Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. It’s been another hectic week on my end, as we approached and marched by the due date for moving all our shit out of the old apartment. I’d been living at the old place for a full-on decade at this point, which meant moving out involved not just grabbing all my furniture and figurines, but also the towering boxes of manga, blurays, and everything else I reviewed during my Anime News Network tenure. Also I lived on a third floor, and the only passage down from that floor was a winding little staircase, and… look, I won’t bore you with any more details, but rest assured it made for a sucky sequence of days. I’ve now basically got a leopard’s coat worth of bruises down both my pale, twig-like arms, and have vowed that it’s just me and my laptop moving in wherever I head to next.

As a result, I have had neither the time nor energy to dig deeply into the cinematic landscape, and emerge with fresh nuggets of insight regarding its manifold treasures. Aside from continuing through Dragon Ball Z Kai, my most noteworthy media experience of the week was savoring the delicious schadenfreude of Mushoku Tensei fans attempting to explain their series’ appeal, after the author’s “I don’t explicitly condone slavery” t-shirt ended up raising a lot of questions that the shirt was presumably intended to answer. As you’d expect, the online discussion regarding this sequence of events was utterly unproductive, as there is simply no common language unifying the various forces at play here. Discussions of art coming from a point of total personal identification are destined for acrimonious failure, but this one at least offered some clear outlines of the various perspectives involved.

Starting with the show itself, Mushoku Tensei is simply the natural evolution of what hardcore otaku validation-focused media has been trending towards for the last several decades. Combining the appeal of a dependent, adoring harem with the validating rush of a world where you are the master of everything, the show centers on a NEET otaku who’s also an unrepentant sexual predator, whose proclivities have basically gotten him ejected from modern society for some pretty good reasons. When he’s isekai’d out of this world, he emerges as an adult-intelligence baby with vast magical aptitudes, alongside those same antisocial tendencies. In this new world he gains power, respect, and love, all while remaining a sexual predator, with the show’s tonal signifiers perpetually indicate that being a sadistic sexual predator is a funny, charming, and ultimately harmless thing to be.

This honestly isn’t that unusual, as far as anime go. It’s wish fulfillment based on societal and romantic alienation, and those two forms of rejection are essentially the cornerstones of the isekai and harem genres. Constructing your worldview out of the perspective represented by the show’s protagonist is obviously deeply unhealthy, but I doubt most fans are doing that: they just enjoy a fantasy of antisocial power in an accommodating media environment, while knowing the protagonist Rudeus’ behavior would obviously be unacceptable in reality. To indulge in fantasies outside the realm of the socially acceptable, fantasies you well know should not be applied in any way to your active engagement with the world and other people, is one of media’s most common appeals. Rudeus is contemptible, but reasonable viewers hopefully understand that – he might not be transgressing in productive directions, but he’s only hurting lines on a screen.

Unfortunately, modern audiences aren’t really equipped to discuss a show about a bad person with anything approaching a moderate tone. First off, the show’s own defenders tend to be its worst enemies, entrenched as they are so deeply in the assumptions of the show’s worldview. When Mushoku Tensei first came out, and Rudeus was initially being called a scumbag for being a scumbag, fans tended to insist that this was a “redemption story,” and that Rudeus would eventually grow into a flawed yet compelling character.

This is flatly untrue. What fans describe as “redemption” is actually just validation – Rudeus never becomes a better person, he just becomes a happier person, in a world that no longer punishes him for his cruel and predatory tendencies. To enjoy that fantasy while acknowledging Rudeus as a terrible person is one thing; to insist that it’s our world which is wrong, and that Rudeus is actually an awesome and funny dude by any reasonable metric, is simply to highlight yourself as a similarly antisocial misogynist. And if you spent any time scanning the defenders of Rudy on twitter last week, that’s precisely what you’d see: a lot of people who cheer Rudeus for “fighting back against woke tourists,” agreeing wholeheartedly with Mushoku Tensei’s underlying belief that people, and particularly women, outside of Rudeus’ immediate sphere of concern are simply toys to be exploited for his satisfaction. It is one thing to find a transgressive allure in enjoying a show with a contemptible underlying philosophy – it is quite another to say “yes, this is my philosophy, and Rudeus is totally in the right.”

