Tropes and Treacle in Fantasy England: My Next Life as a Villainess, Series 1

My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! is the 2020 anime adaptation of the manga and light novel series, I Reincarnated into an Otome Game as a Villainess With Only Destruction Flags…. The first season covers the first four volumes of the manga, in which the Lady Katarina Claes hits her head, remembers her previous life as a teenage otaku, and realizes that she’s been reincarnated into the world of one of her otome as the villainess. Her goal then becomes making sure she lives to see a ripe old age, which is made difficult by the fact that her role as the villainess leads to exile in the happy endings, and death in the bad ones.

It’s a show filled with light-hearted fluff and heart-warming sweetness, in which the main character decides to save her own life by learning how to farm, working on her swordplay and magic skills, and being genuinely kind and supportive to the people around her. By the end, even the characters who would have been her rivals – including the original protagonist of the game – are genuinely charmed by the sweet, cheerfully oblivious young lady Katarina has become.

As a hypothetical otome, the main cast falls into some common archetypes. On the boys’ side, we have the secret Jerkass Geordo Stuart, the third prince of the Kingdom; his younger twin brother, Alan, who serves in the role of the oblivious Tsundere and is my personal favorite male Love Interest; Keith, the Little Brother adopted by Katarina’s family; and Nicol Ascart, the mysterious, silent son of the Prime Minister. For the girls, we have Nicol’s younger sister, Sophia, a shy Bookworm and my favorite overall Love Interest; the Yandere-flavored Mary Hunt, Katarina’s best friend and Alan’s fiancée; and Maria Campbell, the original game’s protagonist.

This works both for and against the series as a whole. There isn’t a lot of time spent fleshing out any of Katarina’s accidental harem, so having them fill these types makes it easier for viewers familiar with the genre to connect with them. On the other hand, they don’t do much to expand upon these characters. All they are is their archetype, and that archetype is entirely defined by their relationship with Katarina. In an actual otome, this would be forgivable; the whole point is a sort of romantic wish fulfillment, where the people are less important than the ability to explore romance and sexuality in a safe, relatively impersonal manner. Everyone exists solely for the player character’s benefit, with even the plot being little more than an excuse to facilitate hijinks.

Unfortunately, in an anime, it means that while it’s easy to like the characters, it’s significantly harder to truly care about them. The episodes with less Katarina in them are notably less effective, which is fine early on, but less so during what should be tense, dramatic moments. We already know Katarina is probably going to be okay, simply because her death or exile wouldn’t fit with the conventions of the genre, but the other characters aren’t well-developed or interesting enough on their own to carry the weight of narrative tension when needed.

Another significant issue with otome games, even those that only serve as fictional settings for isekai anime, is with foreshadowing. Ideally, each route is different enough to be worth replaying the game however many times it takes to romance each character, while still overlapping enough that we can get to know the different love interests and form an interest in playing all of their routes. So even if you have to pick your route in the very beginning, you’ll still get the other characters involved in order to foster an attachment to them.

I’m going to pause here, because the point I’m about to make spoils the end of the first season of My Next Life. If you like what you’ve heard about it so far, I highly recommend checking it out before continuing. The show is genuinely charming, and I, personally, am excited to see where it goes next, even if some of the typical otome elements, such as Katarina’s unbelievable obliviousness to the fact all of her closest friends are in love with her, can get tiring if watched in a single sitting.

For all it’s flaws, it’s a sweet, lighthearted show about friendship, love, perseverance, and a classmate who uses dark magic that can only be obtained through ritual human sacrifice in order to try and kill Katarina and her friends on his path to vengeance. He has access to this magic by virtue of being possessed by the magician who killed his mother as part of a ritual to transfer the consciousness and memories of his noble half-brother into his body.

This is not foreshadowed in the manga. This is barely foreshadowed in the anime. Hidden routes in dating sims aren’t especially rare; most require you to complete at least one other route, if not all of them, and a fair number deal with some heavy subject matter. This makes tying them into the other routes a bit tricky; if you include too many threads, you can end up finishing a route that ties up your chosen character’s story, but that fails to resolve the bigger issues. If you don’t include enough, you can risk people not catching on to the idea that there might be more to do once all of the initial characters have been romanced.

In any other genre, or in the hands of someone more interested in telling a thoughtful, complicated story, this is a plot thread that would have been woven in significantly earlier, and with significantly more skill, than immediately before the hidden character kidnaps one of the main characters and puts Katarina into a coma. But like with a lot of media of its type, My Next Life seems unwilling – or unable – to compromise its trademark fluffy, tooth-rotting tone and easily recognized archetypes by exploring the characters and ideas that it introduces.

The only real villain is a teenage boy who was forced to watch his commoner mother murdered by the noble wife of his noble father so that she could use dark magic to transfer the memories and consciousness of his noble half-brother into his head. The main character is a teenage commoner who reincarnated into a position of obscene wealth and privilege. Fortune Lover’s protagonist, Maria Campbell, is a commoner ostracized by her village, abandoned by her father, and tormented by the noble ladies at her school for her magical abilities, which are most common among the nobility. There is an underlying idea of class disparity that goes largely unexplored, except for when it can be used to showcase how naive and sweet Katarina is.

The tone of My Next Life is barely affected by the revelation that the main cast has been targeted by someone who they believe has already killed at least one person to achieve his aims, which makes for an absolutely jarring season end. Despite his obvious trauma, the only “healing” the hidden character is shown to need is Katarina’s kindness and acceptance – kindness and acceptance which would be jarring enough if he hadn’t kidnapped one of her best friends and put her in a coma intended to kill her. And that would work, if not for the fact that the introduction of ritual human sacrifice kind of necessitates a different tone than the diabetic coma that came before and after it.

That said, I do like My Next Life as a Villainess. It’s a genuinely sweet, charming show, and I think it has a lot of potential going forward. If nothing else, it’s a fun way to pass a few hours, and I would recommend checking it out if you have the time to kill.

She’s either looking at her friends or a table full of sweets; you’ll have to watch the show to find out which!

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