This year a title was released called In Another World With My Smartphone. To most of you, this might sound pretty damn stupid. It should considering it is, as its title implies, a show about a guy being transported to a fantasy world with his smartphone. However, as ridiculous as it may sound, this show is a wonderfully on-the-surface example of what an isekai series and light novel adapatations in general have become in recent years thanks to a sudden popularity boon.
Smartphone, as I'll call it from here on out, is basically the modern isekai in a nutshell. The main character dies and talks to God who transports him to a fantasy world where, surprise surprise, he's one of the strongest people there. Change out a few bits and you've got Sword Art Online, change out a few more bits and you have Knights & Magic. To say that this trend is recent would be inaccurate as Inuyasha, an isekai show from the early 2000s, also featured a protagonist who ended up in a fantasy world and happened to be one of the strongest beings in that feudal setting. But the difference between something like Inuyasha versus Smartphone is that the former is steeped in the fact that it is an isekai show; it's the entire basis for how the main character functions and that does not change from the moment she steps into the world to when the credits roll. Herein lies the key reason why isekai shows today make no damn sense.
If you look at most isekai shows back in the 2000s and the 90s, the fact that someone or some people were from a different world, dimension, or what have you, was thrown in your face pretty much all the time. Those Who Hunt Elves is a light novel adaptation about a group of three very different individuals (and their tank) that are teleported to a world filled with all manner of fantastical beasts, elves included. The plot of the show aside, these individuals always stand out from everyone else. Junpei is a brash individual who loves curry and is somewhat xenophobic, constantly making it known that he's Japanese and rather loudly complains about the inconveniences of the other world; Ritsuko is a gun otaku who constantly uses her firearms to one-up the world's more dangerous inhabitants; and Airi is an actor that uses her talents to take advantage of the unsuspecting. The important thing to note here is that all three are characterized by the fact that they are, indeed, from another world.
Funny enough, all of what was said above can be gleamed from the opening alone.
Looking at something recent, Re:Zero begins as this but the idea eventually falls off. While the protagonist does mostly continue to don his tracksuit, Subaru's first-world ingenuity is later slowly overtaken by his ability to return to a predetermined point after death. Honestly, by the end of the show I wouldn't have been surprised if a viewer completely forgot that they were watching an isekai show despite it being in the title itself. This is not inherently a problem, there's no rule that says that isekai shows have to be only about the fact that they're isekai, nor should there be one as this could dilute an otherwise solid idea. However, it does beg the question: what's the point of making an isekai show if the genre doesn't actually have much to do with the experience?
Jumping all the way back to Smartphone, one would think that a show like this would actually more closely resemble the 90s/00s brand of isekai. This would make sense for a show where its entire premise is in the title and that title is almost inherently "new age kid turned fantasy world hero." Within the first episode it pushes the fact that the main character (who most certainly isn't Kirito why would you even think that) is from another world right onto the backburner, something it took Re:Zero half a season to do. In a very short time, the protagonist discards the clothes from his world, saves the eyecandy of the series from danger, and learns that he's good at every kind of magic- to the last of which he says this:
What makes this line sting is that unlike Re:Zero's Subaru, who would say this with a tongue-in-cheek tone, or Konosuba's Kazuma, who would probably say exactly this without an ounce of humility, here it seems almost as if the series is taking a shot at itself, albeit unintentionally. This character did, indeed, receive a power boost upon entering the world. However, in a show played as straight as Smartphone that is completely unaware of light novel tropes that have been done to death, it should become immediately apparent why this series in particular is a wonderful model for the isekai and light novel adaptations of late. It has successfully lined the beginning of its story with ideas seen time and again and then mocks itself for that unironically. This is coupled with the actual usage of the smartphone being pretty rare; it's mostly there for the sake of creating a ridiculous title to an otherwise generic isekai show. This isn't a problem exclusive to Smartphone, however.
The big problem with the isekai genre today, the reason it makes no damn sense, is because it's lost its meaning and has simply become a MacGuffin for authors to profit off the popularity of and jumpstart the plot of whatever fantasy scenario plops into their heads with. For these shows, the term "isekai" is a lot less a descriptor of the type of show it is and more of a tag that will give onlookers pause and maybe even something to latch onto. Of course, there are some more proper isekai around even despite this. Drifters, for example, is a battle royale about historical figures arriving in a fantasy world and duking it out with each other. Konosuba blurs the line here, as while it is indeed an isekai show, how protagonists Kazuma and Aqua integrate into the world they're transported to and the effects of this integration are seen throughout. It's never forgotten that Kazuma is a NEET that died from hilarious circumstances or that Aqua is a god: it's even relevant throughout the plot.
Of course, most of the time Konosuba's just a silly show about a dysfunctional group of adventurers, proof that an isekai can do both.
This is not a piece about how isekai today are all bad and you shouldn't watch them, nor am I saying that the shows listed above are better than their more nonsensical, slapdash brethren. Even though the quality of the majority of anime in the genre's niche these past couple of years seem to vary wildly, it is more thanks to visibility that comes from being a show in this genre as well as the dartboard that's used to select what gets adapted and what doesn't that lends to the term being robbed of any meaningful description past the first few words of a plot summary.
Should this change? Not necessarily. The fascination surrounding isekai is no doubt a fad, and, with this in mind, there is no reason to try to hasten its demise as it will collapse in on itself soon enough. If the popularity of shows like Inuyasha or Drifters are any indication, people are willing to buy into this idea of people finding themselves in a world that isn't theirs with a purpose that isn't as clear as it might first seem if the series itself has its own charms. All of this to say, the genre still has the allure that it has always had when accompanied by a work that makes the same use out of it that any property would of its genre, and as long as that remains the case there is no reason to start doom-saying isekai towards mediocrity and, ultimately, pointlessness.