Saga of Tanya the Evil on Fascism, God, and War
How do you entertain a leftist with a story where the protagonist is a fascist, and succeeds? You create Saga of Tanya the Evil.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Saga of Tanya the Evil movie in theaters during its one day special theatrical event, so I thought it would be nice to revisit the original 2017 series and speak at length about what makes it so fascinating. While there is plenty to the film, this ended up being pretty long on its own so it is just about the series.
Some spoilers are below this point. Nothing that takes away from the enjoyment of the series, but you’ve been warned.
Saga of Tanya the Evil, or Youjo Senki as it is known in Japanese, follows a ruthless businessman who is reincarnated as a little girl named Tanya in an alternate universe where World War I never ended by a god who Tanya refers to as “Being X.” Tanya decides to enter the military at a young age, get promoted, and live a comfy life in the countryside to spite Being X. Only, her efforts constantly backfire as she is continuously placed to the front lines in the middle of battle by her superiors. Oh, yeah, and magic exists in this world as an added twist.
If it sounds like it’s hard to tell if the series is portraying fascism as something to be rooted for or satirizing it, that’s because it is. The series seems intent on simultaneously making the audience cheer at all of Tanya’s glorious takedowns of Being X while also making her the butt the jokes at her expense. She’s celebrated for her intelligence and strength and also humiliated and berated by her own foolishness. Then there’s Being X himself, portrayed as an omnipotent being and also a sadist.
But that’s precisely what makes Saga of Tanya the Evil so interesting. It becomes an engaging game of cat and mouse between a fascist and God. And the author, Carlo Zen, wants us to root for each of them, or perhaps neither of them. Being X throws anything and everything at Tanya. Arranging battles for her to fight, and yet she clears it all.
When we first meet Tanya in the beginning of the series, the audience can see she is clearly powerful. We have no idea of her background other than one line where she mentions being a salaryman (term for salaried men in Japan who often work long hours steeped in corporate culture). We get a quick explanation of the current situation where Tanya and her fellow soldiers are fighting for The Empire, aka “The Fatherland” (totally not Germany) in a section of the battlefield known as the Rhine Theatre.
She’s quite satisfied with herself, and moments later she gives a prayer to increase her strength and obliterate the enemy soldiers. This is where the interesting characterization of Tanya comes into play. Is she a symbol of power? Is her using religion and brute force to squash her enemies in the name of nationalism supposed to be looked at as something cool and awesome? Or is this satire and Tanya is supposed to look like a religious nationalist who brutally destroys people in an over-maniacal way? Does she truly believe what she’s saying?
Some of these questions are answered later, but the episode serves as a preview for the dynamics to come.
In episode two, we get Tanya’s backstory. In reality, he was a cold salaryman who would fire employees without a second thought. When an employee this unnamed salaryman fires pushes him in front of a train, time stops, and a god begins questioning him over his lack of faith. He responds by saying all his needs have been met. He lives in a technologically advanced society and easily procures basic necessities like food and water. The god, who is then referred to as Being X by this salaryman, reincarnates him into an alternate world where his needs are not met in the hopes the hardships will kindle his faith.
And so Tanya is (re)born, with high magical aptitude.
It is this high magical aptitude that allows Tanya to compete with Being X, and Tanya resoundingly rejects Being X even still in this harsh world of war. She makes it her life mission to live a life of comfort seemingly out of spite.
She is almost successful. When she encounters her first enemies, she’s pretty capable. She grabs an enemy soldier and blows herself up in an attempt to go down with honor. She hopes this will bring her some kind of honorable discharge.
But to her surprise, and our amusement, she is instead promoted and given a new job on the font lines.
This is where the back and forth between the two of them begins in earnest.
Later, Tanya is called in to perform an experiment for a new type of jewel that allows mages to perform magic. It proves to be too unstable. Later, Being X manifests in the form of a nutcracker doll and confronts Tanya on her lack of faith. This altercation is interesting because in German tradition, according to Wikipedia, anyway, nutcrackers symbolize protectiveness and such dolls serve as guardians of a household. This might be an indication that Being X is genuinely concerned about Tanya’s lack of faith. It might also be intentionally ironic since Being X is the one who thrust Tanya into this world of war in the first place. Tanya destroys the doll and wakes up the next day thinking it was a dream.
