You might or might not be familiar with the term isekai, but if you are an anime fan, there is a very good chance you have at least seen at least one isekai show. The term describes a show where an ordinary person (or people) from our modern world gets sent into a fantasy world. The protagonist comes from a world like our own, and one day goes through some portal or virtual reality device or just magically gets warped into a world straight out of a fantasy novel or video game. From there, he (or she) meets up with the people of that world (and maybe other people from his world that got warped there as well, and try to survive, find something to do, and/or find a way back home.
As a sub-genre of the fantasy genre, isekai has gotten very popular in Japan; while earlier works like Inuyasha and Fushigi Yuugi have used this concept, it is in recent years that the sub-genre has really taken off in popularity, as works like Sword Art Online (because getting trapped in a video game world does count), No Game No Life, and ReZero have shown. Light novels in particular love this subject, as many anime series with this type of premise had been adapted from light novels, and many other light novels try to put their own twist on the subject. Guy gets warped and gains the ability to make baths? Guy gets reborn as a vending machine in a fantasy dungeon? Guy is warped to a fantasy world with his overly affectionate (and absurdly powerful) mother? Light novel authors seem to love coming up with some kind of weird premise based around people getting sent to fantasy worlds, and as long as those light novels continue to sell and get made into anime, we can expect to see much more of this sub-genre here on out.
What I would like to do, then, is take a look at the core of isekai’s appeal, and how Christians can approach this sub-genre. While the oversaturation of light novels on the subject and the infamous examples of isekai stories written badly or with troubling implications have given the sub-genre a bad reputation, I personally still have hope for more good stories to come out of it. Moreover, I believe Christians have much they can take away from isekai stories, whether they be deep and thoughtful or just some light entertainment. I will be writing a series of posts on this, two of which will focus on different approaches an isekai story can take, while the third takes a look at the curious case of the “reverse isekai” story, where fantasy world characters end up in our modern world.
Isekai: Acting and Reacting
The key difference between isekai and a traditional fantasy story is the presence of the modern-world character that ends up in the fantasy world. This character serves as someone the audience can relate to, as he (or she) comes from our world, and thus carries things we would know about our world into this unknown fantasy world. Depending on the story, they may also bring certain items from our world as well. These act as points of familiarity for the audience, allowing them to feel some connection to the character as he explores the fantasy world. Because these stories by definition involve a main character who comes from “our” world, they involve some degree of audience association with said character, as the contrast between our familiarity with that character’s background and the fantasy world around him is a key element in these stories.
From here, isekai stories can focus on two possible approaches: either how the character from our world reacts to the fantasy world, or how he (or she) acts on that world. On one hand, the character will react to the world around him, experiencing all of the new and unique aspects of that world and learning to make sense of it. On the other hand, the character will also act on that world, using the knowledge of “our” world, and any items brought from it, to change the world, for better or for wrose. Most shows will spend time on both of these approaches but will overall focus on one over the other, and the approach taken will affect the overall tone of the show, as well as how it appeals to the audience.
For this post, I will look at isekai with a “reacting” focus, with my next post on this subject focusing on “acting”. For now, let’s dive into the sheer wonder of exploring a new world.
Escape To Another World
People love fantasy worlds. They inspire our imaginations as we visit new places and experience things beyond what we can experience in our own world. Although one can certainly enjoy a fantastical world through a story that takes place entirely within a new world, creating a story where characters who come from our mundane world get sent to a new world channels that feeling more directly, since that character is experiencing that feeling himself. As he reacts to the world around him, the wonder of the fantasy world becomes a focal point of the story, not just something we enjoy on the side. Of course, this also means that such stories can easily be written poorly or resort to pandering to the audience, and even when otherwise written well, it may not be the best approach to a story where the interests and goals of the fantasy world are more interesting and engaging than that of any modern world immigrants. Nevertheless, isekai stories provide a raw sense of wonder that audiences love, hence why they have become popular.
So why do people love having their imaginations stirred by fantasy worlds, and why are isekai stories in particular so popular? Isekai stories are commonly cited to be “wish fulfillment”, often by critics who are tired of the pandering nature of more base works in the sub-genre. Nevertheless, that wish-fulfillment aspect does seem to be what draws many isekai fans to its work. Many who are tired of the ways the real world beats down on them use these stories to escape to another world. “Escapism” plays a role in a lot of fiction, and while some may warn that said “escapism” is just trying to run away from reality instead of properly dealing with it, others will note that sometimes people do need to get away from it all in order to recover the mental willpower to face their real life challenges.
