Saga of Tanya the Evil
By Andrew Erickson
Some of you might remember my review of Izetta: The Last Witch, a 12-episode series about a young, magically gifted girl who turns the tide of World War II in a setting that blends fantasy with alternate history. Saga of Tanya the Evil is much like that, with two key differences: it moves the venue to World War I, and it is so comprehensively better that I was hesitant to make the comparison at all. But it gives me a good jumping off point to discuss what Tanya the Evil does right, starting with the eponymous Tanya herself.
Our unlikely protagonist is Tanya Degurechaff, an orphan who joins the army and swiftly rises to a battalion command due to her intellect, ruthlessness, and high magical aptitude. She was also quite literally born in the wrong era. Tanya, as it turns out, was originally a Japanese office manager who died after a despondent ex-employee pushed him in front of a train. In the instant before his death, he received a visit from God – or an entity masquerading as Him, as our staunchly non-religious hero quickly dubbed this intruder into his reality Being X. Curious as to why modern man has abandoned religion, Being X decided to simply ask someone. And in a rare unguarded moment, Tanya’s past incarnation responded that people are too comfortable. Everything that follows is Being X’s experiment to see if there really are atheists in foxholes. As an added incentive to ensure Tanya cooperates, Being X warns her that if she dies before her time, she’ll be cut out from the cycle of reincarnation entirely. She is then thrown into this alternate world’s version of World War I with little to protect her but knowledge from her past life and an experimental, highly powerful magical generator.
Complicating matters is the fact that Being X actively manipulates events to keep Tanya in harm’s way. Off the battlefield, much of the show’s tension comes from Tanya’s attempts to maneuver herself into a cushy posting behind the lines, which isn’t really in the spirit of the experiment. For his part, Being X expresses confusion that she doesn’t have a shred of faith, even though most people would only have to hear his voice to believe. His solution is to force her to pray whenever she uses magic, which she does in the most pharisaical way possible.
The entire conceit behind Being X and Tanya would normally deflate tension and reduce the plot to a boring slog. Tanya the Evil is fundamentally an isekai story, part of a genre defined by wish fulfillment. Most such shows have no premise beyond whatever it takes to establish how an audience self-insert character with no skills beyond knowing how to play videogames acquired a harem and godlike magical power. Pitting Tanya against a seemingly omnipotent being raises the stakes and gives her a personal conflict to complement the more impersonal battles she faces against enemy soldiers. Which isn’t to say the war story aspect of Tanya the Evil isn’t compelling; in fact, the WWI backdrop is one of my favorite aspects of the series.
Something that becomes obvious fairly early in the story is that Being X didn’t simply send Tanya back in time. He also sent her to a world with a slightly different history, presumably to limit the usefulness of any knowledge from her previous life. The general situation, however, is still the same: Germany, while the single most powerful country in Europe, is unable to act freely due to being surrounded by enemies. In a long war, it is almost certain to lose. This ensures that Tanya isn’t only fighting for her own survival, but also to persuade her superior officers that their plans won’t work – that, in reality, they are woefully underprepared for the coming war. The result is a multi-layered conflict in which Tanya’s actions out of combat are arguably of more consequence than how effectively she completes her missions.
This works to the show’s advantage, as it allows Tanya to be a grandstanding, delightfully smug murder machine whenever any action takes place while still preserving the story’s dramatic weight. One of the highlights of the series occurs when she lands in the camp of an invading army and demands their visas while ignoring barrages of gunfire. She’s a complete sociopath who’s willing to do anything and use anyone to get what she wants, and half the fun comes from the disconnect between her fellow soldiers’ regard for her as a war hero and her own internal narration revealing how little she cares for anything that doesn’t directly concern her own well-being. She absolutely steals the show, with most of the other characters coming across as little more than window dressing.
There isn’t much to say about the antagonists, either. Being X is more an element of the setting than a proper villain, and the closest the series comes to a human antagonist is Anson Sioux, who Tanya is largely oblivious to, treating him as more of an annoyance than a threat. It would be fairly easy to accept, given that the real threats to Tanya are much bigger than any personal rivalry, but the story was clearly building toward something with Anson receiving messages from Being X. What that something might be will have to wait for another season; at a scant 12 episodes, the source material had to be streamlined and rearranged, and I suspect some long-term plot threads got shunted into the background for the sake of more and stronger scenes focused on Tanya (as of this writing, only the first two novels are available in English, out of three adapted by the anime). I don’t regard it a bad adaptation, although Studio NuT would have significantly benefited from having a full season to work with, considering that each of the books is about twice the length of a typical light novel.
As for the studio itself, Tanya the Evil is its first TV production. Studio NuT was founded in 2016, drawing talent largely from MAPPA and Madhouse, including several prominent former Gainax hands (including Tanya the Evil’s director, Yutaka Uemura). Of these, the crown jewel is effect animation director Takashi Hashimoto, who makes the magic in the show feel like a combination of the ethereal and technological, a perfect fit for the show’s setting. Action scenes are always a treat thanks to his work and the expressiveness with which Tanya is rendered. It’s easy to see that the animators had fun with her, especially her closing scene, in which her gestures are as exaggerated as her facial expressions; I can only hope that, if a second season is eventually made, this will continue until she becomes a Looney Tunes character.
And therein lies the problem. Tanya the Evil is a great ride from beginning to end, featuring a compelling protagonist, engaging setting, and some truly clever writing. I’m fond of the repeated references to the Second Punic War in particular. While Tanya is fully aware of how World War I played out in our world, her contemporaries lack any such knowledge. Instead, their go-to example when a historical parallel is called for is Hannibal’s Italian campaign. The dramatic irony inherent in the comparison is that, like Germany, Hannibal eventually lost: something Tanya alludes to during the final episode, in which she paraphrases Maharbal’s rebuke of Hannibal after Cannae: “You know how to gain a victory; you do not know how to use it.”
– Tanya herself oozes charisma. There’s never a dull moment when she’s on-screen.
– The action is kinetic and well-choreographed.
– The setting is both intriguing and conveyed with a minimum of exposition.
– While functional, the support cast is fairly weak.
– With so much material packed into a single hour, the plot feels a bit rushed.