She is called in again to preform another experiment, but this time things end up differently. As the jewel is about to cause another explosion, Being X appears again, this time in a much more intimidating fashion.
This is where Being X starts throwing his weight around. In this shot, he’s large and his head and hat take up almost the entirety of the frame. But also, Tanya being positioned entirely within Being X’s eye shows us (and her) that he is always watching and she’ll never be able to escape his grasp. There is also the fact that he is appearing again in soldier form. This exacerbates the irony I mentioned before. He may be a caring soldier meant to protect people, but he’s large and intimidating and is clearly showing how much power he has, not to protect, but to grant and perhaps take away.
He decides to bless Tanya’s jewel. And what does Tanya get in exchange for reciting prayer thereafter? Power. The experiment is a success and she obtains an incredible power that only she can use.
Of course, she has no interest in using it on the battlefield. She’d rather be educated, promoted, and positioned away from the front lines to avoid fighting as much as possible.
At military academy, Tanya is smart and uses her knowledge of her world to advance her position. She meets a general and suspects that the war currently being waged will turn into a wold war. Impressed, he asks for her to write a report which is then passed along to the higher ranks within the military.
Later, she is able to emotionally manipulate another soldier into dropping out of the university in exchange for a safer position. At this point, she seems to have finally found a good path to comfort. She’s doing well in her studies and is on her way to a cushy job.
So unfortunately for Being X, there won’t be any need for that awesome power she just gained an episode before.
Except that report she made earlier leads to a discussion. Turns out the military is very impressed with her knowledge and wants to put her to more work!
Later, at a dinner, turns out they want to give Tanya her own battalion! And they want her fighting in a position even more dangerous than the front lines!
This image here is great because of how it shows Tanya’s inner thoughts and her torment. Reflections are always used to express the inner thoughts and feelings of characters. She’s clearly irritated at her superiors for her new position but she’s also upside down. Her plans have been completely turned on their head. This again blurs the line between Tanya as sympathetic and Tanya as a joke. If Carlo Zen wants us to laugh at her, the creators are going to great lengths to make us identify with her through visual techniques like this first.
Her line, though, is interesting. These last few instances have led us to believe that Tanya’s own inability to control her actions is what’s causing her misery. But she’s asking genuinely here, and that might be because Being X is looming in the shadows. He’s always watching, and it’s not unusual to assume he’s pulling some strings, creating meetings between Tanya and her superiors for them to be impressed by her and therefore give her more work.
And yet when she does receive this battalion, she relishes in the power that comes with her newfound authority. She is brutal with her underlings in order to make them quit, but when none of them do, she realizes she has no choice but to accept her new position, and after a mission destroying an enemy base, the audience finds it as amusing as she does.
Tanya consistently relishes in her power and authority. If she’s trying to put on an act, she’s not doing a very good job. She’s clearly amused and the creators want us to be amused with her. They make such a spectacle of her atrocity that it’s hard to tell if we are supposed to sympathize with Tanya (the protagonist with the most screen time), or her victims.
The bright colors endear us to her violence. And this juxtaposition of bright colors and prayer with incoming explosions, ash, and death are a perfect representation of Carlo Zen’s overall style. He may very well be portraying a caricature of fascism, but he wants us to have fun at the same time. One moment we’re rooting for Tanya because we’ve been entranced by the silliness and ecstasy of the situation and the next moment we’re glad when Being X shows up to give our protagonist her just desserts, as if he makes us laugh at Tanya so much we start laughing *with* her before we remember we need to be laughing *at* her again.
However, there is something else to Being X that adds yet another layer of complexity to the series’ tone…
In this scene, Being X appears after a battle between Tanya’s battalion and enemy forces. This time he’s not showing up in his doll form, but as a fallen soldier. He’s menacing, representing death, literally through the body of a dead soldier. He’s not just intimidating as a protector and creator of life. Now he’s sadistic, much smaller, figuratively and literally, and human, expressing a very human emotion; menacing glee. Up until now, the audience is made to believe that Being X, or “God,” is the “good guy” in this series, but this makes us question his motives. He, too, is relishing in punishing Tanya for her lack of faith. It is apparent that his goal is to make her life a living hell (ironic for a god to want to do that), and that he has been behind all of these battles, or at least has a part in it. He’s creating scenarios of misery and war to punish Tanya. Carlo Zen is intent on showing us that at least in this world, God isn’t all loving and forgiving. He’ll exorcise his power to his end to reach his goal. That includes going as far as creating violence for Tanya to fight against as a little girl.
