Is Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria the worst isekai ever?

What if I told you that this summer season there is an isekai anime even worse than How Not to Summon a Demon Lord, the ecchi harem show that uses slavery as an erotic comedy premise? Would you believe me? I didn’t even believe me at first; after all, there isn’t much worse in the world than slavery. But the first episode of Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria was without exaggeration the single worst piece of anime or television or any other audio-visual medium I have ever encountered. Maybe that demonstrates my shelteredness, but honestly, How Not to Summon a Demon Lord appears tame by comparison.

When, I say “worst,” I don’t refer to its poor production values (though the art and animation and music and direction all earn a clear “bad”). Instead, I mean that the ideas it contains come with implicit endorsements of violent, chauvinistic, morally abject ideologies. This goes far beyond the typical misogynistic wish-fulfillment found in generic shows like How Not to Summon a Demon Lord. It was so vile that I wanted to take a shower after watching it. I felt dirty.

Bear with me for a moment as I work through the show’s more innocuous elements before I offer my conclusions. I promise I will have a point by the end of this essay.

I would like to start with the title, as I did with How Not to Summon a Demon Lord (or my translation, The Isekai Demon King and the Summoner Girls’ Slave Magic). Unlike Demon Lord, which offers a bold, literal summary of its premise, this title is interesting for its complete inscrutability. Instead of asking “Oh my god, what is this about?” like I did upon spotting the words slave magic, with this show I just asked “Oh, so…  um… what’s this about?”

The alternative English title, The Master of Ragnarok & Blesser of Einherjar, carries some boring references to Norse mythology but otherwise offers few clues. It is featureless, the peak generic isekai. Since the Norse nonsense is such an awful mouthful, I’ll jump back to the original Japanese for a new translation. The words in the title are well above my language ability, but let’s crack open a dictionary and try anyway.

My dictionary defines hyakuren as “well-tempered” in a metalworking context, which becomes “well-trained” when used idiomatically. (As an aside, the hyaku here means 100. I can’t help but think of the “glorious Nippon steel folded 1000 times” meme). I don’t know what to make of this word. In English, “well-trained” is a uselessly dull adjective that I can only imagine attached to the word “militia,” but maybe it has some kind of literary value in Japanese as an allusion or cultural cliche.

Hyakuren modifies haou, which the dictionary lists as “ruler,” “autocrat,” or “high king.” The kanji for ha here seems to have a meaning relating to supremacy or hegemony, but “autocrat” has harsh connotations in English so I am leaning towards something simple like “king.” (Another fun aside, the dictionary also says haouryuu is the Japanese term for tyrannosaurus rex. I’ve only ever seen the katakana-ized tiranosaurusu rekkusu, so native term is probably archaic, but maybe haou could work as “tyrant” as well).

Seiyaku does not appear in my dictionary but the kanji suggests something along the lines of “holy” or “saintly” or “priestly” which fits with the next word it modifies, Valkyria in simple katakana.

Putting it all together, I get something along the lines of The Well-Trained Ruler and the Holy Valkryia. That is a far cry from The Master of Ragnarok & Blesser of Einherjar, especially with the awkward “well-trained ruler” part, but then again, The Master of Ragnarok & Blesser of Einherjar is extremely awkward as well. I could spice it up a bit with something like The Steely King and Holy Valkyria to play on hyakuren’s metalworking connotation, but I am not confident enough with the literary words to make that leap. I’ll settle for the simple shorthand Holy Valkryia for the rest of the review. (I am tempted to go with the acronym MoRaBoE for the laughs but I don’t want to type that over and over again).

Holy Valkyria has a strange relationship with history. The MC’s “superpower” is apparently his cellphone’s search engine, which he uses to intellectually outclass his enemies with modern insights. The problem with this strategy is that just about any search term will return Wikipedia as the first result. Incredibly though, the writers seem to use even worse historical sourcing: the MC makes the laughable claim that both Alexander the Great and Oda Nobunaga invented the phalanx despite the men living almost 2000 years apart. The inclusion of Oda seems like a bit of delusional Japanese nationalism, but the phalanx long predates even Alexander (Wikipedia suggests by at least another 2000 years in Mesopotamia). The MC uses the tactic to win a battle, which really isn’t so impressive considering that his foes simply charge a rabble of infantry and chariots into a dense line of pikes. The enemy soldiers even exclaim that the MC’s troops use iron weapons (gasp!), except the animation is so ugly that they actually look to be made of rubber.

