Update (March 2021): As the show progressed, the anime became more and more disturbing, containing increased sexualisation of women (and underage girls in particular). When I wrote this review, I was hoping that this would not be the case, but it simply got worse. These elements made it extremely difficult and uncomfortable for me to continue to watch the show, and I abandoned it at around Episode 4/5. Although I haven’t watched the relevant episodes, I’ve read on comment threads that later episodes contain sexual harassment of underage characters and pedophilic behavior. Viewer discretion is strongly advised and in retrospect I would recommend that one not pick up the show to begin with. This page condemns any sort of violence, sexual harassment or predatory behavior towards women (and underage girls in particular) in the strongest terms. Equally, it condemns Mushoku Tensei’s insensitive portrayal of such scenes.
Despite the fact that this season of anime is packed full of shows with tremendous followings – Attack on Titan (The Final Season), Re Zero (Season 2), and The Promised Neverland (Season 2) – Mushoku Tensei somehow managed to be the second most popular anime on Reddit this winter. So the anime naturally struck my attention. Judging by the title, I thought it would be a lighthearted comedic drama with some action and adventure mixed in between. But the anime far exceeded my expectations with its moving plotline, well-designed characters and well-drawn animation.
The story begins with a car crash that takes the life of a thirty-year-old jobless recluse. He finds himself reincarnated as a newborn baby called Rudeus (or Rudy for short) – but still carrying the memories of his previous life – in a fantastical world with magic and swordsmen.
The first few minutes is animated from Rudy’s perspective. When he opens his eyes, he starts wondering who the man and woman hovering above him are, eventually finding out that it’s his parents. As he adjusts to this new world, he wonders whether he’s been transported back in time to some European country, but figures out it’s an alternative universe when he sees his mother practicing healing magic after he falls down and hits his head.
Rudy, despite being a young child, shows a natural aptitude for magic as he quickly figures out how to create bursts of water from his palms. In fact, his new magic tutor, Roxy, is surprised to find out he can cast spells without incantations, a feat she herself cannot replicate despite her training.
What’s interesting is not so much Rudy’s talent but rather his previous life, which gets slowly revealed to us throughout the show. It’s revealed that he was a recluse in his previous life, a product of the trauma he experienced in high school as a victim of bullying and violence. Despite being reborn, much of the trauma has stuck with him, and his past experiences are seamlessly interwoven with his present character.
We get it in hints at first – when Roxy wants to teach him magic outside in the garden of his house, Rudy is visibly nervous, and is scared to venture outside. When told of the prospect of attending a prestigious magic school in a far away land, he is nervous rather than excited about the idea, saying that he can learn everything he needs to at home. The most profound moment occurs when Roxy takes him out for his ‘final exam’ in magic – which has to occur far away from his house for safety reasons – and Rudy must venture out of the walls surrounding his home for the first time in his life. He descends into a state of panic as he recalls being tied to the school gate as a teenager, naked, as his classmates laugh and take pictures of him.
There’s also a sense in which Rudy, despite having previously been a thirty-year-old, is a child – and in that sense, his new life as a child fits him perfectly. As a recluse, he never really had time to develop his social skills or to interact with others, and so making friends – and talking with other people – is something he has to learn, much like a child would. And so there’s no sense of incongruity in the way he sometimes does act like a child (which would otherwise exist if some other thirty-year-old was randomly transported into a child’s body), which is a clever act of character design on the scriptwriters’ part.
What’s interesting – and I think one of the big themes in this show – is the value of second chances. We see Rudy flourish once placed in this new environment with a support system that cares and supports him – a loving mother and father than cherish him, as well as a magic tutor that is generous with her time and experience. And we’re reminded of how, with the right people, we might just have the courage to overcome past traumas.
This is not to say that the anime doesn’t have weaknesses. The show is held back by the tropes common to isekai (adventure) animes of its kind. A running gag in the show is how Rudy takes advantage of his young age and childlike ‘innocence’ to, essentially, perv on various women throughout the show, a highly distasteful comedic trope that depends on the overt sexualisation of (sometimes young) women. The art also becomes intensely sexualised at times, to the point where it can become uncomfortable. There is also a sense in which the plot is progressing too quickly – it’s quickly revealed that Rudy has an incredible innate talent for magic, but I wish the story took time in exploring his magical (as well as personal) journey. The show would benefit from more breathing space.
But despite these weaknesses, Mushoku Tensei remains a compelling show, and I’m excited to see where it goes.