With laughter and mockery closing off wish-fulfillment fantasies set in the familiar world around light novel readers, light novel fantasists escaped into other worlds, taking their everyday Japanese characters with them. These in another world fantasies, sometimes called portal fantasies in English but better known as isekai in Japanese, soon became the dominant genre of light novels, enjoying popularity for close to a decade with no end yet in sight.
Isekai portal fantasies offer a bridge between two types of fantasies, primary world fantasy and secondary world fantasy. Primary world fantasy, as described by J. R. R. Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories”, takes place on Earth, typically in the present at the time of writing. Examples of primary world fantasy include American Gods, The Dresden Files, and Who Fears the Devil?, with Solomon Kane, The Lord of the Rings, and arguably The Wheel of Time providing primary world fantasies in the past. Secondary world fantasy takes place in another world than Earth, such as Narnia, Westeros, Discworld, Lankhmar, or the scattered worlds of the Cosmere. Isekai takes main characters from the primary world and thrusts them into a secondary world adventure. Whether through a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, answering a strange personal advertisement, or uploading one’s consciousness into the internet, this transition between worlds is the defining feature of isekai. As this transition typically takes place in the first chapter, the story lives and dies off the secondary world introduced to the reader.
The portal between fantasy worlds works both ways. Not only do characters leap from our primary world to secondary fantasy worlds, characters from those secondary worlds can cross into ours for fish-out-of-water adventures. These fantasies are known by the systematic and admittedly unimaginative label of “reverse isekai” fantasies.
However, the approach between classic isekai portal fantasy and its reverse reflection differs more in just the direction of travel between worlds. Where isekai tends to shove its protagonists through the door between worlds, only to lock the door behind them, reverse isekai stories tend to install a revolving door between worlds. Furthermore, since reverse isekai do not need to rely upon the main character as a stand-in for the reader exploring the world, these stories are far less reliant on wish fulfillment fantasies. This allows reverse isekai stories to offer a wider variety of kinds of stories than the tried and true hero fights against a villain found in traditional isekai portal fantasy.
While Western portal fantasies typically draw from sword-and-planet fantasy, myths, or fairy tales, Japanese light novels tend to draw from games for their conventions, with Dragon Quest being the primary influence–as discussed earlier in “Blue Slime Fantasy.” Although isekai portals into actual MMO worlds are common, today’s recommendations look at adventures in fantasy worlds unconstrained by silicon, even if the leveling and the looting remain.
Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody, by Hiro Ainana
Programmer Ichiro “Satou” Suzuki falls asleep in an overtime patching session he calls a “death march”, only to wake up in a world that resembles the game he was working on. While the leveling and skill systems come straight from the game, he soon finds the world too real, and starts delving its secrets.
Sometimes a recommendation is on this list not because of quality, but because it is the purest example of the form. And since isekai stories are currently caught up in a search for novelty, twisting and riffing on the conventions of isekai, an example of what everyone is trying to subvert is required. Death March gets the nod over titles like In Another World with My Smartphone for navigating the traditional isekai conventions of ever-increasing cast, lands, powers, and quests while dropping the least characters and plot threads along the way. While Death March incorporates gaming tropes, it straddles the line between game world and fantasy world as other characters are Japanese souls reincarnated into the new world.
Death March also is notable as a “burnout” fantasy, where the main character is an overworked salaryman thrust into a new life, as opposed to the under-socialized teens that commonly fill light novels. The result is a more idyllic journey through the video game-inspired fantasy world, as Satou grows to enjoy the moment instead of just being married to work. Satou’s age and maturity, compared to most isekai protagonists, filter out a number of pandering tropes as well.
Konosuba: God’s Blessing on this Wonderful World!, by Natsume Akatsuki
When perennial loser and MMO junkie Kazuma Satou dies trying to save a girl from a runaway tractor, he finds himself in the waiting room of heaven, where, after a goddess roasts him for being an idiot, she gives him a choice. Kazuma can enter heaven, or take a continue in an MMO-inspired world as an adventurer. Kazuma naturally chooses the second option, complete with the customary choice of a starting cheat in the form of a legendary item or skill. Wanting to wipe the smug smirk from the goddess’s face, Kazuma selects her as his special perk. After all, what could be more powerful in a fantasy world than a goddess? To her horror, heaven agrees to his request and sends them both to the fantasy world. Now Kazuma and the goddess Aqua must quest to defeat the Demon King before either can return home.
A light-hearted comedy, Konosuba follows the other tradition of isekai light novels, that of flipping over one or more conventions. Here, the wish-fulfillment seen in many light novels gets turned on its head, as Kazuma’s crusade against the Demon King is quickly laid low by misfortune and misfits, with none more dysfunctional than the goddess at his side, Aqua. The comedy is situational instead of gag-based, fueled by subverted expectations and a rare willingness to let the characters indulge in their faults–including the women. But no matter how genre-savvy Kazuma may act, he never treats his new world as just a game. Although my first review was rough on the series, later volumes do become more enjoyable, another trait common with many light novels.
The Devil is a Part Timer, by Satoshi Wagahara
After the final, climactic battle in another world, the Devil King and his last general are banished to another world: ours. But without magic, they can neither return to their own world, or conquer ours. Forced to make ends meet, the Devil King survives as a lowly fast food employee, with designs of working his way to the top of the company, and then the top of the world. But they aren’t the only otherworlders in Japan. The Hero has arrived as well, and she knows where the Devil King works.
A bit of a guilty pleasure, The Devil is a Part Timer combines reverse isekai with the devil/monster genre. Here, Maou is treated more as a demi-human than a proper devil, and the burdens of making ends meet in a low-paying job actually humanize him to the point that he’s no longer the same power-mad end boss he once was, much to the consternation and confusion of the Hero, Emilia. The unresolved tension between Maou and Emilia fuels much of the comedy. It is refreshing to see an adult cast evenly divided between the sexes, with actual male friendships that aren’t hand waved off screen in favor of harem hijinks or romanticized for fetishes. The worldbuilding leans heavily on Kabbalah, which some might find off-putting, but becomes important when the powers that be in the old world won’t leave Maou and Emilia alone in ours. The Devil is a Part Timer is a humorous refuge from wish-fulfillment and harem fantasies that still brings sword and magic action to the table.
Notable mentions for straight isekai portal fantasies include: Re: Zero–Starting Life in Another World, by Tappei Nagatsuki, where a teen from our world finds himself in a new world with the mysterious power to reverse time by dying–a lot, and the recently released Mushoku Tensei, by “Rifujin na Magonote,” where an unsuccessful man in his thirties resolves to do better in his new life, even if it means challenging a god.
Reverse isekai notable mentions include Outbreak Company, by Ichiro Sasaki, in which a fandom-obsessed teen is tapped by the Japanese government to export fandom to another world, and Restaurant in Another World, by Junpei Inuzaka, which combines cooking stories and slice-of-life stories as it follows the stories of adventurers from other worlds that have found their way to a restaurant in ours.