I am a pretty avid online manga reader. I’m not sure if this is a new trend, or if there are just a lot of newer scanlation groups cropping up that like the genre, but there appears to be a big surge of “reincarnation” stories. Re:Monster, “I reincarnated into a slime!”, Gun Nerd Reincarnated Harem something something really long, “What? She’s Ordinary?!”, Spirit Migration, and a bunch of others. The premise is basically a variation of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” with reincarnation as the schtick – regular, or maybe slightly odd, person from our “normal” world is reincarnated into a medieval fantasy world but retains their memories, becoming powerful or famous because of bringing modern philosophy to underdeveloped eras.
Mushoku Tensei is a bit more wish-fulfilling than that, starring a trueborn anime/manga otaku with the gamut of stereotypes (overweight, unaccomplished NEET who acts really creepy around attractive girls) who is reborn as a baby in a world of swords and magic. While this frequently results in lots of eye-rolling because the born-again Rudeus Greyrat (we don’t learn his “old” name) pursues various acts of perversion as a very young child, at the same time the story makes great use of material from his former life.
After leading what he thinks of as a worthless life, the protagonist dies trying to save the lives of some teenagers who are about to be run over by a trucker dozing at the wheel. He is reborn as baby Rudeus “Rudy” Greyrat in a new world. Rudy vows not to waste his new life and sets out trying to learn as much as he can from a very young age. When his parents find out he’s learned powerful magic at the age of 3, his father Paul starts teaching him swordsmanship while his mother Zenith hires a mentor, the demon Roxy, to teach him magic.
Here we get our first look at some of Rudy’s persistent trauma; when asked to leave the house to demonstrate his magic ability, he freezes, overcome with memories of his old life and how nothing good ever came from leaving his apartment. The one time he does leave, he ends up dying. This is kind of set aside when he convinces himself that, as long as he stays within the fenced area, he’s fine, but later it’s revealed that his trauma is much deeper, and much more understandable. When Roxy wants to take him far outside of the fence for a test, we learn his true fear: that this new life, this second chance, is really just a dream, and as soon as he broaches that “boundary,” he’ll return to his former, useless life, and he’s quite confident that would break him.
This is a pretty powerful train of thought, really, and a sobering hypothetical… Which is worse? Having a subjectively horrible life? Or learning that your happy life is not real and you’re really leading a horrible life? It’s not something that’s commonly discussed in fantasy fiction, but Mushoku Tensei and Sci-Fi channel’s The Magicians both consider it.
Because this story is more positive, it doesn’t dwell too long on this fear. However, it does continue to make use of its protagonist’s past traumas, in both overt and more subtle ways. First, Rudy comes upon a local demon child being bullied by other human kids. After fighting back and saving it, relating it to his own bullied memories in the old world, he returns home to find his father boiling mad because one of the bullies’ mothers came and complained. In another powerful scene, with a topic that many people can easily relate to, Rudy is harshly lectured and even struck by Paul, unable to even get a single word in between Paul’s blustering.
Rudy’s anger and cynicism come out full force as he sarcastically promises to never help people in need and instead join others in taking advantage of weakness, and his hurt is palpable as he recalls his own bully experiences and he reaffirms his own desires to use his new life to stand up against the injustices he faced in his old life. The final blow is struck when he announces his will to renounce the Greyrat name, and Paul finally realizes his own mistakes and the two reconcile.
While there are a number of scenes with Rudy and his new bullied friend Sylph, the main showcase comes when, after the reader finds out that Zenith is pregnant with Rudy’s future sibling, every also is surprised to find out that the household’s maid Lilia is also pregnant… with Paul’s child. Rudy calmly concludes that, if he does nothing, this family is going to be completely broken apart. While his method is a bit ham-handed, Rudy uses his knowledge this time to actively find a solution to the problem. The key point is that he’s putting his knowledge to use, rather than letting it drive his new life. Standing up to bullies and verbal abuse is good and all, but he’s simply reacting to situations and letting his memories drive him, so it’s nice to see take the wheel, so to speak, this time to proactively resolve a problem.
The first volume ends with another complicated problem: Rudy realizes he’s stagnating, his growth has stopped, but he feels compelled to stay around Sylph, to be a shield against anything bad that could happen. He attempts to ask Paul and Zenith to pay for schooling for the both of them, but Paul refuses. He is shrewdly aware that Rudy is smarter than him, so he challenges Rudy to a duel instead. Volume 2 depicts the duel, which ends in Rudy’s loss and he is sent away to live with another Greyrat family. He learns that he was unable to see the big picture; that he and Sylph were holding each other back, and separating would be better for both of their developments.
The rest of volume 2 covers Rudy’s new life among the Boreas Greyrat family, specifically his troubles with the daughter Eris. While definitely entertaining and a good read, there is much less to discuss compared to volume 1’s generous use of Rudy’s dual-world nature. The main highlight of the volume is when he and Eris are being attacked by kidnappers, and Rudy’s overconfidence nearly gets them both killed. He faces another existential moment here, despairing at the thought of what would happen if he were to die again in his second life.
