'Isekai' anime: 5 must-see fantasy anime set in a 'different world'

By Limarc Ambalina

Imagine a new life in a parallel universe sprinkled with monsters and topped with a dollop of magic. Sound good to you? If so, you might be into isekai anime. Escapism in its purest form, isekai anime features a character transported to another world, be it an alternate reality or a virtual one. It makes sense that isekai literally means “a different world” in English.

In recent years, there has been a large influx of isekai anime, partly due to the worldwide popularity of Sword Art Online (SAO). However, this isekai anime list will not include SAO. Instead, we will focus on other fantasy anime that are, dare we say, better than SAO.

Here are five lesser-known titles that approach the isekai genre in unique and novel ways.

1. The Twelve Kingdoms


"The Twelve Kingdoms" is an anime that didn’t get much attention in English-speaking countries. However, it’s one of the best anime I’ve ever seen. While most action anime illustrate a clear distinction between good and evil, "The Twelve Kingdoms" shows that there are two sides to every coin. Whenever blood is shed, someone is always left to suffer the fallout.

This anime follows Yoko, an ordinary high school girl who only stands out due to her red hair, despite being born to 100% Japanese parents. Her world is turned upside down when a mysterious blonde-haired man appears at her school and tries to take her away. He claims that Yoko’s life is in danger and tells her she is the queen of his country in another world.

Despite being an older fantasy anime, first aired in Japan in 2002, "The Twelve Kingdoms" surpasses more recent anime in its unapologetic exploration of morality. The anime presents human struggles at every level of the social hierarchy. You get to watch Yoko evolve from the weakest, most annoying pampered girl you’ve ever met to a wise, powerful, and just ruler.

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I wouldn't really call Angel Beats an Isekai anime, to be honest. While it does share something in common with some of them (namely going to a different location after death) it really doesn't fit in with them over all. I do highly recommend it however. I also strongly recommend Tsubasa Resevoir Chronicle.

I've not seen the other three yet, but I do feel like checking them out.

Other Isekai anime I'd recommed:

How Not To Summon A Demon Lord

Tensei Shittara Slime Datta Ken

Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari

Youjo Senki

Isekai anime I'd recommend AVOIDING:

KonoSuba (some good characters, but Aqua and Kazuma ruin it over all. Very annoying)

Re:Zero (Subaru and Emilia ruin this. Emilia is too happy-go-lucky, while Subaru screams way too much)

Isekai Cheat Magician (for a show about overpowered heroes, they're surprisingly weak)

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Twelve kingdoms is a masterpiece.

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Not so much into Anime (more bc of time restrains), but I really loved the first 2 movies of "Made in Abyss", just so fresh and raw, with it's mentioning of bodily parts and functions and dark humour (" I'm sorry I have to use you little bunnies as bait for the big monster. I would have rather eaten you myself.."!)

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Going into the 90's or early 00's, I would also mention some classic titles:

-'The Vision of Escaflowne', beautiful soundtrack by renowned Yoko Kanno (and Hajime Mizoguchi);

-'Magic Knight Rayearth', created by CLAMP, shoujo (kinda?) with mecha;

-'Digimon', timeless classic!

-'Fushigi Yuugi'. shoujo that also had a good male fanbase (which was not so common in the 90's);

-'Inuyasha', created by famous Rumiko Takahashi (Ranma 1/2, Urusei Yatsura)

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AnimeJohnMikeToday wrote (@10:51 pm JST):

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Of the five series listed, I have only seen two, so I'll comment on them.

Angel Beats: I would have to agree with Fox Sora Winters that Angel Beats is not an isekai. I'm not sure if I'd classify it as sci-fi or fantasy but it doesn't fit the basic premise of an isekai anime.

In Another World With My Smartphone: I cannot believe that Limarc Ambalina would include this series as one of five to watch while rejecting SAO! Smartphone has the most ridiculous plot of any isekai I've seen (and I've seen most of them) in that the hero has the most overpowered smartphone in the history of this, or any other world! It's perpetually charged and gives him the ability to create literally anything. I continued to watch this series when it came out only to see if it could get any worse week-to-week (spoiler alert: it did!)

I would agree with Fox Sora Winters on other isekais to watch. How not to Summon a Demon Lord skillfully combined comedy and adventure. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, while also having a vastly overpowered hero like Smartphone, actually does something positive with the hero's abilities and gives realistic situations and opponents. The saga of Tanya the Evil deals with philosophical and religious topics and The Rising of the Shield Hero turns the isekai genre on its ear!

I can't agree with all of her "avoid" recommendations, however. Yes, Kasuba and Aqua are annoying in Konosuba--but that's the whole point! It's a comedy--there would be no comic tension if they weren't annoying. As for RE:Zero--the airhaeadedness of Emilia and the blind stubbornness of Subaru's unrequited love are frustrating, but that's the stuff of romance novels. It's a classic love triangle story. They don't always break the way you want to but you can't help reading (or watching) them anyway. Isekai Cheat Magicians, on the other hand...read like it was written by committee. It was better than Smartphone, but that's damning with faint praise.

As for my recommendations, I'd add Log Horizon, Gate, and Ascendance of a Bookworm to the list. Log Horizon is a more complete story, as it is more about world building by those who are in a different world involuntarily than SAO's "trying to escape for a game world" premise. Gate is unusual because people don't have to die or get trapped in the different world. They can just travel through a gate to get there. It's probably the most sci-fi based of the isekais but it's done so well that the sci-fi aspects don't hit you in the face all the time...at least in my opinion.

Finally, there's Ascendance of a Bookworm, from the Fall 2019 season. This isekai takes a completely different tack--the main character is not physically or magically overpowered. She's actually a sickly child that the MC inhabits the body of at the beginning of the series. The MC loves books but, in addition to becoming younger and sickly, her host is in a poor family in a world where only the rich can afford books. Determined to bring books and reading to all, the MC struggles through a series of attempts to create her own books. If anything, she's not physically overpowered but mentally overpowered, as she retains all of her memories from her former life, including being able to create many things not imagined in the world she finds herself in. This is a different look at the genre. It does require the story to move at a slower pace than other isekais, but the payoff is enormous--again, IMHO.

Ad for the three series (or two series and a movie) that I haven't seen from the article--Only The Twelve Kingdoms is available streaming legally, on Crunchyroll, so I will catch up with that one. Children Who Chase Lost Voices used to be available on the Anime Network (and its successor, HIDIVE) but it's not longer listed. I usually don't buy physical discs of a series I haven't seen (except when they're at extreme closeout prices) but being that Children is a Makoto Shinkai creation and Tsubasa is from Clamp, I may have to buy them anyway.

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In Another World With My Smartphone: I cannot believe that Limarc Ambalina would include this series as one of five to watch while rejecting SAO! Smartphone has the most ridiculous plot of any isekai I've seen (and I've seen most of them) in that the hero has the most overpowered smartphone in the history of this

Thanks for your comments. Interesting to hear your thoughts! I purposefully added a disclaimer in the beginning of the article stating I wouldn't mention SAO because it's so widely known it's boring/useless to add it to such a listicle. I wanted to focus on titles that SAO fans might have missed or never heard of.

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