I didn’t realize that the heroine we’ve been needing would arrive in an anime set in a very clichéd genre: Isekai. Someone dies in our world and is reborn in a new one.
I’ll admit I’m a little addicted to the genre; they’re usually really fun and try to answer that question of what we, the audience, would do in a fantastic setting and world. But a lot of these typically take a big left turn and include radically overpowered Mary Sues and Gary Stus who use their extra experience from another life, the powers of technology or that of a god/goddess to treat that new world’s biggest threats like a gnat to be swatted. It’s not that those aren’t fun sometimes, it’s just that it moves into fanfiction territory or author self-insert territory, where the protagonist starts to be so idealized that the premise of the show is sunk by size of the overpowered protagonist’s plot armor, lack of flaws, or overpowered abilities.
So Villainess was a huge surprise in the genre. Our protagonist, a relatively normal Japanese girl with an extreme love of romance video games, dies in our world and finds herself reborn in the world of her favorite video game. The catch? She’s reborn into that world as the primary VILLAIN, and it’s only through an accidental head injury that makes her aware of her previous life, her time in Japan, and most importantly, meta-knowledge about the game’s inhabitants and important events. The most important event? The Villainess DIES AT THE END, or in the best ending, is EXILED forever!
This was a great twist for the series to start off on. Catarina, the Villainess, doesn’t really have any special powers of note. And due to her head injury, (which to the characters in-universe, explains her sudden and drastic change in personality), she’s got high level abilities to recall the events of the game, but the absolute WORST self-perception imaginable. She’s thick as brick, a running joke in the show as all subtlety and subtext flies straight over her head. She’s clueless in the best possible way: she says exactly what’s on her mind at all times and has almost a complete inability to lie.
So Catarina is in a huge bind: she has to save her own life and inevitable doom using only her knowledge of the games protagonist and NPC’s to get the job done. The show tackles this in a lot of great ways, most notably the “strategy council” of Catarina’s inside her own head, which give a lot of exposition and insight into her current strategies.
To prevent her “doom” flag from rising, she has to use the time she has to meet the other characters from the game and get them to like enough so that when the time comes, she won’t be killed or exiled. Those are really high stakes, so she gives 100% effort into making friends as though her life depends on it… because it does! Along the way, her natural enthusiasm, Japanese sense of equality, (treating everyone equally, whether noble or servant), and lack of deceit win most people she meets to not only being her friend, but falling in love with her as well.
So what made this anime worth watching?
Well, first and foremost, it’s just fun. Season 1 is a light-hearted blast that actually has a really great lesson. Ultimately, if you want people to like you, you have to learn to make friends. And that is the tale of the tape for Season 1: make friends with everyone. It’s a simple strategy that Catarina employs and works to perfection. Between her extreme forthrightness and her lack of ability to understand subtext, every character she meets she is extremely honest with. She has virtually no filter, and in a society that’s built around reading subtle cues, Catarina’s extreme honesty and lack of any subtext or guile begins winning people over.
Second, the setting makes for great comedy! The setting was a romance video game; anyone who’s played RPG’s of this type know that all you have to do to get a romance going is have your character say or do the right thing during an event and the romance flag gets set.
But what happens if the villainess of the story, a girl, starts setting off those same flags for other characters, man or woman?
There are so many shows that do really poor LGTBQ+ storylines, but as a conservative, I gotta say, this show gave a fantastic in-universe reason for characters who were straight to go gay, and go gay HARD. It’s not done for ‘representation’, it’s done because that’s how this universe works!
Nothing is super explicit, and almost all of it goes completely over our star’s head: Catarina has NO CLUE that characters from the game who had male love interests in the original game now have the hots for her. Unlike a lot of current programming that wants to shove politics down our throats, Villainess exists inside the world of a video game which runs off of the choices of a protagonist and uses video game logic. Helping a character pick up the muffins they dropped sets off the romance flag and makes them pay attention to you; that’s the way the game was built. But now, instead of a guy doing it, it’s the female protagonist, who is now noticed the same way the guy would have been by the NPC. It’s a video game world; people fall in love because of particular actions taken and fulfilled; the logic of how romance works is not like our universe, and becomes really well justified by the setting.
Catarina actually is a really fun protagonist to watch. She is deeply flawed; that brain damage helps navigate the first season, but her inability to pick up on her inner circle’s social cues is what prevents her from having a romance herself and generates animosity between her friends that she can’t see, even when they are antagonistic to each other, (in a polite society way layered with subtext) right in front of her.
Like a lot of great flaws, the deep irony that the protagonist’s favorite thing to dream about in Japan was romance, and now she’s stuck in a romance game, and can’t actually experience romance unless she overcomes this flaw, which is where season 2 starts picking up.
I thought it was a real hoot! The series isn’t intense, it’s popcorn fun, and super easy to just pick and enjoy. What I think makes it stand out is that unlike most Isekai, the protagonist is actually the least powerful person on screen at any given time, and also the most clueless when it comes how romance ACTUALLY works, despite knowing everything there is to know about the game the universe comes from.