Ascendance of a Bookworm
February 4, 2024 · 0 comments
By Andrew Osmond.
Like many fantasy protagonists, the young heroine of Ascendance of a Bookworm is on a desperate mission. But it doesn’t involve melting a ring, slaying a dragon, or facing an invading army. No, her mission is suggested by the title; it’s to read a book in a world where books are as scarce and precious as gold, where she may have to resort to making her own.
Ascendance is one of the anime sub-genre in which a character dies in our world only to be reincarnated in a fantastical one, a genre ranging from the haunting Haibane Renmei to the daft KonoSuba. Bookworm finds its own niche, as a leisurely drama that doesn’t rely on fights or monsters. It often feels very gentle, in the way of those anime that fans label “slice of life.” But there are still high stakes involved, especially as it’s uncertain how long the main character can live.
Like many reincarnation anime, we’re told little about the heroine’s life before her rebirth. Her name was once Urano, she was a Japanese librarian, and she absolutely adored books, on any subject. Then she died in circumstances that the anime leaves ambiguous; the source novels clarify she was killed by the books she loved, buried by them in an earthquake. Her dying prayer was that she could continue reading books in her next life. The prayer goes unanswered.
She wakes in the body of a little girl, Myne, who lives in a pre-industrial, broadly European-looking city. At first you wonder if it’s the past, though later it becomes clear this is another world, with its own form of magic – used, for example, to seal binding contracts -,and distinct life-forms, such as a plant that grows with ferocious speed. There’s nothing, though, that makes living in this world easy. Myne’s family – mum, dad and her slightly older sister – is poor, though they at least have a house to themselves. Worse, Myne’s body is extremely frail, and she’s often subject to fevers that are plainly life-threatening.
But the biggest shock for Myne is that there are practically no books at all. This world has writing, but there’s no printing press, and the few books that exist are massively valuable. In the first episode, Myne is ecstatic to glimpse one, but its merchant owner won’t even let her open it. So Myne now has a driving obsession, to find some way of having a book to hand, even if that means making her own book from scratch.
So she starts inventing, to the bemusement of her kind but supportive family and friends. Luckily, Myne has access to the memories of the “real” Myne, the girl whose body she’s occupying, which helps her fit into her new world. However, there are problems later on when one perceptive person starts noticing how she’s changed. As even paper is too expensive, Myne sets about experimenting with other kinds of materials, taking inspiration from her reading about ancient civilisations. But her experiments often fail, and more than once her materials are destroyed by her family or peers because they don’t know how important they are to her.
All the while, Myne is learning more about the world, but also – unusually for an anime – about her own limits. She collapses often, and her family is always worried about her health. Eventually, she does start having successes, if not with books, then with other “inventions” such as shampoo and pancakes. But this raises more issues, as merchants notice Myne’s talents and start treating her as a commodity. Myne has ideas they want, but she’s still a little girl; they might help her with her book projects, but can she negotiate with them with any strength?
All these problems build tension into the gentle-seeming show. The designs and colours are cheery, and Bookworm plays down most of the harsh realities of what “ordinary” life was like in the past. A more realistic treatment of the subject could look like Grave of the Fireflies; instead, Bookworm often suggests Kiki’s Delivery Service, with the perky Myne battling to make her own way. Most of the characters are kind and decent; Myne’s family are constantly supportive, as are her friends such as the loyal boy Lutz and the cunning girl Freida.
And yet, there’s a pervading sadness to the series. Myne simply has no idea how much time she’s got, let alone if she’ll live to complete any of her audacious plans. Even with loving people around her, and the benefits of a lifetime’s reading in a different world, this world may be too hard for a frail child. Any book-lover knows that the “gentlest” stories can be surrounded by the darkest shadows.
The way that Myne uses her otherworld knowledge to make useful inventions recalls one of the oldest time-travel stories, Mark Twain’s satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Meanwhile, Myne’s love of books makes her distinctly old-fashioned among anime characters. Like Keiichi Hara’s Birthday Wonderland, Bookworm might be a reaction against the avalanche of fantasy anime that use all the gamified tropes of console RPGs. Then again, maybe not. Throughout the anime, there are cute little cartoon cutaways of Myne looking very like a game character battling through the levels.
Bookworm isn’t the first story to present separation from books as the ultimate hell, worse than the end of the world. One of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes, “Time Enough at Last,” was about a man who longs for more time for reading. He’s in the vault of the bank where he works when there’s a catastrophe; he emerges to find civilisation obliterated by a nuclear war, with himself as the sole survivor. But he has canned food, and books, which have survived in the local library. Time enough, indeed! But the man has just piled up all the books he’ll read when he breaks his glasses and is left practically blind, sobbing “That’s not fair!” Even Myne couldn’t have invented her way out of that one.