None of this would be so bad if Holy Valkryia kept to isekai fantasy, but the show seems to fancy itself educational. In addition to the line about Oda and Alexander, the show drops a wall of text about the history of the phalanx written with encyclopedic (or Wikipedic) authoritativeness. It even briefly explains a “negotiating tactic” which the MC “read about in a book” (which I can only assume was The Art of the Deal). Later, it tries to explore its Bronze Age setting by explaining a flour-making device called a rotary quern. The girls do a stupid little comic relief act about the quern providing them with delicious bread, the MC waxes humility over his encyclopedic (*cough* Wikipedic) knowledge and the little educational bit ends. It’s so odd! No one wants to watch a light-ecchi harem anime to learn about ancient cultures! Why include this in a fantasy isekai? My only guess is that the author or publisher wants to slap some kind of “educational” sticker on the series as a marketing ploy. I’ll return to this point later…

I suppose Holy Valkyria deserves credit for even trying to explore the Bronze Age with its unique setting, regardless of its historical oddities. Unlike every other isekai placed in some generic MMO-inspired high medieval fantasy universe, Holy Valkyria more resembles something like Clash of Clans than World of Warcraft (though I don’t think this is a compliment…). It might not even be a proper “different world” isekai: the MC describes the world as an alternate-dimension Earth because of the position of the stars (I am sure he can thank Wikipedia again for the constellation charts). The phalanx and landscapes and architecture suggest a fictionalized location somewhere near Mesopotamia or Persia. It might even be possible to get specific: a bizarre throwaway reference to the sack of the city of Van, a real city in eastern Turkey, makes me wonder if the author had the Anatolian Plateau in mind. Though this makes the Norse mythology in the title anachronistic by give or take a thousand years and three thousand kilometers, Holy Valkyria can at least claim to be different.

However, “different” does not imply good. Holy Valkyria squanders its unique setting with perhaps the ugliest backgrounds and locations I have ever seen in an anime. Even the desolate desert wasteland of Trigun from way back in 1998 has better art. The empty, rocky expanse of the Anatolian Plateau just isn’t a visually interesting setting for fantasy fiction. The most prevalent color in the show in the show is a dull brown; if the characters are not set against a blue sky, their bright hair and eyes pop out from some static brown background. The battlefield is dirt brown. The war-tent is dusty brown. The city and palace are brick brown. Even the functionally faceless people that populate the world all wear monochrome tunics that range from light brown to dark grey. This lack of diversity in the color palette makes the whole show a visual chore to watch. Only the MC and his adoring girls have any colorful vibrancy (and even their character designs are sub-par at best). The world doesn’t feel strange or wonderful or fantastic (subarashii~) like an isekai should. It feels dead and empty.

Speaking of dead and empty, let’s get to the characters. The MC himself is a featureless, self-insert clone that everyone either calls “big brother,” “father,” “Patriarch,” or “Ruler” even though he is just a middle schooler. Since he is so generic and the show rarely bothers with his name, I won’t either. MC it is! In a mere two years he has become the warlord of a clan and assembled a harem of five adoring anime girls. Because all of the girls are just lazy archetypes that merely exist to lust after the MC, let’s make this quick. I will forgo names again because really, who cares. The show certainly doesn’t care enough to give them real personalities.

Girl #1 is an assertive big sister type (even though she calls the MC big brother). Girl #2 is a feisty dog type that likes head pats. Girl #3 is a little sister type forced into familial submission by the MC, but she falls in love with him so it is okay (it is not okay). Girl #4 is a rough-and-tumble bumpkin-dialect tsundere that can’t speak proper polite Japanese (me neither, sister!). Finally, Girl #5 is a perfectly little Yamato Nadeshiko dutifully waiting for the MC to return to his beloved homeland of Japan. I only exaggerate a little here.

Girls #1 and #2 clearly love the MC, either as a brother or father or lover, though the show mixes up the concepts with the creepy title “patriarch” to play to an incest fetish. Girl #1 cuddles with the MC after bathing in a lake and later he gets a big boob bath himself to help him “re-energize.” She even asks the MC to marry her in a “kidding-not-kidding” kind of way. In the first episode alone, Girls #1 and #2 offer the MC sex, which the show euphanizes as “cleaning out the pipes” with their bodies. Girl #3 begins to fall in love with the MC due to an unprecedented case of rapid-onset Stockholm Syndrome. Girl #4 doesn’t explicitly express her love because she needs to fulfill her tsundere quota, but she fantasizes about sex with him anyway. Similarly, Girl #5 doesn’t obviously love the MC, as befits any good Yamato Nadeshiko that values filial harmony more than romantic love. But of course, that is all just an act: her loyalty assures the audience that if only asked, she would fall for the MC in a heartbeat, that delicate, submissive thing.

Do any of those girls stick out? So far, these antics probably sound like the usual innocuous, wish-fulfillment ecchi harem. When does this become worse than the slavery in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord? Oh, did you notice the “forced familial submission” part? Let me explain.

