Medium Matters: Tanya the Evil

When I broke down the anime series (and follow-up OVA) The Saga of Tanya the Evil it bothered me that they constructed a great hero for a psychodrama and turned her loose in an action-adventure series.

If you don’t know the story, “Tanya” is the mind and soul of a middle-aged salariman who has been implanted by divine intervention into the body of a nine-year-old girl in an alternate world that approximates Europe in the 1930’s but has magic and no Nazis.

*WHEW* When you look at it that way, it’s pretty whack.

Anyway, the girl, Tanya Degurechaff, is a mage, and so she’s drafted into the army. She happens to be Tanya-on-the-spot when the war breaks out, so BOOM, she’s in it up to her eyes, about four feet above the ground.

This combination of events creates a number of contradictions in her that are potential sources of conflict:

Male vs. female
Adult vs. child
Mage vs. Muggle
The salariman hates the god who moved him but has to pray to him for certain spells
He wants to stay alive but knows that aggression is often the safest path in war

That’s a lot of potential for conflict, all right, but as you watch the series most of them have disappeared. It’s Tanya’s willingness to be ruthless that leads to her being called “The Evil;” most of the rest of the differences basically disappear in action.

Tanya with coffee

Tanya Degurechaff. She is fond of her coffee.

Not that the anime isn’t a ripping good yarn. It’s just that the character is underdeveloped.

When I pointed that out, someone slagged me off (it was a deserved slagging) and suggested I read the novels the series is based on. Well, I like a ripping good read as much as I like a ripping good yarn, so I did. And I was struck by a simple difference between the portrayals that makes a large difference in the character: the novels are told in the first person.


Instead of having to look at what Tanya is doing, we get to hear what she’s thinking, and it’s clear that there is no Tanya per se, just an expression of what the middle-aged man inside her thinks she should be doing. His thoughts control her actions, and at all times he keeps himself separate from her. There is him, and there is a Tanya character that he plays, and he always refers to her as Tanya.

That turns the character on her (blond) head because now the story is told in his/her head. NOW she’s the hero of a psychodrama!

The same thing happens in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories featuring the Viking Uhtred of Babbenberg. They are fabulous novels that got turned into a meh series; the books are fabulous because they are told in the first person, and so you know what Uhtred is thinking! He’s a sly fox but not especially bright and he thinks with his gonads a lot, but when he does something really dumb you know why he did it.

In the TV show from Cornwell’s book, The Last Kingdom, and the anime The Saga of Tanya the Evil the interior voices disappear. They HAVE TO disappear: You can’t have the character talking to themself all the time. Can you imagine how dull that would be? It just doesn’t work as TV. And so their actions look unmotivated or, worse, stupid.

Yeah, I know about Kyon in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Did you even notice how many times he talks to himself…and characters respond to his thoughts? Happens all the time. It’s the only way to keep that going!

But as a novel series the writer, Carlos Zen, can bring the reader into “Tanya’s” head in a way that’s not possible in the anime. Her behaviors are explicable, and that allows him to exploit more of the contradictions in her character. For instance, it’s Tanya’s hard-hearted pragmatism that leads characters around her to think she’s evil, but it’s not evil. It’s that the man in her soul KNOWS stuff: he knows sociology and he knows history, especially military history, and he knows management, and he draws from those bases of knowledge to make her decisions, decisions that people looking at Tanya and seeing a kid can’t understand.

Around Tanya people watch her and say, “How could a kid know that?” Answer: a kid couldn’t. That’s that adult/child tension coming into play. It’s back in her now. And her ruthless streak comes out of his knowledge of war, particularly war in the middle of the 20th Century.

Also beginning to come into play is the man/woman tension. Tanya is beginning to creep up on puberty, and the thought of marriage gets suggested to her. Inside her, the man thinks that if she married a man he’d find it intolerable and if a woman the Tanya character would find the same. (Remember, the time period of the books is pre-Gay Rights.) Again, this all happens in her head; no one would have a thoughtful discussion with an eleven year old (I think; Zen has stopped marking her birthdays) about marriage and sex, one hopes.

This is why the medium matters. In an action-oriented medium (TV/film), the focus is on action. Text is deeper, denser; it lets us know the character better. I liked the anime and I like the books; it’s in the books that there’s room to explore the contradictions of her character.

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.

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