I don’t mind isekai anime, as long as it’s not always the exact same thing. You don’t have to re-invent the genre to hook me, just give it a fresh twist or two. Hamefura easily meets and exceeds that modest bar, as Catarina Claes isn’t the heroine of a fantasy RPG, but the villainess of an dating sim! At least, she’s the villain in the game she played in her previous life, before dying at seventeen.
Catarina is oblivious of her real-world Japan past until she stumbles and hits her head and it all rushes back. That’s when it dawns on her that if her path follows that of the game Catarina, she’ll either be killed or exiled in every route. It’s not a matter of playing and winning the game as normal; she has to break the game to avoid certain doom. One thing in her favor: she’s only eight, the proverbial Phantom Menace Anakin: Far from too far gone, plenty of time to devise a plan.
The question, of course, is how to things from going downhill. Having been an otome otaku in her previous life, Catarina has some ideas, and her inner deliberations are given the form of a “Council of Catarinas”, consisting of four different emotional states and an administrator to gather their votes. It’s another novel idea that adds variety to the story, and lets Uchida Maaya play off five different versions of herself—six, including her standard, “unified” inner voice.
The council’s solution to avoid another early death is to develop her sword and magical skills, so that if anyone comes at her, she’ll be ready to defend herself and survive. The magic will also mean she has something to fall back on for money should she end up exiled. Both her parents, her betrothed Gerald Stuart, and her various servants don’t know quite what to make of Catarina’s suddenly odd behavior.
Before long she’s hacking at dummies with a sword and building a garden to commune with nature (and build up her earth magic). But at the end of the day, Gerald still asks for her hand in marriage and she accepts, which means she could still be on the path to doom!
To make matters worse, her parents introduce her to her new adopted brother Keith, who in the game is bullied mercilessly by Catarina, becomes a playboy to sooth his trauma, and eventually he and the heroine Maria fall in love. When Catarina interferes, she’s either exiled or killed off.
She consults her inner head council, who decides that the best way to keep Keith from falling for Maria is to not bully him or make him feel lonely. Catarina does just that, but ends up persuading Keith to use his advanced earth magic, something he promised their parents he wouldn’t.
Catarina is injured by the giant dirt doll, Keith and their parents blame him, and he ends up isolated and alone. Different cause, same effect. Desperate to take the nearest ramp off this doom-filled route, Catarina literally chops Keith’s door down and apologizes for making him break his promise.
Keith comes into the picture pre-messed up thanks to his immense magical talent but lack of control that has led to accidents. But rather than let him stay isolated (or bully him), Catarina shows him she’s not afraid, and promises him they’ll never be apart. She gets in trouble for the door, but things are looking good on at least one not-getting-killed front! Also, it’s a genuinely sweet and moving scene.
I’m well-sold on Hamefura. It places its protagonist in the rigid structure of an otome and challenges her to forge her own path, even if she has to take an ax to the occasional door! She’s fighting against fate with charisma, panache, knowing this world will offer nothing but ruin unless she works her butt off.
Those around her are straight men witnessing her comic transformation from well-bred noble to tree-climbing gardener. Uchida Maaya lays on the industrious charm the whole way through. Her inner council is wonderful. Just as Cat is finding a way not to end up dead or exiled, this is a show managing to innovate and surprise in an over-saturated genre.