Once there was a show called Youjo Senki, or “Saga of Tanya the Evil”. A lot of people liked it. Me, I thought it was alright. There were many times while watching it that I enjoyed myself. And yet when I think back on it, I’m mostly just mad at its existence. Why is that?
Time to rewind. Youjo Senki is a show about… well, its premise is a bit complicated. Basically, it’s World War I in all but name. Like, literally the countries are exactly the same as the real world but the names are changed, which makes you wonder why they bothered, but I digress. The other major difference is in not-Europe magic is a thing, enabling those rare individuals with magic talent to serve as a sort of hybrid shock troop/scout/air support/artillery. Not-Germany has a mage that’s made quite a name for themselves, with a reputation for brutal efficiency on the front lines and harsh yet effective treatment of their underlings. This soldier is Tanya Deguracheff, who happens to be about twelve years old. What’s more – and this is where things get weird – Tanya is actually a reincarnation of a Japanese salaryman from the real world. Said nameless salaryman was a douchebag corporate headhunter that died suddenly, pissed of some God-like entity called Being X, and for obscure reasons was reincarnated into this new form.
It’s a lot to swallow, but it’s all communicated fairly effectively in the second episode, after the bizarrely boring and inconsequential first one. Despite a severely lacking first impression, this is where Youjo Senki started to shine. The conditions of Being X’s “arrangement” indicate that if Tanya dies in this world (at least before she develops in some way Being X finds satisfactory) then she’s dead for good. This singular drive for survival becomes Tanya’s main motivation, but it manifests in interesting ways. Essentially, she becomes the most overachieving lazy character ever conceived.
Through some handwaving Tanya is able to join the military despite being a malnourished child, mostly due to abnormally high magical potential. As not-Germany heads to war, Tanya’s aim to land some cushy back line position to ride out the rest war in relative safety. However, her natural perfectionism and talent earn her the attention of her superiors, and she quickly gains promotions and associated responsibilities. For several episodes the main conflict is Tanya struggling to use her wits to manipulate others to dodge responsibility while simultaneously trying (and failing) to avoid more formal recognition. And this really works. It’s fascinating to see a character whose natural skills directly contradict their goals. Every other character and indeed the entire world is fairly uninteresting, but Tanya fully carries the show for these early episodes. In retrospect, this should have been a red flag. As the late but great Demolition D told us, don’t trust a story that tries to hinge everything on a single character.
The point where things started to go wrong for me is around the time when Tanya gets her own squad. Despite her best efforts, the higher-ups want to put Tanya in charge of a small mobile strike force that she herself proposed with no intention of actually leading it herself. It’s at this point that the perspective of the story starts to shift away from her. For about an episode the recruits for this squad go through training while Tanya inflicts myriad cruel trials on them. It’s entertaining, but the difference here is that Tanya is now a force within the narrative rather than its center. The viewer is no longer spending time inside her head – her schemes are kept a mystery, and other characters are at her mercy.
The focus on the war also becomes much stronger around this point. In theory, this seems natural. You wouldn’t expect a story to keep its focus on a single narrow thing for very long. It’s also natural for the scope of a story to expand as the main character’s understanding of the world around them broadens. The thing is, Youjo Senki fails in both of these things.
First, the idea of a natural shift and broadening of a story’s scope. For lack of a better way of putting it, this isn’t really earned. I never found the war story interesting for a variety of reasons – primarily because there isn’t a single interesting character in the entire supporting cast (I can remember maybe two names), and because the setting has zero development. The story is explicitly set up in a way that Tanya is really the only person we have any reason to care about. Not-Germany appears to be just one of an infinite number of alternate universe Germanies. With basically no attention given to the common people, it’s hard to relate to the struggle of this war-torn nation. In a way, Youjo Senki has written itself into a corner. It lacks anything compelling outside its main character, so it puts all focus on her, but this narrow focus means that the potential to expand the story’s scope in the future is limited due to poor development of the cast and setting.
Second, the supposed development and broadening of the main character’s understanding of the world is completely phoned in. Tanya changes overnight, and not in a good way. On the surface, she’s pretty much the same; the edginess, magic skill, and general psycho loli “charm” is still present, but that’s really all just window dressing. What really matters is gone. Her contradictory laziness and perfectionism, the complete disdain for this world that she’s not meant to be a part of to begin with, after Tanya gets her own squad this is all gone. For the remainder of the show, she’s no longer Tanya. She’s a character that shares Tanya’s surface attributes, but the core of what she’s doing episode to episode is being a soldier that’s really awesome at everything, and is occasionally brutal, but she always gets the job done – a decent if cliche character any other story, but a definite step back in this context.
