A collage of frames from different isekai anime shows.

Turning to anime as a form of self-care

A fantasy subgenre called isekai is rising in American popularity for its portrayal of gentle healing amid a tidal wave of burnout

Left to right: "Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead," "Why Raeliana Ended Up At the Duke's Mansion," "I Shall Survive Using Potions!," and "By the Grace of the Gods."

Courtesy of respective series

Words by Ray Liu

Japanese anime has dominated American television screens since the ‘90s, with the popularity of the Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon franchises, and with the boom in content streaming, anime is now more accessible than ever. In 2022, the global anime market was valued at $25.6 billion, with its largest market group being North America. A recent survey estimated one out of three Americans watch anime. Streaming services, such as Max and Crunchyroll have brought popular titles from Japan to the United States, ranging from Studio Ghibli films to hit series, such as Demon Slayer and Jujutsu Kaisen. Crunchyroll currently holds 120-million active users and organizes the annual Anime Awards every spring. The large number of Americans tuning in to anime can be a result of the rise of burnouts. As more Americans turn to anime for escapism, the once-niche fantasy subgenre of isekai (異世界) rises in popularity as a catalyst for gentle healing.

It’s no surprise that Americans have begun to turn to a specific subgenre, isekai, to cope with the rising cases of burnout. But what can Americans really learn from an overworked Japan through this subgenre?

The term isekai refers to a fantasy story that takes place in another world or universe. In Japan, the first isekai story dates back to 1976, with Haruka Takachino’s novel, Warrior from Another World. The novel term, isekai, was not officially used until the anime adaptation of web novel Sword Art Online, in 2012. Whereas adventure-focused animation in the late 2000s, such as global successes Digimon Adventure and Spirited Away, brought a poetic approach to this escapist trope, the newer iterations of isekai challenge social norms that have been concretized and enforced among overworked Japanese salary workers and students.

Karoshi (過労死) means death due to being overworked in Japanese. This term can apply to workers, as well as students in their early teens who are preparing for their college entrance exams, as the pressure put on them has been unforgivingly increasing. Though karoshi remains serious in Japan and across Asia, North Americans are experiencing a similar uptick in burning out.

Data scientist Tony Yiu pulled data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2023 to conclude that “Americans work 1,811 hours a year,” setting them apart from the second-highest country, Italy, by 117 hours. On a less scientific note, TikToker Lisa Beasley’s parodic caricature, Corporate Erin, addresses the toxic work environment of corporate America and has generated a massive following with her highly relatable content.

The gravitational effects of isekai unravels pressing issues of burnout. These series have been a spearheading resource for overworked Japanese—and now Americans—to acknowledge the severity of a high-pressure society for laborers and students. As the anime community continues to grow beyond Japan, let’s take a look at some current isekai anime series that reimagine and extend the conversation of burning out while reminding us to take a break.

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

“I live a totally normal, uneventful life,” 37-year-old—and single—Satoru Mikami begins, as That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime slowly opens to a modern-day Tokyo. This 2018 anime follows a salaryman working in “a major general contracting firm” whose goal is to finally go on a date. In a turn of events, Mikami is slain by a stranger on the sidewalk within three minutes of the premiere. In true isekai fashion, Mikami is reincarnated as a slime, living among dragons and magic. He quickly befriends a powerful-yet-confined dragon, in a dungeon, and finds parallels in the dragon to his own past life as a salaryman: solitude. But perhaps the most heart-wrenching scene in the first episode is the one we cannot see. The audience is left with no understanding if Mikami ever wishes to return to his life in Tokyo.

Parallel World Pharmacy

The 2022 anime Parallel World Pharmacy opens with pharmacologist Prof. Kanji Yakutani typing up a storm on his computer. He is dubbed a pharmacologic genius whose “research is nothing less than world class.” Bottles of energy drinks and convenient store snacks plague his desk. He only sleeps for 47 minutes every night in a sleeping bag, in his lab. His lab assistant finds him dead in his sleep the next morning, but this is the beginning of Yakutani’s new, isekai life in a French-themed world as Farma de Médicis, a 10-year-old boy. Though an isekai, this otherworld mimics our world, where quality health care is a privilege for the wealthy. In this heartwarming series, Farma aims to make pharmaceuticals affordable to this otherworld’s common folk.

Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead

In the short year since its premiere in 2023, zombie-themed Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead has garnered great reviews from global viewership, centering on a heroic protagonist, Akira. This goofy and saucy anime validates the feelings of those who are burned out through Akira’s perspective, who quickly lost the light in his eyes after three years in a deadened, toxic job. The zombie trope is a tool used in this series to gauge the severity of how much the once-chipper protagonist loathes his job—so much so, he imagines ways the world could end, just so he wouldn’t have to clock in anymore. The bucket list he creates with his friends—100 things to do before turning into a zombie—is a symbol of hope throughout this wholesome comedy. The parallel drawn between a flesh-eating pandemic and a soul-sucking job is not all that bizarre, considering how karoshi continues to plague Japan. Though Zom 100 is not a direct definition of isekai, it is—in a way—a reversed isekai, where the unimaginable world comes to the protagonist instead. With its colorful palette despite its sometimes-dark themes, Akira and his friends remind us that dreams are what keeps us going in a world that effortlessly fosters suffocation.

By the Grace of the Gods


Based on a light novel, By the Grace of the Gods (2020) follows Ryoma Takebayashi, an office worker who lived an uneventful life before his body succumbed to karoshi. “I worked for a horribly exploitative company, with terrible bosses, with no days off. So I was perpetually exhausted,” he says. Ryoma meets three gods who grant him a new life. “It’s a concept you see a lot in manga and anime,” Ryoma tells the gods, cheekily breaking the fourth wall. Rewarded for his virtuous life despite being a burnt-out salaryman, he is reincarnated as a child in a world with minimal challenges and only happy endings, raising magical creatures without any exploitative hierarchy. Though Ryoma laughs off his death as “unfortunate,” the short montage of Ryoma’s past life as an overworked salaryman in the first episode is rather haunting.

I Shall Survive Using Potions!

Illustrated in a cute—chibi—style, I Shall Survive Using Potions! is a gentle reminder to viewers that work can wait! In this 2023 isekai anime, 22-year-old protagonist Kaoru Nagase resembles the average office worker with little to no time for herself, hanging on by a thread of energy drinks. Five minutes into the first episode, she is accidentally killed by a god. The deity then offers to send her to an isekai. Skilled at negotiations, she survives the isekai by extorting the gods to grant her extraordinary skills before being transported—”super-OP cheat skills” and “the ability to create an unlimited number of potions”—as compensation for cutting her life short. She takes her extortion skills further by turning the rich and privileged of the isekai against each other while helping the marginalized. Viewers are sure to find humor in this bright and wholesome anime with a thoroughly cunning heroine.

Knight’s & Magic

Mecha fantasy isekai anime,
Knight’s & Magic, is a must-watch for those who grew up with Gundam. The robot-filled world of Fremmevilla Kingdom is a dreamland for mecha-otakus. The show only spends five minutes introducing viewers to software engineer and mecha-otaku, Tsubasa Kurata, before he is struck by a car and dies. Though he’s worked as an engineer, it is clear that Kurata’s work was not good for his health and did not satisfy his goals. It is after his death, and being catapulted to an otherworld, that he gets to live out his fantasy: a world where he can build all the robots—or silhouette knights, as they call it—to his heart’s content. Though the series revolves around an overpowered protagonist with weak opponents, Knight’s & Magic is a low-stakes, inspiring, and comforting watch that borrows the elements of isekai to dissolve the guilt of feeling joy as an adult.

Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion

Isekai anime don’t only reflect the harsh realities of overworked adults; students also fall victim to karoshi. Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion is a Japanese anime adaptation of a South Korean web novel by Milcha. Rinko is a high school student who is awaiting her college entrance exam results but is pushed off the roof—to her death—by a mysterious, phantom-like figure. All of this happens right after a message appears on her phone, telling her that she had passed the Imperial University entrance exam. In this isekai, Hanasaki is reborn into the body of Raeliana McMillan, a side character doomed to die in a novel that Hanasaki had read. In this fictional body, Hanasaki must use her recollection of the novel’s plot and characters to escape Raeliana’s death. Going against the plot, she blackmails the duke, Noah Volstaire Wynknight, in exchange for protection—proving to be a formidable, resourceful protagonist whose adaptability is her only means of survival in this isekai. Raeliana is an exciting escape from endless hours of studying, with a heroine you’d want to root for.

Published on April 4, 2024

Words by Ray Liu

Ray Liu is a New York-based entertainment and culture writer and K-beauty content creator. With a master’s degree in English, he finds purpose in analyzing fictional works with a cultural lens that centers marginalized communities. When he’s not writing, he’s making K-beauty content and reviews on YouTube (rayliur). Feel free to tweet him at @rayliur on Twitter.