Welcome back to Text x Context, where we’re not in Kansas anymore!
There’s a running joke among the staff of Beneath the Tangles that C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is an isekai story. Of course, it isn’t what otaku typically mean when referring to a tale as isekai, but what makes the joke funny is the kernel of truth it contains. After all, the Narnia series is just one of many Western narratives that, like Japanese isekai, revolves around that foundational premise of someone from our world being transported to a fantasy realm.
With that in mind, we decided to dig a little deeper and explore the points of comparison (and contrast!) between otherworld adventure stories from the East and the West. As exemplars of typical isekai storytelling, we settled on Konosuba and Seirei Gensouki, complemented by two decidedly American isekai in the form of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and A Wrinkle in Time.
Highlights from the discussion between Jeskai, Gaheret, sleepminusminus, and Twwk are below, but we encourage you to read the full analysis, too. We’d love for you to join in the discussion as well—drop your answers to any or all of the questions in the comments section, or let us know your thoughts on east vs. west isekai!
What is isekai and is it a culturally-specific genre (i.e. Japanese), or can non-Japanese stories be considered isekai?
Twwk: Strictly speaking, isekai simply means “other world.” Of course, we’ve all come to understand it as a genre of anime, manga, light novels, and visual novels in which a character is transported to another world for the purpose of adventure. So though I hate to throw up that huge anime X with my arms before we start, I wouldn’t consider non-anime style series as fitting within the isekai genre—that would of course include our American picks, A Wrinkle in Time and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
But part of the fun of our analysis here is thinking a bit outside of the box and understanding that, since isekai has now so oversaturated the medium, we can stretch the concept further and play a little loose with it just for the fun of it.
sleepminusminus: Yeah, I think I’d agree with Twwk here; isekai seems to be more of a phenomenon within the Japanese anime sphere, even if that sphere is sort of vaguely defined. The whole fun of this “let’s compare American and Japanese isekai” thing is that there isn’t really such a thing as American isekai—if that existed then this conversation wouldn’t really be all that interesting!
And yet, we can see lots of connections between isekai and American fantasy novels, like the idea of new possibilities or simply the potential of a world beyond the one we know. So even if we can’t call Wizard of Oz or Wrinkle in Time works of isekai, there are definitely thematic similarities that are fun to poke at.
Jeskai: “Isekai” is a huge and diverse category, which makes it challenging to define the word in a non-arbitrary way that won’t exclude any Japanese story we intuitively recognize as “isekai” but will exclude Western stories, as well as media that are “Japanese” but not isekai. Part of why I dissent from saying “isekai” must be written by a Japanese person is because such a criterion doesn’t pertain to the nature of the story, but rather the characteristics of the author; moreover, lots of non-isekai stories have Japanese authors. I’ve previously argued that at the heart of isekai is the prospect of something beyond the world we know. The appeal of stories that show us (as Judy Garland famously sang) “somewhere over the rainbow” is not culture-specific. If the Bible is to be believed, all humans were created for life beyond the physical world we know. I think that aspect of our created nature is why alternative world stories can be enjoyed so widely. Whether we know it or not, we aren’t meant to be satisfied with this world, and so something about the idea of other worlds is inherently attractive.
How do the protagonists of these stories compare?
Gaheret: Every one of our protagonists is living pretty much the same journey. Everyone has a bitter experience to run from and an isolated life that no kid would want. Why? For unknown reasons, or as a result of losing important people who were cornerstones for them, or because of their trying to be a hero and ending up as a laughingstock. When something otherworldly appears, there is newness, uncertainty and horror, and… hope, too. They all walk toward it in their own, distinct way. Dorothy does so as a timeless, luminous child character, like Alice, Huck Finn or Peter Pan. Meg, who shares Dorothy’s deep wonder, moves toward hope as a classical YA heroine with issues. The social game is difficult and unfair, as is dealing with abandonment, rejection, anger, and love too.
sleepminusminus: To be fair, the whole “nondescript self-insert protagonist” thing is an anime trope as well. So maybe Dorothy too is an anime protagonist 😛
But I’m tracking two threads through all of this—each protagonist struggles with some internal conflict and embarks on some journey. Which makes sense if we’re thinking about that general idea of isekai as exploring the potential of a world unlike your own.
