Once upon a time, it was all about high-school battle harems. While that genre hasn't exactly faded from the current anime and manga market, it's impossible to ignore the surge of a new (but not really) trend over the past years.
Let's start with the basics. Just what is the Isekai genre?
Isekai is a word that pretty much means 'another world' or 'different world.' As in 'I reincarnated in another world' or 'I woke up in another world.' All Isekai stories follow the same basic premise of the protagonist somehow ending up in some sort of parallel world.
That world will usually be some sort of medieval fantasy land. Sometimes, the world will have its fair share of RPG mechanics because everyone loves Dragon Quest.
If you're thinking of Re:Zero at this point, then congratulations. Re:Zero is an example of an Isekai story. Konosuba is one too even though it is parodic in nature.
Let's make one thing clear, the idea of a normal person being transported to a fantasy world is not even remotely new. Alice in Wonderland is a thing.
It's not even new to anime.
Magic Knight Rayearth, anyone? El-Hazard?
Those Who Hunt Elves?
So yes, it is not a new concept. In fact, it is a very popular concept and for good reason.
|Pictured: A very clueless guy|
Since the main character is ignorant to the ways of the world, it is natural for him to ask questions about things that would be common knowledge for everyone else. The writer can afford to make him ask questions that would sound really dumb coming from someone who had grown up in the fantasy world without exasperating his audience.
However, there is a clear difference between the old stories and the new brand of Isekai that's popping up all over the place nowadays. Let's start with the obvious one: Self-awareness.
New Isekai works have developed a high-level of self-awareness. This self-awareness is not just about the main character being genre savvy, but the story itself is aware of its own genre and willingly goes along its own mechanics.
Basically, it's the difference between Love Hina which popularized a concept, and the other romantic comedies that followed which willingly and eagerly embraced the harem comedy for both better and worse.
Speaking of mechanics, let's talk about the RGP aspect. In Re:Zero this manifests as resets. In plain terms, anytime Subaru dies he gets taken back in time to an arbitrarily chosen save point. As he clears each "stage" his save point keeps moving forward.
This is not the only example. In fact, plenty of Isekai are quite a bit more blatant in their RGP-like mechanics.
Rising of the Shield Hero (which is total trash) embraces the whole deal with Levels and Skills. Kumo Desu ga, Nani ka? (which is adorable in manga format but sucks ass in novel format so don't bother trying to read ahead of the manga) goes a bit further with defined stats, skills, and level-ups.
Well, for starters, it's an easy way to show growth.
Stats and levels are measurable. There is a reason why people are so obsessed about Power Levels in Dragon Ball even though the manga stopped giving them by the time Frieza went into his Second Form.
They are simply an easy way of measuring how strong a character is. They are a way of "telling" that is more acceptable to readers.
Imagine someone telling you your destination is still very far away and someone telling you it is two miles away. One of those is more easily understood than the other.
Plus, it plays into the power fantasy aspect. Grind hard and lord your stats over everyone. Can't ever forget that.
In the end, we have a combination of fantasy, game elements, and an everyman protagonist. It provides an easy vehicle for self-insertion (Note: That is not a bad thing in and of itself) into a very attractive setting where success can easily be measured.
Note that plenty of times the protagonists are reincarnated into the fantasy world after dying for one reason or another (Trucks. It's always Trucks). This provides the protagonist with a way to live his life again and not make the same mistakes of the past.
That's a very powerful theme that will naturally appeal to just about everyone, because who doesn't have regrets. Who hasn't ever thought, "Man, I should have totally done this thing instead of that thing back then?"
That combination of factors are why the Isekai genre is kind of booming right now. You see it a lot in web novels and plenty of them are getting adapted into Manga, Light Novels, and Anime.
People see this particular genre and it appeals to them. Some of them get encouraged to try writing a web novel. Some of those gain a big enough fan-following, and some of those get noticed by editors and publishers.
This cycle is what has contributed towards creating the Isekai boom. It is a boom with very strong roots in fan-created content.
Of course, the fact that this usually starts out as self-published novels means there is very little in the way of quality control which gives way to either edgy revenge fantasies (which are bad) or just very boring, very droll stuff that's nothing but narrating how the character levelled up and learned so and so skill (which is worse).
It's especially bad when that's the stuff that gets adapted into manga. What's popular and what's good are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not necessarily the same.
On the plus side, Konosuba.
Regardless, for better or worse, this boom does not look like it's going to end anytime soon.