Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation can’t seem to catch a break, and recent comments by its author have not helped matters.
- Mushoku Tensei has gained popularity for its stunning animation, but it has faced criticism for its sexual content, unlikable protagonist, and handling of slavery.
- In Episode 6 of Season 2, Rudeus agrees to buy a slave to create sculptures for his classmate, sparking frustration in the community.
- The author’s response defending slavery in the series was met with backlash, as it normalizes the practice and fails to acknowledge the protagonist’s knowledge of its atrocities.
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Mushoku Tensei is the most talked-about Isekai anime in recent memory, praised for its gorgeous animation and art direction; the impressive debut project of its production house, Studio Bind. However, it has also been the target of much criticism on account of its sexual content, the unlikability of the protagonist, and most recently, its approach to slavery.
The first cour of Mushoku Tensei Season 2 began airing on July 2, 2023, directed by Hiroki Hirano, with series composition by Toshiya Ono, and music by Yoshiaki Fujisawa. The current arc sees Rudeus attending Ronoa Magic University to improve his skills to learn more about the mysterious Mass Teleportation that has spread him and his loved ones across the world.
How It Started
In Episode 6 of Season 2, Rudeus agrees to instruct eager classmate Zanoba in the art of sculpting, only to find him a rather difficult student. Sylphy – under the pseudonym Fitz – suggests buying a slave to create sculptures for Zanoba instead, to which Rudeus almost immediately agrees without barely a second of consideration. Fitz even asks to tag along, making a date out of a trip to the slave market like something out of a dark comedy.
The latter half of the episode sees Rudeus, Zanoba, and Fitz go and buy a young slave girl who they name Julie. Needless to say, this event sparked a lot of frustration in the community. Series author Rifujin na Magonote felt the need to comment on this development on social media the day the episode aired, but it didn’t exactly help matters.
About Rudeus: He doesn’t really have any feelings of hatred for slavery. He feels like, it’s not necessarily the case that all slaves are universally unhappier as slaves than they were before becoming slaves. So while kidnapping is evil, he can’t say with certainty that slavery itself is evil and doesn’t want to impose his own sense of justice upon a culture he is unfamiliar with.
-Rifujin na Magonote, August 13, 2023
This response from the author was taken by many as a somewhat apologetic stance in favor of slavery. Their statement suggests that Rudeus being from a different world makes it inappropriate for him to be judgmental of his new world’s values. It has the unfortunate effect of painting the protagonists as – by the author’s own admission – not particularly averse to slavery. After the ensuing backlash, the author decided to address and elaborate further.
I’d like to explain myself, as I don’t condone slavery personally. However, it’s true that I wrote Rudeus as someone who is not averse to slavery. Also, the original story is written with a kind of mild setting where it is accepted that, “Slavery is a normal thing in this world. It is what it is.” Because of this, there’s no point in making excuses [for my actions].
-Rifujin na Magonote, August 17, 2023
Why The Excuses Fall Short
The defenses of Mushoku Tensei‘s approach to slavery, be they from the author or fans who love the show, seem to come from a particular perspective on history and social progress. Slavery was a practice that was hugely prominent throughout human history, notably in the periods from which a lot of fantasy stories draw inspiration. Following this line of thought, Rudeus having grown up in this world would then normalize the practice.
There’s just one big problem staring the audience in the face here, and it’s that this series is an Isekai. Rudeus was from our real world, in the modern age, where slavery is known to be a terrible atrocity and a fundamental breach of human rights. He should be very well aware of how bad slavery is, and even if he wasn’t, he fought against slave traders in Season 1.
Magonote seems to address this point by asserting how kidnapping is evil while slavery is just “a normal thing in this world,” but they don’t consider how one can directly contribute to the other. Julie might have become a slave because of her parents’ debts, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t other slaves in the market who were simply taken, and Rudeus never questions this.
This is far from the first time that touchy subjects like this have been the subject of criticism, and neither is it rare for such subjects to be defended. Some may argue that the presence of slavery helps ground a story relative to the historic influences. Furthermore, comments in response to this episode occasionally express praise for not trying to turn Rudeus into a savior, seeing it as the story approaching the reality of the slave trade and its normalcy in a mature light.
But what many of the avid defenders of this episode – and other fantasy stories with slavery – don’t seem to consider is that it is not just a medieval story, but a fantasy. Just because a story takes inspiration from real-world history does not mean it has to mire itself in the same dogmatic narratives. Obviously, it’s not as if the topic of slavery cannot ever be broached in popular media, but it comes down to how frequently these tropes appear and how a story utilizes them.
So yes, it’s edgy, but more damning than that, it’s tired and played out. Dark fantasy has been toying with slavery and even slavery-indifferent protagonists, for ages. Within niche Japanese pop culture, these concepts are so common in visual novels and other dark fantasy works as to be truly unremarkable.
The suggestion that Rudeus being averse to slavery would have been somehow “boring” reads as willfully ignorant. It wasn’t the passage of time that abolished slavery – it was people fighting against both the trade itself and a world that had come to rely on it. A hero who is opposed to slavery shouldn’t be seen as a “cliché,” especially when that hero comes from a world that is very much aware of the cost.
Why This Sucks
A lot of people like Mushoku Tensei and a lot of other people probably want to like it as well, for understandable reasons. When the protagonist isn’t being a pervert, or the story isn’t so relaxed about slavery, it can weave quite the tale with a good deal of emotional maturity. Added to that, the artwork and animation elevate the project above the most tired aspects of the genre. Unfortunately, it just has a lot of weird and gross stuff that can kill the fun for audiences.
Sometimes context can be lost within the outrage, and it’s true that Rudeus’ interactions with Julie do show signs of growth in his character. But even after examining this episode and giving it the benefit of the doubt, it’s safe to say that the story may have seriously benefited from the absence of this subplot.
There’s no changing how some people feel about this series. Some people hate it while others love it, but for those in the latter camp, one doesn’t need to write the series off completely to simply ask “Does this story really need this?” It is possible for this story to still be good and worthy of its acclaim at the sacrifice of things that otherwise don’t have anything meaningful to offer.
If the story went on to suggest that Rudeus’ lack of an opinion on slavery was the result of his consumption of edgy media in his past life, that might at least yield some clever commentary. As it exists now, though, Mushoku Tensei will live or die by its capacity to dazzle and endear viewers in spite of its many vices. To that end, the most palatable version of this story will be whatever new series this anime inevitably inspires.
Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation is available to stream on Crunchyroll & Funimation.