The Fall 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Ascendance of a Bookworm
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ascendance of a Bookworm ?
What is this?
In her previous life Motosu Urano was quite the bookworm. As she lay dying from a great calamity, she prayed to be reborn into a life where she could be surrounded by books. Instead she wakes up in the body of the little girl Myne, who lives with her parents and elder sister in a medieval-era town. Not only are there no books in her house, but books in general are a rare and highly expensive commodity, well beyond the economic reach of the young daughter of a lowly gate guard. In fact, in the commoner's part of town, writing is only present at all in prices posted at stalls. Motosu figures that she can deal with all of the unpleasant aspects of her new life if she just has books, and she's not about to let a lack of them stop her. Ascendance of a Bookworm is based on a light novel series and streams on Crunchyroll at 12:30 p.m. EDT on Wednesdays.
How was the first episode?
If you're normally averse to isekai stories then you might want to make an exception for this one. Based on its first episode, Ascendance of a Bookworm is about as far departed from the genre norm as you'll find.
Though the story starts with the familiar refrain of the main character dying in the modern world and being reborn into a fantasy world (or perhaps just an ordinary medieval setting; there's been no hint of magic or anything fantastical yet), that's also where the familiar ends. The most immediate evident difference is that the singular main character both started out and still is female, and a child under the age of seven as well. Unlike most reincarnation stories, where the character is reborn as a baby and either is always aware of their reincarnation or doesn't become aware of it until a certain age, in this case Motosu seems to have been transplanted into an existing child, and only knows the language and who people are by her mind integrating with the memories of the boy's previous inhabitant. What might have happened to the original soul is unclear; was the girl on the verge of death and revived by the transplantation? I'll honestly be surprised if the story ever delves into that, but I would be interested to know.
But the series isn't just different because of the circumstances. Instead of swiftly transitioning into some grand scheme, the first episode dwells on the minutiae of how medieval life differs from, and would be a difficult transition for, someone raised in a modern first-world country. It even confronts things like the nasty reality of bedpans, the unpleasant smells, or even how washing one's hair on a regular basis wasn't practical. It also deals with an issue that's often glossed over or even outright ignored in both general and isekai fantasy anime: that literacy just wasn't a part of daily life for most commoners prior to the invention of the printing press. As long as you could read digits for marked prices, you could get by just fine, since store signs were typically pictograms. In fact, literacy, rather than anything overtly heroic, looks like it is going to be the main focus of this tale. But there's a certain nobility in spreading the love, knowledge, and enthusiasm for literacy, isn't there?
The other selling point of this series is that it's very, very cute. The artistic and animation efforts aren't anything spectacular, but Myne is utterly adorable and features an appealing kind of precociousness. The frequent chibi asides, which are typically quite rough artistically, are less welcome and impressive, but the first episode as a whole is visually appealing. The musical score, which leans on medieval instrumental standards, is also strong, and the opener should be among the season's best. All-in-all, this is a very promising start to a very different take on isekai.
Ascendance of a Bookworm's first episode manages to avoid a fair number of the pitfalls endemic to modern isekai. It doesn't waste too much time on exposition, for one thing, and the protagonist is actually a reasonably well-adjusted girl who isn't really preoccupied with otaku hobbies in any way. Unfortunately, this show also suffers from a serious problem, one that single-handedly prevents it from rising to the point of genuine recommendation: it is deeply, shockingly boring.
This episode quickly establishes our heroine, Motosu Urano, who finds herself reincarnated in another world as the young girl Myne. Myne had a tremendous passion for books in her prior life, and so she immediately sets to work attempting to find books in this new world. Unfortunately, Myne has been transported into a medieval world prior to the invention of the printing press, and so books are rare and valuable commodities only owned by noblemen. And so, by the end of this episode, Myne ultimately resolves to take matters into her own hands, and drag this world into an age of literacy by force.
That premise could certainly possess a kernel of excitement, but in practice, the bulk of this episode is taken up by perplexingly drawn-out illustrations of extremely mundane tasks. Myne attempting to get out of her bedroom occupies over a minute of drama, as do her attempts to organize her long hair. There are full scenes in this show centered around conflicts like “I need to find a place to stay while my mom goes shopping,” which seem to exist pretty much only to fill time. And though you could theoretically argue the show is intentionally seeking a realist or slice of life tone, the art design and direction are just too bland to offer much sense of atmosphere. This show's execution is far too middling to offer any appeal beyond the base plot beats, and the base plot beats are too drawn out to really catch your attention, either.
On the whole, while it's nice to see a modern isekai with a female heroine for a change, Ascendance of a Bookworm simply isn't very good. There's nothing truly terrible about it, but it's just too slow, dull, and visually bland to truly recommend. This one's an easy skip.
I desperately wanted to love this series, both in its original light novel form and now in its anime adaptation. The sad truth, however, is that I do not, and for one very specific reason: Myne annoys me to no end. A lot of this is, I suspect, due to the fact that my relationship with books is very similar to hers, or at least hers in her previous life as Motosu. I used to take stacks of books to bed with me instead of stuffed animals, my whole house is filled with books, and I read at least one (not-manga) book a day, more if I don't have a lot of work. Reading is like breathing for me, as it clearly is for Motosu. So when she finds herself in Myne's body (which we'll get more about later, if the novels are any indication), shouldn't I empathize with her bookless state?
By rights, yes. But instead Myne seems to forget everything she ever read about history, which is highly suspicious since “history” is one of the genres of book that she specifically names as a favorite. (That she's with a priest in the frame narrative and “religion” was another listed topic she enjoyed reading about may be worth remembering.) If she read so much history that she knows that books were reserved for the wealthy, then why doesn't she remember the low literacy rates among the poor? Or that previous to the printing press, books were hand-written, and even post-press, a town needed its own for wide dissemination of reading materials? Certainly she ought to have known about different hygiene standards, only married women wearing their hair up, and chamber pots. That she appears not to know about these things is intensely irritating to me, especially since she seems to have retained all of her Motosu-life knowledge, so unless isekai reincarnation has some very specific knowledge retention rules, this story has a serious suspension of disbelief problem.
All of that aside, it is nice to have a female-centric isekai show, the first of at least two set to air this season. That it's also focused on Myne's family life instead of a Grand Quest of some sort (Myne's own personal quest notwithstanding) is also a refreshing change from the norm, and I really like how close the family is, even if Motosu/Myne is creeped out by her “new” dad helping her dress. Other details of her new life are nicely drawn, from the oven to her reaction to seeing a butcher shop; even if she always knew where dinner came from, many people have her kind of reaction to really seeing it for the first time. (And I imagine the smell really is awful.) The people aren't drawn quite as well as the backgrounds – I actually prefer the look of the ending theme and the flashbacks – and their heads all seem a little too big for their bodies. It isn't great animation, but it works well enough; now if Myne did as well, this might be a fun little story.
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