I’ll be honest – I didn’t expect to really like Saga of Tanya the Evil all that much. I’d seen the light novels by Carlo Zen and their manga adaptions on the shelves at my local Books-A-Million, and they just never seemed to do it for me. While their was something grotesque and strangely alluring about the image of a small blonde girl, decked out in what is clearly meant to be Nazi-inspired military attire (the eponymous Tanya) on the cover, the summary I got on the back cover just didn’t seem that engaging. Plus, the “pretty girl” art style, where even high school seniors don’t look like they’re older than 13, that’s so popular in most anime and manga, has just never been all that interesting to me.
But when we got the go-ahead to view an advanced screening of the series’ film adaption by Crunchyroll, I thought, “What the hell? Even if I don’t like it, it’s only an hour and a half. How many people can say they get to see advanced previews of new anime as part of their day job?” I started the film with few expectations and plenty of skepticism.
An hour and a half later, and I found myself somewhat justified, but more entertained, than I’d ever expected.
*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOLLOW*
Saga of Tanya the Evil is set in an alternate world that closely resembles the WWI era of our own. In this world, several world powers are locked in a state of total war that they refer to as “The Great War.” Among these powers are the Empire (inspired by Nazi Germany), the Allied Kingdom (the UK), the Russy Federation (Communist Russia) and the Unified States (I don’t have to spell this one out to you, right?). This war is waged with WWII-era equipment, with the addition of magical powers that allow regular bullets to pierce the armored hull of tanks and regular soldiers to create explosions on par with an atomic bomb.
Within the Empire, Major Tanya von Degurechaff leads the 203rd Aerial Mage Battalion, an elite group of magically equipped and highly trained soldiers, who report directly to the Empire’s Strategic HQ. Having established a reputation of ruthless efficiency and strategic brilliance for the 203rd and herself, Tanya and her unit are looking forward to some much needed R&R after successfully destroying an enemy headquarters in the deserts of what is clearly meant to be Africa. Their hopes are quickly dashed, however, as a new threat emerges in the form of the Federation.
Declaring war on the Empire by launching a preemptive strike on the border, Tanya and the 203rd then move to make a diversionary strike on the capital city of Moscow, taking some of the pressure off their allies on the border. However, what appears to be another great victory for Major Tanya will soon come back to haunt her, as a young Federation warrant officer, with ties to Tanya’s past sins, comes looking for blood.
The movie serves as a direct sequel to the 12-episode anime series that debuted in 2017, as well as an expansion of the original novels and manga. Having neither seen the series nor read the books, I was at a bit of a disadvantage. At the start of the movie, Tanya has already achieved the rank of Major, having proven her worth in countless battles on numerous fronts. After I finished watching, I found myself going back repeatedly to look up references to character names and terms I wasn’t familiar with. That certainly dampened my enjoyment of the film, but not ti as much of an extent as I expected.
The overall plot of the film is pretty straight forward and easy to digest. Anyone who enjoys war movies or WWI/II history will enjoy the clear parallels between what the fictional nations in the film are doing and the battles of the two World Wars that inspired them. Those seeking deeper drama or compelling plot twists are going to be disappointed, however, as the film’s focus is more on characterization than story.
That characterization is definitely a highlight of the film. Tanya herself is brilliant, courageous, twisted, and strange. Voice actress Aoi Yuki’s performance as Tanya is particularly commendable. Even though I watched the film in Japanese with English subtitles, Yuki makes Tanya sound and feel every bit the brilliant leader and strategist she is. The supporting cast, while compelling for the most part, don’t come anywhere near matching the pure intensity of Tanya’s persona. That’s not all bad though. I’d say about 80% of the film is seen through the POV of Tanya and the soldiers of the 203rd. Their revelry, bravery, and determination are on full display, both on and off the battlefield. Having spent eight years in the military myself, I was impressed with how well these portrayals of front line soldiers, and the officers who lead them, felt to me.
On a more critical note, the same can’t be said for most characters outside of Tanya and the 203rd. At just over 90 minutes, the film doesn’t give us a lot of time with other players in the Empire’s ranks, nor the generals, politicians, and soldiers from enemy camps. We get about 5-minute snippets with them at a time. That’s far too little to really learn who they are and why they’re doing what they do.
