We are the generation that grew up watching shows such as Digimon, Inuyasha and The Vision of Escaflowne. There is something attractive about works that involve journeys to other worlds with fantastical settings and exciting adventures. Let’s say, you have your normal fantastical plot: a common person falls into another world. There, they may develop or discover the possession of magical powers, live lots of magical occurrences and even may end up finding love! Magic Knight Rayearth, SAO and Zero no Tsukaima come to my mind, among others.
What’s so interesting about this type of fictional works? We receive the chance to explore themes of our interest, fulfil personal fantasies and escape from our common lives (the real world is already complicated on its own). This article shows how Escapism has its value.
There is a very interesting paradigm going on on Asiatic media concerning travels to other worlds. In fact, according to TV Tropes, this type of fictional work is called Isekai in Japanese media and it’s treated as a genre of its own. And yet, nowadays I find a very interesting twist in this type of media, a twist that makes things very entertaining.
The names of the works I’m talking about sound cliché and melodramatic: ‘My Next Live as a Villainess’, ‘Death is the Only Ending for the Villainess’, ‘The Villainess Lives Twice’, ‘The Villainess reverses the hourglass’. Others are more indirect, such as ‘The Abandoned Empress’ and ‘Your Throne’. Most are told from the point of view of females who have a traditional antagonist role.
I’ve always enjoyed ironic consumption, and these titles worked as magnets to me. What I ended up finding was a refreshing surprise: common women who fell into fantastical worlds made from the plots of novels and games they consumed in their free time, or more traditional ‘villainesses’ who travelled back in time to fix what was wrong in their first lives. In the first case, we would see normal girls who found themselves inside the bodies of ‘villainous’ characters and desperately trying to avoid their bad endings by the use of their knowledge of the plots while commenting on clichés and traditional tropes. In the second case, we see female characters who more or less identify with their ‘villainous’ role and try to change their bad outcomes while learning about themselves and what drove them to make their bad choices.
What do these types of works have in common? They are genre deconstructions. According to TV Tropes, deconstructions happen when a fictional work takes its elements apart and shows how certain elements would work in real life, by contrasting them to ‘real situations’ or parodying them. Sarcastic main characters help, too.
There is a very interesting trend among Asian Media (mainly works made by Korean authors, but there are Japanese too) concerning the deconstruction of traditional stories directed to the female public.
Why is this expression of the isekai genre so interesting?
First, because most stories deal with settings of historical fantasy, where we can indulge ourselves with beautiful Period dresses, gorgeous mansions and attractive love interests. One can’t help but remember the works of Jane Austen or the Brontë Sisters.
Second, because the twists of these works feel refreshing. We consider other points of view. We see why villains become what they become. We get to learn new plot points. Deconstructions give an interesting dose of realism and pragmatism to stories. They are refreshing because they give new angles to an old genre and we can identify with the situations.
But let’s not forget: the focus of this essay is villainesses. We get to see the story from the point of view of female characters who don’t portray themselves as good people and some even feel content with their roles.
Raised in a world where women receive lots of double standards, being pressured from young ages to be proper and good and yet receiving worse punishments than guys for doing the same things like them as a result of unrealistic expectations, along with some unhealthy extremes of social justice culture, where we are oddly pressured to change ourselves and learn from our mistakes yet we are not allowed to fully grow from them, it isn’t hard to identify with villainesses. After all, it is unavoidable to find ourselves as the villains of someone else’s life events. We are not perfect people and we fuck up sometimes. Especially when we are young.
So, why are villainesses so interesting? Because they fuck up, too. These characters don’t try to be saintly good girls and they acknowledge their situations. There is an interesting dose of cynicism underlying these works, in some, it’s more open than in others, such as ‘Your Throne’. Some female leads are noble demons who try to not drag third parties into their schemes, like Medea Belial in the work I previously mentioned. Others define themselves as villainess yet behave as anti-heroines are their worst, such as Aria Roscente in ‘The Villaines Reverses the Hourglass’. And others are heroes who still place themselves in the roles of villains, like Catarina Claes in ‘My Next Life as a Villainess!’’.
What do these three have in common? The leads also have internalized in themselves some moral standards about good and evil.
I don’t think it is surprising to find these types of works during the current fourth wave of Feminism we are living in. Terms such as internalized misogyny, double standards and deconstruction are concepts I learned these past years thanks to social media. So, why do I believe these types of Isekai novels that focus on villainesses are so relevant? Because we see other females’ points of view, we understand their positions and sometimes get to see that the true villains are other characters. Most of the villainesses of these works are, in fact, women with terrible social reputations who behave as anti-heroines at their worst.
There is a reason why the social settings of these stories are during past times. The authors of these works are deconstructing tropes from both old and new media. They are giving voices to Other Characters and show them in a realistic light, they write about flawed women who try to survive in a world full of unrealistic expectations, and that is true for both past and actual times.
It isn't hard for me to recall works such as Northanger Abbey or Jane Eyre. There are reasons why Period novels are still relevant these days, but that it’s not the topic I want to address in this essay. Here is this interesting article that analyses the success of Jane Austen works, while this note from the Guardian does the same for the Brontë sisters. Of course, experts and critics would get annoyed at me for putting Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters on the same page, but please, bear with me: I’m talking about fictional works that deal with abuse, machismo, dysfunctional families and difficult childhoods, subjects still relevant to today. So, what’s so interesting about recalling these themes? It’s the way some Asian authors knew how to retake these stories, added some fantastical elements and still deconstructed others, providing us with a refreshing result.
Most of the isekai works I mentioned above are told from the point of view of young girls who are isolated for their social positions because they come from other worlds and know that their ‘new bodies’ are doomed to die and more.
Imagine being reincarnated as the pretty daughter of a noble family and yet... you find yourself hated and isolated from others, in a situation you cannot control. And you can be murdered in cold blood if you don’t make the right choices. These works make it very clear some situations are ugly and dangerous. They are not painted in a romantic light. And the main characters acknowledge it.
Naturally, there are aspects we could criticize of these works. For example, the main leads usually are white thin ladies in gorgeous period dresses, who despite their issues still benefit from privileged backgrounds. And few of these works address LGTBQ+ representation, as most of the endgames are attractive male leads.
But then, this is not about pitting people against each other. It’s about acknowledging a new paradigm in story-telling, one that subverts and parodies plots.
Change is brought over by small steps. And I think we are going on a good path.
Even if Getinkspired allows you to post a blog, the menu asked of me to choose a genre and... the most similar thing I found was the section of life memories? So, sorry if you clicked this searching for some fictional work.
Merci pour la lecture!