In Ascendance of a Bookworm, “Women’s Work” Changes the World

The isekai (“another world”) genre is a staple of anime. The definition is broad, fluid, and constantly being argued over, but in general it involves a protagonist being transported to another world and trapped there, whereupon adventure ensues. The genre gained its official name with the boom/revival arguably kicked off by the Sword Art Online anime in 2014, which set the stage for a years-long stretch of isekai that were increasingly framed as male fantasies. A few years later, the genre was almost exclusively made up of stories about milquetoast dudes who get reborn into fantasy worlds where they automatically have superpowers and everyone (read: hot chicks) finally appreciate them, with the grossest examples sprinkling in slavery apologia on top just to make sure the hot girls are properly subservient.

But back in the 1990s, there were a wealth of isekai stories that served as coming-of-age stories for adolescent girls. In these stories, the other world was a place to face abstracted versions of the trials of teenage life. Fushigi Yugi, written by x-gender artist Yuu Watase at age 22, made fears about rape culture, responsibility, and the struggle to maintain platonic friendships against heteronormative expectations into a grand epic; The Vision of Escaflowne made its heroine’s anxieties literal, while The Twelve Kingdoms charts its characters’ struggles with marginalization and overcoming abuse. The last prominent example of this before the genre waned in popularity was 2001’s Spirited Away, but the past year has seen a slow resurgence in female-focused isekai.

Ascendance of a Bookworm is of note partially because it has been given so much space to spin out its slow, deliberate story. In the modern anime industry it’s common for shows to receive a single “cour,” or a season of roughly 12 episodes, unless they’re part of a beloved franchise or otherwise come from a proven money-making source material. Bookworm stands beside Chihayafuru (which had to wait almost a decade for its third season) and Fruits Basket (one of the most beloved shoujo manga of all time) as one of the few multi-cour non-action anime with a female lead.

Ascendance of a Bookworm

Conquering with Crafts

Bookworm’s lead is reborn in another world, but it’s not exactly a power fantasy. Bookish Urano, who spent her entire life reading, wakes up to find she now inhabits the body of a small child named Main (or Myne, in the novel’s translation). Main’s health is so fragile that any exertion leaves her vulnerable to collapse, and she’s also the daughter of peasants, which means no access to the books that serve as luxury items for the church and nobility of the medieval world. It’s at that moment that Main more-or-less resolves to topple the class system if it means she can get back to reading — even if means she has to learn a whole new language and also invent paper first.

While there is a certain wish-fulfillment element to Bookworm’s story, what’s interesting is the value it places on traditionally feminine pursuits: Main is essentially able to game the market because she was a crafter in her previous life, and items like crocheted hair pins and oil-based shampoos quickly become bartering tools she can use to secure her family’s wellbeing. The writing labors lovingly over small details of “women’s work” and how those things make society turn, and every success feels earned because of how many failures Main has to push through to get there. Sure, she has all this pre-stored knowledge that her walled city hasn’t encountered, but she’s forced to be constantly mindful of how much she can safely divulge without having her ideas stolen or putting herself and her family in danger.

Wealth and status are villains constantly lurking in the background of Bookworm’s setting. While Main’s initial goal is only to make sure that she can wall herself off with books, just as she did in her previous life, the realities of making that happen force her to confront systemic inequality. The cost of books prices out commoners, which means that there are low rates of literacy among laboring classes. In order to get the capital to start a studio that could make affordable books, Main must first sell a multitude of recipes that she only has access to because of her reincarnation.

When she turns out to have exceptional magical powers, this too turns out to be a hurdle: magic-users are required to occasionally siphon off their mana using rare artifacts, lest they fall victim to a fever called “the Devouring.” Main’s chronic health issues are partly due to her overabundance of magic, and this forces her to enter the world of nobility by way of the Church — which controls commoners’ access to artifacts and the only library anyone seems to have heard of.

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Ascendance of a Bookworm

Knowledge is Power

It’s safe to say that Bookworm is more likely to appeal to those who were fascinated by stories like Spice and Wolf over Berserk. While the bright colors give it a storybook quality and the animation livens things up with visualizations of Main’s energetic inner monologue, it’s still a series that’s happy to devote half an episode to characters bartering over the rights to a pound cake recipe. And you know what? It’s gripping, because that seemingly stale transaction has so much to say about how Main’s new world works: the fact that butter is a luxury good, as are ovens capable of keeping a consistent temperature for aesthetic purposes, meaning it would be impossible for a bakery in the working class downtown where Main lives to sell it; or the revelation that the up-and-coming merchant Main befriends is calmly resigned to becoming a mistress to a monied noble as soon as she hits puberty, because that’s the only way she’ll be allowed access to the life-saving artifacts that will keep her magic in check.

Likewise, the majority of the second season focuses on Main’s life as a priestess, which forces her both to learn how noble society works and to confront the lived realities of her fellow acolytes, many of whom were shoved into serving the church because they had no resources or family of their own. Here it becomes obvious that Main, whose strident flouting of conventions in season one is reminiscent of many superpowered protagonists, hadn’t so much been changed the system as gained a somewhat singular permission to ignore it.

As a priestess, however, Main quickly comes to realize that she has power over others, and that doing good means being aware of how her actions affect those more marginalized than her. Refusing to use the retainers she’s been assigned initially seems like humility or a rejection of class difference, but the reality is more complex: because priests are responsible for their retainers’ food, Main rejecting her young charges mean that she has sent them back both hungry and in disgrace, not only failing to free them from the system but stunting their ability to survive in it; in another case, she comes to realize that winning over the “spy” meant to report on her means realizing how that young girl has groomed from an early age to push her sex appeal to old men despite still being a child. Lacking the clout, funds, or physical strength to start an all-out revolution, Main begins to learn how to create spaces of comfort and security for those around her using the resources she has.

That’s not to say that the show has given up on pushing against the system in more far-reaching ways. While Main’s short-term goals often involve using market strategies as a stop-gap – becoming the director of the Church-run orphanage and having the children harvest plants for her paper-making, for instance – she uses those gains to create resources for her community. The appearance of the work house allows Main to provide food and other supplies the unclaimed orphans weren’t receiving, and the resources gathered to make paper become Main’s first bound books, which she turns into literacy aids and distributes to the children under her care. In some ways this arguably plays into the modern myth of the beneficent job creator and a “good capitalism,” but it’s hard to get hung up on when the series continually keeps its eyes toward critique of a bigger system.

Season Three When?

As the second season draws to a close, Main is forced to interact with nobles outside of her small sphere of allies and finds herself treated with casual, dehumanizing cruelty. While Main ultimately has a powerful ally to back up her up – this is meant to be a fantasy, after all – it signals that the show hasn’t for a moment forgotten its real antagonist.

Main started out as a girl who only wanted to read books by herself, and her growth into someone who can’t turn her eyes away from the systemic inequality surrounding her has been the stuff of one of the most satisfying anime offerings of the year. That Bookworm positions free access to books and information as a cornerstone of dismantling oppression makes it unique among its contemporaries. While we can only hope for the announcement of a third season soon, at least J-Novel Club’s translations of the source material can tide us over until then.