The Rise of Villainess Isekai: A Fascinating Female-Led Fantasy Subgenre

Want male OP fantasies but with strong female leads trying to not die while harvesting a hub of pretty boys? Read on to learn about villainess isekai.

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Brown haired girl in white and blue attire flexing her arm by three book covers, on a blue, pink, and purple background with clouds.

We at Bookstr are continuing our streak of delivering comprehensive research on subgenres you never knew you needed to know about. They’re niche, they’re crazy, and sometimes, they’re trendy. In this edition of Crazy Book Genres, we’re featuring the phenomenon that is villainess isekai. A subgenre built on shoujo manga and video game meta? Let’s discuss!

What is villainess isekai?

Villainess isekai is a variation of the isekai genre — stories where the protagonist gets transported into a fantasy world. Traditional isekai normally has a main character who dies and gets to do their life over as a hero in the alternate world (e.g. Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation). As the hero, the MC typically has awesome powers, acquires a harem, and has free will to go on different adventures. These tend to be stories with a male lead, aimed at a male audience. The villainess subgenre, however, takes an opposite approach.

Light novel cover of "Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation" vol. 1 by Rifujin na Magonote, featuring six male and female characters posing together on a background with windows in brown and beige colors.

As the name implies, villainess isekai follows a female protagonist who gets reincarnated as the designated villainess of an alternate universe — namely, the world of a book, manga, or video game she consumed in her previous life. Unlike regular isekai, she is forced into the role of antagonist rather than hero and has a pre-established “bad ending.” The plot then becomes about the villainess working to prevent her sour fate by using the meta knowledge she has of the setting she’s been placed into.

A shared element between villainess isekai and regular isekai is the harem trope, but even in that, they differ. In villainess isekai, the love interests are not meant for her but for the heroine of the alternate universe. That’s why villainess-centric stories often focus on her targeting one of the love interests to leverage her status and evade her bad ending.

The Origin Story of the Reincarnated Villainess

In its early stages, villainess isekai involved a girl getting reincarnated as the rival character in a shoujo manga. As the subgenre has evolved, the setting and tropes it’s leaned into have been those of video games — otome games, to be exact. These are interactive games where the playable character has numerous love interests, each of which unlocks a different story route. The first of its kind was the 1994 Japanese game Angelique.

Artwork for the Game Boy Advance edition of the video game "Angelique" (1994), featuring a cast of characters with colorful hair and garments in a square gold frame, against a pink background.

Angelique was not only the first otome game, but it’s also unique from those that have come after because of its use of classic shoujo manga tropes. It incorporates a stock shoujo heroine and a stock shoujo rival (villainess). Another feature that sets it apart from other otome games is the fact that both heroine and rival are playable characters who can compete for the target love interests. This, and the magical aristocratic setting of Angelique, have set the precedent for villainess isekai (or otome isekai) as we know it today.

The Trend Setters and Why We Love the Trend

The trope of a character being reincarnated as a villainess calls back to the 2013 web novel, Kenkyo, Kenjitsu wo Motto ni Ikite Orimasu! (My Motto is Living Honestly and Humbly). The story follows a girl who, upon entering elementary school, regains memories of her past life, realizing that she’s currently the villainess in a shoujo manga her past self used to read. It pans out with the same structure and gimmicks of otome isekai, without the video game aspect.

The villainess franchise that arguably put the subgenre on the map, however, was the 2014 light novel series My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! It has a similar premise as Kenkyo Kenjitsu but actually incorporates video game meta. The story is about a noble lady named Katarina Claes, who is reborn as the villainess of an otome game and must save herself from her bad ending while navigating an eclectic harem.

Light novel cover of "My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!" vol. 1 by Satoru Yamaguchi, featuring a brown haired girl, a blond young man, and a gray haired man posing on a white background.

My Next Life as a Villainess has been adapted into a manga, a spin-off manga, and was the first otome isekai to receive an anime. The show has gained great popularity, with a theatrical film released in 2023.

What’s made this series such a success and breeder of more villainess content is the fact that it subverts the male power fantasy of isekai. The villainess niche explicitly centers around a female lead taking back her autonomy. These narratives offer a fresh perspective to the mass-produced isekai genre by turning it on its head and adding new stakes to the formula. Not to mention, the sapphic twists My Next Life introduces in its otome set-up, which has paved the way for series like I’m in Love with the Villainess.

More Examples of Villainess Series

While not every series with a villainess tag incorporates the subgenre’s tropes by the numbers, they all follow a similar structure. Here are some recent examples of villainess series, recommended by us and verified Amazon reviewers:

Endo and Kobayashi Live! The Latest on Tsundere Villainess Lieselotte

Volume one cover of the light novel "Endo and Kobayashi Live! The Latest on Tsundere Vialliness Lieselotte" by Suzu Enoshima, featuring a blond girl pouting on a chair, a video game controller, a blond boy, and a pink haired girl on a background with a green building.

This series is a cute, lighthearted romp. You won’t find a deep story or startling plot twists, but it does a good job of leaning heavily into the story’s ‘tsundere’ focus.

The entire series is only two volumes long, but that’s a perfect length that allows the series to end while it’s still enjoyable and reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Kindle Customer

7th Time Loop: The Villainess Enjoys a Carefree Life Married to Her Worst Enemy!

Volume one cover of the light novel "7th Time Loop: The Villainess Enjoys a Carefree Life Married to Her Worst Enemy!" by Touko Amekawa, featuring a pink haired girl in a yellow dress surrounded by three male characters on a background with a castle and a blue sky.

This book was a true gift. The characters are all so full of depth and compassion. Rishe is such a strong, mature woman. She has endured the uncertainty of multiple lives only armed with the poisoned words of her parents telling her a woman’s value lies in how she marries. She remains deeply empathetic to others and continues to try and lead her lives with no regrets. Prince Arnold is also so mysterious and overpowered. He is a great match for a powerful heroine.

Amazon Customer

I’m the Villainess, So I’m Taming the Final Boss

Volume one cover of the light novel "I'm the Villainess, So I'm Taming the Final Boss" by Sarase Nagase, featuring a blond young woman in a blue dress sitting on the lap of a dark haired man on a throne.

This first volume of this light novel series is an enjoyable read! I liked the ‘voice’ of the heroine, who is trying to survive as various death traps surround her. The story flowed smoothly and it ended on a nice note. I enjoyed the appearances of the supportive characters gathering around the heroine, including the demon king and his own group of diverse characters.

E. R., Amazon Customer

Do we still love it?

The isekai genre exploded in the 2010s, and as previously alluded, many agree it’s run its course. By extension, the villainess niche has begun to incite a similar sentiment, despite its innovations. Some argue that the more oversaturated the subgenre becomes, the less innovative its stories are. However, one thing we can’t deny is that it’s given us a wide selection of female-led series that are, if nothing else, a fun subset of romance and fantasy.

Wanna learn about more niche subgenres? Click here!

Don’t forget to check out isekai and villainess titles on Bookstr’s Illustrious Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels bookshelf on Bookshop!