Why People Love Mushoku Tensei: Human Honesty in Isekai
I gotta be real with you folks - I really didn’t want to like this show. And I’m still not totally sure that I do. But for some Mushoku Tensei was the #1 anime of 2021. And so I had to watch it to find out why. I’m not convinced that it’s the best anime of 2021 yet, but it does tell an interesting enough story and present some pretty fascinating themes that aren’t super typical for the Isekai genre.
While I would’ve preferred ever more subverted expectations, the expectations it does subvert are actually pretty important to one of the biggest problems plaguing Christianity today. How could this lecherous anime have anything to do with that? Let’s talk about it.
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1 Corinthians 13:8-13 NRSV
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
So for any of my non-weebs out there, or honestly for the weebs that saw this and went ‘meh,’ what exactly is going on with Re:Zero - sorry - That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime - sorry - Cautious Hero - sorry - The Rising of the Shield Hero - sorry - Outbreak Company - sorry - Didn’t I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life?! - Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks? -sorry - KonoSuba - sorry - Mushoku Tensei? What’s going on with Mushoku Tensei and what is going with the literal onslaught of stories exactly like this one?
Under the already pretty niche genre of anime, there is a subgenre called Isekai which basically translates to ‘otherworld.’ It’s a plotline that is all-too-overdone and typically revolves around an individual who exists in one world - normally as a loser- and then gets killed, transported, locked into a world other than their own. Normally, but not exclusively, the transported MC is also usually crazy overpowered. Sometimes by a little bit, other time by so much.
For Mushoku Tensei, the tropes are mostly followed with a couple of important changes… but what is it?
This series actually started as a web novel serialized on the Internet by Rifujin na Magonote
The original web novel was published on the free-to-read site Syosetu for a year before being picked up by Media Factory for publishing in 2013, with manga starting production in 2014, and an anime adaptation was finally announced from Studio Bind in 2019, being delayed until 2021 for release.
And release, it did - to much acclaim. If you keep up with anime rating like my neurotic self does, then you know that this anime swept most of the winter anime in 2021 and most people either love the story itself or have a particular affinity for Ghislane. I have no guesses as to why.
So what is it about this story that makes it so good? If there are so many other isekai and dozens of others being written and released by the season, why *this* story?
Well, after the first few episodes, I didn’t have an answer to that question. At the time of this writing, I’ve caught up to the reunion arc and I still don’t really get it. But I’m willing to take a stab at it.
In order to understand the appeal of this show as well as why I’m not necessarily digging it, we have to understand the plot itself.
Our main character is a NEET who misses his own parent’s funerals. On his way around town after ditching, he sees a group of teenagers about to be hit by a car and he decides to do something good for once in his life and push them out of the way. Except - oh no - he gets hit by the truck and dies.
But then he gets reincarnated as a baby named Rudeus in a fantasy world that has like a ton of rules and continents and political strife that we don’t have time for in this video.
Once he is reincarnated, we, the audience, get to follow his literal life from infant to adult as he has an actual coming-of-age story. Except, he’s already come-of-age, he’s an adult from a past life who can remember all of that past life. So this story is really a second-coming-of-age story.
Often in isekai, this theme of resurrection is the starting point. For whatever reason, the main character will die in their world - usually as a virgin - and then they will get resurrected into some kind of fantastic other world.
One of the less-believable parts of this trope is that the transfer usually comes with a change of personality. This isn’t the case for our MC. He’s a mess. He’s perverted. He’s gross. He’s still the same slob that he was in the other life.
Another major trope in isekai is the OP trope, where the MC is incredibly overpowered in the fantasy world. Whether this be from spam-killing like in Slime or just birthright, this is often a way for comedic isekai to find a grounding for their character to be invincible.
Mushoku Tensei doesn’t do that - or at least not really. Rudeus is innately gifted when it comes to magic and his adult brain is able to start comprehending magic books from an incredibly young age.
But he’s far from invincible. We’ve not been too scared for Rudeus to die up until the point where I’m at, but he’s also very much finite. He has some otherworldly luck and protection, but it’s not without its limits and the show makes Rudeus work for things.
And it’s in those two key differences that I think Mushoku Tensei is set apart and being so well liked this past season - Rudeus isn’t a good person. He isn’t even likable. But he’s growing and evolving as a person and changing through the real consequences being placed upon him. Many isekai skip the whole second-coming-of-age character development, this show is only that.
And that brings us pretty well to our scripture. I couldn’t help the more that I contemplated Mushoku Tensei to think about this passage in particular.