After the battle, the MC captures the leader of a rival clan, who happens to be a cute little anime girl (see Girl #3, imouto template). His soldiers bring her rope-bound into his war-tent and he proceeds to ask her to become his adopted daughter. She refuses, so his attack dog (girl #2) plays bad cop and commands the captive to respect the patriarch(y). Of course, because he is such a kind gentlemen, he tells the dog girl to instead show some respect to the vanquished enemy. He then threatens to burn down the captured girl’s city and kill everyone inside (respectful stuff). The girl settles on a compromise: she will merely become his little sister, not his daughter, to preserve her pride. Later, he brings her to tears by promising to protect her clan rather than enslave or annihilate it. It’s love at first sight, just after violently subduing her in battle, binding her in ropes, and threatening to kill everyone she cares about.

This is so much worse than How Not to Summon a Demon Lord. Though I dismissed the parody defense in my previous review, Demon Lord can at least claim to satirize isekai garbage like Holy Valkryia that play female submission plots straight without an ounce of self-awareness. More importantly, the slavery in Demon Lord does not result from violence or coercion. Within the narrative, it was just an honest mistake by inexperienced summoners. Crucially though, the characters in Demon Lord want to solve the problem, even if a long publishing window for the source material will inevitably result in repeated delays.

Though Holy Valkyria doesn’t literally enslave the little sister (the MC doesn’t own her), it comes close. If she had chosen the daughter option, she would have become a slave “bound by absolute servitude.” Faced with the choice between becoming a daughter-slave or a little-sister sister-wife… well, that’s not really much of a choice is it? The circumstances of her capture were violent and psychologically manipulative. She cannot consensually refuse to join the harem. The situation resembles a strategy used by the Roman Empire: prominent Roman families would “adopt” (read: kidnap) the children of subdued chieftains to prevent future insurrections (think Theon Greyjoy living with the Starks in Game of Thrones). But like Theon, no matter how much the little sister loves her new “family,” she can never escape that original power dynamic. She cannot leave the relationship without her or her clan suffering violence. She is a hostage.

The MC seems oddly comfortable in his role as a violent, slaving warlord for a middle schooler thrown into a Bronze Age fantasy world with nothing but a magically infallible cellphone and a crack team of lusty little sisters. In a stupid monologue in which he lays out his new world’s political philosophy, he offers the worthlessly un-nuanced pearl of wisdom “The weak are oppressed and trampled down.” (why do I get a whiff of Japanese revisionist nationalism?). Later, he slams his fist on a table so hard that it starts to bleed and berates his council of faceless men in monochrome brown or grey tunics about the importance of loyalty to the clan (why do I get a whiff of Japanese revisionist nationalism?). In the same speech, he insists that he will “rid the world of all opposition” to bring peace at any cost.

Stop. Who else had a habit of slamming his fist and believing in the validity of waging war at any cost to bring peace? What other leader cultivated an aura of magical infallibility? Hitler. No, seriously! Hitler merely wanted to bring peace and prosperity to the German people, just on delusional and murderous terms that the rest of the world found unacceptable. Ordinarily, I would try to avoid validating Godwin’s Law by making a Hitler comparison, but Holy Valkryia does it for me. When the MC celebrates his triumph in battle with a military parade, the adoring masses chant “sieg patriarch.” No, really! Nazi chic is in again in Japan!

Why, why, why choose that chant? It was clearly an intentional decision: the Japanese voice actors say it in German-English (of course, not a language, but who cares, all westerners speak gaijin) so this is not a “lost in translation” moment. If the writer wanted an exotic foreign phrase, there are plenty of alternatives without extreme Nazi overtones like a Latin “ave patriarch” or an English “hail patriarch.” Even generic “cheer cheer hoorah!” sound effects should suffice given that the scene barely has importance as a world-building moment. The phrase doesn’t even make sense! “Sieg” means victory, so the phrase comes out to something like “victory patriarch.” What the heck does that mean? Nothing, except an appeal to Nazi aesthetics. Simply saying “sieg heil” is illegal in Germany for it’s association with Nazism. If modern Germans do not tolerate it, no one can plausibly argue an innocent intent for the phrase. Ignorance is not a defense. Again, why why why use “sieg patriarch?”

I promised that my discussion of the title would have a point, so here it is. Maybe that dictionary’s suggested translation of Haou as “autocrat” wasn’t so far off the mark after all. Having watching the episode, I think an appropriate translation might come out like The Iron Tyrant and Holy Valkryia.

