Not all Isekai adventures are thrilling epics as some are filled with despair and misery, adding a touch of a realism to these escapist fantasies.
Isekai anime are the embodiment of escapism, allowing viewers to experience the fantasy of relinquishing one’s previous existence to live a new life of adventure. While most Isekai premise revolve around this concept, others present an entirely opposite narrative rooted in reality. These unfortunate Isekai heroes get more than what they bargained for, either finding themselves in bleak situations or despair-ridden worlds.
Finding a grim premise within the Isekai landscape is certainly rare, even more so as the irony of escapism turning into a lesson of realism is a bit too avant-garde for this genre. However, the few series that do dominate this niche offer a decent mix of mature themes and prolific lessons. The protagonists of these shows are truly in for a ride as their new lives are nothing short of tragedy-laden chronicles, with suffering and misery at their core.
5 Naofumi Iwatani — The Rising of the Shield Hero
The Rising of the Shield Hero features a classic Isekai plot, centering around an easygoing guy who suddenly finds himself summoned to an MMO-style fantasy world. Chosen to be a Cardinal Hero, Naofumi Iwatani enthusiastically awaits the start of a new adventure as a legendary hero. However, things seem to go awry after his sole partner, the princess of the kingdom, wrongfully frames him for sexual assault.
Naofumi’s new adventure suddenly turns into a traumatic experience filled with ridicule, social alienation, and cynicism. The accused hero is forced to navigate through the unknown world all by himself, believing that none could be trusted. His only partner is a tanuki that he buys from a slave trader, yet his mistrust for the opposite gender becomes a point of contention between the two. Despite eventually healing from his initial trauma, Naofumi’s Isekai adventure remains tainted by despair, hopelessness, and skepticism.
4 Rudeus Greyrat — Mushoku Tensei
After an altruistic sacrifice, an unnamed Japanese man finds himself reincarnated in a medieval world revolving around swords and magic. With a new identity under the name of Rudeus Greyrat, he strives to find success in this new realm of fantasy and sorcery. While Rudeus initially finds meaning in his new life, a magical catastrophe turns everything around, leading to misery and suffering.
The catastrophe marks the beginning of Rudeus’ sufferings as he must escort a noble heiress back to her homeland. His journey is filled with trials and tribulations, and despite safely escorting the heiress back, he is left heartbroken and isolated. Just when Rudeus thinks his life is back on track, grim narratives take over and set him up for more pain.
3 Hajime Nagumo — Arifureta: From Commonplace to World’s Strongest
With another MMO-style Isekai narrative, Arifureta: From Commonplace to World’s Strongest follows the story of an entire class being summoned to a fantasy world. The hero, however, receives the weakest abilities, while the rest of his classmates are granted absurdly powerful skills. With an already awry start to his Isekai adventure, Hajime Nagumo finds himself in a miserable predicament after he’s betrayed by one of his classmates.
Skepticism and cynical thoughts take over Hajime, turning him into a ruthless character that trusts none and cares for only himself. His disposition takes a turn for the worse, going from a kind and caring persona to a cold, expressionless personality. These events are unsurprising, however, as betrayal is bound to leave its mark of cynicism.
2 Shu — Now And Then, Here And There
With suffering and trauma at its core, Now And Then, Here And There revolves around the unfortunate events in an alternate world that is devoid of water, a precious and scarce resource. While trying to protect a mysterious girl, Shu gets kidnapped by abductors from another world, taking him back to their dystopian homeland.
The events that follow are embedded with pain and misfortune, as Shu finds himself trapped and helpless in a world laden with war and misery. The young boy ends up serving a ruthless dictator, even getting recruited as a child soldier for looting and pillaging towns. Shu’s sufferings are a commentary on the adversities brought on by war in the real world, depicting themes rooted in slavery, war crimes, child labor, and famine.
1 Subaru Natsuki — Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World
True to its name, Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World offers the classic Isekai starter-pack, revolving around an easygoing protagonist who starts a new life in a fantasy-style world. In this case, however, needless suffering and inexplicable pain await Subaru Natsuki after he discovers the ability to turn back time after death.
In a bid to help his newfound friends, Subaru constantly lays down his life, only to be revived moments later. While everyone else loses their memories, Subaru is forced to live with the visual recollection of his own deaths, a process that is repeated countless times throughout the series. Any normal human being would lose their sanity to the pain and suffering from experiencing death on repeat, yet Subaru has to power through the ordeal and suffer in silence for his friends.