The Consequence of No Consequences: Mushoku Tensei and excusing sexual violence

By: Garrick Schultz March 8, 20240 Comments
two tied-up beast girls, scarred and horrified

Content warning: discussions of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and pedophilia

Spoilers for Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation Season 1 and 2

Author’s Note: This article was written before the airing of Mushoku Season 2 Part 2 and thus does not explore that part of the show. Considering its track record, however, I doubt anything that happens in that part would change this article’s conclusion much.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson, a novel series published from 1977 to 2013, is one of my favorite works of fantasy ever. It’s also infamous for having one of the most loathsome protagonists in modern fiction. The titular character, a misanthropic shut-in who gets transported to another world, sexually assaults a teenage girl in the story’s opening act. It’s a truly horrific moment, and while Covenant never does anything nearly that monstrous again, the weight of his sin hangs over his neck for the rest of the series.

I bring this all up to say that I see the value in stories where the protagonist is a horrible person. Handled well, a story with a main character like this can explore ideas and comment on parts of the human condition that more aspirational protagonists can’t. But there’s an important factor to that equation: consequences.

I don’t mean a moralistic “this character did a bad thing and should be punished by the author for it” mindset. I mean that when a character does something extreme, for good or ill, it should leave an impact on those caught in its wake. Thomas Covenant assaulting a teenager, for example, has far-reaching effects on her, on her family, and on himself, aftershocks that would naturally stem from such a terrible act. Any story that wants to explore this darker side of humanity must be willing to explore how doing horrible things affects the world and people around you, or it risks trivializing the true horrors of the darkness it depicts. 

Then there’s this fucking guy.

Mushoku Tensei, funnily enough, starts from much the same place as Thomas Covenant. A misanthropic shut-in transported to another world, Rudeus “Rudy” Greyrat is a pedophile given a chance to live a better life and repair his toxic patterns. Mushoku Tensei purports to be a story of redemption, exploring how even the most reprehensible person imaginable can grow into a respectable human being. But it undercuts Rudeus’ growth by constantly shielding him from the consequences of his actions even in his new life, twisting its world and characters however it wants to justify and excuse the horrible things he does.

This starts early on with Sylphiette, a childhood friend who Rudeus forcibly strips thinking she’s a boy. When he goes to apologize, he’s awkward and uncomfortable, objectifying her as he fumbles over his words and never actually saying “I’m sorry.” But despite that, Sylphiette takes the initiative to forgive him and says she doesn’t want to let this incident ruin their relationship. To make things worse, Sylphiette brings up this incident years later as one of the reasons she’s attracted to him. Yes, you heard that right; Rudeus violating her boundaries is framed not as something that he must make up for over time or an obstacle in their relationship, but as something that made her fall in love with him.

You’d think this desire to commit actual child grooming would be challenged somewhere down the line. But no,

A similar thing happens with Lilia, the family’s maid. As a child, Rudeus often steals Lilia’s underwear and taunts her with it, leaving her justifiably uncomfortable in his presence. But later on, when it’s revealed that Lilia’s been sleeping with Rudeus’ father Paul—who began their affair by sexually assaulting her before it became an allegedly consensual relationship—Rudeus convinces his mom not to kick her out. As a result, Lilia decides Rudeus is not so bad after all and devotes her life to him. You may notice this does not actually address Rudeus’ repeated violation of her boundaries, instead emphasizing how noble it was of him to save her. Paul’s sexual assault is barely commented on, even as a point of comparison; he’s the wrong party only for cheating. 

Shot of Lillia with narration saying "in the end, he assaulted Lillia while she was sleeping and deflowered her."
This single line of voice-over is literally all the attention given to Paul assaulting Lilia, to be clear.

