isekai can be any genre from horror to comedy. By changing these parameters, writers can create a near-unlimited number of stories with the initial concept.


Another reason behind Isekai’s popularity is the strength of its catalyst. The catalyst, also called inciting incident, drives the story forward: “the Catalyst kicks things out of balance and gives the central character a new problem, need, goal, desire, or mission” (Trottier, 2004, p.16). Catalysts are essentially events that start the story’s central conflict. Stories are often about rebirth (Campbell, 2004, p. 83; Vogler, 2007, p. 160). Rebirths are usually metaphorical as characters do not always die. In The Breakfast Club (1985), every character is reborn by the end of the film through a change of character. They gained a better understanding of the world and a better grasp of their personal problems by spending a day together (Hughes, 1985).

Figure 2: Allison (Ally Sheedy) physically transforms in "The Breakfast Club" (1985).

In Isekai, characters always die early on (Cardaro, 2023). The most popular plot device for their deaths is truck accidents (Facts.net, 2022). In fact, the device is so overused that there is a running joke about “truck-kun” or “truck-san,” treating the vehicle as a character (Facts.net, 2022). Death as a catalyst is an incredible plot device allowing for a character’s literal rebirth, which is the entire purpose of some story structures (Campbell, 2004; Vogler, 2007). Additionally, this type of catalyst forces a change in the hero’s life and prevents them from returning to their status quo world (Vogler, 2007, p.127; Trottier, 2014, p.28; Brody, 2018, p.25). Building a life-changing catalyst is so important that novelist Jessica Brody (2018) describes it as such: “The Catalyst will crash land in your hero’s life and create so much destruction, your hero will have no choice but to do something different” (p.38). Few events change one’s life as much as their own death. Killed and thrown into a new world, protagonists have no choice but to adapt. Of course, they cannot return to Earth as they have died.

Figure 3: Misato Kurihara dies before being reincarnated in "Didn't I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life?" (2019).

Isekai catalysts provide fertile ground for conflict. Conflict is central to stories: “All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story; and without story, you have no screenplay” (Field, 2005, p.25). As such a significant part of storytelling, writers naturally search for the best ways to produce conflicts. Death is an excellent source of conflict: “Conflict gets our attention. Why is wrestling the longest running drama on TV? It's about as basic an entertainment as you can get: DEATH! Two people trying to kill each other” (Snyder, 2005, p.112). Killing the protagonist early on allows for an efficient transition to act two, where the hero must deal with the consequences. Blake Snyder (2005), a screenwriting guru, calls the three acts thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (p.76). The thesis is the hero’s normal status quo world, whereas the antithesis is the upside-down version of the hero’s act one life (Snyder, 2005, p.193). In act three, synthesis, the hero combines what he knew in act one with what he learned in act two to truly adapt to his world (Snyder, 2005, p.193). Act two often shows a different world than act one, but it is not always the opposite. In Speed (1994), Keanu Reeve’s character, a SWAT officer, starts by fighting a terrorist in a hotel. In act two, he goes against the same terrorist, but in a bus rigged with explosives (29:30). Those two acts are not opposites. As a matter of fact, what is the opposite of surviving a bus rigged with explosives? Many story events do not have apparent opposites; Isekai does: protagonists shift from alive to dead (Facts.net, 2022). Death as a catalyst allows for a literal opposite world. Reality and fantasy can also be interpreted as opposites (Thesaurus, n.d.). Isekai proposes a real world before catapulting the main character into a fantasy world (Cardaro, 2023). Therefore, it is unsurprising that death is a popular method for catalysts in Isekai.


In conclusion, what characterizes the Isekai genre is the conception of death and rebirth. A theory suggests that viewers enjoy the genre due to the relatability of escaping mundane life (Cardaro, 2023). This is a correct but shortsighted analysis. Strong conflicts paired with infinite variation possibilities in stories make for a great storytelling experience. Death as a catalyst propels narratives forward and hooks the audience by creating a breeding ground for conflict. Since “all drama is conflict” (Field, 2005, p. 25), the strong catalyst promises an equally strong story. By showing an upside-down world in act two, the characters are forced to adapt to a completely new reality. As such, characters have no way of returning to their original world which pushes the story forward at an accelerated pace. With strong story potential, Isekai became one of anime’s most popular genres (Stalberg, 2021).

Bibliographical References

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http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/446108/full.html


Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Ten Speed Press.


Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Commemorative edition). Princeton University Press.


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Facts.net. (2022, February 17). List of Anime Genres. https://facts.net/anime-genres/


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Kanasaki, T. (Director). (2016). KonoSuba. Studio Deen.


Kench, S. (2022, November 6). What is a Subgenre — Definition, Examples & How They Work. Studio Binder. https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/what-is-a-subgenre-definition/


Kikuchi, Y. (Director). (2018). That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. 8bit.


Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2012). Horror Film. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press.


My Anime List. (n.d.). Isekai Anime. https://myanimelist.net/anime/genre/62/Isekai


Nakanishi, K. (Director). (2022). The Eminence in Shadow. Nexus.


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Stalberg, A. (2021, November 12). How Isekai Became Anime’s Most Popular Genre. Game Rant. https://gamerant.com/how-isekai-genre-became-so-popular/


Tamura, M. (Director). (2021). The World's Finest Assassin Gets Reincarnated in Another World as an Aristocrat. Silver Link.


Thesaurus. (n.d.). Fantasy and Reality. https://thesaurus.plus/related/fantasy/reality


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Watanabe, M. (Director). (2016). Re: Zero − Starting Life in Another World. White Fox.

Visual Sources


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Yoran Praet

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