FEATURE: Why It Works: Tanya the Evil's Unlikely Conscience

Today we highlight the unexpected hero of Tanya's seventh episode!

Hey all, and welcome back to Why It Works! Today we’ll be talking some Tanya. Saga of Tanya the Evil has turned out to be one of my favorite shows of the season, something I really didn’t expect going in. I’m usually not a big fan of action shows or war stories, but Tanya the Evil’s mix of snappy direction and storytelling, charmingly terrible characters, and almost slapstick sense of poetic justice has made it a consistently fun ride throughout.

 

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Normally the show’s shtick is “Tanya is thrust into a terrible situation, figures out how to handle it, becomes supremely overconfident, and is dunked on again,” which provides fairly consistent laughs and thrills. But Tanya’s seventh episode didn’t really stick to the formula, and also wasn’t all that “fun” in a traditional sense. Instead, Tanya’s seventh episode went for the war story brass ring - depicting a thrilling battle while simultaneously declaring that war isn’t composed of thrilling battles, and is actually a miserable, sordid, and morally vacuous affair.


War stories have a long history of segueing rapidly between viewing war as a terrible atrocity and viewing war as a source of entertainment, and anime war stories are no exception. Franchises like Gundam often try to split the difference between these two goals - while an overt narrative catalogs the injustices of war, glamorous action scenes present fights between robots and other weaponry as stylish, thrilling affairs. This disconnect between what a show is showing you (awesome fights!) and telling you (fights aren’t awesome) generally results in a thematic muddle that only supports the second point in an intellectual sense, while the emotional experience of the show hinges heavily on enjoying the battle scenes. It’s trying to have your cake and eat it too, except in this case it’s more like a lesson about the high sugar content of cakes written in icing on the cake you're currently eating.


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There are ways to avoid this issues, but not ones that gracefully square those two goals - having fun and reflecting the horror of war. For many shows, the answer is to accept that thrilling action stories are not necessarily the best vehicle for sober messages on the price of violence, and thus divorce the action from any sense of horror or consequence. Girls und Panzer accomplishes this by making tank battles a beloved sport, while shows that stick to real battles often present the enemy as irredeemable, faceless, or unknowable. But Tanya’s seventh episode went in the exact opposite direction, discarding any pretensions of fun in favor of a legitimate punch in the gut.


Tanya was not the protagonist of Tanya the Evil’s seventh episode. Tanya is always a “villain” in that she’s a villainous person, but she’s also generally the focus character we’re following and feeling invested in. Instead, this episode focused more on the politics of the Entente Alliance to Tanya’s north, and specifically on one army officer she first met a few episodes back - Colonel Anson Sioux. We get to see this man in a variety of contexts - conversing with his close associates, saying goodbye to his daughter, and even commenting on the overall war effort. All of these encounters help to establish him as a conflicted but ultimately honorable man, one driven by love of family and country, and one who has his own reservations about the ongoing conflict.

 

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Those sequences are important. As I said above, one of the ways war stories often divorce their events from painful consequences is by dehumanizing the opposing force - making them simply an “other,” an invader to be defeated. When some group is regarded as a foreign mass, it’s easy to avoid feeling personally responsible or guilty for any violence inflicted upon them. “Scale” doesn’t really matter here - ten thousand deaths isn’t really any different from ten million in our minds, if we can’t visualize any individual faces.


Tanya the Evil’s seventh episode forces us to visualize a face, and to attach a human history to it. By humanizing Anson, the show humanizes his side in general by proxy, making us feel invested in the fortunes of his doomed operation. And thus when Tanya and her forces arrive, they’re not gunning down generic targets, they’re gunning down the beloved friends of someone we know.


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The framing of Tanya’s attack amplifies the effect of this choice. Tanya’s actions aren’t presented as “epic” in the way even the show itself often has before. Tanya the Evil has on occasion used dramatic compositions, intriguing scifi jargon, audio buildup, or pithy one-liners to make Tanya’s fights feel fun and rewarding. Even if Tanya is a horrible person, if the camera aligns us with her, we exult in her victory. Her wins allow us to feel clever or powerful as well.


This fight had none of that. Tanya’s actions are all presented from a great distance, with none of the back-and-forth, dogfighting, or tactical choices that made prior fights thrilling. The emphasis on Tanya going up against impossible odds is also absent here - this is a risky assault, but we get no sequences of Tanya ever seeming overwhelmed by it. This is a slaughter and a chore to Tanya, while on the other side, all of Anson’s actions are presented as desperate and emotionally charged. The fact that Tanya is throwing out snarky commentary while Anson bleeds for his country actually makes Tanya seem even more despicable, instead of brash or charming. How can we think it’s cool to be emotionally removed from this slaughter, when the people dying are as human as us?

 

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In the end, Tanya barely even recognizes the man so desperate to stop her. After witnessing the deaths of his countrymen and ruin of his defenses (something we’re not allowed to look away from either), Anson makes a reckless charge after Tanya. He is presented as a classic hero in this situation, with tension ratcheting through close cuts and his repeated evasion of Tanya’s minions. Tanya isn’t the underdog here, she’s the oppressor - but when the hero finally reaches her, he is cut down as well.


Tanya the Evil’s seventh episode didn’t really make me feel good, and that’s absolutely the point. Throwing an underline under the overall episode’s message, its finale sees Tanya glibly accepting the final gift of Anson’s daughter as a present to herself, casually reminding us of his humanity and her indifference in one. Tanya’s a bad person, but this war gave her no reason to care about this particular man, and by humanizing him while maintaining Tanya’s usual behavior, the episode emphasized the horror that always exists in this show, and that we often just take for granted. Every blast of a cannon silences ten men with stories just as sympathetic as Anson’s. All of Tanya’s one-liners precede actions we’d consider unconscionable in polite society, but accept as necessary in war, and even celebrate as thrilling in fiction.

 

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I don’t expect Tanya the Evil to turn its second half into a dedicated meditation on the horror of war, but I was happy to see it spend an episode letting that horror peek through. It’s easy to hate Tanya because she’s a personally unsympathetic individual. It’s harder to accept that even if Tanya were the nicest person in the world, war makes monsters of us all.

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Nick Creamer has been writing about cartoons for too many years now, and is always ready to cry about Madoka. You can find more of his work at his blog Wrong Every Time, or follow him on Twitter.

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