If you had doubts about the direction The Dark History of the Reincarnated Villainess was headed, allow me to assuage your concerns: volume three has gotten the story right back on track, bringing back all the subversive elements that gave the concept so much promise.
This concept of a young woman being reincarnated as the villainess—not of an otome game like in so many similar series but into the novels she herself wrote as an adolescent—lovingly skewers the variety of chuunibyou that is mostly particular to young women. This is the kind that those of us who grew up on series like Fushigi Yûgi and Red River will easily recognize in ourselves. Konoha, as Iana, confronts the melodrama she fantasized about as an adolescent and, as a result, comes to terms with the psychological processes of teenage girls and their relationship with sex, media, and fantasy. The first book was exactly what I was hoping for, an affectionate satire of the stories that played a large role in shaping my relationship with media, but the second seemed to be a disappointingly rote repetition of villainess story tropes. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, but decided to give it one more volume.
The third volume, while not as consistent as the first, offers more of the self-aware parody that made the first so special. This time, Iana is confronted by an officer who she doesn’t recognize as her creation, accusing her of being behind the kidnappings of several beautiful noblewomen. Iana, of course, had nothing to do with this, but her pre-reincarnation history of petty nastiness has made her appear to be a likely suspect. Complicating matters further is the fact that when she wrote the story, she never created a backstory for the actual kidnapper, who she made up in a flash of inspiration one day.
This storyline turns the volume into something like a mystery, as Iana tries to figure out the true culprit in order to clear her own name and rescue her sister and the other kidnapped girls. It’s a genuinely interesting variation on the formula, as Iana must combine her knowledge of the world of the story with other clues that the story world invented to fill in the holes that she left. What’s more, between that and the officer who was nothing more than a background character in the original, there are signs of the universe filling in the plot holes and incomplete worldbuilding she left behind. I’d love to see more developments along these lines in the future.
The commentary on adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies are back as well. Iana confronts her internalized misogyny as she realizes she didn’t write many female characters, and the ones she did include when necessary were written as lesbians so they couldn’t be book-Konoha’s rivals for male affection. This unfortunately leads to a predatory lesbian stereotype appearing in the volume. It’s a tricky situation, since she’s more or less the natural extension of Iana’s former misogyny and rape fetish and thus it makes sense for her to be included; however, this particular harmful stereotype goes relatively unchallenged, while others are questioned throughout the volume, often to humorous effect.
One thing that has not really improved is Akiharu Tōka‘s artwork. It works well enough for the story she’s telling, and she gets some good sight gags in. However, every time a new character is introduced, it only becomes more obvious that she can draw two types of characters: males and females. Within the gender categories, they are almost identical in face and body type. The men are lanky and narrow-eyed, with rumpled hair, while the women are stick-thin except for their large breasts, with big eyes and usually long, flowing hair, although perhaps that’s a meta-joke about teenage Konoha/Iana’s tastes and/or artistic skill. There’s less excuse, however, for how busy and crowded the page layouts are; if one were to open to a random page, they’d have a hard time telling what was going on or where the characters were at a glance.
As the volumes go on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this series probably won’t have much appeal for people who aren’t intimately familiar with the tropes of adolescent teenage girl fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that; after all, how many series are out there that affectionately mock teenage boys hollering about their right hand of darkness or what have you. It’s nice to have something that calls back to the kinds of fantasies that appealed more to me and many of my peers. However, there’s a distinct lack of real character development or thoughtful worldbuilding that can draw in an audience that isn’t here specifically for the satirical elements. Konoha, Ginoford, and the other characters remain the flat caricatures that Konoha/Iana created in middle school, and the plot has yet to develop beyond her trying to avoid death flags.
Still, it’s good to see that The Dark History of the Reincarnated Villainess has found its way back on track to keeping up its gentle satire of shōjo isekai. I’d love to see it dig a little deeper and probe at the weaknesses of a world created by a teenager – not just how it manifests her fantasies and psyche, but also where the underdeveloped areas lie, and whether this other world decides to fill them in.