In fact, it’s only through the “other world” they encounter that our protagonists get the opportunity to confront themselves and find adventure. Meg might never have been able to find herself worthy of love if it weren’t for her monotonous, hopeless life being torn apart (literally). Rio’s past-life experiences help him navigate through the politics of Beltrum and begin his journey toward revenge…
I think that’s the appeal of these kinds of isekai-adjacent stories. At their best, they break us out of the limits of our world and help us sympathize with the internal conflicts of characters. Like, with Wrinkle in Time—we’re never going to time-travel our way to a planet where an evil brain hypnotizes large masses of people to sacrifice their autonomy and relationships. But an evil mastermind brain does help us to see evil’s corrupting influence a little more vividly than we normally do in our world. And then we can sympathize with a character like Meg, who might not be the most heroic heroine on the surface, but who longs deeply for the good even as she’s surrounded by evil.
How does the worldbuilding in these stories compare?
Jeskai: Well, Seirei Gensouki has the most elaborate world, with a fairly extensive history and geography of its own, though we only see a portion of it in this volume. Among our readings this time, it probably pairs best with the land of Oz, a fairy tale world with a variety of peoples and settlements, where much is mysterious but feels like it could be fleshed out into a vibrant, rich world. I should also note that herein lies one of the more interesting differences between The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its famous movie adaptation: the film goes out of its way to set up Oz as a mere dream world, where the characters she meets are all based on people she’s met IRL. In contrast to the movie’s all-just-a-dream setup, the original novel feels like much more of a pure isekai, where Dorothy is genuinely carried off to a fantasy realm.
Konosuba’s world is much like those found in other comedic or lighthearted isekai: flat and with details that exist mainly for the lulz. It’s a stage made of plywood and cardboard, constructed to set up comedic beats rather than to be a thriving, real place. This again aligns with the split between dramatic and comedic one often sees among isekai stories.
There’s a surreal, ethereal quality to the settings Meg visits in Wrinkle that sets the story apart. I keep wondering how much of what Meg sees is supposed to be taken as “real” versus as something beyond her comprehension that comes across strangely because she—and we—are only perceiving it in a partial way (much like Mrs Which).
sleepminusminus: Setting aside Konosuba, I’d say that Seirei Gensouki and Wizard of Oz both have wonderful, subtle worldbuilding, while Wrinkle in Time is more distinctive for its imaginative elements. It’s really cool reading this volume of Seirei having read the whole series beforehand because I spotted a lot of the foreshadowing and setup I missed the first time around. Kitayama does a great job of introducing ideas subtly in earlier chapters and volumes, only for them to become relevant much later. The world might be generic in some ways, but it does feel believable, almost alive.
Wizard of Oz is similarly subtle in the way it introduces its world, though it’s a little more imaginative than Seirei‘s is. I think it’s because that book is directed towards an adolescent audience while Wizard of Oz is directed towards children, who don’t care about realism as much as we do. I was surprised when reading the book for the first time because the world is a lot more expansive and diverse and exciting than you hear about in popular culture. I’m kind of interested in reading the sequels now!
Given the different origins (current-day Japanese versus twentieth-century American), one would expect these stories’ otherworldly adventure to be quite different, but did you find similarities or parallels?
Gaheret: I see a core similarly, which is the formative journey. In all four cases, the protagonists are learning or being educated about the world at large. How does a kid mature? Facing harsh realities, subtle complications, overwhelming evil, depth previously unseen, and the distance between their notions and reality. What do they do when they find out that this world is not all there is? There’s horror and uncertainty in that, and also joy, because (as Jeskai once pointed out) the world is not enough, and nevertheless, a longing for home.
Twwk: I do think these series also capture the values of their respective cultures. American know-how, gumption, pride, and intelligence are on display in the two books we read, and they guide the heroines on their journeys, even when facing unknown or otherworldly obstacles (time and time again) and antagonists that they shouldn’t be able to defeat. The girls are both some time from becoming adults, and perhaps it’s that childlike innocence that allows them to bear down on over-the-top situations without calculating the cost.
The young protagonists of the light novels may also have some of that naivete in them, but again, I think what stands out, particularly in relation to the American stories, is that they challenge other worlds with what they learned in their homeland. It’s interesting to see when villains are surprised that their efforts don’t work against the protagonist, like with Rio—but we aren’t surprised as an audience. Our values are seemingly different and give the protagonists the strength to endure and succeed in other worlds. Meanwhile, and this is seen again particularly in Seirei Gensouki (less so in Konosuba but frequently in other isekai), other characters admire the protagonists for qualities that Japanese (and Americans and others, too, for sure) value in their culture. And it leads them to change.
