Review

by Nick Creamer,

Saga of Tanya the Evil

Episodes 1-12 Streaming

Synopsis:
Saga of Tanya the Evil
In the sloping towers of modern Tokyo resides a man who is absolutely content with his job. He fires people with a smile, but that's fine - the principles of free market economics play no favorites, and there's nothing wrong with taking pleasure in the operation of a finely tuned machine. Until one day, an utterly foolish former employee pushes him onto the subway tracks, flagrantly disregarding the principles of rational self-interest. Time stops, and our hero is presented with a question - why does he not believe in God? His answer to that question will see him spun off into another reality, reborn as Tanya Degurechaff in a world at war. As Tanya, our hero will rise up the military ranks, gaining honor and prestige in a battle between blunt pragmatism and God himself.
Review:

Saga of Tanya the Evil's first episode largely confirmed all my worst suspicions regarding the title. Framed from the perspective of a tiny girl who'd somehow risen to officer status within a faux-German military, it seemed to revel in nastiness, playing up the grimness of war without any sort of meaningful commentary. The show's absurd premise fought mightily against any possible investment - while all of the background characters were rendered in fairly realistic fashion, both Tanya and her closest officer were given giant eyes and overall childlike appearances, making it impossible to take their actions seriously. The show seemed to dare the audience to enjoy it, offering a superficial glaze of bloody seriousness over an indulgent and misanthropic center.

From there, Saga of Tanya the Evil swiftly became one of my favorite shows of this past winter season.

The show's second episode gives away the big secret. Tanya Degurechaff isn't just any hyper-competent, utterly ruthless military officer - she's actually a soul transported from our world, a corporate climber so dedicated to dog-eat-dog capitalism that he attracts the ire of God himself. Or if not God, then "Being X" - for even as our protagonist is being questioned by God on the edge of death, he still refuses to believe in anything as irrational as a deity. And so our corporate stooge is banished to an alternate WWI-era Germany, to learn to appreciate the glory of God or die in the trying.

The majority of Saga of Tanya the Evil details Tanya's steady rise through the military, as she applies modern business acumen and sheer ruthlessness to all manner of conflicts. Tanya is shot at, blown up, and regularly assigned hellish missions, but Tanya herself is such an awful person that all these trials play equally well as drama and comedy. Eventually, Tanya achieves great success in the military, and begins to pull off the kind of merciless maneuvers that remind us why she was sent to this world in the first place.

Tanya's absurd premise ultimately works in its favor. While many “trapped in another world” stories focus on everyday young men or dedicated otaku, Tanya represents a very different type of person who has mastered modern capitalism by ceding his own compassion entirely. Tossing such a person into a grim war story like this means that when Tanya commits some awful act, the thematic consequence isn't limited to “jeez, bad people sure do horrible things in war.” Tanya's actions act as an indictment of our own modern socioeconomic systems, which really do reward those who would manipulate treaty margins to allow for the shelling of noncombatants. Tanya's crimes are our crimes.

It also helps that Tanya is consistently entertaining. The early episodes ride heavily on the fun of watching Tanya get pushed around, as she's forced to test new military hardware and regularly bickers with the godlike being who sent her here. Saga of Tanya the Evil has a terrific sense of comedic timing, and smart direction keeps energy high at nearly all times. The show has a precise sense of visual storytelling that evokes something like a Hollywood adventure film, and even though the designs of Tanya and her first officer always feel a little ridiculous, even that eventually feels like part of the joke. Striking backgrounds, storming orchestra melodies, and consistent animation fill out an aesthetically impressive production in general.

Later on, Tanya's consistent ability to rise above long odds puts her at the head of an elite military strike unit. At that point, the show's dramatic stakes shift from fostering comedy at Tanya's expense to demonstrating just how awful her actions are. It's easy for war dramas to strive for points about the evils of conflict while reveling in the escapism of violence, but Tanya is generally good about making its angry points land with real weight. There are episodes of this show that aren't really meant to be fun. There's clearly an anger behind this narrative, a frustration that people like Tanya can walk through life thinking self-interest is a meaningful philosophy, while others suffer under the weight of their grander convictions. The men who fight and die for their families and countries are framed as the true heroes, forced into a battle they don't want while Tanya cracks jokes about killing God.

The show's mix of black comedy, grim commentary on war and capitalism, and exciting military action is certainly an odd mix. There are points in this show that are difficult to take seriously alongside others that demand your emotional investment to work at all. The show also asks you to follow a character who is without question an awful person, and whose narrative arc involves convincing a bunch of other people that she's actually an inspiring leader. By the end of the show, it's assumed that you really do enjoy the company of Tanya's irregulars, as monstrous as their actions often are.

But I think that's all just part of the package when it comes to war stories. The things people do in war are awful, and Tanya almost never shrugs away from that fact. Centering its story on a villain actually lets Tanya seem that much more honest and pointed in its criticisms. It's not the gallant heroes who are rewarded by warfare, and through its magical conceit, Tanya strongly implies that gallant heroes aren't the winners of our own world either. Offering both pointed critique and consistent thrills, Saga of Tanya the Evil is angry, funny, and entertaining all the way through.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B

+ Puts its strange premise to sharp thematic effect, remains consistently entertaining and often funny, strong direction headlines a generally solid production
First episode is an awkward misdirect, character designs clash, ends on a cliffhanger with no real conclusion

Director: Yutaka Uemura
Series Composition: Kenta Ihara
Music: Shūji Katayama
Original creator: Carlo Zen
Original Character Design: Shinobu Shinotsuki
Character Design: Yuji Hosogoe
Art Director: Satoru Hirayanagi
Chief Animation Director: Yuji Hosogoe
Sound Director: Yoshikazu Iwanami
Director of Photography: Shinji Tonsho

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