When it comes to fantasy worlds, though, something greater is at work. After all, even the most content and successful person can enjoy a fantasy world and the imagination it inspires. Christians, in particular, are supposed to be able to God for comfort and power to face life’s difficulties, so some groups will say that for Christians, fantasy stories are outright unbiblical, encouraging people to look to them what they should be looking to God for. If that is the case, though, certainly no Christian would even think of writing a Christian fantasy story… or, God forbid, a Christian isekai story, where some kids from our world walk through some portal in some old piece of furniture and end up in a fantasy world full of talking animals or something…
…wait a second.
Christians In Another World
That’s right, one of the most popular literature series, The Chronicles of Narnia, is a series of isekai stories, albeit one originating from the West and from a time before isekai became the realm of Japanese light novels and anime. Not only that, but the author, C.S. Lewis, is a well-respected Christian theologian who incorporates many Christian themes into the series. Clearly, there is some way to reconcile the heavy wish-fulfillment aspects of an isekai series with Christianity, but how exactly?
Isekai stories provide two major connections to Christianity, one of which is more closely tied to stories with an “acting” focus, which I will talk about next time. For “reacting”-focused stories, though, they highlight one simple truth: we cannot be fully satisfied by this world we currently live in. This applies to all of humanity, really: some core part of our human nature recognizes that the world we live in is broken. Not only do we have to deal with sin and all the problems sinful beings bring, but we also have natural limits to what we, both individually and collectively as humanity, are capable of doing. Imagination allows us to envision what a more ideal world might be like, where we can go on adventures that simply are not possible in real life. In the process, they instill a natural feeling of discontent with the real world, which is actually not really a bad thing.
One of God’s major promises is that He will make a new Heaven and a new Earth (Isaiah 65, Revelations 21). At some point, our current Earth will perish, and God will create a new Earth, free of sin and full of His goodness, and a new Heaven to go along with it. It will be Earth as He originally desired to create it, before sin ruined it, and it will be where all of us who are God’s children will eventually go. The New Testament mentions many times how we are not to be of this world, because this world will eventually pass, while we have greater things that await us in Heaven and, eventually, the New Earth. The discontent for our current world, brought about by our imaginations of better worlds, helps keep our perspective as we avoid idolizing our current life and look forward to the life to come.
(Dog) Days in Heaven (With a Smartphone)
If some isekai stories sound a little too heavenly, that might actually be a good thing as they inspire us to think of what our life in Heaven and New Earth might be like. Granted, some shows, like the currently-airing In Another World With My Smartphone, take the “heaven” concept almost literally. After all, the entire plot of this show is “guy accidentally dies, and God reincarnates him in a dream fantasy world with uber-powers and a harem of cute girls, oh and he can keep his smartphone”. That said, some aspects of this show work poorly as imagination fuel for heavenly life: the whole harem part and the legality of polygyny definitely has to be ignored completely, and while it is amusing that the main character has access to any kind of utility magic that exists, it does put down the others around him to an extent, especially as he copies magic that others consider “personal”. Even outside of those problematic aspects, the show’s ability to inspire feels pretty thin, hence why at best I can only consider it a guilty pleasure.
For an example of an isekai show that actually feels inspirational, I will look at the little bundle of joy that is Dog Days.
In this show (which is actually an anime original show, rather than a light novel adaptation), our protagonist, Cinque, is an athletic boy who gets summoned to the fantasy world of Flognarde, specifically the Republic of Biscotti, where the dog-eared princess Millhiore who summoned him asks for his help in the war against the Gallette Lion Dominion. Sounds like a classic isekai setup, but there’s a twist: this “war” is actually just a highly-organized sporting competition. While the combatants fight like one might in your standard fantasy war, thanks to special rules protecting Flognarde, no one actually dies in combat; anyone who takes too much damage simply gets temporarily turned into a furball and is incapacitated for some time, while awarding points to the opposite side.
Some have criticized this “war” aspect of the show as overly softening up something that in real life is absolutely terrible, but I found this aspect to be a perfect example of how a fantasy world can inspire us to think of what New Earth might be like. The popularity of war and combat in fiction, especially in fantasy works, point to something people find inherently enjoyable about combat. In real life, however, combat always carries the risk of physical injury or death, to say nothing of how much grief war causes. What Dog Days does, then, is present an idealized world where people can engage in the enjoyable and edifying aspects of combat and war, with none of the danger or grief. To someone who believes this life is the only life we get, such a world sounds absolutely absurd. But for Christians who believe in Heaven and a New Earth, this sort of world may very well be a possibility (minus turning into furballs).
