In the hierarchy of many anime and anime-styled game series, the young girl somehow outranks almost every other sort of being in terms of power. A ton of magical girl shows have been created on that basis, and game series like Touhou Project almost exclusively feature girls firing lasers and magical bullets at each other. So maybe it’s no big surprise that we have Youjo Senki: The Saga of Tanya the Evil, a 12-episode run from 2017 based on a long-running light novel series. Youjo Senki, which roughly translates as “Young Girl’s War Chronicle”, is the story of Tanya Degurechaff, an orphan brought up in a powerful country preparing to go to war against its neighbors.
Except she’s not just some kid. Tanya’s body houses the soul of a nameless modern-day Tokyo salaryman whose cold business sense and ruthless firing of underlings gets him pushed in front of a speeding train. Just before his death, however, time freezes, and God himself descends from Heaven to talk to him a bit. Mr. Salaryman doesn’t believe in God and refuses even to acknowledge him despite the fact that there’s an apparent miracle going on, referring to this entity as “Being X” and even criticizing it for doing a lousy job as a deity. God/Being X then decides to give this guy one last chance at reincarnation before sending him to Hell, and so Tanya is born.
History fans will recognize the situation Tanya finds herself in right away: the Empire she’s a citizen of is the old imperial Germany of 1871-1918, and the tensions it’s experiencing with its neighbors the Republic (France) and the Allied Kingdom (Britain) are leading it straight into World War I. Since this is an alternate Earth, the rules are a bit different, however. In this world, magic is real, and magic-users called mages are employed by militaries as mobile airborne units to for scouting and rescue missions and precision strikes. Tanya turns out to be one of the lucky few with magical ability, so she’s educated and trained for an eventual military career to aid the Empire in its fight against the Republic and her allies.
This young girl still has all the memories of her former salaryman life, and with that experience she plans to enter the military early, get on an officer track, and maneuver into a cushy job in the capital, far away from the front lines. God isn’t having it, however. His aim seems to be to get Tanya to acknowledge and bow down to him. To that end, he somehow sets events in motion that get Tanya sent back to the front lines following her attendance at a military academy, but with the benefit of some divine intervention whenever she needs it: when she prays to God, Tanya gets superpowered and can fly far higher and faster and shoot more powerful lasers than other mages, making her into a legend on the front lines and even among the high command.
While Tanya desperately wants to get out of harm’s way and live the easy life, though, she’s not a coward by any means. Using the extra abilities granted to her by this supernatural power, she leads her company and later her battalion of mages into battle when ordered. At first, some of the enlisted soldiers under her command during training laugh at her for her age and tiny stature, but she quickly beats that smugness out of them, literally in a few cases. Tanya is completely ruthless: she demands that everyone under her carry their weight, and if they can’t, she’s only too happy to kick them out of her unit or recommend them for a posting elsewhere.
And if their incompetence happens to get them killed, then too bad — they weren’t fit for this kind of work anyway. In the very first episode, Tanya shows how few fucks she gives by shipping off two of her recklessly insubordinate men to a posting in the rear lines, one that’s seemingly safe but that she knows is going to get shelled by enemy artillery at some point. When she gets word of their deaths in an enemy shelling a while later, she simply remarks that it was a fitting place for men who wanted to die.
It’s not a big surprise that Tanya is so damn cold. The series is subtitled The Saga of Tanya the Evil after all, so you’d expect her to be at least this cold. However, after seeing the 12 episodes in this series, I’d find it hard to call her completely evil. She’s certainly coldhearted and commits a few acts that you could argue are morally objectionable, even in the context of a war. But her ruthlessness seems to come not from cruelty but rather from a pure sense of pragmatism. When Tanya is sent to an Imperial border city filled with citizens who declare allegiance to the Republic and fight as partisans, she justifies killing them and later having retreating civilians shelled because not doing so would weaken the Empire and allow chaos to continue. Some of her soldiers object, but they fall into line anyway, not able to really argue with her. Partly because she’ll have them court-martialed if they disobey, but her logic does make sense in that extremely cold way even if her actions feel wrong. I wouldn’t agree with her myself, but she can’t be accused of hypocrisy, at least, since she seems to expect the same treatment from the enemy if their positions were reversed.
