No genre of anime has flattered to deceive as much as isekai: “otherworld” fantasy where a character gets spirited away (punintentional) to a different realm. I absolutely love the concept of isekai, of finding your way in another world. Unfortunately the execution is always lacking (outside of a few older titles) and the genre as a whole is plagued by idiotic cliches. I have waited years for the Neon Genesis Evangelion of the isekai genre to appear. Will Ascendance of a Bookworm be The One?
Well, no. But Bookworm is very different from the norm, and merits watching.
Motosu Urano is a librarian who loves books so much that she got crushed to death by them. Ouch. Now reincarnated in the body of Myne — a sickly five-year-old girl in a medieval Europe-esque fantasy world — she strives to return to her former occupation of working with books. But alas! In this world, books are expensive articles, nothing but the playthings of nobles. The peasant class, to which Myne belongs, is mostly illiterate. No worries, says Myne. If she can’t buy books, she’ll just have to make them herself.
I want to highlight Bookworm for what it does better than other isekai. First off, it fully justifies the isekai tag. How many times have we seen the ‘reborn in another world’ premise only for the ‘reborn’ part to be completely forgotten? It becomes just another fantasy setting. In Bookworm, Myne’s previous status as Urano is never forgotten for long. She draws on her experience living in a more technologically advanced society to work towards her goal of making books. It creates conflict with other characters when she does or says things that a five-year-old would never. It creates conflict within her, with the story exploring her regrets and holdovers from her past life. It contributes to some good comedy as well. Seeing the older Urano (as Myne) shipping her sister with their neighbour made me burst into laughter.
Secondly, worldbuilding. A lot of isekai use generic fantasy RPG settings, often inspired by influential domestic products like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. I like the aforementioned RPGs, but these isekai worlds lack variety. I don’t care about the demon king or the princess of the land. Where are the small details? How do people live there? What’s the geography like? The worldbuilding is hollow. While Bookworm is not an exemplar of worldbuilding by any means, it does pay attention to small details: unique flora, a unique language, and so on. The inclusion of magic is interesting: didn’t strike me as a ‘magical’ world at first glance. I like the societal details best of all, especially when it causes conflict with Myne’s plans: the fact that kids are expected to follow their parents’ professions means there’s little room for the experimentation she desires.
Which brings me to point three: there is no ‘instant wish fulfillment’. In many isekai, conflict is killed early on by having the characters get what they want with ease: power, women, you name it. Of course, this was assuming there was any conflict in the first place. In Bookworm, you know you are in for the long haul when Myne’s first, second, third, and fifth experiments fail. Success doesn’t come easy; she has to work hard to even make paper, let alone books. She has to go to the forest to collect clay? She can’t even walk to the market without collapsing. Conflict, conflict, conflict. Conflict abounds everywhere, without being hand-waved away. This show is a real slow burn.
So why am I still not fully impressed with Bookworm? Well, the show has its fair share of glaring faults. The art is unimpressively drawn, with some very obvious CGI. It’s all very shiny and modern, when a more traditional painted aesthetic would’ve suited the rustic setting better. The characters look flat: lighting is not especially well done. This isn’t a high budget show by any means. But then there’s the voice acting.
Dear lord, the voice acting. I’ve only seen a handful of main characters more irritating than Myne. Her voice is gratingly shrill. The voice acting for other characters isn’t much better. The adults are fine. But the kids? What kids? These don’t even sound like kids! How am I supposed to believe Lutz (Myne’s best friend) is five years old when he sounds like a 26-year-old chainsmoker? The dub isn’t any better either, with its vapid acting that lacks personality.
And overall, I couldn’t bring myself to truly like Myne. The irritating voice was a big part of it, yes, but I never got the sense that there was more to her character other than being a book lover. A character must never revolve solely around their main trait, that would make them one-dimensional. Myne is not one-dimensional — she is portrayed as resourceful, intelligent, and curious, and there’s plenty of regret when it comes to her past life — but she’s not as fleshed out as she could’ve been. What of Myne’s personality before the reincarnation? We don’t get anything. Side characters are even less fleshed-out.
In the end, I think my expectations for Bookworm were set too high upon reading the premise. It is a largely pleasant experience, a refreshing change from other isekai, and that’s it. However, I get the feeling that it isn’t really suited for anime, with its slow pace. It might be better experienced as — you guessed it — a book. Given that many of my problems with the series were audiovisual in nature, I might just dive into the light novels or the manga.
Art: B. Nothing too ugly, but doesn't stand out at all. A setting like this needed more effort and detail. Characters resemble stickers when in full outdoor lighting. Not a fan of the shading. Chibi style is fun but occasionally overused. 'Comfy' art style for the ED.
Animation: C+. Plenty of still frames and static background characters, although the lively Myne is decently animated.
Music: B+. Pleasant music befitting the European-style setting.
Voice acting (Japanese): C. The single biggest turn-off in my opinion. Myne's voice will shred your ear canal. Kids don't sound their age at all, except maybe Myne's sister Tuuli. The adults are better. But with Myne taking centre stage, your enjoyment of the anime will hinge on how much you mind (or don't mind) her voice.
Voice acting (English): C. Mostly the same as above, but with less personality, although Myne is far less annoying in English.
Story: A. A bookworm is reincarnated in a world where books are rare. With plenty of conflict as the main character tries to change the world around her, Bookworm's story, premise, and setting are easily its strongest aspects.
Characters: B. Myne is not interesting enough to carry this show. Of the side characters, Lutz gets the most character development as we learn about his family situation and his personal ambitions and dreams.
Ascendance of a Bookworm is a very different isekai, one that might be more worth your time in printed format. I would advise you to start with the light novels.