I could write so many articles on eternal life and what various theologians and I believe it will be like, but for now, I would like to dispel the notion that it will be devoid of various earthly joys. While the primary joy of Heaven and the New Earth will be in enjoying God’s presence, that does not exclude enjoying earthly pleasures there, but rather brings said pleasures to their full potential, unhindered by sin. All of God’s creations, including human creations by the humans he’s created, will be purified of sin’s curse and become direct channels of His presence. So in that sense, would the New Earth have “war games” that allow people to have fun testing their strength and strategy against each other while being completely harmless? I certainly think it is possible; while it has been used for ill, the enjoyable aspects of combat, such as how Dog Days shows them, can be considered part of God’s creation. (For more on this, take a look at this article on whether sports will be in Heaven.) This is just one of many ways fantasy worlds can get us to imagine worlds even more incredible than our own and look towards a life where that kind of world may actually be possible.
This show being an isekai only makes this sort of imagination easier to personally identify with. You have your protagonist, Cinque, who just wants a nice big place to run around and play to exercise his extreme athletic skills, so when he gets that in Flognarde and its war games, you can feel his excitement over becoming a “hero” and how much fun he can have in this land. Even through some of the show’s more dramatic moments, as he faces off against demons and tries to figure out how to get home, the overall tone of the show is highly uplifting and positive, with stories of getting stronger, forming bonds with others, and having fun. The show does indulge in some harem antics, though, which isn’t always the most tasteful (expect a fair amount of fanservice) but the show’s stronger elements, as well as the overall strength of the show’s relationships, make up for its weaker parts.
I should note that more subversive isekai stories can take an opposite approach here, throwing a modern world character into a fantasy world that is actually rather crappy. This can serve to deconstruct how the things other isekai stories offer through their fantasy worlds are not necessarily all that desirable. Alternatively, they can reflect human reactions to things like fear of death or having to adapt to a society that does not play by familiar cultural rules, offering a unique angle on those subjects. These types of stories also use the isekai element to forge a stronger connection with the protagonist experiencing these things, but use that to evoke more negative feelings that likely correspond with real-life troubles. These types of stories, though, oftentimes also focus a fair amount on how the protagonist then acts upon the world they have found themselves in, so the next post in this series will go more in depth on this angle.
Longing For Another World
Of course, in the end Heaven and New Earth will be beyond anything we can expect or imagine. Rather than discourage us from trying to imagine what the afterlife will be like, though, this should encourage us to imagine bigger. After all, imagining bigger only means we can look forward to even bigger. Many of our problems with sin come from having too much attachments with earthly things, so having greater expectations for the life to come can help keep our earthly attachments in check.
That said, as great as it is to be dreaming of Heaven and New Earth, for now we are on this Earth and have a job to do. And as long as we are on here, we might as well enjoy what signs of God’s presence we can find here. These will be themes I look at in the other two posts in this series; for now, I will say that imagining and looking forward to the afterlife should not take away from our mission and our enjoyment of life on earth; if anything, it should encourage us to work harder to come closer to realizing God’s kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven”. We may sometimes approach escapism into fantasy worlds the wrong way, but if we have the right approach, fantasy worlds can be a real blessing in our lives.
Now I would like to here from you: what fantasy stories, particularly isekai stories, inspire you to think of what Heaven might be like?
Dog Days‘s first two seasons are streaming on Crunchyroll. Technically the third season is there too but only available for non-Japan Asia regions.
Hoo boy, there’s a lot of material here. Many bloggers have tackled the subject of isekai, so there’s no shortage of extra reading. I’ll save some links for tomorrow, but for now, check these out:
Stranger Waters looks at the role of death in isekai stories.
I Have A Heroine Problem looks at very early examples of isekai, noting how the sub-genre used to be a staple of shoujo manga/anime, aimed at young women, instead of the male-oriented demographic it aims at today.
Honey’s Anime also looks at isekai‘s history, including its recent surge of popularity, why some are getting tired of it, and why the sub-genre’s popularity may end up dying down.
Finally, for a look at Christianity and fantasy stories overall (not just anime), I recommend checking out Speculative Faith, which has tons of articles on how fantasy stories can enrich our faith. In particular, check out this article for more on how stories can point us to Heaven and New Earth.