Alice and Narnia are not Isekai

Wednesday, 7 Sep 2022
thought literature

I want to say that not every work of fiction that features some form of otherworldliness is an isekai. This might be obvious for some people but for others, that is not the case. Some people think that C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (1950 - 1956) is an isekai, or think that Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) falls under this category (unrelated to the fact that it influenced Japanese media heavily). What is next? Peter Pan is isekai? Those three works should not be considered isekai.

Isekai is Recent

Firstly, let us take a look at the term “isekai” in its elementary usage. We commonly translate that as “another world” in English. If we stop here, then a lot of fictional works fall under this category. Inuyasha, Digimon, and Sonic X feature this kind of logic, as an example. However, did we use to consider those as isekai stories back then? Most likely, we did not. Japanese speakers also did not refer to Alice books and Narnia books as isekai, if I can bet. Why? Because the term “isekai” is a relatively recent term, therefore applying it to older works is not befitting.

“B-but now that we use the word ‘isekai’ frequently, we can retroactively label them as isekai stories, right?”

My position is the same, such usage is not appropriate.

Beyond Literal Meaning

Now, I have heard of Takachiho Haruka’s Isekai no Yuusha (1981). It ’litcherally’ has the word “isekai” in its title. However, I still believe that it is not one, as how we understand what isekai is today. What, then, separates those other-world stories from isekai stories? To put it simply, it has to be otaku-ish, weeb-ish. It has to integrate some contemporary otaku elements.

What we commonly refer to as isekai does not merely mean “another world”. There is a gap between its literal meaning and what we actually process ¹. This otherness of meaning that we process when we use the term “isekai” is what I proposed earlier: the otaku-ness of media (please, if you’re really a weeb, you should’ve gained this sixth sense already). Of course, this logic is not only found in the term “isekai”, but in every word we utter. Try using the word “democracy”. Most of us do not only mean it in its literal sense. Depending on the person and the social condition they live in, it could mean different things. For people in the US, democracy is what they have been advocating for. For 20th-century communists, Western democracy is a degenerated version of real democracy.

But let us stop here regarding words and meaning. I have tried to explain this in my Meaning and Vtuber rant, so you might want to read that.

A question still remains about the term “isekai”: why does the aforementioned otherness of meaning have to be something otaku-ish and where does it come from? We have to deduce from what a lot of isekai stories proper, that is media that we unanimously regard as isekai, have in common. Let us pick Death March, Isekai Smartphone, Konosuba, Mushoku Tensei, and Re:Zero. They all came from web novels. To be more specific, they are originally published on a website called Shousetsuka ni Narou (syousetu). While syousetu is not the only web novel publishing platform out there, it is the most popular one. The platform helped cultivated a certain culture around how fiction is written, commonly referred to as “narou-kei” (系/kei as in FPS系/FPS-type games) ². This type of story usually includes wish-fulfillment situations for male otaku: cheat powers, harem, and the like. Narou-kei in itself is not isekai, but the otherness of meaning we have talked about is precisely this. Therefore, I propose that isekai is the combination of other-world story elements and narou-kei.

Now it is clear that Alice and Narnia books are not isekai, if you agree with my proposal. You can freely disagree because I myself am not a weeb expert. I might contradict or argue against this writing in the future, but for now, this is it.


  1. Zizek-Lacanian notion. See the Sublime Object of Ideology.

  2. The idea of narou-kei is taken from Pause and Select’s Isekai: An Introduction. It has different arguments than me as my main argument is about the otherness of meaning. However, he is clearly more knowledgeble than me.

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