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Catarina Claes Gets Into Trouble, Inclusion Ensues

by Izzie Goblynqueer 2 months ago in review / tv / entertainment · updated 2 months ago
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Spoilers Ahead for "My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom"

Portrait of Caterina Claes by me, after "My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom" anime season one, episode five.

I think often about what Anne must have inwardly thought about her young charge.

Catarina Claes, an otome game villainess in one life and a reincarnated high school girl in another life, suffered a pivotal mishap in childhood that sent her down two wildly differing paths. She took a spill over an uneven bit of walkway and hit her head, leaving her with a scar on her forehead. In the first path, she doubled down on her spoiled, noble upbringing and used it as an excuse to manipulate Prince Geordo to an arranged marriage with promising benefits for her, while at the same time sending her down the route of a cruel, antagonistic villainess when she met the otome game protagonist, Maria Campbell. This was the path an unnamed high school girl saw while playing the otome game Fortune Lover, an obsession that inadvertently led to her death in a traffic accident at age 17. She is reborn as Catarina Claes, and upon waking after hitting her head, she was flooded with memories of her past life and the beloved otome game. In the game, Catarina’s life ended early - as her own high school life had - in either death or exile, and she was determined to not let it happen again. Her internal thoughts distracted her to the point Prince Geordo became concerned and decided to take responsibility by proposing marriage, to which Catarina agreed without thinking, only to moments later realize she’d taken the first step on one of Catarina’s potential bad endings.

Dutifully-loyal Anne congratulated Catarina on the marriage proposal, though she seemed concerned and mystified by the shift in demeanor that had overcome her spoiled young charge upon waking. Anne never addressed her concerns with Catarina directly; instead, she continued to serve Catarina to the best of her ability, initially out of duty, but over time warming to Catarina’s new personality and becoming genuinely fond of her. With no way of knowing the child was now moving through life with the mind of a 17-year-old girl from another world, Anne continued to stay by her side, supporting Catarina while still guiding her development by keeping in constant communication with Catarina’s parents. This bridge helped mediate the effects of Catarina’s loving and very tolerant father and her equally loving but more strict mother, who was flabbergasted by the wild young person her daughter had become and still desperately wanted her to become a refined young woman fit to marry the prince.

In this, Anne became an example of what, exactly, My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom did right, and in the process, climbed above other harem/reverse harem anime in quality.

Anne Shelley is a minor character, to the extent her back story - and her coming into herself as a person - isn’t even introduced until late in the series. Despite that, she never felt cold, judging, or aloof toward a young charge that her expressions and excellent voice acting showed she had concerns about. Anne paid close attention to Catarina’s ramblings about “doom flags,” and “this world,” but she never pressed the issue when Catarina changed the subject. She seemed aware that the injury went deeper than a surface scar that would fade before adulthood, and she recognized that Catarina’s behavior was odd to others, but she never tried to force Catarina to change or asked for intervention from her parents or others. She made sure Catarina stayed safe even through dangerous behavior such as climbing trees or taking an axe to Keith’s bedroom door, but the extent of her intervention was leaving it to Catarina’s parents to sort out damages to property or social appearance. In this, Anne became an excellent support for someone who would be perceived as mentally ill by many of her peers but posed no real threat to herself or others.

Indeed, most of the other characters at one point or another were taken by surprise or showed concern for Catarina’s unusual behavior and mannerisms. Most of them knew she was a daughter of a noble family and some knew at least vaguely what she was like prior to her head injury, but Catarina’s openness and charm - and her deliberate attempts to eliminate any perceived hostility - won many of them over and ultimately led to the “reverse harem” aspect of the series. She wasn’t universally charming - in fact, her off-putting behavior generated as much background hostility as it did friendliness, leading to a confrontation with her detractors at the peak of the first season. Likewise, while her mother admitted that there was benefit to Catarina’s unusual charm - including keeping her marriage to Catarina’s father stable and happy - she remained frustrated with the outbursts of wildness and seemingly erratic decisions that were a staple of Catarina’s being.

It’s this realness and diversity of characters that enhances the quality of the series. Prince Geordo, characterized as “the black-hearted prince” in the game, warmed and became more open to others, including his twin brother, Alan. His “black-hearted” aspect still shows up in jealousy and frustration that he can’t keep Catarina solely to himself, and he has an underlying tension that suggests he could still be dangerous to an opponent, but it’s tempered by Catarina’s desire to include others. Keith, now a complete opposite of the careless playboy he’d been in the game, became obsessed almost to an unhealthy degree with his adopted sister, tempered by Catarina’s obliviousness and Geordo’s willingness to interfere. He also hides a wish that his and the others’ roles in life were reversed, with him being able to be an “ordinary girl,” courting a charismatic young man Catarina. Prince Alan, oblivious to his own feelings toward Catarina until late in the story arc, came out of his shell as the tempestuous, reclusive prince he’d been in the game and not only found joy in his life but repaired his damaged relationships. As a fiancé to Mary Hunt via an arranged marriage, he’s loyal but unattached, respecting Mary’s boundaries as she pursues her own interest in Catarina.