Rudy shows off his knowledge some in finding a way to convince the spoiled Eris to allow him to mentor her, as well as determining creative ways to tutor her successfully, but overall this volume is much more straightforward in events and unfortunately less interesting for discussion :3
Mushoku Tensei is originally a web novel, with the chapters compiled and released as a light novel, and what we get in the west is the manga adaptation. I quite like the story, since it makes very effective use of its protagonist and his unique worldview and perspective. The fantasy world itself is fairly standard, generic magic and various humanoid races. It may not be anything special, but the plot utilizes it well, and there’s nothing glaringly wrong, so I would say it is well constructed. The events move at a steady enough pace that there’s never a need to overexamine the setting too much.
The main character, Rudeus Greyrat, is built well. He is a young boy with the knowledge and memories of a 30-year-old from “our” modern Earth. The advantages he gains in this new world make sense; he is able to learn and memorize things quickly, displays high mental aptitude for his new age, and expresses complex logical and situational awareness. It makes sense that if he is able to apply himself and maintain focus and motivation at a young age, he can excel in both physical and intellectual studies. The references of his negative previous life overlaid on his positive current life keeps the audience in perspective and provides an interesting dichotomy to follow.
For other characters, Paul and Zenith are fun enough but fairly unexciting. They’re presented as fairly ideal parents, powerful warriors with now-carefree lives and ultimately low impact aside from being the protagonist’s parents. Lilia the maid is is more interesting simply because she seems to have been created as a more complex character. She is an inferior swordswoman to Paul and seems to have led a more troubled life. The sidestory at the end of volume 2 implies that she seduced Paul, which is rather surprising giving her temperament and other actions. These 3 characters are all left behind as Rudy travels to Roa, though, so it will be interesting to see how they change after Rudy completes his tasks.
In volume 1, the main other characters of interest are the two demons, Roxy and Sylph. After giving Rudy a pass, Roxy leaves to continue her training, and her letter to Rudy towards the end of the volume is what kickstarts his desire to improve, when he learns that he hasn’t actually attained the highest level of magic mastery. She also leaves him with some other trinkets, a wand and a necklace, that seem to have some importance behind them. Since she is still around in the world, it’s hard to imagine she will not appear again. Sylph acts as Rudy’s peer and measuring stick, since he initially trained her and they were separated so that they both can grow. As he is serving his 5-year “quest” in Roa, Sylph is learning magic from Zenith and staying back in their village. When they meet again, no doubt they will be at comparable levels of skill. Either that or he’ll run across her slowly dying and use that as an impetus to exact revenge >_>
Volume 2 introduces the Boreas Greyrat family, who is mostly boring except for Eris, Rudy’s elder cousin who is spoiled rotten. In this volume, she functions as foil to show how Rudy’s efforts are progressing. Eris’s father Philip has that shady-genial veneer, and he doesn’t do a whole lot in this volume, but later gets a bit more fleshed out. The grandfather is kind of a walking noble stereotype, so whatever.
Aside from Eris, Ghyslaine has the most potential, as an unknown quantity. She is an acquaintance of Paul and escorts Rudy to Roa, also serving in the Boreas Greyrat household. She is clearly a swordmaster as well, and she is also being taught magic along with Eris. Last, she’s a catwoman. She has enough scenes of prominence without much explanation about her background the she’s intrinsically an interesting character.
Seven Seas is publishing the book in North America, and, as usual, they turn out a very solid translation. Unlike Monster Musume or The Ancient Magus’s Bride, there’s a lot less “controversial” material to translate, so nothing really stands out as a contentious translation choice.
My main gripe is with the physical quality of the books. I’ve been collecting a number of their series starting as far back as A Certain Scientific Railgun volume 1, and it seems like, lately, the books I get have a tendency to get really warped. The cover feels a hair more flimsy than older books, and the cover and pages seem to get crazy-bent for some reason. It’s possible the older books were the same way and they’ve evened back out over time, but I just compared Arpeggio volume 1 to volume 6 and it does really feel like the glossy cover is stiffer on the older book. I hope this is just my imagination, but it’s really disconcerting to pick a book off the shelf and see it all wavy when looking from the top. For Mushoku Tensei, volume 1 seems to be fine, but volume 2 is pretty bent.
Well, this ended up being a much longer review than I anticipated, but I enjoyed reviewing material in volume 1 a lot! Seven Seas has volume 3 listed for June 7, 2016. I do not believe there is quite enough material yet for a fourth volume, but I would expect Japan to get it this summer, so we can maybe anticipate seeing it by the end of the year or early next year. I plan to review more manga and hopefully refine my posts to be more concise, so look forward to it!