"Hey guys, today I wanted to talk about the newest, hottest anime to come out this season. All right, get this: It's about a completely normal shut-in Otaku with a very specific skill set that makes him useless in the real world, who is suddenly transported to a fantasy world kinda similar to any JRPG you've ever seen where he suddenly becomes the hottest shit, and he has two jobs: Messing up any poor soul who looks at him the wrong way and getting some 2D bitches. Wait, doesn't this sound oddly familiar?"
- – Gigguk, "Isekai: The Genre that Took Over Anime"
Proof that Japan has no publishing standards or quality control. Isekai is a Japanese word assimilated into the /tg/ lexicon from the weeaboo faggots at /a/ and /jp/. Literally meaning "another world" or "parallel world", it refers to a genre in which the main characters are from "our" world and taken to a foreign world resembling some form of fantasy game, where they proceed to become adventurers. Usually, plot reasons prevent them from heading home until something is taken care of—typically whatever big bad evil guy is threatening everything—but sometimes they're stuck there forever and have to adapt as best they can. Methods of transportation are vast and varied, including but not limited to: stumbling into a portal, activating a magical McGuffin, getting run over by Truck-kun and reincarnated (Tensei in weeb, a genre isekai ate), being summoned by the denizens of the world, or the ever-popular getting your brain downloaded into your favorite MMORPG.
The term (and to a lesser extent the genre) have been kicking around the weeaboosphere for a while, but around 2015 publishers started flooding the market with insufferably awful series (with insufferably long titles) that sell both in Japan and internationally like hotcakes, no matter how bland and generic they get. This once again proves that no matter which side of the planet you're on, otaku are autistic retards with no taste. As of 2018 this seems to be tapering off: Kadokawa has banned isekai stories from their light novel competitions, fewer and fewer isekai light novels get adapted into anime each season, and parodies are becoming more and more common, making it only a matter of time before the genre hits "even the parodies are stale" levels of played out. There are also deconstructive stories being written about the genre-- Re:Zero is a particularly notable example where the main character actually has a big self-aware rant about what a loser he is.
Isekai and /tg/
Although most isekai stories get panned on /tg/ for annoying meta-humor, generic shonen bullshit, generic fanservice bullshit, or a combination thereof (if not the characters being blatantly Mary Sues, or presenting something even more absurd), a handful of series are decent enough to merit genuine approval. Or they're tolerated because they have monstergirls. Check our anime and manga pages for the current scoop.
While isekai is a distinctly Japanese form of cancer, the basic idea of people from our world getting chucked into a fantastic world and forced to fend for themselves is practically universal and turns up moderately often in Western fantasy with the earliest example perhaps being "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" by Mark Twain which was published in 1889. Oddly, when this happens it tends to be rather less shit perhaps due to it being less common. L. Frank Baum's Oz series, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom (a.k.a., John Carter of Mars) novels are iconic examples of the core premise that predate cliche fantasy (with Barsoom being the closest of what can be described as "Western Isekai Wankfest" with Carter being very overpowered due to Earth's gravity he grew up with and his combat training), and C.S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia uses the plot for Christian allegory. The NeverEnding Story is the flagship modern German example, and right in the heart of the fantasy cliche storm, yet it is the purest anti-shit, either despite or because of this (if you don't count the 80s-tastic American movie). Or at least, it avoids being the self-indulgent wish-fulfillment for irredeemably unlikable losers that makes Isekai so widely hated. One could make the case that The Matrix is an isekai story (it basically reverses a couple of the key tropes), though classifying it as "less shit" may not be accurate for some people. Tangential to these are stories about modern militaries (or, in one odd series of novels, part of the US East Coast) being sent back in time—although it's possible that a movie from '79 called G.I. Samurai, where a JSDF unit accidentally travels back in time and fights their own Samurai ancestors, is secretly the true forgotten granddaddy of the isekai genre, or at least dreck like GATE.
