As a viewer who quit Re:Zero Starting Life in Another World fairly quickly because of a deep dislike of main character Subaru, not clicking with characters is definitely grounds for me dropping an anime. But that doesn’t mean I need all my characters to be nice or good people and quite frequently I’ll enjoy an anime where characters act in a way that I find morally questionable. The Mushoku Tensei characters definitely land squarely in the list of characters that quite frequently rub me the wrong way and yet they never make me want to stop watching.
Most people know that characters should have some flaws. One of the most frequent criticisms of isekai protagonists is that they are a Gary Stu or just hopelessly boring characters. While I don’t always agree that some of the characters labelled such actually fit the trope, I do agree that this nice guy persona wrapped up in a one-man-army packaging has kind of dominated the genre so it is kind of refreshing when an anime does something different.
That said, there’s doing something different and then there is rejecting the trope and doing the reverse just because you can. And even then, sometimes the story doesn’t maintain any of the differences they initially start the protagonist with. If we look at Arifureta, Hajime actually starts out as a pretty wimpy character and transforms into an edgy I hate the world type who is only looking out for himself… except that he keeps saving everyone else even though he usually then puts on a show of demanding some kind of payment for it.
While his overall character transformation is handled significantly better in the light novels than the anime, the end result is that as the story continues, Hajime more or less ends up like every other isekai protagonist with a gaggle of girls around him that he’s rescued and using his powers to more or less steam-roll through every situation that comes his way.
A non-isekai example of a character who was flawed, selfish, quite childish, and generally painful, would be the recent Deep Dive. here we have a horrible human being playing a horrible game with other horrible people none of which make me care about them or want any of them to succeed. It isn’t a case of writing flawed characters so much as just writing awful characters and having them learn nothing from their experiences.
While it certainly is different from the nice-guy protagonist, it isn’t entertaining to watch and mostly at the end of the series I was just kind of relieved it was finished.
What about the Mushoku Tensei characters?
Where the Mushoku Tensei characters succeed is that while each of them have flaws and are at times quite painful to watch make choices that you just wish they wouldn’t, there’s a genuine sense that these characters reflect on their actions, learn from past actions, and while they don’t always make the right choice other characters respond to their actions in ways that make the story feel far more real.
A hopeless shut-in before his death due to being beaten down by life and just surrendering all control, he wakes in his new life and decides to take advantage of the fact that he can learn faster and use magic in this life and so actually makes a go of bettering himself. Kind of.
You would think that Rudeus was on track to become another cookie-cutter isekai protagonist except that for every bit of growth Rudeus experiences, we see that he has some real human flaws.
I’ll be honest: I do not like Rudeus. He isn’t a character I’m going to buy a poster of or have on my desktop background. If I collect any figures from Mushoku Tensei his character won’t be among them. While some of his internal thoughts are creepy and he usually acts in a way that is entirely driven by self-interest (understandable given his past life had him cut off from other people and positive interactions and his new life has very much given him an every-man-for-himself mentality) it is Rudeus specific perverted actions that really make me dislike him.
However personally disliking it not the same as declaring Rudues to be a bad character. Rudeus is a very well constructed character. His emotionally responses to situations check out with what we know about his past experiences. As the story progresses we see him learn from past failures and overcome obstacles and honestly most of the time I want him to succeed. Just every now and then he says or does something that makes me seriously want to see him smacked down.
Fortunately, the anime obliges more often than not which makes me kind of smile and then watch to see whether Rudeus will once again rise to the occasion.
Rudeus may be the poster-child for the Mushoku Tensei characters but each cast member, or at least the reoccurring ones, seem to be written with great care and thought. None of these characters are paragons or virtue. They all feel human and their flaws and failings are all too human which makes the emotional notes of this anime strike true.
And nowhere was this more apparent than in episode 16 when Rudeus reunites with his father, Paul, after a year and a half of trying to get home.
Let’s be real, Paul was a pretty scummy father even when Rudeus lived with his parents. It is clear Paul was a womaniser and also someone who only real cared about his own goals. That Rudeus developed an ability for magic didn’t impress him as Paul wanted his son to learn to use a sword (though Rudeus proved again and again to have zero aptitude there). And when Paul made a decision he knew Rudeus wouldn’t agree with, he used brute force to get his way rather than any kind of persuasion.
The Paul we see in part two is a broken shell of a man and the last year and a half have certainly taken their toll. So much so that he can’t even muster up a hug or a ‘glad you’re alive’ for his son.
Worse, Paul launches a verbal attack upon his son basically accusing him of taking it easy and more or less destroys all of the confidence and independence Rudeus has developed over the last eighteen months.
Again, I don’t like Paul. I didn’t like Paul back in season one when we first met him and I like him less now (even after episode 17).
But, because of how he has written I can understand this man and it makes perfect sense, given Paul’s personality, that when push-comes to shove he would in fact push the blame onto someone else and lash out, because accepting that bad things have happened and they may not be anyone’s fault isn’t something he’s capable of doing.
I still kind of wanted Eris to go and beat him into the floor-boards though.
Which leaves us with Eris, who is the character who has quietly but surely grown from spoiled brat to young warrior and true friend of Rudeus in slow but steady steps. It’s impossible to say when she started changing outside of the moment Rudeus entered her life, but little by little she’s calmed, she’s trained, she’s worked hard, she’s learned to trust and rely on others but also to reach out and help them, and honestly Eris is just fantastic to watch.
My only real concern is that all of this is setting her up for the hardest fall when she learns about the fate of her family and I’m not sure that she’ll ever be emotionally ready for that. Would anyone be?
The Mushoku Tensei characters work and tell a compelling story because each of them have positive traits and do good things on occasion, but they also fail to live up to expectations, take the easy option, and have selfish desires. Basically, they feel far more real and human and so the story they are telling feels more compelling.
More than that though, none of these characters are stagnant. Each of them grows and responds to the events that have unfolded and will hopefully continue to do so. There’s no sudden character shifts but instead slow and steady progress occasionally interrupted when they give in to one of their less noble traits.
The Mushoku Tensei characters are all flawed, but it isn’t that they have flaws that they are good. Plenty of characters are flawed. What makes them work is that their flaws make sense, they drive their decisions and actions, and at times the characters are forced to overcome one of their flaws in order to make progress and they don’t always succeed. This makes for compelling characters even if not particularly nice ones.
Images from: Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation Part 2. Dir. M Okamoto. Studio Bind. 2021
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