Welcome to the Isekai, Otome Game Villainessesby Kim Morrissy,
Are you watching the My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! anime? I hope you are - the show is an utter delight. The concept behind it is simple but effective: Our heroine Catarina has been reincarnated into an otome game she has played, but instead of becoming the main character, she's the villainess who gets her comeuppance in every single route of the game. Upon bumping her head as a child, Catarina regains the memories of her former life (and presumably her personality as well), so instead of pursuing the path of petty villainy she becomes an overly earnest dork instead. Everyone falls head over heels in love with her, but she's got no clue.
For people who keep up with anime based on light novels these days, My Next Life as a Villainess may feel like a breath of fresh air. Sure, it's one of those "isekai" (transported to another world) / "reincarnated into a video game" stories, but it's set in an otome game with a female protagonist, and somehow that makes all the difference. Or rather, it's Catarina's personality that makes the difference, because unlike so many male protagonists of isekai stories who are (let's face it) flavorless potatoes baked into human form, Catarina is funny and endearing. You can totally see why all the guys and the girls are smitten with her.
There is something to be said about how a female protagonist and an otome game-inspired setting can change up the isekai formula, though, which is why I welcome the influence of My Next Life as a Villainess. Trust me when I say that it is far from the only light novel series where the main character is specifically the villainess of an otome game, and this is not even touching on all those novels which are based on an otome game world.
Photo via Kikuya Log
I'm not necessarily a big otome game fan, having only played a handful of titles throughout my life. But I quite enjoy the concept as a backdrop for a novel and find them refreshing compared to the alternative. You see, most isekai stories are inspired by old-school Japanese role-playing games like Dragon Quest, so there are recurring tropes like the "Hero," the "Demon Lord," and a pseudo-medieval society filled with monsters and dungeons. The fantasy concepts themselves aren't so bad, although there's certainly something to be said about how the settings are all so interchangeable with each other. The thing that annoys me is the whole level-grinding and skill acquisition aspect in those games that a lot of isekai novels tend to play up to the point of tedium.
Otome games, on the other hand, are primarily romance visual novels. Some of them, like the Tokimeki Memorial Girl's Side series, involve stat-building in order to woo your desired partner, but for the most part, you pick the character route you want to see based on dialogue choices. As a result, web novels about a person getting reincarnated into an otome game tend to forgo all those tiresome RPG mechanics. The template setting also comes with a bit more flavor than the Dragon Quest-inspired counterpart, with more of a focus on European aristocracy, frilly dresses, and floral aesthetics.
It should be noted, though, that actual otome games have loads of variety when it comes to their settings, and most of them don't even have a villainess character as portrayed in My Next Life as a Villainess! The true progenitor of the genre may be the 2013 web novel Kenkyo, Kenjitsu wo Motto ni Ikite Orimasu! (My Motto is Living Honestly and Humbly), which has an almost identical premise to My Next Life as a Villainess - right down to the main character having a bunch of death flags - but rather than an otome game, the girl gets reincarnated as the catty rival character in a shojo manga, where that archetype appears to have originated from in the first place (think of classics like Glass Mask and Aim for the Ace!).
悪役令嬢転生おじさん・ZERO— 上山道郎 (@ueyamamichiro) December 19, 2019
Manga artist Michiro Ueyama drew a web comic regarding the origins of the villainess trope
Although Kenkyo, Kenjitsu wo Motto ni Ikite Orimasu! was never adapted into a manga or even released as a physical light novel, it was huge on Shōsetsuka ni Narō, and is the 13th highest ranked novel on the site to this day. So, yeah, My Next Life as a Villainess isn't the most original idea on the block, but it is responsible for codifying the current genre. Somewhere along the line (perhaps due to the proliferation of video game-esque novels on the site), this premise got reinterpreted as "reincarnated as a villainess of an otome game," and My Next Life as a Villainess made it popular. These stories aren't operating on first-hand experience with otome games so much as basic pop culture knowledge of reverse harems and shojo manga. As a result, even male readers and people who don't play otome games can enjoy the "reincarnated as a villainess" genre.
Something which helps My Next Life as a Villainess stand out in particular is that the pretty boys have a less pronounced role in the narrative than you'd expect. Catarina very explicitly has a harem of both boys and girls - it's even tagged as such in the web novel. And after the story moves on from Catarina's childhood to the academy where the game's plot is supposed to take place, Catarina's relationship with the original heroine of the game becomes the main focus. It's a creative angle, to be sure, because it takes a bunch of cliches and puts a decidedly modern spin on it. Have you ever watched two girls have a catfight over a guy in a show and thought, "Who cares about that lame guy? Why don't the two girls just get together instead?" Well, evidently this author has thought that.
My Next Life as a Villainess is the first "reincarnated as a villainess" light novel to be adapted into an anime, but hopefully it won't be the last. After watching the anime, I'm sure there may be a number of you who are interested in checking out the original light novels (published in English by J-Novel Club) and manga (published by Seven Seas), or in seeking out more examples of the genre. So I'm going to end this article with some quick recommendations.
Cross Infinite World has been translating web novels aimed at female readers since 2016. Obsessions of an Otome Gamer is one of their bigger titles; it's a story about a girl who gets reincarnated as the heroine rather than a villainess, but the whole tension around avoiding death flags is still a big part of the story.
Last year, J-Novel Club started up a "J-Novel Heart" branding for light novels aimed at female readers. Most of them are straightforward fantasy romance stories, but there are some which draw from the "reincarnated as a villainess" genre, like I Refuse to Be Your Enemy! and Tearmoon Empire. I particularly recommend Tearmoon Empire - it's very well-translated and I think it works better as a novel than My Next Life as a Villainess does.
The Accomplishments of the Duke's Daughter novel doesn't have an English translation, but the manga version does have an English release by Seven Seas. This one's interesting because the emphasis is much more on worldbuiling and political intrigue than on romance or comedy, so it scratches a different itch. The upcoming I'm in Love with the Villainess English release is also something to look forward to, especially for yuri lovers.
On the untranslated side, Tsundere Akuyaku Reijō Liselotte to Jikyō no Endō-kun to Kaisetsu no Kobayashi-san (The Tsundere Villainess Liselotte, the Gamer Endo, and the Commentator Kobayashi) attracted buzz last year (even ranking in Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi!) because of its rather creative premise: A boy and a girl in the real world are playing an otome game and fawning over the tsundere villainess. Little do they know that the villainess's fiancé can hear what they're saying, which leads him to drastically reappraise the villainess. If there's one "villainess" light novel that I'm hoping gets licensed sometime soon, it's this one.
And on that note, welcome to the isekai, otome game villainesses! Your old world may have treated you poorly, but I'll cheer on the new path you follow in the world of light novels.
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