Getting transported to another world has been the flavor-of-the-year for the last half-decade. It's easy to get burned out on the same old, same old. Nick and Steve look into why you shouldn't skip Ascendance of a Bookworm, the little isekai that could .
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
You can read our daily streaming reviews of Ascendance of a Bookworm here!
Nick, it only took almost two and a half years of this column, but we're finally going to talk about a good isekai anime.
But Steve, My Next Life as a Villainess
doesn't air until the spring!
And as much as I am looking forward to that, mercifully we didn't have to wait quite so long, because, as it turns out, reading is magic!
Oh no, reading might be too much magic.
Nonsense. A good book never hurt anyone. It takes several of those to really make a dent in somebody. Just ask Main.
We're finally talking about this past season's Ascendance of a Bookworm
, one of like 7 isekai series that premiered this fall alone. And, as it happens, the only one worth remembering for more than five seconds after you stop watching it.
In so many ways, Bookworm feels like the salve this genre sorely needed. I'd argue it's actually consciously designed to be an isekai series for people, like me, who are exhausted with isekai series. It's good.
It certainly takes great pains to set itself apart from its peers. Bookworm
separates itself from the pack pretty much from the word 'Go' just by the circumstances of how our heroine gets isekai'd. Where other series are happy to reincarnate dead Potato-kuns or just teleport them right to their new home, this series starts with our lead's wayward spirit possessing the body of a dying little girl. Cheery!
It's more than a little bit disturbing, and it threw me for a loop when I started watching it and had no idea where it was going to go. But I was later super pleased when Bookworm
did in fact dig into the profound melancholy of both Main's inception and existence. Another lesser anime might have handwaved the circumstances away—Bookworm
extracts conflict and pathos out of its reincarnation mechanic. That's real shit. Also, since I judge all anime by the plasticity of their main (ha) character's faces, Main starts off as a very strong protagonist, as you can see.
It's a really intriguing setup, but what I found even more promising in the premiere was that fact that Main begins and stays as a tiny book gremlin throughout the whole thing. Any other isekai would have hit fast-forward immediately so she could be a cool super-powered Anime Teen, but instead our heroine has to learn to navigate her new life being roughly Micchy-sized.
Our perpetually bullied (and height-challenged) co-writer aside, that is exactly what makes Bookworm
so good. It's an anti-power-fantasy. Main immediately learns she has to deal with the reality of living as a frail child of a poor family in medieval-ish times, and it sucks!
It's amazing how even the most mundane of conflicts feels refreshing on the heels of Wise Man's Grandchild
and the like. Just something as simple as going outside the city walls feels downright magical because the show puts in the work to make it feel special.
Yeah, Main herself is a delight, and where much of Bookworm's
initial charm comes from. She's an excitable, good-natured nerd who's at first swayed entirely by her obsession with books, but it's through her pursuit of them that she starts to bond with her new family and friends. Plus Yuka Iguchi
just does a phenomenal job carrying the show with her performance.
And whereas most isekai heroes hack the system by virtue of their profound knowledge of Gaming, Main's "hacks" are extensive knowledge of domestic craftwork. While other heroes are min-maxing their stat sheets, Main is doing things like mixing homemade shampoo and making soup taste better. And that ends up being a lot more intriguing, because it has immediate, tangible, positive impact on the people around her.
Though she does get a little
smug about it. Like calm down twerp, you're not Senku Ishigami just because you taught peasants about vegetable stock.
Hey, she deserves at least as much smug time as your average cookie-cutter Gary Stu.
also benefits from a wonderful and personality-filled localization from Crunchyroll
You can tell they're having a lot of fun with it. They didn't have to make Main so distinctly Appalachian but I appreciate it nonetheless.
But more importantly it does a lot to capture the energy of Main and the rest of the cast that makes even the slower-going episodes of Bookworm
feel lived in and charming. There are entire episode where all Main does is wander around town and forget plans to make books, but they're engaging just by virtue of seeing her bounce off the world around her.
really puts the work in to make its setting feel lived-in—we learn about it along with Main, and it's full of harsh realities, but it also opens up with the joy of tiny genuine human moments.
HELL YEAH BOOKDAD
Bookdad best dad.
Like yeah, he probably has an actual name, and honestly he may not even know what a book even is, but he is BOOKDAD and he loves his family in such a powerfully wholesome way I was smiling every time he was on screen.
>Pray for Bookdad.
Granted he may be Main's best dad, but he's far from her only one. Another way Bookworm
sets itself apart is that instead of collecting a harem, Main collects a gaggle of fathers to carry her everywhere, which is exactly what I would do in her place.
Some are gentler about it than others.
Oh and I guess she also kind of becomes a prodigy merchant by reinventing multiple modern manufacturing techniques and starts a business by age 6. But mostly she's collecting dads to Uber her around town.
Yeah, the latter half of the season revolves around Main's meteoric ascendance in the merchant trade, as she partners with Benno, who's a good merchant and a (mostly) good guy.
I especially loved this arc because it made me realize that Bookworm
has a lot of those good Spice & Wolf
vibes that I've been so hungry for. Hell yes, I want ten-minute-long conversations about economics and the politics of bartering. Please, tell me everything about your fantasy currency. I must know.
I'll admit I think the merchant stuff is where Bookworm lags a bit for me. It's still compelling when it needs to be, but the more it got into the minutiae of trade contracts the more I missed the days of Main suckering the neighbor kids into helping her make picture books.
Y'know I wondered for a while why nobody seemed all that confused by Main being the world's most articulate and financial savvy 6-year-old, but I guess in this world kids just start talking like business majors as soon as they have the alphabet song down.