In this sense, is he any better than Tanya? They both take pleasure in what they’re doing in a twisted, sadistic way, even though both claim to not want to do what they do. Being X would rather Tanya be faithful and Tanya would rather live a life of peace, and yet these two simple desires fuels a vicious cycle between the two of them because of their ideals in which Being X creates battles for Tanya to fight. This is what makes enjoying Tanya’s anger and despair a bit more complicated. You can (and perhaps should) like it when a terrible person like Tanya suffers. But that puts you on the side of someone who could be even more twisted. After all, isn’t Tanya just doing what she needs to survive. And so he delights in asking how it must feel for her to fight everyone and everything.
Evidently, though, having enough power to do that isn’t so bad either.
Being X probably realizes now that no matter how much violence he creates in the world, it will never be enough to bring down Tanya, and she isn’t intent on changing her mind about worshiping him. This becomes apparent after a fight Tanya has with an enemy soldier named Anson Sue. She beats him bloody, takes his gun, and sends him falling into the ocean.
When he recovers, he awakens with the same golden eyes Tanya has when she prays, and he says God told him to “destroy that devil.”
It appears that Anson Sue has been blessed by Being X just as Tanya has and now has power equal to hers. At this point, the conflict between Tanya and Being X isn’t a mere cat-and-mouse game anymore. Orchestrating battles and wars won’t be enough to bring her down so he ups the ante by blessing other soldiers to attack her directly with intent to kill. It’s unclear if Being X genuinely wants Tanya killed or if he is only telling Anson this to make sure it’s as difficult as possible for Tanya to win.
Aside from this, though, the use of the word “devil” is interesting. If Being X is God, then the conventional wisdom indicates there must also be a devil. Tanya, at least to Being X, is that devil. If she can defeat others who hold God’s powers, that, in a sense, puts her on the same level as God.
And defeat Anson she did, but not before he reveals his unsettling expression (and by extension the expression of Being X)…
After that battle, Tanya pleads to attack the military bases of the Republic (The Empire’s enemies in the war) but her commanding officers refuse, meaning the war will continue. Despite an armistice deal being worked out, other countries in the world refuse to accept The Empire’s power and building of resources to become the dominant force in Europe.
Soon enough, Tanya and her battalion are sent to Africa for more fighting. It is this point in the series where Tanya declares to her soldiers that God has failed because the war will continue, just as the devil will try to lure people away from their belief in God by pointing out His failures. In this culmination of events, Tanya gets on her knees and almost begins to pray.
Indeed, Tanya, at first, seems like she will repent for her actions…
But of course…Carlo Zen rips the rug from underneath us the very next second in spectacular Tanya fashion…
In this moment, Tanya doesn’t care about anything. She’s daring Being X to keep throwing whatever it takes. She’ll overcome it. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day she’ll be the winner. No matter how many times God may try, the devil will always persist and come back for more. And what is Being X’s response?
“So be it. I’ll keep trying until you give up or die.”
Ultimately, what makes Saga of Tanya the Evil so fascinating, as a result of its moral ambiguity, is this dynamic between Tanya and Being X. At first glance it seems like Tanya is a villain and Being X as a god is righteous in his divine punishment. We’re meant to laugh at Tanya and her failures, missteps, and hardships.
But dig deeper and you see a protagonist in Tanya we’re supposed to identify with regardless of how evil she may be, and a sadistic god who relishes in his authority and power to create wars and violence just for the sake of tormenting a soul into faith.
Are we supposed to sympathize with Tanya, someone who by virtually every metric, is a fascist? Should we be delighting in her misery or her accomplishments? Neither seems “right” when you think about it.
Who’s side do you take? Tanya? Being X? Both or neither? To be honest, I’m not sure, and I son’t think Carlo Zen is sure either. In a post film message, he told the audience that the series is a mix between his love for the military and the “isekai” genre (“transported to another world” stories), with sarcasm sprinkled in.
What I am sure of is that the series is damn entertaining and I am here for it whoever ultimately prevails, morality be damned. And so, props to Carlo Zen for making a leftist like me have fun with a series about an evil little girl.
Saga of Tanya the Evil is available to stream on Crunchyroll and on DVD/Blu-ray from Funimation.
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