Studio: Studio Bind
Director: Manobu Okamoto
Streaming on: Funimation
Update: This was written before the abhorrent episode six was broadcast, and while the body of the review has been left in tact, an author’s note was placed at the bottom, explaining my views and why I can no longer watch this series or recommend it in the slightest.
I’ve written a dozen essays praising isekai by this point, which considering the general low quality of entries to the genre, is actually quite impressive. I have had a lot to say about my love for deconstructions and parodies like Re:Zero and Konosuba, as well as solid but more standard series like Shield Hero or That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. Isekai, better known in the west as portal fantasy, is a mainstay of fantasy classics and has become commonly associated with the hero’s journey, the basic structure of storytelling across the world.
When I was a kid, I adored books like The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia for how they managed to take their ordinary protagonists away from their dreary lives and plant them into a world greater than anything they could have imagined. This format allows for the reader to experience the world as the protagonist does, meaning that it’s easy to communicate that sense of wonder that makes these stories so appealing. While the portal fantasy light novels and anime of today might bear little resemblance to the classic British literature where they got their start, the heritage is undeniable.
So today I am reviewing the hottest isekai of the season, except for Re:Zero because I’d be strung up by my ankles if I wrote anything else about how it’s a masterpiece. No, I mean Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation. It starts as so many isekai do, with an otaku NEET getting the first kiss of his life from everybody’s favorite waifu, Truck-kun, and bites the dust harder than Yoshikage Kira. A dash of magical reincarnation later, and our unemployed man-child wakes up as a literal child, specifically Rudy Greyrat, the newborn son of retired adventurers Paul and Zenith. This time, Rudy assures himself, he is going to make something of himself.
This review will contain mild spoilers for the first four episodes of Mushoku Tensei, although that shouldn’t dissuade you from watching it. The best parts of the anime are simply watching it, and while the story is quite good, it’s not the biggest draw that Jobless Reincarnation has going for it. The less pleasant parts come soon after.
You get the unfortunate feeling that the series has an overall low opinion of men, as the only ones given significant screentime are…well, scummy. Rudy himself is a sex pest who borders on criminal on the generous end, and it’s honestly the worst part of the show. The writing seems completely unaware of how uncomfortable it is to watch a man in his thirties creep on women and using his appearance as a child to avert suspicion.
I only learned that Rudy’s magic tutor Roxy is actually an adult while researching for this review, but the show does not even do the minimum lip service of “she looks fourteen, Your Honor, but she’s actually 40.” That’s a flimsy excuse normally, but when they gloss over it even as Rudy steals her underwear, you start to get the impression the series has a low impression of women as well.
Rudy’s father, Paul, is mostly framed as a harmless womanizer, and the worst it gets is that he gives Rudy some humorously bad advice on mending his friendship with his friend Sylphiette. Only, it is revealed in episode four that he impregnated the family maid and while he takes a heap of punishment for that, the maid thinks to herself that she seduced Paul and deserves the blame. I’m going to break out my soapbox really quick just to clarify that the conception of a child requires multiple people to make several decisions, and it’s unbearably condescending to be told that if an attractive woman makes the effort to seduce a man, that he basically gives in immediately.
The series does cast this as a reprehensible deed, but considering that Rudy and Paul are the only male characters, it gives the entire show a bitter aftertaste. And I am putting this at the front of an otherwise positive review because if this is the kind of thing that would turn you off of a show, there’s no point in leading you on. I would never recommend No Game No Life to someone deeply uncomfortable with loli-baiting, so I’d be doing a disservice to any readers by not making this show’s most distasteful parts abundantly clear. For all its strengths, Mushoku Tensei is subject to anime’s slimiest habits, and I can’t review it in good conscience without a caveat.
Studio Bind is a collaboration between the production company Egg Firm and the animation studio White Fox, so I will mostly be referring to it as a White Fox project in concern to its presentation. I could have told you White Fox had a hand in the production when they neglected to use an OP in any of the episodes so far, which they seem to have picked up as a habit from the second season of Re:Zero.