Isekai also has its influence on Old School Roleplaying; as stated above, there are plenty of pulp fantasy novels involving ordinary souls getting sucked into a strange, alien world and becoming heroic adventurers as a result. A /tg/ example that (in hindsight anyway) fits the isekai mold well is GURPS' flagship fantasy setting, which revolves around people from across the universe getting isekai'd to the planet of Yrth by an extradimensional "Banestorm" and proposes that players could stat themselves and then play as themselves on Yrth after getting deposited there by the Banestorm. Hell, Greyhawk has several deities who actually originated on other worlds - Murlynd, Saint Cuthbert and Mayaheine have all been implied to have come to Oerth from "real" Earth - whilst the Forgotten Realms was, once upon a time, hinted as being connected to Earth by various portals to different times and places; the not!Egyptian race was actually supposed to be peopled by real ancient Egyptians who had been summoned to the Realms en-masse by evil sorcerers as slave labor, only to break free of them. Then there's the D&D Cartoon, whose plot was D&D by way of Isekai. That being said, unless your DM was being really lazy, if you tried to talk in-universe about stats or levels or other meta game content like they do in Isekai stories, NPCs would and should treat you like a madman.
Occasionally, reverse isekai plots, where supernatural elements from other dimensions have invaded the "real" world, have appeared in /tg/. In Masque of the Red Death, the Red Death's corruption of magic means planar travel only works one way and anything inbound is stuck. D20 Modern's default for supernatural entities is that they a dropped onto Earth from another plane, "The Shadow", and can't go home (though their corpses vanish upon death, being "reclaimed" by The Shadow). The Adventure Path Reign of Winter has a trip to World War I era Russia where the party fights Mosin-Nagans and machine gun wielding Russian soldiers, tear gas elementals and actual Grigori Rasputin.
One odd feature in Japanese Reverse-Isekais is an emphasis on how Japanese food is so much more awesome than whatever bland, flavorless food the peasants of the fantasy world have to eat(to be fair, modern food in general, if made well, would indeed be better than most medieval fare, especially the stuff serfs ate). In fact, there actually is more than one anime about people from a fantasy world visiting a restaurant in modern Japan, just as an excuse to show off food porn with no real plot. Which in fairness: the modern world wide food distribution networks that can ship sun ripened lemons and meat to any point in the world within 24 hours is likely going to compare favorable to all but the highest fantasy fare. Even so, even the lowliest peasant would put some effort in using what they had to make food taste good; even if they couldn't afford spices, herbs were still easy enough to get a hold of, and rural cooks knew enough about how to prepare meats to make them taste good. Whereas fantasy peasants may as well be eating dry, stringy meat with a side of boiled, unseasoned vegetables and mud for dessert.
As if to prove women can also be otaku, this distinct type of isekai was born. Otome Isekai (a term used by the author of this section) is, for all intents and purposes, the female variant of regular isekai but done in a rather misogynistic manner. Apparently, women are only interested in otome visual novels/dating sims with a lot of high nobility hot guys, Mary Sue commoner protagonists, petty villains and formulaic plots flatter than a Repulsor's roadkill. The main character of this variation of isekai will typically reincarnate in the body of one of the characters of the VN in question and, from there, take part in a proverbial adventure in a magic/nobility academy where the protagonist will win the hearts of a veritable harem of hot guys (usually the original romanceable characters), the original protagonist, the villains and any other unwitting NPCs by being an EVEN BIGGER Mary Sue than the original character.
A common variant that became the main type of otome isekai for a time and that freed itself from it, is the villainess genre. As the name implies, this sub-genre follows the scheme told above but in the protagonist becomes the villainess character of the plot, fated to meet a grisly end by whatever means. It's usually up to the protagonist to change their fate and survive. While the premise is more interesting at first, it falls to the same tropes and endings as the others: harem of hot guys, befriending anyone and generally being a Mary Sue, BUT IN THE BODY OF A VILLAIN! As mentioned, the villainess genre has become its own thing now and you can find villainess stories without a speck of isekai anywhere.