This is right after one of the most famous pieces of scripture of all time. Most famous because it’s read at like every wedding ever of all time. You know it even if you don’t know it “Love is patient, love is kind…”
But the thing is that even after the scripture normally ends in weddings, there’s still something more to be said.
Paul starts out by talking about what ‘Love is’ but then he talks in our passage about the process of love, the evolution of love as it were.
He says Love never ends. That’s a weird thing to say - is he doing his best Ewan McGregor or what’s going on here?
What does end? Well, prophecies come to an end. There’s a prophecy and there’s fulfillment. A meet B. Tongues end - that means there’s a message from someone, it’s then interpreted. A. meet B. Knowledge ends - that means something is unknown, discovered, known. A B C.
When those things come to an end, that’s when what Paul calls the complete will arrive. What does that mean?
In Methodism we might call it perfecting grace. You might call it oneness. You might call it heaven. Regardless, it is when logic, prophesy, tongues are made unnecessary.
Then Paul makes a metaphor - or a simile - I took English for the books, not the grammar. But this is something Paul doesn’t really do that often - he’s not the parable guy like Jesus or the revelatory guy like John. But here Paul is explaining how love comes to fruition in that same way that we grow up. We start out as children, spiritually, literally, metaphorically, and we think and reason and speak like children do. But then when it comes to being an adult, we don’t just evolve, but some things come to an end. And in the end, according to Paul, three will remain: faith, hope, and love. And love is the greatest of these.
So what’s going on here? What are we looking at? What is Paul talking about?
It goes back to the idea of marriage, really. That’s probably one of the most popular and well-known forms of love, right?
For some, they get love wrong. They assume that love is a thing that you reach and achieve - like dating is this process where you go from like to love and once the ding goes off on the like toaster, boom - you should get married.
But the truth is that love never ends - it’s always evolving and changing and shifting. Even beyond our human lives and understanding. You never stop loving or learning about how to love deeper and wider. There’s the parameter or quota or ‘you must have this much love to enter heaven’ sign.
Love is a process that literally has no other end - yet. It will only be fully known when we are fully known in the full connection of our relationship with Jesus that we may not even get to experience on this side of glory.
But as Christians we are super guilty of stopping at a certain point with our love. We reach a point where our love goes into deficit, don’t we? Where love really can’t go beyond that point. Maybe it’s a people we can’t love. Maybe it’s a vice we can’t get past. Maybe it’s a passion that stops us in our tracks. Regardless, it’s something that compels us to try and stop the limitless reach of love - and it’s childlike.
But it’s here where the second-coming-of-age in Mushoku Tensei offers up some clarity. Whether you first experience the love of Jesus Christ at birth, at church camp, in college or on your second marriage - no matter when or where, that moment sparks a second-coming-of-age for you.
You aren’t literally turned into a baby, but you are born again into a second life of growth. That’s where we get confused. You aren’t done once you say that you love Jesus and accept him. You’re literally getting started.
You’re still the same you. You still have the personality. You may even still have the vices and the problems. The bumps and bruises. That’s normal. If you’re expecting some magical transformative process - I can’t promise that for you. For most of us, when we accept Jesus that simply means the start of an infant faith that has a lot of growing up to do.
It’s okay the Rudeus sucks. It’s okay to not like him at the beginning. It’s okay that he still has some growing up to do. What makes the difference is that he’s trying and that he’s driven towards betterment.
It’s our three rules, right? Do good, do no harm, and then strive to grow. Take one tiny step forward a day. Just try to grow right now in whatever you’re doing. If you’re tired or you can’t, that’s okay. You’re not expected to be perfect, not yet anyway. You’re still a child. But just be aware that these childlike things will come to an end when we finally reach that place of fullness. Of true love. Of perfection.
It sounds like a tall order, right? Yeah, it is. But it’s what keeps us watching shows like Mushoku Tensei. We want perfection for Rudeus. We want it for him because we want it for ourselves.
And here at Checkpoint, we’re pursuing that same thing together. One day at a time, slowly, sometimes childlike, but always striving for something more and always striving to do it in community of supportive and loving nerds, geeks, and gamers.
So, whether you’re a Supard, Migurd, or *sigh* Beast Person, know that you’re always welcome here at Checkpoint Church.
But, unlike Rudeus, maybe keep those inside thoughts *inside* mmkay? Mmkay.
Question: What’s your favorite Isekai?
God loves you.
We love you.