Ascendance of a Bookworm (seasons 1 and 2)
In a bout of terrible, terrible irony, a book-loving student/school library custodian dies when she is buried in an avalance of books. In her last moments, she wishes to be incarnated in a world where she would be allowed to read books every single day.
Whether anyone heard that wish or not, our ex-librarian finds herself reincarnated into the body of a sickly 6 year-old girl named Myne. To add insult to injury, she was born into a poor family living in a world where books are the property of nobles/the very wealthy. Not about to take her situation lying down, Myne decides that if she can't be granted access to, much less actually buy, any books, then she's just going to have to make her own.
Stig: I know I've liked my share of isekai shows that adhere to the most typical of builds, with overpowered leads breezing through their battles with little opposition, but there's something to be said about shows that take a different spin on the power fantasy in question.
Tim: Hey, an isekai anime that isn't about a boy around a bunch of technicolor girls overmerchandized/overexposed more than he himself is, fighting, MMORPGs, or battles. Nope, here we have a very sickly, unhappy girl who just wants to indulge in her favorite pastime in a world where most people don't even know how to read, much less read books.
Before her untimely death, Motose Urano - as Myne was once known - loved to read. In fact, her love for books couldn't possibly be any more understated. A particularly cruel fate, then, that she should be reborn into a world that didn't have any books ready to read on standby. In fact, it wouldn't take her long to realize that the deity responsible for her resurrection must've had one particular cruel streak. Modern emnities now out of her reach, Myne also finds out that whoever owned the body used to be a very sickly girl. In fact, said sickness might very well be the reason why the body was ready for a new tenant when Urano woke up in this new world.
It's not all bad, though. Through her reading, Urano had a great interest in many things, both historical and whatnot, which allowed her to pick up on a lot of things in this new world she was all but literally dumped into. Since said world seems to follow a fairly common middle age template, that means a good deal of life hacks one wouldn't grant a second thought in our modern society become downright works of magic in this world that she can take advantage of. For starters, she goes about creating a workable soap that works wonders on hair, as well as going into the how-to's of hair ornaments that out-fancies anything available, as well as filling in spots for those who aren't.
Myne is also lucky enough to be born into a rather nice family of four. She has a kind older sister named Turi, and two loving parents in her father Gunther and mother Eva. And while her father does fall into a bit of tired jokes of his bumblingness and overprotection of Myne and Turi - though he is a guard, mind you - he's rather easygoing about Myne's hobbies and ambitions, even when she has to make a very important decision near the end of season two. Eva doesn't get as much to do as Myne's mother, but like her husband she's nurturing and caring for her little girls. Which is lucky for Myne, since she spends a LOT of season one bed-ridden. While she eventually gets more stamina as the series goes on, she's still required to have someone come with her at all times, lest she have another fainting spell.
Said keeper of sorts happens to be Myne's best friend Lutz, who can probably be considered the other main character of Ascendance of a Bookworm. Although he starts off a bit rocky with Myne, the two soon become good friends as he helps her book-making dreams: taking her to forests, helping her with business deals, and picking her up to and from the church. The show does drop some vague hints that he knew Myne before Urano took over her body, and that he isn't quite sure what to make of her acting differently now. He is also for the longest time the only character who notices how smart, articulate and inventive the six year-old Myne is. This is probably also the reason why she ultimately decides to tell him what she knows, which isn't necessarily all that much, since she's equally confused as to how it happened. Not even her own family sees anything wrong with her for the longest time, or even the people she makes business deals with. (Though in their case, Myne's contributions make some rather grand leaps in their own qualities of life, so you could possibly excuse them for being too happy about it to consider the implications.) Bottom line is; despite some initial friction, the two are very upfront and honest with each other, which puts them above so many anime couplings whose big drama moments could have been prevented if they'd just talk to each other.
Although he's Myne's caretaker, Lutz also has his own path he wants to take - the path of a merchant, which the show goes out of its way to note is a very dangerous path, both finanically and physically. The latter being because merchants are usually required to travel between cities, with only the really successful being able to hire guards to help them with the dangers lurking outside the city walls. And unlike Myne, Lutz's family - consisiting of his parents and older brothers - aren't nearly as supportive of his life choices. They pester him at work for "betraying" them in a later season two episode, basically telling him to stop. And then it turned out that they weren't necessarily against him becoming a merchant. In what sounds uncharacteristically tone deaf from a show that otherwise does an amazing job at portraying difficulties (class-based or general), Lutz's father was just very poor at expressing himself. He basically wanted Lutz to stand on his own feet rather than riding the coattails of Myne. Which would have been a fine morale, except that's what he's been doing all this time. And his relationship with Myne is a mutually beneficial one, as Myne needs Lutz's support as well as much as he needs hers. And on top of that, his brothers made it quite clear that they wanted him to stop being a mechant when they made a huge scene at his workplace, and the payoff to all of this drama is a single-sentence grunting dad that left us both shaking our heads. It's easily the nadir of Ascendance of a Bookworm.
