Youjo Senki- 7.5/10
Youjo Senki is my favorite type of series, where a driving idea is comfortably nestled inside a self-sustaining story. On the surface the plot follows the exploits of Tanya Degurechaff, a young girl advancing up the ranks of the German military in a magically-infused alternate WW1. However, as is shortly revealed Tanya is the reincarnation of an amoral salaryman from modern Japan. God (or Being X as the series calls it) has brought him here to this time and place to teach him humility and devotion. Tanya (we never learn his former name) is a devout atheist, and sees no need for God in his world. Furthermore, he is a psychopath in the strongest sense: he can understand how others feel, but experiences no compassion or moral drive beyond his own well-being.
The engine that drives the series is this underlying struggle between God attempting to prove itself to Tanya, and Tanya firmly rejecting the divinity or necessity of such a being. The brilliance of the series is executed through the uncertain balance between these two, for while Tanya is clearly evil God does not acquit itself much better.
Tanya's evil is a special brand, one which is far more insidious than the "maniacal" evil usually demonstrated by villains. While Tanya clearly enjoys her work, she has no special hatred for the enemy or love of her country. She is not sadistic or gloating. Instead she is the epitome of banal expedience. One cannot even say that the ends justify the means, for in her mind the means need no defending if they are efficient and effective. This is also seen in the peculiar legality of her efforts: she will commit atrocities, but only once she has nominally fulfilled her duties to international law. The best example of this is her paper on the legalization of combat in cities and how to reinterpret regulations that prohibit the artillery bombardment of civilian centers. She doesn't defy the law, she just twists it beyond recognition. It exposes the disturbing corporate view of laws as nothing more than conventions, with no basis in morality.
And so, to rescue this sinner God has decided to intervene. Mocking the traditional God has become passé, but what Youjo Senki does is demonstrate the inherent perversity of what are traditionally viewed as the signs of God's power. God's use of trials and miracles is absurd. Tanya is placed under the command of a heedless experimenter, her life put in danger simply to force her to capitulate to God's will. And the miracle that "saves" her, the special insight given to the head engineer, again begs the question as to how a benevolent being could so grossly employ such tactics just to lean on a single mortal. And now, for all God's efforts, these weapons have been bequeathed to the devil. That Tanya is forced to recite a sort of prayer in God's name every time she uses her equipment is obviously a farce in light of what she uses it for. At best God is incompetent, and at worst knowingly aiding evil. This is all given special poignancy for being set in WWI: I do not know how aware the original writers are of European history, but WWI is what intellectually killed the traditional God in Western thought.
Tanya, Tanya, and Tanya. This series runs on Tanya, and as a character she bears the weight gracefully. She is a villain that you find yourself rooting for, if just because the other guy is worse. Her evil also comes and goes in ways that make it easy to forget what she is capable of, and many of her experiences are humanly relatable. Her drive against God, rather than feeling like hubris, is eminently relatable through her disgusted anger.
That said, this series has a great sense of subdued humor. Most of it centers around using Tanya as the straight man. Small touches such as after-credits scenes of Tanya hating second-hand smoke helped keep Youjo Senki from becoming too grim, while also adding a humanizing element that roots Tanya's personality. At key points Tanya’s normally collected demeanor is "cashed in" to powerful effect, from her humorous reacquaintance with Dr. Schugel to the raw helpless rage at the letting the Republican army slip away. What makes all of these scenes function so smoothly is the contrast with her well-established mannerisms.
Speaking of scenes, while Tanya’s final scene is striking I would argue that her meeting earlier with von Rerugen was the crowning moment for her character. In this world humans are still believed to be rational. They have not experienced the confused awakening that ours has, and through this tainted modern lens Tanya gazes down on their idealism and crushes it casually. The moment where von Rerugen stares, aghast, his cigarette burning and falling to the floor, was the only appropriate reaction. She is the freakish future of war, and now he knows it.
In summary, the English translation of the title (“The Saga of Tanya the Evil”) is entirely appropriate. This series lives and dies on her character, and so help me I looked forward to seeing our loli psychopath in action every week.
The main problem with the series is that it tends to forget that Tanya is what matters. While individual scenes spent away from Tanya are not detrimental, the bottom line is that whenever the story about the war begins to eclipse Tanya’s own crusade the series suffers. Even her more mundane scenes around the office are more interesting than the character-defining moments of her enemies and allies. I truly don’t care about any of the other actors in the series, and that is okay. This setting is purely to showcase Tanya’s deistic vendetta.
My other recurrent issue was a suspension of disbelief. Using Tanya’s age and gender to sharply contrast with her inner character is an old, but effective, trick. Despite this, and a reasonable explanation as to why she is so vicious, I couldn’t take certain elements seriously. There is simply no believable way a 12-year-old girl would rise the way she does in the WWI-era German military; basic chauvinism would keep that in check at the very least.
But let’s grant for a minute that the high command is forward thinking, highly logical, and more willing to employ women than their real counterparts were. There remain several scenes in which Tanya manhandles grown soldiers, entirely apart from her magical abilities. The scene when her troops take the Republican forward command irked me as she snuck up Splinter Cell style on her targets and assassinated them…while barely coming up to their navel. It was just goofy. Even as I enjoyed the show these mismatches pecked at me, and were detrimental to the experience.
Finally, there are some miscellaneous complaints I have, such as the vagueness of the magic system and the conflation of WWI- and WWII-era technologies on several occasions. But none of these are great enough to warrant more than a passing mention.
Ultimately, I found Youjo Senki to be surprisingly enjoyable with an unusual essence and competent execution. It has one of the singularly best main characters of any series and a sharp sense of humor to match the grim undertones. However, its strength was also its weakness, struggling at times to accommodate Tanya's "largeness" alongside the rest of the plot. One can only hope that God will work a miracle and give us a second season. Amen.