Mary’s own path pivoted immediately upon meeting Catarina. Catarina “stole” Alan’s moment with Mary by praising her flower garden before he could, and in doing so, she immediately won Mary’s heart. However, Mary’s character went deeper than her original story suggested; her original paths were to stay with Alan or to graciously step aside in favor of Maria. In either instance, she appeared committed to Alan’s needs. Once on her new path, however, Mary demonstrated a depth as one of the queer characters in the series that was unexpected - in addition to falling in love with Catarina, and as a result vying to prevent Alan from realizing his own feelings and becoming a rival, she also hides a desire to live as a man, higher ranking than even Geordo, and thus able to pull rank over him to marry Catarina. These deep-seated feelings play out in her aggressive and direct pursuit of Catarina, mirrored by her likewise-passionate rivals Sophia and Maria, who each also want to have a committed, lifelong relationship with Catarina after their own unique fashion.

In developing their own feelings, however, the characters don’t become mutually exclusive. In a surprising and refreshing example of a working polyamorous relationship, Catarina’s suitors - including Geordo - each find their own unique place with each other as well as Catarina. They establish friendships and boundaries that fluctuate as their relationships with each other and Catarina fluctuate. For example, Geordo in childhood has a mild interest in Catarina as a person, and his friendships with Alan, Keith, and the others are also mild; however, as he warms and develops feelings for Catarina, his jealously creates boundaries that waver between a genuine wall and a playful rivalry. As he comes to understand the others will always be in Catarina’s life, the wall begins to crumble and give way to a grudging acceptance that - while he’s still the one engaged to marry her - her heart will never be exclusively his. As a result, his rivalry with Keith in particular becomes more focused on calling out Keith’s obsessive behaviors than on actual obstruction. The unique ways of including siblings (Catarina and Keith are biologically distant cousins, but emotionally siblings) extends to the twins Geordo and Alan, as well as Sophia and her older brother Nicol. Geordo and Alan, and Sophia and Nicol, thankfully don’t have any romantic interest in each other, even in a joking sense like Hikaru and Kaoru in Ouran High School Host Club. Instead, both sets of siblings show genuine, healthy sibling friendships. Sophia favors her brother Nicol as Catarina’s suitor, with the understanding it would mean Catarina would be part of their household.

That is one interesting aspect of the series that plays into the dynamics of Catarina’s circle. There doesn’t seem to be any mechanism for marriage between same-sex couples in their world. As a result, Mary has voiced the desire to run away with Catarina to an isolated location to be together, while Sophia seems to see her only path as being through Nicol and Maria seems to feel she’ll have to pursue Catarina through a servant position due to her gender and social class. Geordo, Keith, Alan, and Nicol, however, know that while they have the option of marriage to Catarina, the girls’ pursuits are very real and valid.

The respect for each others’ and Catarina’s feelings is really what set this series apart. By the end of the first season, Catarina’s naive openness starts leading her toward more dangerous paths with the introduction of Sirius Dieke/Rafael Wolt, and in the second season with Rufus/Sora, and this is where the more nuanced interactions begin to shine. While being actively protective of Catarina and hostile to those who show malice, including Sora after learning he assaulted Catarina, they’re open to the idea she might pursue others. After Rafael left the school, they invited him back to a private gathering as a surprise to Catarina. When he asked to be allowed to stay with her, they openly accepted that he was now part of their group. “Right in front of her fiancé…” “You’ve seduced yet another one, Sister.” “Seriously, that girl…” “Now I have yet another rival.” “That’s our Lady Catarina.” A nod. “Come, everyone, let’s eat.” The comfortable, close atmosphere of the voice acting was paired with a warm, dimly lit, cozy setting that emphasized how these young people were comfortable with each other and the relationship they found themselves in. By transitioning from that scene into a bright spring morning, the first season’s final episode reiterates what Catarina herself vocalizes - that she is “truly blessed.” That, in turn, set this series up to still be wholesome, enjoyable, and engaging, even as the story deepened and got somewhat darker for the second season. With two seasons of anime already firmly under its belt, My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom has the potential for a long and successful run if the creators feel up to pursuing it. Like Anne, standing in the wings and accepting Catarina and her circle for who they are, determined to see it to the end, I look forward to any new installments of this series that come along.

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Izzie Goblynqueer

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