Otome isekai is no less awful than regular isekai, but due to it being based on different genres of videogames (visual novels vs. RPGs) the plot is more often focused on the relationships of the protagonist within the VN cast along with the VN's original plot that the protagonist invariably knows from start to end, even sub-routes and obscure events that makes her know beforehand everything that's going to happen. Or that's how it should be, according to the protagonist herself. Because the most infuriating part of otome isekai is the complete denial of the protagonist to admit that the characters they are now interacting with are people with their own wills and decisions and the most basic understanding of "cause and effect". They believe that the plot of the original VN will play like in the VN regardless of whatever she does. The events will play the same, the characters will think and react the same, everything will be the same (unless they are the villainess, in which case they will survive). And no matter if proof of this not being the case is waved in her face with neon lights or people don't act in ways that they're "supposed to", she will continue to think that everything will play out the same.
Why do people hate it so much?
As noted above, stories of people entering other worlds are nothing new, and speaks to a common desire to experience strange and exotic lands. Yet Isekai stories still get a lot of flak for many reasons. Besides there being way too many anime/manga that are all basically the same story with slightly different premises, it boils down to a number of common gripes:
- The biggest one is that rather than trying to tell a compelling and interesting story, too many Isekai stories are just the basest wish fulfillment fantasies for the lonely basement-dwelling neckbeard. Most of the other complaints are derived from this one.
Gripes about the worlds
- The hallmark of isekai stories is defining of the world in terms of RPG mechanics. People in isekai worlds speak of levels, classes, and experience as real and tangible things as opposed to the mechanical abstractions fa/tg/uys normally recognize them as. Outside of Isekai stories that actually take place inside of RPGs or videogame RPGs, this is pretty much inexcusable.
- The worlds traveled to are generally bland and unoriginal: usually, it's just the JRPG version of the standard fantasy setting, and the oversaturation of the Standard Fantasy Setting cannot be overstated, to the point that many Isekai even feature video game interfaces for characters.
- In addition to the two above, a frequent gripe about Isekai is that the worlds frequently have a problem with what's known as a "Second Order Idiot Plot". An Idiot Plot is, of course, a plot that only happens because everyone involved is an idiot (and it can be done well; see, for example, Burn After Reading); but a Second Order Idiot Plot is a plot that only happens because everybody in the world is an idiot--frequently, either some obvious solution is overlooked for dumb reasons, some obvious phenomena is ignored, or some baldly obvious lie is widely accepted.
- Since some Isekai protagonists are so powerful, no one in the new world is capable of opposing them; that includes the cliche "great demon king" who had terrorized the world for centuries only to get one-shotted by the MC in one chapter, thus erasing any conflict and tension and making the story even duller. Other type of villains like high-status types (king, nobles) or anyone in the world whom had grudge or a bone to pick with the protagonist may be introduced, but due to how the human civilization of the other world are incapable of advancing their technology in most isekai, these villains are arrogant, ignorant and often underestimate the MC and their otherworldly knowledge (see the Emperor from GATE). Therefore they get their asses handed to them by the MC and their modern Japanese knowledge + JRPG cheat stats when they tried to sabotage or kill the MC's party and fail again and again. In short, Isekai lacks proper and inspiring villains.
- Badly-done racism. This one is especially unforgivable considering that racism has been a way of life in Japan for hundreds of years and you'd think they would understand something about it by now. Having the humans hate the elves or the beastfolk is fine. The part that so many series forget is setting up an actual reason that so much bad blood exists. They even fail to consider that maybe some of the characters might have different opinions on the other races, because God forbid there be any dimensions to the cast. Of course, setting up the world to be full of people who are spiteful for absolutely no reason means that your main character gets to show off how accepting and benevolent he is compared to the backwards fantasy peasants. Which brings us to...
