Building a Character: Tanya the Evil

The Saga of Tanya the Evil feature film hit us here in May, so I watched the anime and then went to the movie. The movie wasn’t half bad, but it was also so obviously Act Two of a three-act story that as I was leaving I told the people sitting in front of me, “I guess we’ll all be here again next year,” and we all laughed.

As the name implies, the series centers around Tanya Degurechaff, a.k.a. Tanya the Evil, a soldier in the army of a fictional nation everyone knows is Germany during what is supposed to be the mid-1920’s (although there are HUGE anachronisms I’ll be glad to tell you about if you twist my arm). She is a mage, and a damned good one, and since no one seems to give a crap that she’s only nine years old, she is also an officer.

This isn’t a buddy series with an ensemble cast, or even a series like Cowboy Bebop or Black Lagoon that pretends to have an ensemble cast. The protagonist is Tanya, period, final, full stop. The other characters are subordinate to her in terms of storytelling (although some of them are socially or militarily her superior). She has a classic sidekick, Visha, who is mostly there to look cute, and a couple antagonists. But the focus is Tanya.

Tanya with Visha

Foreground: Tanya (left) and Visha

To make that work, the writers have to do one of three things with her. One is to throw a villain of the week at her, to make her Overcome the Monster in every episode or plot arc. (If that sounds familiar, think about Hitokiri Battosai from Rurouni Kenshin. Or my personal favorite samurai character, Zatoichi.) This is our old buddy “Man versus Man,” one of the three major sources of conflict.

They could give her the disaster of the week, hurricanes and floods and tornados and such. That’s “Man versus Nature,” and the best examples I can think of off the top of my head are Robinson Crusoe and The Martian. By the way, there was an old stinker movie called Robinson Crusoe on Mars which is the worst of both of them put together.

For this series they’ve chosen the third source of conflict, “Man versus Self,” which is an interesting choice for an action series. To make it work Tanya has to be a character with depth or layers, different motivations or underlying strengths and weaknesses that are at odds with one another, that pull her in different directions at critical plot points to create narrative tension. I think it’s interesting because it’s tricky; to have the character have internal conflict in an action series can slow the action down at the worst possible time…in the middle of the action. Man versus Self works better in stories that are slower and deeper…Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is a good example, I think.

So Tanya has internal conflicts. Let’s see how they built her:

Well, to begin with, nine-year-old “Tanya” was a Japanese salaryman who was murdered and resurrected in Tanya’s body by the god-like Being X. So right off we have two potential conflicts: 1) adult/child and 2) male/female.

Oh, and did we mention that the salaryman was an atheist? So 3) godless/god.

Tanya, unlike her original body, is a powerful mage, so we have 4) magic/muggle (for lack of a better term).

And then Tanya has another critical trait. Quite rationally, she wants as little to do with war as possible. But at the same time she understands, like great generals such as Ulysses Grant, that the best way to stop the horrors of war is to end the war, and so she puts herself in positions to use her powers to win (finish) the war. So we have 5) pacifist/warrior.

That’s a lot of potential for conflict, and that’s a good thing: if you’re going to drive a series through the internal conflicts of one character, it’s best that character be complex, because complex is unpredictable and therefore interesting.

Unfortunately, in Saga, Tanya’s contradictions are underplayed or disappear. That leaves us with a series that is pretty cool, but is “sound and fury signifying nothing.” (Thanks to Big Bad Billy S(hakespeare) for that line.)

Male/female disappears instantly. I mean, it’s not even as pronounced as Mitsuha and Taki in Your Name. Poof. He’s a girl. Since she’s nine, the question of sexuality does not even arise.

For the record, this bothers me a lot. They could have taken the interaction of adult/male and child/female and given her some stressors. As adult/male, Tanya could easily be attracted to her cute little lieutenant Visha, a position in tension with her female/child identity. But nope. Some bad writing there.

Same for magic/muggle. Oh, look, I’m a mage. Well, that’s handy.

The adult/child thing only works in her favor. As an adult from our world, she knows what happened when Germany took on the world in 1914 and 1939, and so she uses that knowledge to advance her career. She acts in an adult way at all times, so there is no conflict with her child nature.