In the end, I cared immensely about Tanya and her comrades. I barely remember the other characters’ names.
The production values on Tanya were excellent, and it shows. The colors are vibrant, the animation fluid, and the battle scenes were truly impressive. While nowhere near as gruesome as something you’d see in Berserk or Blade of the Immortal, the battle scenes captured the intensity and scale of battles from the wars that inspired them perfectly. When Tanya and her comrades face a force of over 10 divisions late in the film, it truly feels like an epic battle, with infantry, artillery, bombers, fighter planes, and mages all clashing together in a brilliant display of carnage.
Though I won’t spoil the particulars, Tanya engages in a 1-on-1 battle with an enemy mage later in the film, and it’s a truly beautiful sequence of animated battle. As the two combatants weave through the sky and exchange magically charged gunfire, the camera whips and weaves around them as they zip through the sky. The telltale highlights of green for Tanya’s weapons and red for enemy forces help you keep track of who’s shooting, and you never feel lost despite the intense speed during this incredible sequence. Overall, the animation is a definite plus that makes the movie worth viewing on its own.
The mechanical and aesthetic design for the film are also very well-done. While they’re far from carbon copies of the German and Russian designs that spawned them, the uniforms, rifles, tanks, buildings, and other props draw enough inspiration that they’re immediately recognizable, yet still retain a look and feel of their own. While you could likely find the exact same weaponry and mechanical designs in photos from the two World Wars, the magical elements are where the film carves a unique visual identity. The 203rd utilizes a backpack/leg brace combo that allows them to soar through the skies, while enemy mages use the other-world equivalent of motorcycles to go airborne. This simple but clear distinction between designs helps make the film look and feel interesting from start to finish.
Sadly, that just isn’t the case for the character designs. Based on the designs of Shinobu Shinotsuki, who illustrated the original light novels, most of the characters just aren’t that visually engaging. Tanya has her child-body, bright blonde hair, and piercing green eyes to help her stand out. Everyone else just looks like the same caricatures of military forces in anime we’ve seen countless times before. This is especially true in the supporting cast, where the Empire and Russy generals looked so similar that, for a moment, I didn’t realize we’d swapped from one POV to another. This doesn’t bring the movie down by any large degree, but it does seem very uninspired, and, quite frankly, lazy.
I’ve already pointed out the voice-work earlier, so I won’t repeat myself here. So far as sound and music go, Tanya won’t likely receive any awards or fame for its soundtrack, but that doesn’t mean its bad. The cacophonous roar of artillery strikes, the otherworldly hum of magic bullets whizzing by, and the earth-shaking rumble of thousands of soldiers clashing in a life-or-death struggle are par the course for war films. The sounds don’t come anywhere near matching the intensity of other anime endeavors, such as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and especially not live-action war classics like Saving Private Ryan, but they do their job well enough.
Save for an epic orchestral and choral piece that accompanies Tanya’s battle with an enemy mage, most of the soundtrack is engaging, but unmemorable. We’ve all heard epic, operatic musical sequences during battle scenes before. Tanya continues that tradition by following the same path that other composers have walked for years. That may sound critical, but it’s really not that bad. The soundtrack is good – it just didn’t leave me awestruck.
Saga of Tanya the Evil – The Movie is something of a flawed work with small peaks at brilliance shining through. The animation and portrayal of Tanya are superb, and the film does an exemplary job of capturing the look and feel of a world at war. However, it’s held back by a fairly weak supporting cast, uninspired character designs, and a compelling, but forgettable, soundtrack. Tanya is a film that I do recommend you go watch, but with movie ticket prices being what they are, I’d definitely shoot for a matinee showing.
Saga of Tanya the Evil – The Movie will be in select theaters on May 16th.
- Fluid, vibrant animation and color
- Excellent depiction of war and the bonds between soldiers
- Solid characterization, particularly for Tanya
- Generic and uninspired character designs
- Unmemorable soundtrack
- Series newcomers will find the film hard to access at first