Jobless Reincarnation is a visual treat, and that comes from a consistent use of its soft and naturalistic color palette that gives every character an aesthetic through-line. There are series where you might want your characters to look like they came from different genre and even media, like your My Hero Academias and your JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures, but the way that every character seems to fit into this world is astounding. It means that the blue-haired Roxy and green-haired Sylph look every bit as a natural citizen of this land as the plain-looking Greyrat family.
The magic is especially well done. The water effects don’t approach the same level of realism as something like Demon Slayer, but Rudy’s water conjuring spells or rain summoning still strikes a balance between anime stylization and grounded realism. I am routinely impressed by the creature design in this world, as even the fantasy animals have this authentic sort of biology that gives the world a presence of being lived-in and organic. The strange fauna we see in Rudy’s life might just be there because the illustrator thought they looked cool, but they take every measure to include them in this world’s authenticity.
I might be less than thrilled with how Mushoku Tensei handles some of its character interactions, but that doesn’t mean that the series’ writing is incompetent, quite the opposite. It is difficult to make a story revolve around the trials that a toddler faces while growing up, but watching Rudy’s early life, I am riveted. I will give this grown man in a child’s body a lot of grief, but his color commentary is an effective way of making simple world building and cast interaction actually captivating.
The series manages to weave together multiple emotional stories and character arcs into one another, and gives serious heft to what would otherwise be one-off stories from Rudy’s childhood. Roxy’s time tutoring Rudy could easily have just been learning the ropes of this world’s magic system and establishing the powers he will use later, but the writing actually goes and fabricates this believable relationship between teacher and student. Even while they employ tropes that I am not a fan of, the writing always elevates it above the mere building blocks they happen to use. It’s all early stages now, but if you think I have time to keep up with seven shows airing weekly AND read the light novels, you are a very silly person.
This is a superbly written story, flaws and all. The world that has been created operates on this smoothly running internal logic, despite not introducing many rules to supplement this structure. It feels dumb to call an isekai realistic, but the better word for this show is plausible. When writing a story, an author is encouraged to show their audience the impossible, but never the implausible. The world of Mushoku Tensei might be populated with demons, elves, and demihumans, and a child might be able to call down lightning, but your suspension of disbelief is never stretched to the point of snapping. It does all the necessary legwork to maintain that disbelief with the confines of the world, making full use of that plausibility.
I don’t enjoy giving mixed reviews like this, even though this is my second review of a fantasy anime this season that contains recommendation with a large side serving of ‘this isn’t for everyone’. Mushoku Tensei is not the kind of isekai that is trying to point out the excesses of the genre, so its protagonists can’t get away with the occasional scummy moment like Kazuma or Subaru could. It’s one thing to make your audience uncomfortable, but to do it accidentally is a cardinal sin of writing.
Despite its shakiest elements, Mushoku Tensei is a solid story with an unusual amount of concentration into its world building and characters. If you can overlook its most egregious vices, then I can say it’s one of the most promising isekai of the last few years. If you can’t, I wouldn’t worry about it. This season is so stuffed with shows worth your time that it’s forgivable to miss one or five, and it’s not nearly as big of a deal to be missing out on some of the biggest shows this season, because pretty much everyone is. If you aren’t watching at least a handful of originals and sequels in Winter 2021, though, you’re missing out.
Mushoku Tensei is one of the most difficult series I have tried to score so far, and it has even made me consider changing or dropping my scoring system altogether. For now, however, I will be keeping my ones through tens, and hoping that the anime industry takes it easier on me in the spring. 7/10
NOTE: At the time of writing this initially, I had just finished episode 5, which contains more or less the same type of content in the previous episodes as I outline in my review. However, in episode six, Rudy immediately sexually assaults his cousin while she’s asleep. This series has fully flipped a switch to actively condoning the antics of a sexual predator who preys on children. It no longer bears my endorsement to watch in any way, shape, or form, and I have only left this review up to warn anyone who might not enjoy being lured into watching an anime only to reveal that its main character is a pedophile who actively targets young girls, and the show’s narrative seems to be in favor of this. If you have taste, like isekai, or just don’t support art that depicts children being assaulted, then Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation, is not for you. I am happy to amend its score and give it my first ever 1/10.