If you want an example of a story that actually does it well, take a look at Shingeki no Kyojin, or Attack on Titan. Yes, AoT is anything but perfect, but this gradual progression from small to large scale is something that the manga actually handles quite well. Attack on Titan’s worldview is incredibly narrow in its first arc. The good guys are humans (mostly), the bad guys are titans, and the goal is very simple and straightforward. When the story, without wishing to spoil, blows the hell up later on, it doesn’t feel like a betrayal of what came before because it did everything Youjo Senki didn’t. The world and the supporting cast outside of the main characters was characterized and fleshed out, and there was this sense of normality in the first episode that gives a baseline so we know what everyone is fighting for. Furthermore, the more complex elements of the story are layered on bit by bit. Every arc adds just a little, from introducing human villains to giving them sympathetic backstories and motivations, and expanding on the details of the lore to ease the reader into some of the wilder ideas the series has in store. When everything finally comes together, it isn’t jarring at all, because there’s been an actual progression. That’s really the word here: progression. The transition can’t be a quick hop from single character to massive, complex war story.
This poor progression, more than anything else, killed Youjo Senki for me. Demolition D gave his sage advice because trying to hinge a show on a single character means the people behind it didn’t put enough care into the show’s supporting cast and structure. I’d propose a second reason: don’t trust a show that tries to carry itself on the back of a single character because if anything undermines that character’s appeal (which, given the low competence required to get this point, is more likely than not), then there will be nothing left to go on anymore. That’s what happened after Tanya’s squad started seeing combat. The story came to focus on the war, it was booooooooring.
Now comes the wind-up for the killing blow. If Youjo Senki had stopped being stupid – or just stopped – at this point I’d probably be more forgiving towards it. The later stuff was boring, but the early stuff was good enough that I’d be willing to write it off as a short, fun romp with a boring ending. It’s here, however, that we meet a man named Sioux.
Sioux is a not-American mage that definitely looks to be built from the ground up as Tanya’s… well, not her foil, he doesn’t have enough personality for that, but a rival at the very least. He shows up in the disappointingly shitty opening credits, and his introduction scene where his ridiculously adorable daughter sees him off before he goes to war makes it obvious that he’s not only more important than the average background filler character, but that he’s so genuine and good that there’s no way he wasn’t created to deliberately contrast Tanya’s exaggerated evil. Then they get in a quick fight and he dies.
Nah, just kidding. About an episode later you see some not-British medics fishing him out of the sea. Now he’s got the glowy eyes that Tanya gets when she uses her power that Being X gave her (oh yeah, remember Being X?). He’s also talking about having a God-given mission and stuff. Cool! Now we have another fighter than can actually match Tanya’s power and a pretty obvious set-up for the season’s final boss.
I continued watching Youjo Senki basically for no other reason than because I was waiting for these two to duke it out. And man, did the show ever drag it out. Something like three more episodes passed of the same uninteresting war bullshit, and every once in a while they’ll drop in a short scene of Sioux preparing for battle talking about God’s will or whatever. It sucks, but I endure.
The whole time, my mind is filling with possibilities. Will they become long term opponents? How will the dynamics of the war change when both sides have an unstoppable badass on their side? How will the journey of Tanya’s supposed “faith” be affected? Even if Sioux dies, how much of the not-German army will he be able to plow through? How do Being X’s plans figure into all this? Alright, here we g-
Wait, it’s over?
Yeah, ends up all it amounted to was an aerial fight scene like any other except one of the guys was stronger and faster this time. They tried to raise the stakes by having him swoop in out of nowhere and kill one of Tanya’s nobody squadmates to kick things off, but he ended up surviving, so I don’t see the point. It’s not like I would have missed him.
The fight scene goes on for a little while, but not too long, and then Sioux dies. No, really. Tanya stabs him in the chest in a way that mirrors their first fight, he makes a scary face, and then he explodes. I don’t think he said a single word during the entire fight. I don’t remember if anyone died – if so, it was one of the no name squad members, not even one of the innumerable characters with names that are forgettable nonetheless. Tanya herself seemed a little surprised at Sioux’s return but overall didn’t seem that bothered by it. She didn’t even seem to realize that Being X was responsible for it. So… why did we go through all this again?
This is the point where my opinion on Youjo Senki became a net negative. Everything before was simply boring, but the conclusion to what I would loosely call Sioux’s “arc” felt like a complete slap in the face. The buildup to it was extensive and enticing, but the climax was, while admittedly visually impressive, a big fat nothing for the overall story. And as if to rub it all in, the show doesn’t even end there. Instead it mulls around for one more episode setting up the next season that it hopes for along with more war story bullshit.
I ended up giving Youjo Senki a 4/10 on MyAnimeList. I’ve rated stuff lower before, but none of those have inspired me to spit out as much bile as I just did. Looking back, it’s pretty easy to see why – if something is terrible right from the get-go, I’ll just stop watching. But a show like this, one that dangles a little bit of greatness in front of me only to play keep-away for an entire season, ends up eliciting a much stronger reaction. It was Keijo before, and DanMachi before that (though that one reeeaaally straddled the line between mediocre and regular old terrible).
I don’t really have some witty zinger or thoughtful tangent to end this on, but it’s not like anyone is reading this anyway. I just felt like getting mad at something again. Hopefully my next post will be more positive and better timed. Hopefully…