Gripes about the protagonists
- Isekai protagonists tend to be big fucking nerds who immediately recognize what's all about and exploit it, often aided by unreasonably high stats relative to their abilities in real life. The unstated implication is that the overweight slimeball watching/reading the isekai story would be just as successful as the protagonist because of his valuable and hard-earned RPG knowledge.
- The protagonist frequently is overpowered in a way that puts him way ahead of his peers, despite lacking any useful combat, intellectual, or even social skills from his homeworld. Rarely does the protagonist have to put that much effort in overcoming his obstacles, and is often "The Chosen One" or "Special Blooded". Just like a unique snowflake.
- Even more offensive protagonists will be actively unlikable or even outright repulsive, despite not suffering any consequences for it.
- And on top of that, 99.9% of the time, the protaganist has an all-female
haremparty who hang on his every word. Is this starting to sound familiar? (Note, in particular, that usually these female party members exist purely to provide fanservice and be waifued.) And this is not necessarily a bad thing, but there are countless examples of lazy writers going way to far with it and turning the characters into caricatures, or pulling the rug out from under the readers and going from harem to vanilla romance.
- Almost all the protagonists in isekai stories have either a tragic or "NEET" background. Not saying that this is a bad thing, but it is almost as if the author is trying to push the bill, forcing the reader to go through 1 or 2 chapters of flash backs. This gets worse when they are all generic manga cliches. But some tragic backgrounds are so specific it's almost as if the author self inserted their past there.
- As if the above wasn't enough, too many isekai MC are edgelords. For most of them, their reason for being edgy is how they were abused, betrayed, NTR'ed or disowned by either the MC's school classmate, other isekai'ed people, or the society as a whole. Some really awful isekai have their MC doing really edgy shit like mass murder, owning/buying slaves and rape.
More General Gripes
- While many stories are just copycats of one another, some will attempt to put an "original spin" on the genre, usually by adding a gimmick, such as the protagonist being a LITERAL VENDING MACHINE or a slime that can absorb powers. If done well, then the story still has some value in being interesting and exploring otherwise ignored facets of an overused genre. Done poorly, it comes across as just plain tiresome, especially if the gimmick is the only thing keeping the story afloat when the characters and plot fail to impress.
- O MY GLORIOUS NIPPON STEEL FOLDED OVER 9000 TIMES. Basically just to show how superior the Japanese and only the Japanese are compared to the other world. GATE is the worst example of this, where the Japanese military in a medieval fantasy world is wreaking havoc with their modern weaponry (which is not unreasonable to imagine, even for the decidedly modest Japanese Self Defense Force, but it’s taken to the point where it comes across like a cheesy recruitment ad targeting otaku: "Want to be a real hero? We kill more
orcsfantasy Romans before 9AM than most Paladinsbarbarians do all day!" Which is expected with the author being a right-wing JSDF veteran). Generally, it involves the reincarnated protagonist lusting for their Japanese foods and introducing amazing new flavors to the fantasy world: jelly donuts, soy sauce, and miso paste being most common. Despite Japan and Asia in general being a huge market for Western fast food chains, the protagonists are always treated as big fucking deals for introducing soy sauce over rice. Katanas are also introduced in the other world to prove their superiority, though this is less common than the food thing.
- "Japanese" language or Japanese traits (black hair, white skin) being something sacred or ancient or special in the isekai world. Usually used to mean that some "undecipherable script of the Ancients" is just 21st-century Japanese carved on a plaque somewhere without any further development. If the author is going for cheap edge boosts, anything related to the Japanese is a symptom of a curse or a demonic heritage.
- Some of the edgier Isekai have a tendency to deal with such serious issues as rape, slavery, racism and genocide... which would be fine, if they didn't usually do so in such an immature or poorly handled way that you start to hate either the author's suspected age group, the whole nation of Japan (or whatever country produced it), or humanity in general just by association with this edgelord garbage.
- The second half of the book, at least, reads like a full on deconstruction of Isekai, before Isekai was a thing.