Sword Art Online’s Predecessor, the First Isekai Anime, Is Still Worth a Watch

The isekai genre is going through a renaissance right now, with loads of new titles hitting screens every season. However, the very first isekai anime -- which laid the foundation for shows like Sword Art Online -- is still worth watching, even decades after it first released. This series, titled Aura Battler Dunbine, has a fascinating history.

Yoshiyuki Tomino is a legendary creator, being the driving force behind the iconic Gundam franchise. However, Gundam wasn't the only story he created. Between 1983-86, Tomino released a series of light novels called The Wings of Rean, and the first of these books was turned into the anime Aura Battler Dunbine -- which, in the eyes of many, is the first true isekai anime.

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However, while Aura Battler Dunbine was based on The Wings of Rean, there was one core difference between the show and the books. Clover and Bandai, the show's sponsors, demanded that mechs be added to the show so they could make toys of them. This led to the addition of hulking Aura Battlers, which look like a fusion of Gundam robot, insect, and medieval armor. Nippon Sunrise animated the show, and its work on the Aura Battlers is fantastic, making them some of the most memorable mechs ever put on screen.

Aura Battler Dunbine follows Japanese motocross racer Sho Zama. During a race with one of his rivals, Sho has an accident, only to wake up in Byston Well. The place resembles a fantastical version of medieval Europe, with large castles, sword-wielding cavalry soldiers riding unicorns, and mischievous fairies called Ferrario, who flutter around casting spells. Sho is confused at first, but he quickly meets Drake Luft, who has summoned Sho because civil war is brewing in Byston Well. To stop this disaster, Drake needs people with strong auras which are required to pilot the giant Aura Machines. The citizens of Byston Well have weak auras, hence the need to summon people from what Drake calls Upper Earth.

However, Sho soon meets Marvel Frozen, a local resistance leader who comes from Dallas, Texas. She tells Sho that Drake doesn't want to save Byston Well but conquer it, and he's summoning people from Earth to use as his unknowing army. Shocked by this knowledge, Sho steals his Aura Machine and defects to the resistance, now fighting to defeat Drake and his army.

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What makes Aura Battler Dunbine stand out is how alive the world of Byston Well feels, which partly stems from how morally grey the conflict is. Much like Gundam, the war isn't a clear-cut good against evil fight. Both sides end up performing many morally dubious acts as the story progresses. Characters all feel three-dimensional and their motivations, while often despicable, make sense. The series is rich in subplots and intrigue with various characters plotting and vying for power, making the whole world feel amazingly deep and realistic.

However, Aura Battler Dunbine differs from modern isekai in a few ways. One big difference is that Sho and the others eventually do leave the other world they're in. In the middle of the series, the Byston Well civil war spills over into Upper Earth. This location change leads to some incredibly shocking and tragic scenes as the characters wrestle with the consequences of their actions.

Also, unlike many modern isekai, character death is super common in Aura Battler Dunbine. Yoshiyuki Tomino is infamously known as Kill 'em All Tomino in many anime circles, and this is on display here as characters are tragically killed left and right, often without warning or build-up. This really helps the story, as it makes the civil war feel authentically dangerous. But those who haven't experienced Tomino's work before might be quite shocked by how much of a slaughterhouse Aura Battler Dunbine becomes in the final acts.

Aura Battler Dunbine is unfortunately overlooked these days. Despite laying the foundation for isekai anime, many simply don't know about the series or the books that inspired it. In fact, most people are likely more familiar with the three-episode spin-off Garzey's Wing, the infamous so-bad-it's-good classic thanks to awful animation and a painfully bad dub. However, for anyone looking for action, adventure and well-developed political intrigue, Aura Battler Dunbine might just become a new favorite.

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