From what I’ve seen, the hardcore fans of Mushoku Tensei often trend towards the type who find Rudeus’ actions genuinely laudable, seeing in him a version of themselves unshackled from the demands for decency and compassion enforced by modern society. These people seem to me to be making the most damning arguments against this sort of art possible, reflecting how inundation in a culture of such art can make you a worse person, as you begin to internalize its misogynist values as your own. If you only consume art that hates women, and only socialize with people who like similar art, then yeah, there’s probably a good chance you either already possess or will begin to develop similar attitudes. And if you find this story “inspiring” or “hilarious,” it’s worth asking: what exactly about a vengeful sex predator always getting his way is motivational or uplifting to you? These fans offer a far more convincing version of the argument being proposed by Mushoku Tensei’s most strident opponents: people who don’t believe art with transgressive elements or bad moral takeaways should have the right to exist.

Unsurprisingly, the people who rally against any sort of transgressive art also have a lot to say about Mushoku Tensei. The neo-puritan thread in modern art criticism, which posits that art cannot deviate from either benign drama or moral instruction, could not hope for an easier target than Mushoku Tensei’s willfully antisocial, proudly contemptible protagonist. It becomes difficult to argue for thoughtful critique and challenging the assumptions of the text when you’re being shouted over by people who truly do wish to ban art, and truly do believe fraught subjects cannot be discussed in fiction without ensuring the audience arrives at the “correct moral takeaway.” And because these voices are the loudest and most personally accusatory in such discussions, the defenders of Mushoku Tensei are provided an easy out for ignoring criticism altogether, assuming all their opponents are simply allergic to ambiguous moral drama.

Which is a shame! The history of fiction is filled with deliciously contemptible characters, and I wouldn’t want fans of Mushoku Tensei to believe that alone is what earns their series such overwhelming critical derision. Rudeus is a horrendous person the text treats as a misunderstood hero, and that’s well worth criticizing, but Mushoku Tensei is also more generally mired in the trope-driven, facile dramatic constraints of its larger genre space. Thoughtful art consumers aren’t afraid of Mushoku Tensei; they’ve simply got better things to read, because outside of the antisocial fantasy it provides, Mushoku Tensei’s approach to storytelling and characterization are as amateurish as you’d expect from a web novel writer raised on otaku media. Even if you try to “eat around the moldy bits,” no discerning fan of film or literature would be impressed by Mushoku Tensei’s alleged redeeming qualities. This story ain’t Blood Meridian or Autumn of the Patriarch; it’s revenge fanfic that struck a chord with a particular disaffected subculture, no more and no less.

So yeah, I don’t think Mushoku Tensei’s author is explicitly pro-slavery – I just think he hasn’t thought about slavery beyond the realm of otaku validation, because that’s as far as his insight extends in any direction. Trying to square that fetish-driven interest with some attempt to reflect on humanity more generally is where he got into trouble; Mushoku Tensei has nothing useful to tell anyone about life, and embracing that seems a lot less fraught than falsely positioning it as a redemption story about properly integrating into society. The story is superficial, misogynistic, and poorly written, and giving it more credit than that only demonstrates the tragically limiting silo of art to which its defenders have resigned themselves. Read better stuff. Rudeus ain’t worth it.

By Sandra Winters

Writer | Author | Wordsmith Passionate about crafting stories that captivate and inspire. Published author of [Book Title]. Dedicated to exploring the depths of human emotions and experiences through the power of words. Join me on this literary journey as we delve into the realms of imagination and uncover the beauty of storytelling.