A while ago, a thought popped into my head: isekai is the mecha of the past decade and change.
The comparison is not perfect by any means, but what I see in isekai today is a position in Japanese pop culture that’s not so different from where giant robots were in the 1980s. Namely, they have their roots in power fantasies, rely heavily on visual and conceptual tropes around that power, and are pretty niche genres that are ubiquitous enough to be considered mainstream nevertheless. In other words, where giant robots were assumed to be part and parcel with anime as a whole, being transported or reincarnated to another (extremely game-like) world is now the de facto stereotype for many fans of anime.
Another important similarity is that derivative titles have had to find a place in their respective media landscapes, navigating the desire to be different enough to stand out while looking comfortably familiar enough to appeal to genre fans. Only, instead of it being God Mars and Armored Trooper VOTOMS, and Aura Battle Dunbine (itself an earlier incarnation of isekai) nudging the envelope, it’s The Hero is Overpowered But Overly Cautious, So I’m a Spider, So What?, and My Next Life as a Villainess. Also, of course, there’s Knights & Magic, the modern isekai that is also a mecha series and even starred in Super Robot Wars 30.
And like mecha, I expect isekai will have a downswing at some point, as people and cultures change. In that future, what I’m looking forward to is having people who are fans of isekai not so much as a way to live vicariously through these stories but in the sense of academic and anthropological fascination. Just as mecha fans like myself like to explore the history of giant robots, warts and all, I want to see enthusiasts looking at every obscure and major 2010s-2020s isekai title out of genuine curiosity over the genre as a whole.
As a final aside, I’ve been thinking about the legacy of Amuro Ray’s character and its influence on anime protagonists as an “otaku” before the term was even coined. Perhaps that’ll be for another post.
When was the 1980s peak of mecha anime production? I know that in the 1970s, it was late 1976, when eight shows were on the air at once: UFO Robo Grendizer, Combattler V, Magne Robo Gakeen (or Steel Jeeg, which it replaced), Gaiking, UFO Warrior Dai Apolon, Blocker Gundan IV Machine Blaster, Groizer X, and Gowapper 5 Gordam.
I ask because I’m pretty sure we’ve had seasons lately that well surpassed that number of isekai shows. Though apples-to-apples comparisons are hard, because there’s a lot more anime being made now.
The academic/anthropological approach to isekai is already happening, first that comes to mind is pause and select’s series on isekai: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMtHFGK0hm4 , and this tiny blog: https://isekaipastandpresent.neocities.org
A parallel that comes to mind for me is the categorisational arguments over reincarnation/transference/VR/”not isekai” mimic the super vs real robot dynamic.