Ascendance of a Bookworm
by Theron Martin,
How would you rate episode 21 of
Ascendance of a Bookworm ?
Most anime series impress with some combination of flashy action sequences, high drama, comedy, mystery, fan service, emotional appeal, or sheer overwhelming cuteness. While this series definitely has a generous dose of the latter in its favor, it impresses much more with all of its little details. Episode 21 is yet another example of that in action.
Unlike most other episodes in the series, this one starts with a big twist: assuming all goes well, a few months down the road Myne will become the middle child rather than the youngest. (I feel I have to add that qualifier, since the mortality rate for childbirth in the Middle Ages has been estimated to be around 1.5%.) That proves to be the impetus for all of the episode's events, as it leads Myne to propose the unheard-of concept of a picture book for her sibling-to-be. To appreciate how much of an anachronism that is, consider that picture books as we understand them today only started developing in the late 19th century, so it's only natural that both Benno and Ferdinand (I am going call him that instead of Head Priest from this point out) are clueless at first about what Myne is proposing or why she would even bother. Unlike Myne's other, more practical inventions, this is just too far outside of the realm of their experience.
Myne's idea tips off the plot by leading her to seek out a retainer who can do art, which results in Wilma, the blond-haired, gray-robed acolyte who first appeared two episodes back, being elevated to the level of a regular cast member because she has artistic talent.. I'll get back to her situation in a minute, because the more immediate plot point that generates is Myne's request for Wilma giving Ferdinand the impetus to impress musical training on her. He insists – probably rightly – that it's something she will need for dealing with nobles, both because they highly value music and because he considers her chances of being courted by nobles when she's of age as very high indeed.
This is no surprise, given Myne's magical affinity, but Ferdinand's claim allows a new revelation to be thrown into the mix: those with mana can only have children with others of similar mana level. Given the shortage of nobles caused by the epidemic and how powerful Myne proved to be by overwhelming the High Priest (which, ironically, might make her more desirable), her getting all kinds of offers – maybe even from high-ranked nobles – now seems likely. That also explains Freida's situation better, and why she would be desirable to a noble; it's not just about bringing her under noble control, it's also about her being able to bear children for a noble with strong mana.
All of that aside, Ferdinand slyly uses the possibility of Myne being regarded as just a “baby maker” to encourage her to learn about noble ways, as her best defense against such a fate is knowing how to navigate noble society. The real surprise here is Ferdinand showing that he's quite talented at playing and singing himself; his seiyuu, Sho Hayami, doesn't have much of a record of doing anime theme songs but apparently has had a significant singing career (Wikipedia lists nine albums to his credit), so I guess this shouldn't be too much of a shock. The instrument in question – the harspiel – is an original name for the setting but clearly heavily based on the Ukrainian bandura (see the bonus picture at right). The one disappointing aspect about this is that the animation team cut major corners on showing him and other characters actually playing the instrument, but at least it rightly impresses Myne.
That brings up the other new regular addition to the cast: Rosina, who was featured in promo videos for this season as Myne's music tutor and appears in one corner of the cast picture at the end of the opener but is making her formal debut this episode. I checked very carefully, and she wasn't present even in background shots of the orphanage clean-up, and we get to see why pretty quickly: she was privileged under her previous master (as gray robes go) because of her musical talent, and is slow to understand that the same won't be true under Myne, much to the consternation of her existing retainers. This gives Myne a chance to show that she's learned how to be stern with people from the outset but also fair; she doesn't take action without consulting those around her first to find out what she's dealing with. The detail which struck me the most about Rosina is how she carried around the wooden board as a stand-in for her beloved harspiel. The context of the wooden board being placed on the floor right before she first appears is later explained by the scene between her and Wilma later in the episode, where she is carrying that board. This is a great touch without much attention being called to it.
So is Myne having a basic understanding of musical notes even without specific musical training. This is probably commonplace in the modern world but would have been rare knowledge for a commoner in medieval times. Myne's seiyuu, Yuka Iguchi, has extensive experience during anime theme songs (probably most notable for the DanMachi franchise), but her singing comes across as constrained in her late performance scene by having to do it in Myne's up-pitched voice. Again, animation of playing is very limited.
The episode closes with one additional important detail: Wilma is apparently afraid of men because a blue-robed noble took advantage of her. (“Gave her flower up” is an interesting way to put it.) I have to think that's going to be a significant plot point next episode. For now, though, I'll enjoy the wealth of detail this episode offers up.
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