Welcome, all, again. For my last two reviews, I have explored the serious themes underpinning two very different comedy series. And so I thought, why not just go ahead and tackle something with a bit more heft? How about the senselessness and tragedy of war, the hypocrisy of a theological concept of free will, or even the duplicity of deities themselves? And for a finale, why not briefly explore the concept of evil? Oh, but this sounds like a boisterous handful, so pull on your tallest boots and get ready to wade deep! Because this time around we’re discussing Saga of Tanya the Evil.
First, a quick synopsis: Tanya is a petite, blonde girl of European (German) birth who is actually the reincarnated soul of a murdered Japanese salaryman. She has been born into an alternate world as it staggers into its first World War, about a decade later than did ours. Because of this later timeline, we witness equipment and tactics reflecting both of our World Wars. Moreover, magic exists in this world and is readily employed in combat. And Tanya is just brimming with the stuff!
Magic, however, is not the only thing Tanya carries–in defiance of most concepts of reincarnation with which I am familiar, she is born fully cognizant of her past life. From her very first conscious thoughts, she is aware of this new dichotomy within her nature. Now, might this be burden or advantage? Because such knowledge definitely helps her seem preternaturally precocious. But just how much does the arrangement strain her sanity? Nor does it help that the cause of her strange situation has followed her from life to life, a mysterious deity offended by Tanya’s lack of spiritual faith in both her lives. It was this being who harangued the doomed salaryman, freezing and prolonging his moment of violent death in order to question and then taunt him about faith, and who then becomes increasingly active in Tanya’s new life despite initially intimating non-interference. In fact, during his stasis before death, Tanya’s former self had deduced that this interloper was more likely the Devil rather than God. Unwilling to recognize either as real, however, he designated his tormentor Being X–but it seems the Devil still wants his due.
For while we viewers did not spend much time with Tanya’s former self, we can nonetheless deduce that in her new life she is placed firmly within the parameters of a Judeo/Christian (or Judeo/Christian-like) theology, as witnessed by the wordings of her prayers/spells. And so her situation gains an immediate familiarity, mirroring Job’s persecution by Satan. Except, of course, that this time the Devil’s goal is to lead the unwilling to God, rather than drag the faithful away. OK, you say, that makes no sense at all. But doesn’t it? What better revenge for Satan than to make God himself the source of a soul’s torment? What more elegantly understated way to demand of God: why allow free will if to employ it is to fall from grace? Why create cognizant creatures, only to punish their self-actualization? Mind you, I’m not seeking to challenge anyone’s religious beliefs here. I’m simply pointing out that–from the perspective of a culture not intimately familiar with the historical growth of Christian thought and tradition–it probably all seems a bit convoluted, if not sometimes hypocritical. And that’s without delving into the traditions that deny free will.
No need. After all, the suppression and denial of free will are inherent to the military, most especially during the vacuum of war. Indeed, free will is the antithesis of military order. To wit, orders are issued; orders are received; orders are executed. Any variation compromises the mission. And as a rising star of the [German] Empire’s army, Tanya refuses compromise. Of course, war is bigger than any one person, and it’s not as if the majority of people actually fighting a war ever had a say in beginning it–which fact itself does nothing to detract from the perceived righteousness of their causes. But why must ideals be thought so much more valuable than people? (Don’t look now, but I think you dogma might have rabies. . .)
And that finally brings us to the question of evil. Why, within the framework of this series, is Tanya called evil? Is it because she acts in her own best interest? Don’t we all, occasionally? Is it because she consistently subjugates compassion to logic? While that might make her unpleasant company, calling it evil seems to stretch credibility. Perhaps, then, because she is so ruthless in battle? This sounds more likely, especially when we consider the long shadows cast by such figures as Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. Or is it ultimately because she denies not just God’s grace, but his very existence? Certainly the nuns who taught me catechism in my youth considered atheism the epitome of evil. But at seven episodes in, I still can’t offer a satisfactory answer. Self-serving, unfeeling, likely psychopathic, and even somewhat depraved all aptly describe Tanya; I’ve thus far seen nothing to indicate evil as I interpret the word, meaning to deliberately cause unnecessary pain or destruction. Or might the evil within the title really be one of those “lost-in-translation” situations?
I like this show. A lot. It’s brave, relatively fast-paced, and exhibits a gallows humor all too rare in the shows I’ve seen lately. And while admittedly dark, with grim themes, it is beautifully drawn and animated (despite the frequent use of CGI). So sit down and make yourself comfortable–you won’t stay so for long, I promise.
Addendum (03 March, 2017–Per Episode 8):
And no sooner do I post the above review than an episode arrives that presents Tanya seeming to make unconscionable decisions regarding what we now call urban warfare. She is ordered to engage and destroy enemy forces within a formerly captured city, then informed that all civilians remaining after an ordered evacuation will legally be considered enemy combatants. To wit, she is being ordered to kill civilians. To be fair, native militia and armed partisans are organic to occupations–and they are most certainly combatants! Engaging them is simple–if brutal–reality. That they melt into and hide within civilian populations is also factual. This means that engaging them almost assures some amount of collateral damage. It should be remembered, however, that these actors come to the occupiers’ attention only through their own efforts; they signal their presence through their actions. Put bluntly, they initiate others’ efforts to destroy them. And it is their disappearance into the larger civilian population that immediately endangers those civilians.
I would next point out something that might have easily been overlooked, the fact that Tanya challenged the initial order by tossing it right back to her commanding officer. In the military, when you receive an order, you execute that order. Tanya instead repeated it, with commentary, back to the superior who had issued it. This was clearly a challenge to its content. Admittedly, the issue is muddied by the late revelation of a paper she had previously submitted concerning the legalities of engaging civilian populaces. Was the paper a nod to the reality of engaging civilians, while her challenge represented her true opinion? Or was that challenge simply to camouflage her own embrace of the tenets of total warfare? Either way, the fact that she issued the challenge is undeniable.
Last, I would caution against anyone getting comfortable on what they might consider moral high ground. Tanya is, after all, from our own world. And in our world, civilians have almost always been targeted during war, and by all sides of a conflict. After all, it is civilians who supply their army; eradicate the civilians and their army starves. Or freezes. Or finds some other uncomfortable way to die. Consider World War II: as to hiding behind legalities, did Japan really think that declaring war minutes before the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor would negate its being a surprise attack? That was, after all, their plan. And as for targeting civilians, did the US really think that it was destroying important military targets by firebombing huge swaths of residential Tokyo? In both cases, the larger target was the enemy’s morale. So let’s rain rockets onto London! And let’s burn Dresden to the ground! Let’s crush enemy morale through indiscriminate slaughter! If Tanya is truly walking this path, might it not be simply because she realizes its inevitability? To willingly employ a tactic does offer at least the possibility of controlling both its progression and its outcome. And while this latest episode might indeed finally signal Tanya’s descent into evil, I still have hope for her. After all, she’s still true enough to herself to fight against divine intervention in her life. . .and that might yet prove a strength beyond the reach of any external power.