The World Is Not Enough: Isekai and the Hope for More

When it comes to anime and light novels, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an isekai series or six. Countless stories spanning many genres have used the person-travels-to-another-world premise. To borrow language from the infamous TV Tropes, the isekai concept has been played straight, played with, inverted, subverted, parodied, deconstructed, reconstructed, and more.

People must like isekai stories (I know I do!), otherwise there wouldn’t be approximately 47 million of them, with new ones coming out all the time. Regarding this topic, I recently actually-a-while-ago-but-it-took-me-a-long-time-to-write-this happened to see a post by Twitter user Sashimi Princess Maddie which was retweeted by J-Novel Club:

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This post struck a chord with me because I’m fascinated by the connection between fantasy and faith. J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” is of course required reading on this topic, as is Chapter IV — “The Ethics of Elfland” — in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. They discussed fantasy generally, and logically what is true of all fantasy is also true of the specific subset of fantasy we call isekai. Now, the tweet is obviously partly humorous, so it would be unjust to respond to or critique it as if it were a serious essay. However, I do want to highlight one point of possible disagreement that I believe is relevant to my own thoughts. (I say “possible” because without a full-fledged essay from  Maddie, I may be overlooking or misunderstanding points that a more complete argument would resolve.)

Japan is ground zero for isekai. The isekai stories we consume overwhelmingly originate in Japan, and are written by Japanese people for Japanese people. And Japan is a place where Christianity’s influence has been meager, at best, since the Tokugawa period. Meanwhile, the religions with any sizeable footprint in Japan, namely Shinto and Buddhism, don’t contain a concept of heaven comparable to that found in the teachings of, say, Christianity or Islam. Christians make up 1% to 2% of Japan’s population (depending on which estimate you read), which means many Japanese people have probably never even met a Christian! Thus the appeal of isekai in Japan cannot be explained in terms of filling in a gap left behind by the decline of traditional religious hope for heaven.

The OP’s argument would work better if the vast majority of isekai came from, say, western Europe or the United States. Throughout much of the west, Christianity formerly held immense cultural influence. However, Christianity’s influence in these places has declined greatly in the past century or three. If such places produced most isekai stories, we could make a more plausible case that isekai draws upon lingering notions of heavenly reward, relics of a discarded traditional religion whose notions permeated society, in order to fill the hope-deficit created by that religion’s decline.

I believe while Maddie is correct to find conceptual connections between isekai and religion, I just find the specific relationship posited by the OP inadequate, especially with regard to Japanese people. Thus I invite you, dear reader, to consider other Bible teachings that do more to explain the appeal of isekai even in a culture where Christianity (including its notions of heaven) never held much sway. The picture of our world and human nature painted in the Old Testament provides a partial explanation for why we like isekai, an explanation that is not contingent on lingering cultural debris left behind by Christianity.

Let’s look “In the beginning” — yes, the one where “God created the heavens and the earth.” As God completes his creative work in Genesis 1, we read “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” *That* is the world in which God intended us to live. And all this “very good” stuff includes humans, too, who the text says God created in his own image. Alas, we humans ruined things. To put it another way, long ago God and man lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation sin attacked.

Yeah, after God created all this good stuff (including we humans!), Genesis 3 introduces a slew of bad things that weren’t supposed to be part of this world: sin, death, the curse. Of course, God knew this would happen, and already had a plan in place. That plan reached its climax in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but in some respects it is (at least from our point of view) not yet completed. For now, we still live in a cursed and corrupted post-Genesis 3 world, a place where sin and death run rampant. We ourselves are broken by sin, and we must endure in a world unlike the one God originally created for humans.

The entire Bible is stories of humans sinning, which goes a long way toward showing what mess this world is, but the Bible also contains an entire treatise specifically exploring how awful our post-Genesis 3 world really is. Speaking of our world as “under the sun,” Ecclesiastes incessantly hammers home the “vanity” of this life. “Under the sun” is an unreasonable, unjust, and oppressive place that we can’t understand or fix. “Under the sun” is a place where bad things *will* happen to us no matter how hard we try to avoid them. “Under the sun,” all our labors will accomplish nothing of lasting value. “Under the sun,” we’re all gonna die just like dumb animals, no matter how we lived. And then the cherry on top is that after we die, no one “under the sun” will even remember us, and any stuff we had will be misused by people who don’t deserve to have it.

