Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
The Dark History of the Reincarnated Villainess
As a teenager, Konoha Satou was certain she was destined to get pulled into another world and live out a fantasy adventure. She wrote a novel starring herself in another world, going through the same kind of trials and tribulations as the heroines of her favorite anime and manga. Ten years later, she's still living in the real world and has put away such childhood daydreams. When she gets hit by a truck while crossing the street, and finds herself in the story she wrote. But she's not the protagonist she wrote as her proxy – she's the villainess!
Whomst among us did not imagine themself going on exciting fantasy adventures as a teenager? Let he or she who is without embarrassing memories of writing stories where the protagonist is a thinly-veiled version of themself cast the first stone. I'll readily admit it and, while I wouldn't want anyone to dig up my old notebooks or fanfiction.net account, I'm certainly not ashamed. But what would it be like if I were actually pulled into one of those stories, living in the world conceived of by my adolescent mind?
That's the question that The Dark History of the Reincarnated Villainess by Akiharu Tōka asks. It follows Konoha Satou, who wrote a self-indulgent fantasy back in middle school, with the perfect angel of a heroine named after herself. Her story was dark and dramatic, as fantasy-Konoha faced challenge after terrible challenge. Ten years later, she's an adult and has mostly forgotten about what she wrote. But just as her mother unearths her old notebooks, she gets hit by a truck and wakes up in another world as Iana, fantasy-Konoha's wicked younger sister. Now she must attempt to remember the plot details as she tries to survive in a hell of her own making.
Having grown up on '90's-style isekai like Fushigi Yûgi and Red River, I can't help but feel a bit like Dark History is laser-targeted at me. Although modern isekai have their merits, I prefer the stories of my youth: coming-of-age stories where teenage girls face terrible trials and must rise to the occasion, growing and learning in the process. Konoha appears to have been into the exact same kind of series that I was into, because that is the world she built, with nary a gaming abstraction to take me out of the story. So many isekai these days are built around RPG or otome game mechanics that I've longed for an old-fashioned “trapped in a book” narrative for a good decade or so.
I don't think anyone's going to come here for Konoha's worldbuilding. Even without the game elements, it's the same kind of standard Euro-fantasy that populates most shoujo light novels these days, with balls and butlers and tea in the gazebo. Her art tends toward the generic as well; I probably wouldn't be able to pick it up out of a lineup of other modern shoujo-isekai, as much as the story charmed me. The panel layouts are cluttered and busy, and the men are gangly and angular.
Konoha/Iana also isn't breaking any molds, though I was still quite charmed by her. In my experience, villainess manga heroines are kind of weirdo shut-ins who, upon transitioning to the other world, find that weirdness to be an advantage as they blow in like a good-natured hurricane and win over the people who would have regarded them as enemies. Iana's once-nemesis is the butler/assassin Sol, who book-Konoha rescued from slavery as a child and was the one to kill Iana in the original story. I have a sneaking suspicion that he'll eventually fall in love with her, along with, perhaps, a couple of other characters.
But avoiding death flags isn't really what Konoha/Iana is doing here, because she was only the prologue villain in her original draft. Rather, she remembers the events precipitating the various highly-dramatic plot points she came up with as a teenager and must try to prevent them, while also being unsure of how her interference will affect the story and the world. It's a bit disappointing that things play out in a similar course to her original story, as opposed to going wildly off the rails, though I wouldn't be surprised if that's what will end up happening by the end of the series.
The best part of the series, though, isn't the art, or the characters, or even the story; it's the metanarrative. There's a deep awareness, even affection, for just what draws young women to these sorts of narratives. They're not just silly escapist fantasies or vanity projects, but a way for their creators, and their audience, to process the world around them. They are modern-day fables; fairy tales that reassure those listening that things may be hard and scary, but they will survive and come out the other side stronger and more grown-up.
Just as over two decades ago, Fushigi Yûgi and Escaflowne tapped into young women's anxieties, Konoha's “Dark History” was informed by what she was going through at the time. At times, the action will cut away to what was happening in her life when she wrote the part she's now living in. A refusal to go to the dance because no one will dance with her turns into an elegant ball where every man wants to dance with her; her adolescent simultaneous fear and interest in sex drive her to ritualize acts of intimacy and create a beast that exists to kidnap and assault women. All of this is depicted with affectionate ribbing at most, and never cruel or mocking.
Dark History of the Reincarnated Villainess comes packaged with Black Cloak, a 50-page one-shot about high school necromancers. It failed to make much of an impression on me, to be honest. Touka's busy art style is particularly poorly-suited to depicting supernatural action, as it was difficult to tell what was happening on any particular page. The main characters are a typical BL-tinged rivalry between one boy with dark powers and one with light. It's also just incomplete, as Touka failed to create a self-contained story that tied up any of its loose ends.
The Dark History of the Reincarnated Villainess isn't for everyone, but you know who it is for? Me, and all the other women who loved messy, raw fantasy stories as adolescents, who looked toward other worlds to help us make sense of our own. It is a rare modern isekai that is neither a power fantasy nor grimly cruel, genre-aware without being hackneyed or constantly winking at the audience. If you, as you read this review, felt like we were coming from common ground, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Love letter to isekai shoujo of the '90's; written with a real affection for and understanding of stories by, for, and about teenage girls; genre-aware without being hackneyed
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