We mentioned earlier that the world Myne was reborn in isn't as much a "middle age" situation as it is a whole new world that features lots of amazing things, including magic and fantastical beings, to make up for the lack of modern tools and accessories. The first threat of the day thus becomes something called a "Trombe", a magical tree with virulent tendencies that can also provide a lot of useful ingredients if you know how to deal with them. As the show goes, we also learn that Myne has something called "the Devouring", which is apparently when a person's mana outstrips the body's ability to handle it. With Myne being the youngest in a family of commoners, coupled with the fact that everything that could be considered helpful to people is usually very expensive, she thus faces a very serious problem that is just as likely to kill her in short order. That the world seems as familiar with magic and strange occurences as it is probably serves as a good explanation to why the rest of the town doesn't seem very surprised when the youngest daughter of a poor family suddenly wakes up from her illness and starts inventing stuff left and right, some of which improves their daily lives to various degrees. Usually very significant ones.
In fact, the only person who seem to ponder this oddity is someone who doesn't show up until nearly the end of the first season. Ferdinand is a high priest in what constitutes this show's religious system, made up of various deities covering the elemental properties that makes up the circle of life (so to speak), and he remains the most interesting cast member of Ascendance of a Bookworm aside from Myne herself. It helps that he's a very decent person, which only becomes more of a point once you reach the show's halfway point, with two episodes bridging the gap between one of the big changes in Myne's life.
It's not that Ascendance of a Bookworm is a dark show, but fantastical world or not, it has a very direct (and sadly very realistic) approach when it comes to class differences. This goes all the way up to how the upper echelons happily exploit the poor for their own benefit when given the chance, with the church renaming their acts of benevolence to sound far more positive than they really are. Now don't worry; the show is a little more balanced than that. Ferdinand isn't the only pious person with a big heart, or the only nobleman who doesn't scoff or look down on the working class, but most poor people aren't as well off as Myne's family either.
It also helps that Myne, for all her modern knowledge, doesn't necessarily know all about how to work with people in this strange new (old) era, as she's been so much into books and wanting alone time to read them that her social skills have suffered because of it. This becomes particularly noticeable once she joins the church as an apprentice and gets three of her very own servants, who by first impressions will come across as two snotty kids and an uncaring doormat respectively. That will only last until you learn about the whole concept of the "alms of the gods", a sort of charity function that is misleading at best and downright insiduous at worst. We said the show wasn't necessarily dark, and it isn't consistently so, but it also doesn't shy away from showing you a room full of starving, grime-covered children while explaining why "alms of the gods" isn't nearly as nice as it sounds.
The more direct of the two assholes under Myne's care, Gil, is the more abrasive one. He almost constantly badmouths Myne, mostly for not being able to look after her attendants, but as it turns out he's right. (Especially when he nearly starves to death when Myne unintentionally denies him food, not knowing they can't eat without her say.) Once she figures this out and starts treating him - and her own role in this - with a little more respect, he turns out to be a good kid underneath all the resentment and anger he has towards the church and nobility, which turns out to be quite deserved. Delia, on the other hand, is a more complicated case. In a more sinister aspect of the whole grooming ordeal, the high bishop of the church chose her out of the starving recipients of the "alms of the gods" to be his own personal servant, which includes acting as a spy and saboteur of sorts against Myne now that the latter got under his skin. This means that she acts nicer than Gil, but due to her young age, she's also kind of terrible at keeping secrets, including how she's only doing all of this to become the high bishop's mistress. (An aspect that the show thankfully never goes into any detail on, although Delia does at least sound blissfully aware of the implications of her grand plan and how it won't benefit her in the way she imagines.)
The last retainer Myne gets is Fran, a young man who has already reached some level of maturity, and his only challenge is having to learn what Myne needs from him as far as support goes, as his biggest "crime" was merely ignorance about her condition, of which he chose not to remain ignorant. It also helps that, before he got reassigned to Myne, he used to be Ferdinand's attendant. (The light novel goes a lot more into his backstory, which the anime, at this point of time, does not. - Tim)
As to why Fran is such a well-adjusted person, that could probably be attributed to Ferdinand himself. He is the head priest of the temple of Ehrenfest, second only to the head bishop. Although he's technically under said bishop, he's still the one to run most of the daily business dealings of the temple, including taking care of Myne as the latest apprentice blue robe. Like mentioned earlier, being a noble doesn't necessarily mean being evil - Ascendance of a Bookworm isn't quite that on the nose - and you'll even see some more examples of that near the end when the show starts throwing more nobles into the mix. But for a good chunk of the show, Ferdinand serves as the sole example of a more well-adjusted version thereof. He seems rather dour, granted, but he is among the first of the nobility and the residents in the temple that is more interested in being fair than elevating himself above the commoners. And, as the show hints, he might have experienced something in his life that has only solidified his feelings about that.
