Winter 2017 First Impressions – Saga of Tanya the Evil

Tanya Degurechov used to be one of Japan’s elite office workers, but because of a wrathful god, was reborn as a little girl. She has blonde hair, blue eyes, and nearly transparent white skin, and she flies through the air and mercilessly strikes down her opponents. She speaks with a young girl’s lisp and commands the army. Tanya prioritizes optimization and career advancement above all, and she will become the most dangerous entity among the Imperial Army’s sorcerers. – ANN

Streaming at: Crunchyroll

Number of Episodes: TBA

Source: Light Novel/Manga

Episode 1 Summary: In a pseudo-European world under siege, young mage Tanya Degurechov is the weapon that the Empire needs to fight off the various entities that would trample on her fatherland’s borders. Tanya appears to be a young girl of ten years old, but her ruthlessness and ability to dole out orders (and reprimands) to other officers speaks to someone much older, cunning, and world-weary. She has little patience for weakness and especially looks down on possible desertion, so when two mages under her command begin to show a pattern of disobedience, she sends them to rot far from the front lines. After using her intense, powerful magic to utterly obliterate a platoon of enemy magic-users, we learn that the insubordinate officers were killed by enemy fire. It’s almost as if Tanya knew that they were at risk, and purposely sent them to their deaths.

Impressions: Even though there are a good number of anime this season that I’m at least a bit interested in, I decided to go off script a bit and watch something that I knew had aspects I probably was not going to like. Military fiction (and especially thinly-veiled attempts to rewrite World War I/II era military history) always make me a little bit uncomfortable, especially since Japan seems to maintain a kind of weird romanticism focused around Germany or the German-esque. There are many examples of modern attempts to recreate the aesthetics of that era (for example, some lolita fashion lines that incorporate recognizable Nazi motifs, or cosplayers who don replica Third Reich uniforms for fun) while sugar-coating or tiptoeing around the bulk of the bad things that happened and crimes that were committed during the time period. It skeeves me out and I very much question the motivation behind it.

Likewise, one trope of anime in particular that leaves me cold is the one in which very cutesy characters are contrasted with the unthinkably horrible acts they are made to commit. It didn’t work for me in Gunslinger Girls, nor with the Higurashi series, and similarly I think it’s mostly used to cheap effect here. While Tanya isn’t necessarily what I’d call cute, in that her main facial expression seems to be “utter disdain” and her angular features make her look like something other than an actual kid, she still has the stature of a child and she’s referred to as such more than once by other characters (though only in fearful whispers behind her back, of course). And look, she spends most of the episode barking orders, threatening others with bodily harm, literally tearing people apart and burning them to ash, and not demonstrating any actual emotions about it. Whoa, edgy! I find that portion of the premise to be very lacking, to be honest.

The bulk of the episode is seen from the point of view of a subordinate mage named Visha (Viktoriya) Serebryakov, who is the type of character one sees and thinks “how did this person happen to stumble into the military, make it through basic training, and not get kicked out immediately afterward?” She’s the typical kind of audience helper-character who seems to not be very good at her job for the purposes of prompting exposition, and she’s altogether pretty innocent-seeming and naive. She doesn’t display a wacky, comedic kind of incompetence, she’s primarily just mildly clumsy, timid, and in awe of Tanya’s murderous actions, because shouldn’t we all be dumbstruck by gratuitous mass-murder perpetuated by a ten-year-old? (Actually, yeah, we probably should). She and Tanya are also the only women thus far in the show who are named and not background nurses or other sorts of crowd-fillers. That’s not necessarily bad in the sense that they’re the most focal characters thus far and an anime featuring two women in important roles (where they aren’t featured in constant up-skirt shots) is generally a victory (though considering the supernatural element suggested by the general plot summary and Tanya’s reference to herself as a “salaryman,” it’s not clear whether she considers herself a woman or not, but this is making things more complicated than it needs to be to make a point). The problem is more that their character designs are both wildly out-of-place compared to the military men that surround them. The guys get to be young and brash, old and grizzled, sharp-chinned, weary-looking, wrinkled, hairy… in one word, varied. The women look like, for lack of a more descriptive term, anime characters. Dewy eyes, soft features, and long eyelashes. It’s not a complaint that’s specific to this anime in particular, but it’s part of a continually frustrating trend. They all seem to exist in the same harsh, unforgiving environment, so why don’t they look like it?

There is something to be said for the portrayal of the environments and the general art direction in the episode, though. The background artwork is, in its bleakness, striking and gorgeous. What I really loved lingering on when I was taking screen shots were the gray-blue of the clouds above the battlefield, rimmed by hints of yellow in perpetual evening light. I began to recall bits of Shirobako, which I had the chance to re-watch recently. Though the shows that the Musashino team bring to life in the anime are not really what I’d call “high art,” a lot of work goes into making them look their best, with art directors and background artists contributing to an overall visual appearance that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. This episode of Saga of Tanya the Evil comes across as slightly better than typical to me; while the story isn’t appealing and feels almost cynical at times, it’s easy to see the care that went into the art design, cinematography (by which I mean, the joining of animation, effects, and lighting), and getting the CG to look at least tolerable (which, in my opinion, is still about as good as you can expect). It helps to slightly obscure the otaku sheen and highlights the large amount of work that likely went into visually developing the adaptation. It makes it difficult for me to dislike it too much.

I’m mildly curious about the direction this show will take, if only to learn more about Tanya and her past life as a hard-ass Japanese business person (which I’m not treating as a spoiler since it appears to be in every publicly-available synopsis of the plot), but at the same time I also find her pretty intolerable as a human being and I’m kind of repulsed by all the violence and destruction served up in this episode. War is terrible and I hear enough about it in real life; I’m rarely in the mood to see it fictionalized and glorified in a cartoon, especially so by a character who seems to be some sort of sociopath. I understand that alternate history scenarios may be interesting to some, but I lack that interest myself, especially when particularly controversial time periods are involved. I have a difficult time condemning this first episode fully taking into account its merits, but I do find the subject matter pretty distasteful and doubt I’ll watch any more of it.

Pros: The background visuals are bleak but beautiful. The show features two non-sexualized women(?) in main roles.

Cons: There’s a boat load of violence to slog through, which may not appeal to some. The character designs are inconsistent along gender lines. The titular character is defined by a cheap trope (young child does horrifying things).

Grade: C-

 

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