I’ve been on a roll lately, writing about the 15 best isekai anime series, and the 10 “worst” isekai shows, using the tens of thousands of rating for each series on My Anime List as a guide. Since I’m a fan of the “trapped in another world” genre of storytelling, I thought I’d look at some classic isekai story examples outside of the anime world.
Once again, we need to define which works we’ll be including here. In the ranking of the best isekai shows, I included Inuyasha because it was included in many other fans’ lists of top series in the genre, though some fans pointed out that it’s really a time travel (or “timeslip” to use the Japanse term) story, which is a different but related concept than “trapped in another world.” I’ve decided, especially for this list, to not sweat whether the “other world” in question is populated with fantasy creatures or is merely a time travel story, as long as most isekai story elements are present, which include
- Do the character(s) interact with the new society as an outsider, allowing us to learn about the new world through their eyes, including experiencing their confusion at their new situation?
- Do the character(s) have special skills or knowledge, allowing them to do incredible things later on?
- Is there drama about how the characters can return home, and how do the characters deal with this?
So let’s look at 12 classic isekai stories that are unrelated to anime!
Although it’s strictly a time-travel story, this outstanding Netflix series (based on novels by Diana Gabaldon) tells the story of Clair, a combat nurse who’s on holiday in Scotland with her husband Frank after the end of WWII. She accidentally falls through some ancient stones and finds herself in 1743, a few years before the Jacobite rising against the British. Using her knowledge of the future, she and her new husband Jaime try to change history and stop the futile war, just as Katarina tries to change her “death flags” in Hamefura. While the books are great, the Netflix series is frankly some of the best television I’ve ever watched, and I highly recommend Outlander.
Since anime fans aren’t always big on Disney films, some of you might have missed this awesome 2007 film about a Disney princess who gets truck-kun’ed into our dirty, non-magical world where things like divorce and loneliness are completely alien to her. Make sure you watch it!
The Dark Tower Series
A great work by Stephen King, it tells the story of a gunslinger who’s chasing the mysterious “man in black,” who is his world’s incarnation of Flagg, the bad dude from The Stand. The story involves many doorways to other worlds, as Roland draws his three companions to him. I especially like King’s concept of “thinnies,” which are places where the barrier between different worlds is especially weak so that sometimes characters will fall through.
Peggy Sue Got Married
What if, instead of your boring current life, you could timeslip into your body back in high school, and live your life again? You might try to use your knowledge of future technology to create new inventions, or at least try not to repeat the same mistakes in relationships that made your future life a mess, right? That’s the concept behind this great 1986 film. The obsession the heroine places on analyzing her new circumstances, again like Katarina in Hamefura, makes this close to a modern isekai story.
Another classic “trapped in another world” story, Tron tells the story of a programmer who gets transported inside the worlds of computer software, where the formerly-free flow of information is being taken over by the evil Master Control Program. I probably watched this film 50 times growing up, and still love it today.
Land of the Lost
Back in the 70s, there was a company called Sid and Marty Krofft that made cheesy, low-budget TV programs aimed at kids. But their best work by far was Land of the Lost, a 1974 series about the Marshall family who goes on a rafting trip and falls into a land occupied by dangerous dinosaurs and lizard-like creates known as Sleestaks. Despite the stop-motion animation and corny visuals, the show’s story was amazing, thanks to contributions by famous writers like Larry Niven, Ben Bova, and D.C. Fontana.
The Last Action Hero
Arnold Schwarzenegger comes out of the action hero universe and into our boring normal one. Sounds like it could have inspired Re:CREATORS?
The Narnia Chronicles
The first isekai story most of us were exposed to, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells the story of four Pevensie children who find a doorway to a secret land called Narnia. In classic isekai fashion, they have many adventures they could never have back in their boring home in England, playing with near “god mode” strength in battle, eventually becoming kings and queens of the country. After living full lives over decades, they re-enter the real world as children. How do I get in on some of that?
John Carter of Mars
Another incredibly important step in what we’d think of as the modern isekai genre, the 1912 novel about a Civil War veteran who gets teleported to Mars, where he fights in many heroic battles and wins Martian princesses, enthralled millions of boys growing up. They no doubt inserted themselves into the story just as readers of the Sword Art Online novels do today.
The Wizard of Oz
Another classic “lost in another world and don’t know how to get home” story, it follows the adventures of Dorothy as her house gets blown by a tornado into a magical world of witches, munchkins, and other fantastic creatures. Unlike the modern genre, Dorothy is sort of a cork being swept along by a fast-moving river, never a heroic person who uses modern knowledge to effect change. Yes, there was a Wizard of Oz anime made… you can watch it on Youtube if you’re curious.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
In another post I argue that this 1889 book is truly the beginning of the modern isekai story, with every element we expect in the genre today being present. An American man gets knocked on the head, where he finds himself in King Arthur’s court 800 years in the past. He’s able to use his knowledge of astronomy, engineering, and gunpowder to set himself up as an even more powerful “magician” than even the great Merlin. He then uses his skills to reshape England into a more modern and egalitarian society in the exact same way that Rimiru-sama does in That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime.
Alice in Wonderland
Ah, we finally get to the “first” isekai, the 1865 Lewis Caroll’s 1865 novel began the genre. And yet, while Alice explores the fanciful world she finds herself into, there are none of the “main characters has a super advantage” that marks the modern isekai genre. We’re mostly just sharing Alice’s confusion about everything that happens to her.
As far as the Japanese are concerned, the origin for the isekai genre can be thought of as Urashima Taro, about a fisher who is rewarded for rescuing a turtle by being transported to a magical Dragon Palace, where he spends “several days” only to return to his village to find that 100 years have passed. The outstanding visual novel Little My Maid is built around this classic isekai story.
So what do you think of this list of classic isekai stories that aren’t anime? Tell us below, or give feedback on Twitter!
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