At the moment of his untimely death, a heartless and pragmatic Japanese salaryman is confronted by a mysterious, godlike being he refers to as “Being X”. As an atheist, the salaryman rejects the notion of reincarnation and the power of the entity, saying that faith is something adopted by the weak in dire situations. In order to settle a point between the two and to punish the man for his faithlessness, Being X reincarnates the man into the body of a young girl in a magic, war-torn world resembling Europe during WWI. The girl, Tanya Degurechaff, then endeavors to fight on behalf of the empire on the front lines of the war in order to earn herself status, escape the dangers of the battlefield, and prove to Being X that she will never place her faith in a higher power.
At face-value, the premise of Youjo Senki has a lot going for it. There’s something compelling about the pettiness and animosity of Being X. Despite their alleged divinity, there’s no attempt to paint them as perfect or even omniscient and it’s this flawed portrayal which makes the disagreement between them on Tanya so appealing. Through a flashback in the second episode, Youjo Senki sets the stage for its story by means of a frivolous dispute about the nature of faith.
Everything that follows hinges upon this argument and Tanya’s rejection of Being X. It’s the reason she takes up arms for the empire as well as the reason for many of her strategies and Being X isn’t above interfering and making things a bit worse off for her. Their spiteful relationship serves as a great setup to the show and gives Youjo Senki something distinctive to say. So it’s unfortunate that so little of the actual show has anything to do with it’s premise.
At the heart of it all is Tanya Degurechaff. Making use of the skills she honed in her past life as a ruthless businessman, she earns a name for herself as a commanding officer. Through her merciless tactics and brutal conduct, she inspires fear and respect in her subordinates and gains the attention of her superior officers. She’s cold and calculating and this makes her interesting in some regards however the bulk of her appeal is built into her image – the dissonance between her cute, childish appearance and the terrifying nature of her personality. This is the Saga of Tanya the Evil after all.
The appellation of “evil” is actually a bit of a misnomer. Tanya is merciless, yes, but she’s a shallow antihero at best. Her titular ‘evil’ trait actually has more to do with her lack of faith than it does with her personality or actions. As an enemy of god, she is inexorably an evil person within that context however the show doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference. Instead, it somewhat demonizes her pragmatism. It condemns her logic and rationale while simultaneously always putting her in the right – her only act of ‘malice’ being that she speaks her mind. She cares plenty for her subordinates and though she is efficient in her military planning, she isn’t nearly as cutthroat as the show would have you believe. She isn’t quite as one-dimensional as I describe her and there are a few instances where she does something particularly underhanded or despicable but for the most part, she’s defined by her reasoning rather than her explicit cruelty.
In her attempts to gain military recognition and achieve a rank which places her far away from the battlefield, Tanya opts to fight on the front lines and in the most dangerous of places. She boasts a false yet extreme nationalism in order to convince the other officers of the depth of her love for the empire and her aptitude as a soldier. One of the few enjoyable elements of the show then is watching Tanya, operating under her nationalistic facade, attempt to portray herself as aggressively as possible and in doing so, inadvertently end up placing herself closer to danger rather than farther away. Youjo Senki would paint this development as a comeuppance for her pragmatic outlook however the reality is that it’s just entertaining, dramatic irony.
Outside of what few appeals Tanya brings to the show, the remaining elements of Youjo Senki leave a lot to be desired. There aren’t really any other notable cast members and I’d be hard-pressed to remember any of their names much less something distinct about their personalities. The vast majority of other characters primarily serve to reflect upon Tanya herself, emphasizing her supposed wickedness and military aptitude however they never grow into anything remotely interesting themselves. The visuals of the show are pretty underwhelming and outside of a sparse few, exceptional action sequences, Youjo Senki doesn’t offer much in terms of art or animation.
One of the more noteworthy elements of Youjo Senki‘s premise is that the world into which Tanya is reincarnated is one which possesses magic. This means that Tanya belongs to a battalion of mages, that Tanya and her soldiers hover above the battlefield on magic devices, and that protective barriers often come into effect during firefights but this is about the extent of magic’s influence on the series. The warfare itself still revolves around soldiers, planes, and guns and so not all that much is changed despite the presence of this fantastic yet relatively untapped element.
Ultimately, Youjo Senki doesn’t really deliver on its premise of a divine being attempting to screw over a similarly petty and ruthless person. Being X does make occasional appearances but the plot rarely reflects this and it’s almost always just to evoke Tanya’s ire. The vast majority of the show features a bunch of old men in a dusty, smoke-filled war room spouting nationalistic, military jargon and pressing the war effort. The other substantial part of the show are the maneuvers and actions of Tanya and her mage battalion as they move from war front to war front. The battles themselves typically present a clear enough objective however their overarching context and meaning is rather nebulous and dull.
The empire seeks to defeat its enemies however the battles that progress that aim aren’t very distinct from each other and generally feel both repetitive and predicable with few exceptions. The battles repeat the same thing over and over again. Tanya attempts to execute a plan, things start getting out of hand, she’s denied squad support or reinforcements are too far away, and she’s forced to take out the enemy herself. Nobody of any real import or marked significance ever dies and apart from the dusty, ideological briefings before and after each battle, there isn’t any real sense of development or consequence. Each episode does well enough in exhibiting the brutality of war however the interchangeable nature of the battles makes even this token and unexciting.
Between the absence of Being X, the show’s most interesting element, and the routine nature of each of Youjo Senki‘s episodes, the show fails to become engaging. Tanya offers some light intrigue in the form of her military ideologies and pragmatic outlook but if it weren’t for the few occasions where her own paranoia gets in her way, she’d come off as a bit too perfect. She’s seemingly the only person who knows what they’re doing and while her morality may cross the line in some places, the show repeatedly justifies her actions. All in all, the baseline experience of the show is rather uneventful and when the visuals fail to liven things up and the supporting cast doesn’t present anything memorable, the whole show comes up short on intrigue.