If there’s any recent series that I think is capable of uniting disparate parts of the anime fandom, it’s My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! By design, it’s an isekai series that draws upon many of the familiar tropes that have the genre so popular and arguably overplayed: reincarnating to another world, having unique knowledge or gifts no one else does, and having every other character fall madly in love with the main character. However, it also bucks the trend in many ways.
The Appeal of My Life as a Villainess
In a genre that has recently been dominated by male heroes, My Life as a Villainess stars a female protagonist, Catarina Claes, who defies her character archetype of the antagonistic rich girl. The series is very positive and uplifting, while also avoiding a lot of the sexism and occasional homophobia that permeates popular isekai work. Here is an anime that can appeal to those who love a good power fantasy and those who want something heartwarming as well.
Arguably, this puts My Life as a Villainess in the same territory as a lot of older isekai shoujo series such as Fushigi Yuugi, but one thing that works in its favor is that Catarina is extremely charming. Somehow, her near-perfection comes across as endearing due to her enthusiasm, energy, and the fact that she’s both cunning and naive at the same times. When it comes to harem (or reverse harem) series, my belief is that they work best when you can see why so many people would fall in love with the main character. Catarina passes this test with flying colors.
The Tip of the Villainess Iceberg
The specific term translated as “Villainess” is akuyaku reijou—literally “the eldest daughter in a villainous role.” It describes a type of character seen throughout the long history of shoujo anime and manga, as well as all that it has inspired. A 2016 Japanese blog post attempts to go through the history of akuyaku reijou from 60s shoujo manga all the way to the present day, and the archetype is ubiquitous. The first otome game, Angelique, features just such a character and some of the most memorable faces in anime, e.g. Naga from Slayers and Nanami from Revolutionary Girl Utena, fall within this archetype. The Japanese title for My Life as a Villainess is Otome Game no Hametsu Flag Shika Nai Akuyaku Reijou o Tensei Shita… (“I Reincarnated as a Villainous Eldest Daughter Who Only Triggers Demise Flags…”), specifically emphasizing that it takes place within a girls’ visual novel.
The reason I put specific emphasis on akuyaku reijou and not just antagonistic female characters is because “reincarnating into an akuyaku reijou” has actually become a huge trend in light novels and related media. Searching for it in Japanese on Bookwalker returns 251 results (some being multiple entries within a series), and a significant number of them feature the exact term in their very titles. The oldest entry is Akuyaku Reijou Victoria from 2009, which puts it five years before My Life as a Villainess.
To a Future of Villainy?
If My Life as a VIllainess is as successful as I hope it is, this could mean seeing other titles in the genre adapted into anime and manga as well. The tricky thing here is that whereas the English title is meant to be fairly snappy, it ironically might make it harder for other titles to distinguish themselves. I don’t think “Villainess” is that bad translation for akuyaku reijou—merely a somewhat imprecise one that trades accuracy for efficiency. Because of that, I’m curious if other English translations are going to willingly adopt the term as a clear genre identifier, or if they’re going to try to avoid getting crowded out by bigger titles. As with so many other trends, we’ll probably get a combination of forgettable misses and memorable hits, but I don’t think I’d mind the process at all.