The godless/god thing doesn’t actually work. As Tanya, she has to call upon the god that she didn’t believe in to use her most powerful magic. Commentators suggest that this is a problem for her, but damned if I can see it. She says she hates Being X, but that doesn’t stop her from praying to him whenever she needs her weapons. In short, it’s nothing more than lip service. That’s just plain bad writing, too.

That leaves us with pacifist/warrior, and that’s the primary source of tension in the series. In the field Tanya is pure warrior; she always chooses the aggressive option, fights hard and to win, devises strategies and tactics during the fight meant to win a quick, victorious war. She trains her troops hard, fights hard, puts her ass on the line for V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. The anime series ends with her protesting that her country is accepting an armistice instead of conquering the enemy nation(s).

In the rear, she plots ways to stay away from the front. That’s her pacifist nature coming out.

The problem here is that her pacifist nature only comes out at slow points in the story. When she has time to think, she thinks of ways to stay out of the fighting. But when the shit hits the fan, she’s all in.

Tanya’s not wrong to be aggressive, by the way. If we have learned anything about war, starting back in World War I and since then, especially during Vietnam, it’s that if you fight, fight to win. The best way to reduce suffering is to end the war quickly.

I suspect the writers think that is morally a problem, though. Tanya fights to win; she’s called “Tanya the Evil.” Take that as you will.

The Saga of Tanya the Evil is not what I would call great. Quite the opposite. They created a character to drive the series and gave her plenty of contradictions that could lead to tension and conflict, and then did a bad job using them. And so we’re left with a special effects laden, action-adventure extravaganza, driven by a Magical Girl who is also a Gunslinger Girl. It’s pretty neat, but lacks depth. And it lacks depth because they don’t know how to handle Tanya.

In a series called The Saga of Tanya the Evil, that’s a problem.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

7 thoughts on “Building a Character: Tanya the Evil

  1. I disagree with half of it, but this was still an interesting post! When I watch Youjo Senki (and I’ve seen it 3 times), the main conflict I see is between Tanya and Being X. She does hate that being, and with good reason, but she has no real choice but to use its help in battle to end the war, which she also despises.

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    1. My objection is that she SAYS she hates Being X, but she always says the prayer anyway. By the time of the movie she’s not even thinking about him any more. If she tried something else at times, to work around him, or to work without him, I think that might ratchet up her internal conflict.

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      1. Hmm I haven’t seen the movie yet.
        But I guess you have a point. Tanya has already accepted that she needs to pray in order to fight, beaue her life or those of others, or victory is at risk. In their confrontations though, Tanya does at least try to outwite Sonzai X in conversation.

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  2. I guess I see her pacifist nature in a different light. It’s not so much that she’s opposed to fighting in the pure sense as it is a survival tactic. X made it pretty clear this was her last life. Her clever attempts to stay as far behind the lines as possible are driven by a desire to live while also not giving into Being X. To Tanya, this is the only outcome which pronounces her as the true victor in their conflict. Rely and accept on X unconditionally to live and you lose. Die and you lose.

    I think this is also a point where there’s a lot of material lost in translation from the light novel to the anime. While I haven’t read it myself, I was discussing it with someone who has and he said that Tanya comes across as almost a completely different person, including the conflict with X and how her prayers affect her. Might be worth checking those out for comparison.

    Great read, by the way.

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    1. I agree. I used the term “pacifist” because I needed a single term to play against “warrior” (for reasons I am trained in thinking in bipolar adjectives) but it’s an oversimplification. She reminds me a little bit of Youssarian, the pilot from Catch-22, or even Klinger from M*A*S*H, doing whatever she needs to do to get out of the fighting. It’s pragmatic rather than philosophical. I just don’t have a word for that. “Self-enlightened cowardice” seems unfair 🙂

      I probably would like the light novel. I’m finding that novelizations and the manga editions of various series tend to get into greater depth in terms of characterization (Black Lagoon and Neon Genesis are both that way) and therefore cohere better in terms of motivations. Just looking at the novel’s cover (I just ordered it on Amazon) suggests that it is grittier and less cartoony.

      Thanks for the suggestion, and the thoughtful reply!

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