Our own experiences validate this picture of pointlessness. I had an abusive childhood; I’ve faced a slew of physical and mental health issues; I’m presently almost 35 and I’ve never so much as gone on a date, let alone gotten married or had a family; I’m unemployed and living with my parents because I’m failing so hard at adulting. I’m not hopelessly miserable–God has abundantly blessed me in certain respects–but that doesn’t negate the reality that in some meaningful ways, my life is a big huge disappointment. You, O reader mine, will have different points of sadness and frustration and failure than I do, but I suspect most of us, if we’re honest, would have to concede that our lives are painfully disappointing, or at the very least have not followed the tracks we dreamed they would.

You're Just a Tire-Tube Man!
This image of the incomparable Kanami from the isekai series Log Horizon serves no purpose except to break up my wall of text and make me (you?) laugh.

Creation and the Fall provide the starting point for the appeal of isekai. God wanted us to be good and to live in a good world, but thanks to our sin, both we and this world are in far worse shape than he originally intended. Since we weren’t made for a cursed world, it is entirely natural that on some level we long for a place that is somehow more, or better, than the one we inhabit. Likewise, since we weren’t created so sin and death could dominate our lives, it is entirely natural that on some level we long to be somehow more, or better, than who we are. Even if we don’t have a clear idea of what exactly we really want, we still long for a vague something beyond our present existence.

We intuitively sense that something is off about both ourselves and our world, and this leaves us wanting a world and selves that are different from the world and selves we know. In the beginning, we were made for more, and now our existence isn’t quite right. Isekai appeals to this nebulous desire for something better that stems from our latent awareness of the Fall. Isekai stories give more concrete form to the desire to be different than who and what we are, and to live in a reality that isn’t entirely like ours. We may not want to live in the setting of every isekai story, but even grimdark isekai is still isekai, and thus shares the inherent appeal of the idea of other worlds.

Ecclesiastes is again relevant at this point. Perhaps the most hopeful part the book’s message is unstated. As noted above, Ecclesiastes keeps emphasizing how everything “under the sun” is terrible. This raises a question: Is “under the sun” all there is? And here we find the implicit note of hope: the one thing mentioned in Ecclesiastes that isn’t “under the sun” is God. Throughout the Bible, God is consistently depicted as up above. So when Ecclesiastes mentions God, this gloomy book is hinting that there is more to reality than just our world “under the sun.” There might be a chance to escape the utter vanity of this life, if we seek somewhere–and more importantly, Someone–outside and beyond the world we know.

“Now let me be clear,” God is an almighty spirit unbound by the constraints of space and time. Thus, the Bible’s references to God dwelling in the heavens are obviously metaphorical and do not affirm some sort of literal spatial relationship between God and any celestial bodies or astronomical coordinates. That said, the Bible regularly pictures God as being in heaven, and if we follow the logic of that metaphor, then God is not “under the sun.” This is supported by one of the titles repeatedly ascribed to God throughout the scriptures (most often in the Psalms and the book of Daniel): “the Most High.” Again, this superlative is metaphorical,  not a literal claim about physical altitude, but to be “the Most High,” God is, in a conceptual sense, above everything else — the sun included.

The core premise of isekai stories is the idea that other worlds exist and that it’s possible to pass between them. Since we already desire something more, better, different than our present existence, isekai has a natural appeal. What distinguishes isekai from other fantasy / sci-fi stories is how directly it addresses this innate post-Fall desire for a different world. Non-isekai stories offer the possibility implicitly, not unlike Ecclesiastes: They ask us to imagine a reality different from our lived experience, but don’t necessarily give any indication that we can do more than imagine. Contrariwise, isekai takes as its explicit premise the idea that a person just like us, from the very world in which you and I live, can somehow go to a different world, and there experience significant personal changes of some kind.

All fantasy / sci-fi stories at least touch on the notion of a world unlike ours. Even if their setting is very much based on our world, by their very nature they include phenomena never seen here. Arthur C. Clarke famously captured the overlap between sorcery and science: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” All fantasy / sci-fi stories occur in a world where mechanical or supernatural forces beyond our experience or comprehension offer new possibilities. Isekai stories not only show us such worlds, they depict these worlds as existing in addition to (rather than instead of) our own, and as being possible for us to visit.