How do the novels stack up to their respective audio-visual adaptations?
Jeskai: I think slapstick / comedy-heavy stories often benefit from the addition of audiovisual elements to help convey the humor, and Konosuba is no exception, which gives the anime an edge over the novel. I can laugh when I see silly stuff, but just reading the nonsense Kazuma gets up to and trying to imagine it leaves me feeling “This is stupid.”
For Oz, I’ve already noted what I consider the most significant difference: the “realism” of the novel versus the “all-just-a-dream-ism” of the movie. One point of overlap between the two surprised me, however: the movie’s famous transition from black-and-white to technicolor is a direct reflection of the novel’s emphasis on gray Kansas compared to colorful Oz. Oh, I also like that the novel’s Cowardly Lion was, you know, a real lion, and not a man in a silly suit. In the end, I feel like both the novel and the film have their merits, though I think I favor the book.
Twwk: Jeskai hit on major differences between the book and film for The Wizard of Oz, though in addition, the book travels much further and through more perils, I would say. And the film is certainly more personalized. The Scarecrow feels like a closer confidante in the movie; the same actors play Dorothy’s companions in Oz and in Kansas; and her uncle and aunt are shown with more loving-kindness. Judy Garland singing certainly also helps turn a fairy tale into more of a story, though I think she generally plays the part with the same gumption and innocence captured in the book.
I really enjoy the Seirei Gensouki anime. It’s nothing spectacular, but warm and lovely and engaging, much like the book. In fact, the series is a very close adaptation; it just doesn’t quite spark with the same level of energy and creativity the book does. It’s a little dull.
sleepminusminus: It doesn’t really count, but the 2013 movie Oz: The Great and Powerful gives backstory to the magician and how he ends up ruling over Oz. It wasn’t a great movie by any means (just read the bad reviews) but I liked how it added more depth to a character that kind of gets glossed over in the book.
Which I guess gets into a sort of criticism I had of The Wizard of Oz—the enemies/side characters are woefully undeveloped. It’s the only part of the world that doesn’t feel layered and lively. The Wicked Witch of the East literally just melts after Dorothy accidentally pours a bucket of water on her. The monkeys that chauffeured the party around are just that: chauffeurs. There’s no sense that they’re affected in any way by the events of the book other than being happy that the Wicked Witch is dead. Same thing for the mice earlier in the book. I mean, it’s probably just because Baum didn’t want to focus on the struggle of the main characters as much as the imaginative world he created for them. Still, it’s a little sad.
7. We mentioned The Chronicles of Narnia in the introduction to this article. It’s become quite popular in Japan, leading to more than one manga-style adaptation. Could you see either The Wizard of Oz or A Wrinkle in Time achieving popularity as a manga or anime adaptation? What changes could you see a mangaka or director making to adapt one or both these works to the Japanese medium?
Jeskai: I think that done properly (i.e., without taking undue license with the story), Wrinkle would make a better anime. It had deeper characters and a more tightly woven plot. However, for opposite reasons, I think Oz might be easier to adapt. The plot is meandering and episodic, and the characters receive relatively little development and are more open to interpretation.
Gaheret: I think a good anime adaptation could solve most of the issues with Wrinkle. Anime, after all, is good at creating diverse scenarios that feel thematically connected and reflect the feelings of the characters. I’m thinking of the worlds of Now and then, here and there, united by an industrial look and the sunset. The Camazotz dystopia could be memorable with an Evangelion or Akira touch (the brain, a little silly as is, could become horrifying). The bonds between worlds could be suggested using imagery and details. Instead of an Oz anime, though, I would like an Oz Ghibli movie, like a more joyous Howl meets Spirited Away.
Twwk: Can you imagine Oz done the same way Sinoalice does fairy tale characters or Sword Art Online plays with Alice in Wonderland? It could be a lot of fun to see a kickbutt Dorothy or a handsome warlock instead of a witch in an anime isekai setting.
sleepminusminus: Yeah, I’m kind of inclined to agree with you, Twwk. Anime adaptations of classic American stories usually just take the ideas of the original story and go crazy with them. Like BELLE, which just took the Beauty and the Beast motif and recast it in a bright and flashy VR world. In that sense, Wizard of Oz could become a really fun isekai show, with cool fight scenes and all.
I would love a Wrinkle in Time anime movie, though, if only because the scenes from Uriel would make for some wonderful wallpaper material.
