Solid Supporting Cast and World Building Save the Day
My early reviews of Ascendance of a Bookworm (or Honzuki no Gekokujou: Shisho ni Naru Tame ni wa Shudan wo Erandeiraremasen) were anything but positive. The protagonist of the story, Main, yet another reincarnated Japanese person in a fantasy world, endlessly moans and whines. Her disdainful attitude toward those around her really grated and made it hard to feel anything other than contempt toward her as a character which also made it kind of hard to get behind anything she was doing. What kept me watching Bookworm initially was the world building going on and what sold me on the series at the mid-way point were the supporting characters.
Ascendance of a Bookworm is the story of Main (or Myne depending on which episode you are watching and who provided the subtitles – it changed at least twice during my watch on Crunchyroll) who wanted to be a librarian because she loved books. Then she died and was reborn in a world where books were incredibly rare and more or less out of reach for those who were not of noble birth. She sets herself the goal of making her own books though lack of funds, resources, and the fact that she’s a sickly child all get in her way. That said, the plot isn’t really as important as the characters because this one takes a decidedly slice of life approach to an isekai tale. While Main’s goal gives it some direction there’s a lot of day to day life on the screen and to be honest those parts are actually the better parts of the story despite my lack of love for slice of life.
There are many isekai stories that choose to set themselves in a pseudo-medieval setting complete with walled towns and class distinctions. However, where most anime given the society of their world a very shallow look with maybe one or two episodes looking at slavery as an institute, the world’s they build don’t feel overly real or functional outside of the story itself. Even That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime that spent a great deal of time with Rimuru building his town never felt overly real as everyone just seemed to be on equal footing and happily working away on the next project without complaint. Ascendance of a Bookworm breaks this trend by spending a great deal of time establishing the world that Main has been born into.
Main has been reborn as a soldier’s daughter and her mother sews or something along those lines. The children are expected to help with gathering wood in the forest and after their baptism to take on apprenticeships. Starvation in winter is a very real concern if they don’t all play their part to ensure they have enough supplies. As the season continues we learn quite a bit about the merchant class and the season ends with a brief (albeit fairly lacking in subtlety) introduction to the church and we’ve started getting hints about the state of the nobles in the city. While a lot of this isn’t super exciting, it all works to create a backdrop for the story that feels so much more real. Main’s actions have consequences in this world and they don’t just effect her but have real implications for her family and her associates.
While there are a lot of things I didn’t like about Main as a character, seeing her slowly interacting with more of the world and feeling like this really was a world that could be explored was definitely worthwhile. This is one aspect that will get me to watch the second part of this when it returns in 2020. I’d love to see more of this world and how it changes Main. Because the world has had an impact on her. While at first she was so incredibly critical and disdainful of the world, she’s slowly gaining an appreciation of the people around her and their efforts and more and more it feels like she’s accepting her life in this world.
Which leaves us to discuss the supporting characters. Honestly, as much as I would complain about Main I would love to heap praises onto the supporting cast. Main’s family, Lutz, Otto and Benno are brilliant and all of them work to slowly chip away at Main until she becomes something resembling an actually decent lead character. The moment Main realised she actually didn’t want to leave her family was a truly great moment and one that should definitely be experienced. Admittedly, it probably wouldn’t have had the same impact if Main hadn’t been such a turd in the first place but it was so nice to see her finally respect and even love the family that had fought to protect her and raise her. The tragedy of knowing their real child died before Main reincarnated into her weak body is one that underlies every interaction and makes Main’s acceptance of her family so much more profound. The question of whether they will continue to accept her if they knew their real daughter was dead is one these episodes hasn’t explored but it will be interesting to know if the story ever goes there.
Particularly as the story did go there through Lutz. Now Lutz deserves his own ballad. He’s there helping Main when she can’t walk, when she gets lost, when she over-reaches. He is clearly in love with her and yet stays beside her as a friend. That said, he isn’t an idiot and he isn’t a doormat. Lutz pulls Main up firmly when he needs to and he is the character who calls her out on not being Main. This is something else that rarely happens in these stories of reincarnated characters (though normally they are reborn rather than taking someone else over anyway) Still, it was a nice touch and a moment that really made Lutz’s contribution to this story clear. He isn’t some patsy or the muscle at Main’s disposal but a real character with his own dreams and thoughts and he’s a brilliant shining light in a series that has a lot of solid supporting characters.
Visually, Ascendance of a Bookworm works well enough. The slice of life nature of the show means that there isn’t a huge amount of action to animate but what is there is done well enough and the character designs and settings are all functional enough. The music is fairly nondescript and forgettable though there are some fairly solid performances by the VA’s as they give the right emotional notes at the right times.
It took me a long while to warm up to Ascendance of a Bookworm but I am glad I saw the season through. Ultimately, the positives of the series outweigh the negatives, with my only real issue with the series being a personal dislike of the protagonist. That said, it is a slow moving story and not one that is overly thrilling unless you are into more slice of life and world building stories. Still, I’ll be looking out for the continuation as I do want to know what happens next and I want to see more of this world. If you are looking for a slightly different kind of isekai to the adventure or parody ones that seem to permeate the genre then Bookworm may be exactly what you need.
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Images from: Ascendance of a Bookworm. Dir. M Hongou. Ajia-Do. 2019.