All of this ultimately brings us to the New Testament’s teachings about hope and resurrection and heaven. I think the OP was correct to see a connection between the appeal of isekai and the Christian hope of heaven. But heaven is only the fulfillment of our longing, not the origin of it. The Bible’s depiction of the Fall and its consequences explains better why we would find the idea of heaven, and isekai, appealing in the first place. We wouldn’t need heaven—or isekai—if we were perfectly satisfied with this world. But we aren’t satisfied, and the Bible’s account of the Fall and its effects explains why we find our present state dissatisfying. And so, reading isekai stories is really about hope for something beyond the reality we know. We feel rightly disappointed with our lives and with this world. We desire something else, and isekai supplies our imagination with more concrete ideas about other worlds.

For now, heaven is an incomprehensible wonderfulness. We know almost nothing about heaven, after all. Given how light on specifics the Bible is, even the most devout Christian is still limited to an amorphous notion of hope. But isekai stories are something I can wrap my mind around. The heroism, the adventure, the romance, the supernatural creatures—all of it speaks to my desire to be more, to experience more. The worlds I can imagine through isekai help strengthen my longing for the even better world I can’t yet imagine. Isekai stories help bridge the gap between the unsatisfactory reality I live with and the heavenly realm so glorious that human language can’t describe it. While we can’t really imagine heaven, isekai at least helps us envision something beyond our lives under the sun. Isekai cannot truly satiate our desire our desire to go somewhere different and be something different (that’s what heaven is for), but it does help us explore and understand our sense of longing.

People can enjoy isekai stories regardless of how much they accept or know anything about Christianity, which makes sense if our desire for an existence that is more, better, different than what we know far predates even Christianity. Isekai has not “taken the place of traditional religion as a promise that our suffering will be worthwhile” in a chronological or causal sense (e.g., religion held sway, and it declined, and that decline contributed to the popularity of isekai as a substitute). I believe it is more accurate to see isekai and the Bible’s teaching on heaven as parallel responses to the Fall. We can choose either or both, but they aren’t in competition. Isekai can be an expression of hope and longing both for those who believe in heaven as a religious doctrine, and also for people in places (e.g., Japan) where Christianity’s impact is minimal.

“In the beginning,” God intended for us to be better and to live in a better world, but sin broke the world and broke us, and now we’re all coping with this disappointing life under the sun and desiring something more. Thankfully, God promises that this world and our present condition are not final. He encourages us to hope for a world and a self that is perfect. We don’t know what that will be like, but isekai grants our imaginations a glimpse of possibilities beyond this world. Depending on isekai alone for hope, apart from Jesus, is not unlike eating a ton of junk food before supper and being unable to enjoy the real meal, but isekai can also be an hors d’oeuvre that whets our appetite for the heavenly banquet to come. To me, reading and watching isekai stories is an act of hope, helping me endure this present world by reminding me that I really do have hope of living in another world as a perfected version of myself.

2 thoughts on “The World Is Not Enough: Isekai and the Hope for More

  1. In the modern world I feel it’s safe to say Christianity has made a big impact on japan regardless of still being a Minority. 1& is about the percentage of Americans whoa re Jewish yet there is no denying the Jewish impact on American culture.

    A majority of Japan’s population opts are Christian style weddings, the saying is in Japan your born Shinto, Married Christina and buried Buddhist.

    Thing about Isekai is how it’s influenced by earlier fantasy stories, most directly JRPGs and well known Fantasy Anime of the 90s. But that lineage goes back to Tolkien and Lewis and on the specific subject of Isekai George MacDonald.

  2. Thank you for this, Jeskai! Beginning a new life, one in which you trust that the hidden meaning will be made explicit, wonder, even innocence, will be recovered and the judgements of the world will be reversed, feels very similar to waking up in another world. It has also been a very important metaphor in my life from childhood. This world, this life, but as if I had received them anew.

    I agree that isekai has the hope and longing of the fallen human heart at its core, and thus it does not need yo be understood as opposing or replacing true Hope, but precisely as fostering it, helping to keep it alive and incarnated. This may be the case with all Fantasy, as Tolkien argues, every part a metaphor of some longing of the heart. I was arguing just a few weeks ago about how realist stories are not truly realist if they ignore this aspect and offer a perfect in-world resolution which does not take this thirst into account. Yet, you are right that they can suggest it, just like true life does sometimes.

    What you say about “Heaven” and “Earth/under the Sun” and their symbolic role is very interesting and important too. This tension is all around the Bible, from Genesis to Babel to Moses to the Exile to the Incarnation itself to the Our Father to the Ascension to the Apocalypse, with its new Heaven/new Earth, and I think everything becomes clearer and richer when seen this way.

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