Tanya the Evil couldn’t be further from a typical wish-fulfillment isekai story.
The isekai genre is probably biggest thing to happen to Japanese pop culture in the last decade. Literally meaning “another world,” it refers to stories in which the protagonist is whisked away from their boring life in the real world to another universe–usually one with an RPG influenced high fantasy setting–where they become some kind of savior. While the genre has its roots in shoujo manga–Inuyasha is a classic example–most modern incarnations show the influence of light novel-turned-anime smash hit Sword Art Online. Last season’s massively popular The Rising of the Shield Hero and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime are both isekai. Right now, the genre is booming.
It’s not hard to see why it’s so popular. Right now, the world is a mess and only getting worse–it’s hard to imagine a desirable future for this world, or even a tolerable one. Young people–especially young men, the target demographic for much of modern isekai–are more isolated than ever, especially those who build their identities around online culture and otaku media. They’re taught to see themselves as victims of an unjust society that refuses to understand them. And even for those outside that demographic, growing up under late capitalism is a universally soul-crushing experience. With this in mind, who wouldn’t want to be taken away to another world where they can do something meaningful and be recognized for their heroism, rather than grinding away day after day just to get by? It’s a very powerful sort of wish fulfillment, and one that seems tailor-made to cater to modern insecurities.
From a summary alone, Saga of Tanya the Evil seems like it should be a typical example of the genre. An office worker in modern Japan dies and is reborn in another world with magic powers, which they use to climb to the top of society. Standard isekai, right? Well, not quite. Let’s start with our protagonist. We never find out what his original name was, but in his old life, he was a smug, self-admitted sociopath of a businessman who was pushed in front of a train by a man he fired. When time stops in the instant before he’s hit and the voice of God speaks to him, berating him for his selfish, faithless ways, his reaction is to first deny that God–who he insists on referring to as Being X–exists, and then berate Him right back for letting such a ridiculous, illogical thing happen to him. He says it’s only natural that he not have faith, living in a scientifically advanced society where all his needs are taken care of, never having suffered hardship. Being X takes this as a challenge.
In most isekai, it’s never explained how or why the protagonists end up where they do–in Tanya the Evil, it’s because God hates him. The salaryman is reborn, memories intact, as an orphaned little girl named Tanya in a war-torn country reminiscent of Nazi Germany–a powerless life in a bleak setting, specifically chosen to inflict hardship that would awaken Tanya’s faith. (Is it even worth discussing gender and pronouns? Tanya herself certainly doesn’t seem to care that she used to be a man; perhaps that’s simply how reincarnation works.) However, when it’s discovered that Tanya can use magic, she immediately enlists in the army, seeing a path out of her impoverished life. In another isekai, this might be the start of her quest to end the war and create a more just society, one that doesn’t overlook children born into poverty the way she was. In Tanya the Evil, it’s the start of her quest to live a cozy life in the rear echelons–specifically as a way to stick it to Being X for doing this to her, no less.
This is all to say that Tanya is very far from the sort of appealing character you might want to associate with, and her situation is very far from one you might want to be in. Even when Tanya succeeds, she’s the villain. Tanya the Evil couldn’t be further from a typical wish-fulfillment isekai story. The appeal lies elsewhere–most obviously, in shadenfreude. It is fun to watch Tanya suffer at the hands of a cruel and petty deity, because Tanya herself is cruel and petty. She’s a terrible person and a delightful character–an adult with the sociopathic cost-benefit analysis of a true capitalist in the body of a little blonde girl, barking orders to her subordinates in a childish lisp. It never stops being entertaining to see her sit back in smug triumph, only to have the rug pulled out from under her by Being X once again, because she deserves it every time.
But there’s more to it than just that. Admirable characters and desirable situations aren’t the only way to do wish-fulfillment, after all–there’s something very compelling in underdog stories, too. The Rising of the Shield Hero is closer to this mold, starting with its protagonist’s unjust imprisonment and telling the story of his rise to claim his place as hero. And while Tanya might have it coming, and it might be satisfying to see her tossed around at the whims of a god, it’s hard to deny a certain satisfaction when she succeeds, too. Being X isn’t so much better than Tanya, after all–an overworked deity who drops someone into a situation specifically designed to make them suffer, all out of annoyance with their refusal to believe. And in a chaotic, senseless world, where bad things seem to happen for no reason whatsoever, it’s incredibly cathartic to have someone to pin the blame on–so as awful as Tanya is, it’s easy to relate to her desire to get even.
Tanya the Evil may not follow the tropes of classic wish-fulfillment isekai, but I’m sure we’ve all had moments where we wish we could come face to face with the one in charge of everything and give them the finger–and through Tanya, we get to do just that. And honestly? That’s a pretty powerful fantasy, too.