This is the first anime I have watched that I would feel comfortable calling fascistic. Seriously. Like with Godwin’s Law Hitler comparisons, I don’t want to toss the word around lightly. When writing this essay, I oscillated between the simple term “authoritarian” and the loaded slur “fascist.” But Holy Valkryia fits the underlying ideology really well even if it does not display the most overt features of fascism like genocidal racism often found in modern stereotypes of the movement. Holy Valkryia certainly isn’t as flashy as Hitler’s racialized Nazism. But I do see many philosophical similarities. In that way, it is more like grandpa Mussolini’s original, statist version fascism: violent and chauvinistic yes, but often just mundane and incompetent. (if you have any interest, Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism provides the academic basis for my comparison).

Holy Valkryia combines so many violent, dangerous ideas. Its misogyny can be summed up by the MC’s title “patriarch” before even touching the issue of female submission to an ecchi harem and girl #3’s status as a hostage. Worse, the patriarchal structure of siblings and children in his clan literally equates national loyalty with familial loyalty like the most extreme nationalists. The MC’s leadership cult is a mass movement: the whole city seems to come out to chant “seig patriarch.” Even fascism’s preoccupation with national rebirth appears when girl #1 brags about how The Infallible Great Leader MC transformed the clan from weak dogs into “true wolves” (a bit of trivia, Hitler fancied himself “Wolfsschanze” or “the wolf”). Then, the MC establishes a political philosophy that legitimizes the powerful crushing the weak, be it the sack of Van or the captivity of Girl #3’s clan. Finally, he elevates the concepts of patriarchy and the nation-family to positions of tantamount importance, to be defended at any cost even if he must “rid the world of all opposition.”

That is the clencher: a Social Darwinist conception of human progress by which the victor in violent conflict wins moral superiority. Reasoned debate ceases to drive political action as it would in a classical liberal conception of democracy. Further, the presence of patriarchy and slavery means that Holy Valkryria implicitly rejects the singular focus on class equality in socialism. Even conservatism falls against Holy Valkyria’s ideology: the old men of the Wolf Clan with boring conceptions of authoritarianism yield to the MC’s energetic drive for youthful rejuvenation. If we can eliminate liberal democracy, socialism, and conservatism as value systems, I can only imagine fascism or apathy remaining. Holy Valkryia is the fascist aesthetic of domination disguised under the shell of a generic, apathetic isekai.

I believe in John Stuart Mill’s style of freedom of speech: every opinion has value. Nationalistic anime like Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought There and High School Fleet express valid ideas about rearmament, even if I find some of the delivery and implications questionable. Even odious works like Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries ought to exist if only to be used as educational materials to argue against fascist ideologies.

But with Holy Valkyria, we should really consider the target audience. I’ve spent enough time in Japanese schools to know that most of the boys older than eleven hide ecchi isekai novels under Doraemon dust covers. Remember my note about the title having no meaning? If you are an overworked Japanese parent with a young Satoshi who raves about his friends reading cool new fantasy books, would you let him pick up one with a title full of meaningless nonsense words like Holy Valkyria? It seems innocent enough, after all. I don’t even know what a “valkryia” is… if it makes Satoshi happy, what harm can it do? It even has “educational” historical bits about phalanxes and querns! Maybe Satoshi will learn something!

I am sure you, my level-headed reader, will think I am overreacting here. Holy Valkryia really is just an innocent, generic isekai that everyone will forget in a few years when the next fad captures light novel, manga, and anime industry. The chauvinism and misogyny and appeals to Nazi aesthetics probably come from the author’s ignorance rather than real ill intent. You are probably right. Holy Valkryia isn’t precisely fascism and much more dangerous works surely exist. But given the movement’s emphasis on thoughtless mass action that resists intellectual definition, nothing is “precisely” fascism. As experienced on a personal level, this one episode really shook me.

Holy Valkyria makes me question my commitment to classical liberal democratic principles. This is the only creative work I have ever encountered that, in my deepest gut, I think should be destroyed. Microwave any discs or hard drives containing the animation. Burn any copies of the light novel and manga source materials. Annihilate it. The thing makes me sick. With its pretense of educational value, the thought of my students reading or watching it and internalizing its themes enrages me. At least Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought There was honest about its nationalism. At least How Not to Summon A Demon Lord was honest about its slavery premise. At least Mein Kampf was honest about its hateful madness. I can disagree with those works and still believe in their right to exist.

But Holy Valkryia hides its disgusting ideologies under the most bland, generic isekai ever made. It is impossible to fight a liar: this is fascism for the fake news age. Children will encounter this. They might even learn from it. No, that thought doesn’t enrage me. It terrifies me. If I am willing to censor something I disagree with on such a visceral level, doesn’t that make me almost as bad as the hateful fascists I profess to hate?

I want to take a shower. I feel dirty.

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