The absolute worst of it, though—at least in Season 1—comes with Rudy’s cousin Eris. Rudeus tries to sexually assault Eris twice: once when he finds her sleeping in a barn and attempts to remove her underwear, once when she mistakenly comes onto him without fully understanding the situation. And how does Eris react to almost being horrifically violated twice? Slapstick anime violence. That’s it. He’s smacked around in stereotypical angry tsundere fashion, Eris tells him to wait until she’s “an adult” (which is fifteen in this world, no we don’t have time to unpack that), and their relationship remains undamaged. A single smack “resets” her reactions to him as a love interest; she isn’t a person but a possible future sex-dispenser, and any lasting consequences like feeling unsafe around the relative who attacked her would get in the way of that. Given how the show treats Paul and Lillia’s relationship, it seems to regard rape as an acceptable precursor to a relationship, or at least not something that’s worth getting upset over.

Rudeus wondering if he thought he 'knew how love interests feel after playing all those dating sims?'
There’s a moment where it looks like Rudeus is about to learn a lesson and apologize, but then Eris comes back in and makes things better all on her own.

It’s a pattern the writing falls into over and over again. Rudeus sexually abuses or degrades a woman or girl he’s close to. Occasionally, it seems like the show might be building up to challenging him for his actions and forcing him to confront the ways he hurts people. But ultimately, it has the offended party forgive him with little to no criticism of his behavior, putting the onus on the girls he takes advantage of to absolve him of his crimes and save him the emotional weight of truly reckoning with the harm he causes.

Yet even that, somehow, is topped in awfulness by a moment in Season 2 where he kidnaps, molests, and tortures a pair of female bullies after they smash his anime figurine. Surely, something this extreme would cause some narrative fallout, right? But no, once again, nothing. Sylphiette is nothing but supporting of Rudeus after she finds out what’s going on, and not only do the girls not tell the school about being assaulted and tied up for days on end, they also become part of Rudeus’ friend group! 

two beast girls tied up and gagged
Cannot stress enough that Rudy never even apologizes for this.

Literally the very next episode, they’re just hanging around him like everything’s normal, and he gets to keep groping them with no repercussions beyond—once again—slapstick anime violence. This is supposedly a serious fantasy story that’s not afraid of heavy ideas, but violence against women is always lightweight enough to be dismissed as comedy. Retribution toward male characters is also nowhere near as detailed or focused on humiliation. Rudy’s comeuppance against a prince who falsely imprisons him, for example, is for the prince to be beaten and arrested pretty unceremoniously. Only the girls need to be not just punished, but brought down a peg. This doesn’t even get into Rudeus buying a girl as a slave to make those anime figurines, which would be part of a whole ‘nother article.

a young girl wearing a slave collar
BRB screaming internally

This is how allergic Mushoku Tensei is to letting Rudeus suffer for his actions. It asks you to believe that all these girls and women, across all these instances of violation and abuse, decide it’s no big deal when Rudeus hurts them in countless different ways. It puts the onus on its female characters to accept and love him—or at least tolerate him—to absolve him of all his crimes without ever letting him face the fallout that such monstrous acts would naturally result in. It reduces them to props in his story, objects for his fulfillment and personal satisfaction. He is not challenged for his actions; he’s rewarded for them, time and time again. The only characters allowed to call Rudy out on his actions in a way that causes him to reflect and change are older male authority figures like Rujierd or Soldat. While Roxy might tutor him in magic and emotionally nurture him through his early fears, the story never allows women the space to criticize him.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Well, are there any times that Rudeus faces consequences for his actions?” And… yes. Kind of. Eris leaves him at the end of the first season and he tries to rebound with another girl named Sara, thinking that rushing into things with her will help salve the pain of losing his first relationship. But his abandonment issues leave him with erectile dysfunction, and the shame of being so “emasculated” causes him to get drunk and lash out with sexist mockery to avoid confronting the root cause: he’s scared to form meaningful relationships because he doesn’t want to risk the pain of them falling apart like they did with Eris. She kicks him to the curb, and we never see her again; she’s out of his life for good.

Sara, angry. "Youre the worst. Never let me see you again."
The most satisfying moment in the entire show

Here, at last, Mushoku Tensei provides a storyline in which Rudeus has to face the music. He’s presented as unambiguously in the wrong, his mistakes have believable repercussions, and he’s forced to live with those consequences with no take-backs or do-overs. It only took thirty episodes, but for the first time, the show addresses Rudeus’ flaws with the weight and thoughtfulness they deserve.