11. What do you think about the mystical or religious elements in these stories?
Jeskai: Konosuba‘s biting satire pretty well negates any sense of wonder or mysticism for me. Oz has the sense of wonder of a fairy tale, albeit skewing more toward the humorous end of the spectrum. It offers a world that is magical and governed by unfamiliar or mysterious rules, but is still a little too silly to really evoke all that much of a mystical nature. Seirei features the sort of demystified magic that borders on science. However, there are indications that there is more of a mystical nature in the setting than just the academic magic we mostly see in the first volume, which lets it feel noticeably more wondrous than Konosuba where everything is a joke.
Wrinkle has a surprisingly Christian flavor that brings to mind C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, which likewise does sci-fi/fantasy in an openly Christian context. With a number of explicit quotations or references to the Bible, plus a strong implication that the Mrs Pronouns are angelic beings, the fantasy elements are really interwoven with the Christian parts. I don’t recall picking up on how overtly Christian it is when I read the story as a kid. Anyway, Wrinkle encourages us to remember that even in our seemingly prosaic world, there are greater forces at work than we can see.
Gaheret: So you thought of the Space Trilogy too! I actually find this aspect of Wrinkle to be a little weak. I have my problems with Space, too, but at least the spiritual elements were clearer. A centaur who was a star who also seems to be an angel who quotes long passages of the Bible seems a little bit convoluted to me. Plus, unlike Lewis, who refers to Christ as “Maleldil”, a majestic figure known in all worlds, Wrinkle puts him in parallel with… Leonardo Da Vinci. Nothing against Da Vinci, but I’d have preferred something either more clear or more subtle.
Tolkien once noted how the fairytale, in itself, is a very Christological narrative. Providence aids the hero or heroine. The connection between man and Nature is restored in part, then threatened. The fight between good and evil depends on some mysterious condition. The individual soul is important for the deep powers of the Cosmos. There is a “good catastrophe”, a revolutionary miracle that brings the happy ending. I find much of that in Oz, up until Dorothy sees her usually emotionless aunt and uncle running toward her.
I find it interesting that Rio considers himself an atheist due to the death of his mother, rejecting “the Wise”, the gods. Especially given that Haruto happens to abhor violence. And in Konosuba, the guild-style gods and goddesses, the help of the priest, who helps the heroine in the belief that she’s a devout follower, and the Lich who graciously leaded the deceased to the afterlife (jab at one of the guild churches included) were some of the most interesting elements.
Twwk: I’d long wanted to read A Wrinkle in Time because I knew about the Christian elements. I’d also read about Madeleine L’Engle’s intentionality in speaking about her faith, and also how it might differ in key aspects from the beliefs we share here on the site. And you can perhaps see some of those differences in how she equates faith somewhat to other figures that might be considered “spiritual” in their greatness and impact. Still, it’s wonderful to read about Christ and scripture woven into the fabric of a series that shows a picture of how the very universe works.
I think it’s really difficult to develop an enticing work that expresses a worshipful posture and a Christian view of the universe and still makes it widely appealing to Christians and non-Christians. A Wrinkle in Time comes close, though from what I’ve read, the recent film adaptation removed many of these elements. So maybe Hollywood (and specifically Oprah Winfrey) didn’t think it successfully did so.
sleepminusminus: It’s funny—as you mentioned, Twwk, what stood out to me most about Wrinkle in Time was the way that she places Christ and other spiritual figures on the same level as forces fighting the dark powers of this world. It’s a comparison that made me cringe a little when I was reading the book.
Actually, I don’t think Protestant authors in general have done a great job of creating a literary imagination. We have authors like Lewis who create worlds that allegorize the moral vision of the faith but falter when it comes to subtlety or worldbuilding. And then we have authors like L’Engle here who bathe their stories in a vaguely Christian aura but don’t quite stick to orthodox beliefs. Catholic and Orthodox writers (e.g., Tolkien, Chesterton, Dostoevsky) have a better track record when it comes to applying Christianity to imagination, and that’s something Protestants can definitely learn from.
And here we are back in Kansas, safe and sound. We hope you enjoyed our discussion! Let us know what you think by chiming in and commenting below. Answer any of our questions, pose your own, or otherwise feel free to analyze these series and discuss the topic. We also invite you to read the entire discussion here.
- First Impression: Saint Cecilia and Pastor Lawrence - 07.12.2023
- First Impression: The Great Cleric - 07.06.2023
- First Impression: The Most Heretical Last Boss Queen: From Villainess to Savior - 07.06.2023