Tanya also constantly does her best to cover her ass, both in combat and in legal terms. One of the most interesting aspects of Tanya’s character for the lawyer side of me is how closely she sticks to the letter of both military and treaty law while on missions, but how she bends them at the same time. Tanya is insistent on following the law when necessary — she can even rattle off code sections and provisions without consulting a book. She also insists that everyone does the same, even her enemies. At one point during a battle, she’s genuinely shocked to see an enemy using a banned form of ammunition.
However, if the law prevents Tanya from doing something she wants to do, she will do her best to find a way around it while still technically complying with it. My favorite instance of this occurs when Tanya, now promoted to Major Degurechaff, heads a strike into Dakia (Romania) and is about to hit a munitions factory in the capital with magic attacks. She knows that according to treaty law, she can’t make a sneak attack on this occasion — she has send a warning first. When she picks up the radio to transmit this warning into the factory’s speakers, though, Tanya puts on her best “little girl” voice and gives that announcement sounding much more like a typical anime character her age. The enemy personnel on the ground laugh it out as a joke played by some kid and keep their guard down, but Tanya doesn’t care — she’s followed the letter of the law, so now it’s time to attack, and her unit gains a huge advantage as a result.
Despite all this, Tanya does seem to have some of the nicer human feelings in her, at least sometimes. Though she can be harsh with her soldiers, she does care for them, making sure that they’re up to the tasks they’re given as long as they’re putting the work in. One of the most prominent secondary characters in the show, Tanya’s lieutenant Viktoriya Serebryakov, is initially shocked by her harshness, particularly when an avalanche during a brutal crosscountry training session buries a few of her men under snow. Tanya complains about their incompetence, pulls the men out of the snow and starts beating one who stopped breathing to the shock of her troops, only to have him cough up snow and regain consciousness. She also pretty clearly cares about her subordinates during battle, doing her best to use them without putting them in unnecessary danger.
So Tanya’s characterization is done pretty well in this short series. It would be easy to write a pure sadist for a story like this, and from the title Tanya the Evil that’s who I was expecting to get going in. Tanya is brutal and ruthless, but she’s not about unnecessary cruelty; she’s really just all business. At least, that’s how she would see it.
My only real complaint with Youjo Senki, aside from the OP and ED themes that I didn’t care for, is the isekai aspect of it, with Tanya’s soul being transported into an alternate universe/timeline. Not that I’m totally against isekai or anything, even if it is a pretty played out genre by now — any kind of story can be good if it’s interesting and told well. I just feel the isekai aspect didn’t pay off. Maybe it pays off in the movie or in the light novels, but all that really happens in this 12-episode series with regard to that is Tanya getting pissed off at and cursing God/Being X a lot, even when she’s invoking his name to gain power.
The fact that she was a ruthless businessman in her past life does kind of explain why she’s so ruthless as Tanya and why she rises through the ranks of the military at an unbelievably young age, but then I don’t think you really need the isekai part for that. I think the story would have had just as much or even more impact if Tanya had simply been an orphan girl with amazing magic ability and strategic genius who decides to use that to make a name for herself. We could have gotten a few more scenes early on of her hard life, establishing the basis for her cold, ruthless view of society and the world. I think that’s really all we’d need to get why she’s who she is, and more than that, to believe it.
By contrast, none of the Being X stuff does anything for me. Part of this might be the show’s different understanding of what God or a god-like being would be. During the time-freeze scene in front of the train, for example, God responds to the salaryman/soon-to-be Tanya that he can’t be expected to keep watch over seven billion people all the time, flying in the face of the whole “omniscient” and “omnipotent” parts of what God’s supposed to be. Or maybe this is a different sort of God than the one from Abrahamic tradition I grew up with. Since Youjo Senki is a Japanese series, though, there might just be some cultural differences here that I don’t know enough about to comment on. I haven’t checked out the film yet that follows this 12-episode run, but judging from the final episode, it looks like the whole God/Being X thing might pay off in it.
Even with these minor negatives, I think Youjo Senki is very worth watching. If you’re looking for an alternate timeline World War I story where the main character is a girl who shoots divinely-powered lasers, this is the only series I know of that offers that. And it does quite a good job telling that story.