…Except this arc ends up exposing yet another problem. See, Sara is initially cold and hostile towards Rudeus before warming up to him. But we never actually find out why she hates his guts at first. She’s just standoffish and rude for no reason until he saves her life and she falls in love with him. Think how easy it would be to frame her dislike of him around his misogyny, or his habit of violating consent, or any number of his actual character flaws. Instead, the writing frames her as an ice queen in need of a man to thaw her out rather than interrogate why someone might be put off by a person like Rudeus.

shirtless Rudy and Sara with her shirt unbuttoned
He also gets to see her naked after saving her, because of course he does.

This reveals a bizarre corollary to the Rudeus’ lack of consequences: the show pretty much only lets characters be antagonistic towards him when it’s explicitly unjustified. For all the times he steals girls’ underwear and taunts them with it, the only time he almost pays for it is when a pair falls on his face by accident and the onlookers mistakenly think he stole it. For all the times he violates consent and molests the girls and women around him, the only time it has a meaningful impact is when a group of beast-people mistakenly think he’s molesting their sacred wolf (when he was really just petting it) and imprison him for a small side arc,. All the times he actually does something wrong, Mushoku Tensei bends over backwards to treat it as no big deal. But when the world does push back against Rudeus’ actions, it’s nearly always in situations where he’s not actually at fault and the people criticizing him are framed as in the wrong.

All this leads to a truly vile sentiment underpinning the portrayal of Rudeus’ actions. By easily forgiving him for his mistakes and casting all his harshest critics as misguided, Mushoku Tensei asks its audience to view its loathsome protagonist as someone who can do no wrong. It leads you to associate Rudeus being challenged for his actions with false accusations not worth taking seriously. It creates a narrative framing where Rudeus molesting, grooming, and assaulting children is, at worst, a harmless and forgivable annoyance, and anyone who tries to make him face consequences for it has no idea what they’re talking about. And there’s no situation it won’t twist unnaturally to preserve that framing.

chest-height close-up of Lillia. "He saved my life. I have to spend my life repaying him."
“Sure, he creeped on me for years and made me feel unsafe, but who cares when he’s such a nice guy?”

Mushoku Tensei wants you to believe it’s a story about redemption. It wants you to believe it’s about how even the worst person can change for the better. Perhaps in another world where it handled these topics well, it could have been just as powerful in Thomas Covenant in its portrayal of a reprehensible protagonist struggling to become a good person. But by denying Rudeus the consequences of his actions and refusing to frame him as in the wrong, it instead becomes a story about how the worst people aren’t so bad after all. It’s a perfectly constructed fantasy where a pedophile rapist gets to be in the right no matter how loathsome his actions, where his critics are never justified, where he never has to deal with the aftereffects, where his victims are perfectly compliant accessories who absolve him of every indiscretion. It suggests there’s no need for a person like Rudeus to change the worst aspects of himself, and that anyone who says otherwise isn’t worth listening to.

It’s impossible not to see shades of real life in this apologism. How we give second chances to famous men exposed for pedophilia, like Roman Polanski, Shimabukuro Mitsutoshi, and Watsuki Nobuhiro, because of how much we love the art they produce. Their contributions to society are given precedence over the children they’ve preyed upon, their crimes excused with the same underlying logic the writing applies to Rudeus. In fiction and reality, pedophilia becomes an acceptable character flaw, one you never have to reckon with, repair, or make amends for. If nothing else, that’s one way Mushoku Tensei does capture something real, albeit unintentionally.

Except in real life, it’s not the hand of the author protecting predators from the consequences of their actions. It’s the hand of a society that forgives the unforgivable because it’s more convenient than acknowledging just how many sacrifices are required to keep the illusion of justice alive. And as long as we continue to frame a man’s personal accomplishments and emotional journey as more important than the women and girls he harms along the way, then the so-called redemption of our own world’s Rudeuses will be the consequences that the rest of us will continue to face for a long, long time to come.

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