Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Mimori Touka's life hasn't been easy – after being abused by his parents for most of his childhood, he was eventually abandoned by them and rescued by his loving aunt and uncle. His early experiences taught him that life isn't always going to work out, though, and he's spent his time in high school trying to keep out of the notice of the popular kids, occasionally standing up when he sees someone being bullied. Things look like they might change when his entire class is summoned to another world during a field trip, but it quickly turns out that the new world has the same old problems, and Touka, with apparently the worst stats of the class, ends up “discarded” and banished by the goddess who summoned the class. But Touka is more than familiar with the crueler side of life, and it's going to take more than a vicious goddess to bring him down.
Failure Frame: the isekai light novel that dares to ask, “What if the goddess that summoned class 2-C to another world had the emotional maturity of a high school mean girl?” Failure Frame is yet another revenge-themed isekai light novel where the illustrator has apparently never seen a real woman. There are more than enough snarky ways to just glance at the cover and premise of Kaoru Shinozaki's book and immediately write it off, and okay, maybe some of it is a bit justified. But the fact of the matter is that Failure Frame is actually a much better book than a quick perusal of its plot summary and illustrations would suggest, and if you can look past the surface, there's a story that's worth reading.
At first glance, it is very easy to write this off as the spawn of The Rising of the Shield Hero and Arifureta. The story follows Touka Mimori, a high school second-year who just sort of floats along in the social pecking order, trying to keep his head down. When his class is summoned to another world during a field trip, Touka ends up with the (apparently) weakest skills and ranking out of everyone, something that not only gets him derision from his classmates, but also from the goddess who did the summoning in the first place. As an object lesson to the kids, the goddess promptly “discards” Touka by banishing him to a dungeon where she firmly (and somewhat gleefully) expects him to die. Classmates who stand up for him are viciously silenced. Touka naturally figures out that his skills are not, in fact, useless, but rather misunderstood, and as he paralyzes and poisons his way through the dungeon, he vows revenge on the goddess who sent him there in the first place.
Certainly that looks familiar enough. Even the idea that the goddess may not actually be a good deity isn't totally out of the norm, so what is it that makes Failure Frame able to stand on its own? The answer is the writing. Although not a highly-skilled author, Shinozaki makes the focus of the book the characters themselves, not the situation they've been thrown into. Touka is highly uncomfortable with his own plans on an emotional level, and even more uncomfortable that he understands the piece of him that's okay with killing monsters. No one is exclusively good or bad (except maybe the goddess); everyone is reacting based on who they were before the summoning and on the way that things are being presented to them. The goddess frames Touka's banishment as “necessary” because he is somehow less than his classmates. That makes the kids (because that's what they are) both frightened and smug, especially those who were at the top of the social food chain to begin with. No one is so much changing as becoming more of who they already were.
In the case of Touka, he's deeply influenced by what he's gone through in his past. Touka was physically and emotionally abused by his parents before they abandoned him, and a piece of him still belongs to that dark period of his life. That's what he can call upon to use as his “status effect” magic in order to kill – and he never kills anyone who isn't objectively bad. (The only humans he takes out were loudly discussing their plans to kidnap and rape women because sex workers are “boring.”) That doesn't mean that he's comfortable with it, because he's very much afraid that he's going to turn into his parents if he continues down this path. When he has the choice to be nicer, he takes it, and he expresses his emotions clearly and consistently, never turning into a resentful or angry husk of who he once was. Also worth mentioning is that while he may have vowed to take out the goddess, he never wants to do that because she's specifically a goddess – gender has no part to play in his anger, and in fact the ones we see behaving misogynistically are the boys at the top of the classroom hierarchy, and in one case one of the girls towards the bottom of it. (It's worth noting that this book also seems to understand that girl-on-girl breast groping is sexual predation, not humor.) Characters are presented as people first rather than tropes of their genders, and while the book certainly isn't stereotype-free, it also seems to be much more invested in personalities and actions than glossing things over.
The goddess is really the crux of the problem for the characters. While it was perhaps a teense too obvious to name her Vicius, that's almost the least of the signs that there's something seriously wrong with her and her plans. When everyone arrives, she tells them that they're the “latest” group of heroes she's summoned, and then goes on to say that they can go home if they defeat the Demon King. But later on a character simply called “The Runaway” (her name is revealed at the very end of the book) notes that her pursuers are the “descendants of summoned heroes,” which doesn't bode well for class 2-C. Vicius also has this whole thing down way too pat for us to trust her – she picks the weakest member of the group to kill in order to gain control of them, takes charge of the special items they each received upon summoning to later dole out, and goes out of her way to make sure that her little heroes are comfortable killing while gleefully exacerbating existing class tensions. She may not have “evil” stamped on her forehead, but she's definitely not one of the good guys. Whether that's because she's been twisted over the years or she was always that way remains to be seen, but I'd put my money on the former given the way that Touka is written.
There is still an unfortunate reliance on the old RPG stats trope, which does bog things down a bit. But the more interesting aspects of the book are largely able to overcome that hoary plot device, and one scene, when Touka frees the spirits of those who were killed by the goddess' banishment, is genuinely emotional. The illustrations aren't terrible in terms of faces and clothing, but female bodies are laughably bad. The translation, however, is solid, and does a good job with Vicius in particular, making sure that we taste the poison in her honeyed words.
So don't just write off Failure Frame as another same-old, same-old isekai revenge fantasy. It probably won't win new readers to the genre, but it's definitely a step above the norm and it honestly tries to make its characters' development more important than other aspects of the story. It isn't perfect, but if you're fond of the genre but are getting tired of how it's done, this is worth checking out.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : C
+ Prioritizes character development over story tropes, uses the social politics of high school well.
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