One of Myne's mantras is "those who do not work should not eat" or something to that accord, and although that is a good ground rule to go by, her implying this to what's basically child labor soured us a bit. Technically Myne herself is well underage for hard labor, to say nothing about her physical health, but then again you could probably argue that none of the kids in the show are partaking in what shoudln't either. It was probably more common for children back in the day to take part in lighter versions of their parents' workload back when even receiving simple education benefits like reading and writing wasn't necessarily a given, much less supported by any kind of government. Part of that could possibly be attributed to the lack of a printing press making books a very expensive thing to produce and own, something that certainly hasn't escaped Myne's notice (or anyone else who ever tried printing/making a book).
One aspect of Ascendance of a Bookworm we liked was when it got into the nitty-gritty of early production methods for books, particularly once Myne reaches the point where she actually has the means to start making them. There's not only trivia for the ingredients to make rudimentary paper and ink, but interesting points in how art used for printing blocks differ from just straight out wood carving meant as an art piece in itself. It's always lovely when a show takes the time to wax philosophical about its craft.
We go on about the characters, but what about the technical aspects of this show? Thankfully, we got a good one this time. The character designs errs on the side of cartoonish, which fits the sometimes comedic tone of Ascendance of a Bookworm, presumably to take the edge off its darker aspects. Myne herself is almost comically tiny, even for a six year old, but it suits her inherited energy from her former life. The characters are also wonderfully expressive, particularly Myne herself. Items Myne invents while she's more or less reliving her life are shown in fine detail, from simple items like hair ornaments, to the more complicated procedure of creating paper, ink, or the first prototype of a printing press. The show also does a good job at portraying a middle age town in all its glory, from buildings to the items on display, never mind the temple and the religious system that make up of a relatively large roster of deities presented in all their visual glory. Even the SD mode the show sometimes whip out for small comical interludes look pretty nice when animated. Ajiado might not be up to the standards of Madhouse or Kyoto Animation, but their work in Ascendance of a Bookworm is up to the level of, say, Laid-Back Camp, both from a scenery and a character animation perspective.
This extends to the voice acting. Tim already mentioned the wonderful ham that is Benno, but Myne herself gets to be center stage quite often, as you're never really quite sure whether her behavior is a combination of Urano's life wisdom being shoved into the still early-stages developing brain of a six year old. (Remember, the brain isn't considered fully developed until the late teens/early twenties or so.) This might account for the manical energy in how Myne pursues her interests, yet fails to take into account her time and place, so to speak. Lutz, as well as the other kids, sound more like natural children, given the era and the social standing they live in. As for the music, the background music consists of generally pleasant instrumentals with a light folksy twist. It also has some nice opening and ending themes that change between seasons, but generally keep with the light folksy pop theme. Overall, the production values keep in with the general thoughtful characterisations and personality traits.
Stig: I think what strikes me the most about Ascendance of a Bookworm is that it's a very balanced show without becoming too preachy. The main problem with power redistribution is that in most cases, the ones with the most of it is going to have to give up various degrees of it for the benefit of those with the least. Being a member of the church or a member of the nobility doesn't necessarily make you an evil person, but the show is definitely aware of how much Myne's place in all of this is going to turn the current society and power structure on its head, and all the consequences - both good and bad - that will come from this. And a lot of people aren't going to appreciate that.
Wow, that got a bit political, didn't it?
Tim: In our current timeframe of 2021, we are more divided regarding politics and religion than ever before, and Asendance of a Bookworm is a show that delves quite a bit into politics and religion at the same time. That alone might be enough of a turnoff for some people, as will how long some of the characters - particularly in season two - tend to come around. (It took me a LONG time to warm up to Myne's retainers, even after their development.) Those expecting more fast-pacedness in their isekai shows will also likely not be super into it. as a lot of the show revolves around Myne trying to start/invent something, and the long process of her carrying that out. And with the exception of one battle at the end of season two, battling is virtually non-existant. Yuka Iguchi's high-pitched voice for Myne - the same high voice she uses for Aoi in Encouragement of Climb and Hibari in Senran Kagura - also took a toll on me at times, even if it does match her voicing a little kid. But did any of this sour my overall feelings for Asendance of a Bookworm? Not at all. I liked it mostly from beginning to end, Lutz family melodrama near the end of season two notwithstanding.
This ended up just being a really good show about an endearing lead navigating through the social structures of a fantasy world in her mad search for books. Sounds kind of crazy when you think about it, doesn't it? — Stig Høgset and Tim Jones
Recommended Audience: The show has little to no fanservice, and the only thing that could vaguely be considered sexual is Delia's concubine situation, which is going to fly right over the head of young people anyway.
Version(s) Viewed: Crunchyroll.com stream, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Ascendance of a Bookworm (seasons 1 and 2) © 2019-2020 Miya Kazuki / TO Books / Honsuki no gekokujou seisaki iinaki
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