I mean, back in those days, kids really did have to pick up and/or contribute to the family trade as soon as possible in order to just plain survive. Obviously, Bookworm exaggerates this with naturally and supernaturally genius children, but it's another reflection of the harsh reality of Main's new world. Childhood was a lot more abbreviated.
Along those lines, another aspect of Bookworm
I really like is its class consciousness. One of the cooler ways this manifests is that, outside of the cold open (which I honestly forgot about), Main, and by extension the audience, spends the first several episodes totally oblivious to the fact that there is honest-to-god magic in her new home world. This is because all magical knowledge and items are controlled by the nobility, so poor families like hers would rarely, if ever, interact with it. I thought that was another really smart way to make their world feel real—class disparity!
And it works well with Main's status as a child. Even as a preternaturally astute one, she's constantly learning more about the world around her that she hadn't considered before, and what seemed like a pretty simple medieval-ish setting slowly opens up a much more complicated reality.
And that reality is: eat the rich.
If Lutz weren't too nice of a kid to build it for her, Main's next invention after paper would have been the guillotine.
Hey, we're getting a second season. Anything is possible.
I mean, she did already force choke a priest. That's at least halfway there.
Oh we'll get to that for sure. But first I'd be remiss not to talk about Main's pint-sized partner in carpentry who somehow wound up as the smartest character in the whole show.
The character writing in this show is so good that I was both taken aback and legit worried when Lutz finally figured out that Main wasn't the same Main he used to know. Their friendship beforehand was so fun and genuine, and I didn't want to see that disappear.
It's also just gotta be a walking nightmare for Lutz. He starts making a better life for himself and his family thanks to working with Main, spends so much energy in being her support as they basically become each other's closest friend, and then all of a sudden it clicks in his brain that she miiiiiight be a pod person. And Main is uh, less than graceful explaining shit to him.
In her defense, it's legit heavy stuff. This is what I meant earlier by the show extracting some excellent pathos out of her isekai circumstances. It's a smart conflict where you can feel the pain that both parties are feeling. Needless to say I was so relieved when my precious bookchildren worked it out.
These kids are strong as stone. At their age I wasn't emotionally stable enough to handle my Tamagotchi dying, let alone reconciling the apparent brain-death of a friend with the memories and bonds formed with a totally different person piloting their body. You hang the fuck in there, Lutz.
Meanwhile, Main certainly has her fair share of troubles to deal with as well, like a magic disease that can only be managed by prostrating her life at the feet of a callous ruling class.
Yeahhhhhhhhhh. Turns out the thing that killed original-Main wasn't just any old fever. It's a magic fever that eats away at the body, and the only known cure is expensive magic trinkets that only nobles are allowed to have. And the only way to get your hands on one as a commoner is uh...a lot.
I, for one, certainly wasn't expecting my cute show about a book gremlin to broach the subject of underage concubines, but Bookworm
really doesn't pull its punches. And while the narrative thankfully doesn't chastise Frieda for her decision (because oh my god what an awful situation in all regards), Main resigns herself to a different, albeit just as heavy fate.
Love them books!!
It is heavy
, and what's mean is how well it sneaks up on you. You get 9 episodes of fun adventures in medieval manufacturing and then BAM, the weight of impending tragedy hits you like a ton of bricks just like the characters.
THEY MADE BOOKDAD CRY
It's perfectly tragic. Main's arc as a pint-sized entrepreneur is exceptional, but her arc as a person is grounded in her assimilation into this family that loves her just as much as they loved their own daughter, as she too loves them just as if they were her own family. They are family. It's the definition of bittersweet. It's the kind of down-to-earth, empathetic drama that so many isekai series forget in their pursuit of in-jokes and wish fulfillment. Bookworm sticks to the basics, and it develops them wonderfully.
Thankfully though, through sheer dumb luck Main ends up stumbling into perhaps the one situation that could keep her alive. And naturally she does it by returning to her original goal.
Yes, the Reading Rainbow is real, and it's inside her, and it wants b l o o d
Well, backing up, she learns that the church has books (as churches tend to do), and by working with the church, she can read those books, get in with the nobility, and get her hands on some of those magical items she needs in order to manage her disease. But first, she has to take out the trash.
I do love how immediately Bad Santa there switches from doting priest to complete tool the moment he realizes Main isn't from a rich family. He was all prepared to butter them up to get a hold of her mana, but as soon as he sees them as inferior, suddenly he's being gracious to rescue Main and they owe him for deigning to bother.
Surprise, the ruling class sucks! Thankfully, Main is on the same page as other seminal 2019 works like Parasite
and Knives Out
when it comes to dealing with them.
It was also fun to reflect in this moment on how far our little book gremlin had come. To think she was cleaning the stove just months earlier. Now she's an avatar of divine retribution.
Other isekai series take note: that outfit is how your protagonist earns the right to do 9999 psychic damage.
Fortunately(?) Main's talked down juuuust soon enough to keep from killing the dude outright and getting her family executed. And it turns out turning a dude's brain into mush is enough of a power play to intimidate the church into basically doing what you want so it works out well for everyone!
Well, mostly everyone.
I love a happy ending.
Except it's not over! It seems all our toiling in the Isekai Mines has earned the anime gods' favor so we're getting season 2 this spring. I'm genuinely not sure how to handle the prospect of two good isekai anime airing at the same time.
We've certainly earned it.
I could try making a grocery list of what I'd like to see from Bookworm
next - seeing the larger influence of the church, digging into the mythology, Main burning down a castle - but if I'm being honest there's only one thing I really want.