What’s it about? Overworked office employee Rei is playing her favorite otome game to unwind one night, when she suddenly wakes up inside the game’s world. This is excellent news: not because she gets to spend time with any of the male love interests, pah! It’s excellent news because she wakes up sitting next to her actual favorite character, the haughty yet adorable villainess Claire Francois.
If you’ve been anywhere near the yuri world in the last few years, no doubt I’m In Love with the Villainess is a name that’s familiar. I’ve heard a lot of good things: it’s a fun f/f romance from a queer creator, and its POV character talks about the state of LGBTQIA+ representation in the media and the experience of being a sapphic person in contemporary Japan in a frank way that’s refreshing and (so far) somewhat uncommon for yuri and BL fiction. With all the sparkle and spotlight this series already has, I deliberately chose not to seek out the source material so I could let this premiere wash over me anew, and I could give it the same fair shake as I everything that I review. This is an adaptation of a beloved work that pushes representation boundaries and that’s contributing to the ever-expanding canon of yuri fantasy… but can its first episode win new audiences over on its own merit?
Well, my first answer is: I think how much you get into this will depend on how you feel about the tsundere and her attached tropes. As much as I believe that new life can be breathed into stale romantic archetypes by putting a queer spin on them, if you don’t like that archetype to begin with, you’re going to have a hard time. Unfortunately, I fall into this camp. Romance plotlines that deploy this character type often involve a concentrated “breaking down” of the tsundere, embarrassing or defanging her to get to her warm, soft center, in a way that often reduces her agency and relies on the protagonist annoying or humiliating her until she relents. I hope I don’t have to explain why that’s uncomfortable, both from a personal taste perspective and from a feminist analysis perspective.
Admittedly, even if this trope overall makes me grind my teeth, the antics of Rei (now Rae, her player-character’s name) and Claire did make me chuckle a couple times. Claire is determined to bully Rae into submission and intimidate her into leaving the school, but Claire is Rae’s fave character for a reason: Rae loves this shit. Claire insults her, Rae just swoons and tells Claire how cute she is. Claire steps on her foot in the hall, Rae says “step on me harder!” Claire is, understandably, baffled.
This gag won’t stay funny for a whole season—or probably for longer than one episode—so I’m very much hoping their dynamic changes soon, but in short doses it’s kinda funny. In the same way that it’s funny how Rae aces her exams because she did a deep dive into the game’s lore and worldbuilding so she could write accurate fanfic. Is she a little unhinged? Yes. Is she an exaggerated-for-comedy-but-ultimately-kinda-relatable depiction of a fan faced with their problematic fave character IRL? Also yes. Dare I say we’re going to get some good reaction images out of this one.
That being said, even if their back-and-forth did get some giggles out of me, there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent to this whole setup that you can’t get away from. As well as being based in that “chip away at the ice” model I described above, it has to be noted that Rae holds the power here. She’s an adult zapped back into a magical high school, for one thing; and by virtue of having played the game and interacted with Claire as a fictional character, she knows Claire intimately in a way Claire can’t ever know her. She endures the haughty bullying because she knows that Claire is a good person, deep down, and is willing to endure whatever it takes—and push Claire however it takes—to get to that warm gooey “true self” that Rae already knows is there. As I said above, when Claire initiates their sparring and Rae takes it in stride, it’s kind of fun; but when Rae refuses to leave Claire alone and tries to shove her way into Claire’s bedroom it becomes grating.
I really hope their dynamic develops beyond this awkward starting point. Gags about Rae being a hapless fangirl who’s down bad for her fave fictional woman can’t sustain an actual story, let alone an actual love story. It would be fascinating to see character growth on both sides: Rae coming to understand Claire as a person in her own right, not just a game character, and Claire finding some likeable quality about Rae that makes their feelings mutual and brings them to more equal footing.
The opening’s imagery of Rae chasing Claire in circles, and the next episode preview suggesting that Rae gets herself hired as a maid so she can infiltrate Claire’s home, unfortunately don’t give me much hope that this will let up. But hey, I want to be hopeful—as I said in the opener, I’ve heard so many good things about this series, and I’m excited to see a spec-fic yuri with such high production values. If this is just the rocky beginning to a cute romance, well, it would be aggravating but I could manage it. If this constant wearing-down of Claire is the core of their relationship, the taste of the show will go sour. If you like this romantic framework, of course, you’re in luck—now you’ve got it But With Lesbians. As for me, I’m willing to try another couple of episodes, but I’m going to need this show to evolve past this one-note dynamic if it’s going to capture my heart.