This is going to be a first for me: I am actually going to review some anime! I never really thought this day would come as I am not "otaku" for anime (the Japanese equivalent of being "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs"). Truth is, prior to this show, I've only ever watched TWO complete anime shows in my life, the first being the superlative Cowboy Bebop (in my opinion, one of the finest pieces of science fiction to ever grace the small screen - when will we get that live action version?!?), and the sadly mediocre Claymore (it started off great with a dark and gritty tale about monster slayers, but then lost its way and became a mindless monster mash). And that is it. Truth is, I find most anime to be little better than the after-school cartoons I watched growing up as a kid...an experience I have no desire to repeat at my age. So this is why I am amazed to hear myself utter the following words (and by "utter" I mean "type"):
Girls und Panzer might be the finest television show I have seen in a very long time!
There. I said it. My feelings are now out in the open.
But I am getting ahead of myself here. Let's start at the beginning:
[Warning: some minor spoilers ahead]
Girls und Panzer's basic premise is one that is not entirely original: Oarai High School - really a giant floating aircraft carrier serving as a mobile academic community - is facing the certainty that its doors (er...hatches?) will be closed unless they can reverse its falling attendance (a bit of Taps here). In an act of desperation, the student council, headed by the perky, determined and perpetually hungry Anzu Kadotani (there will be a lot of Japanese names in this review, so bare with me!) decides to revive the school's dormant "tankery" program in a desperate bid to capture the top spot in the tankery tournament, something they hope will generate new interest in the school.
What is "tankery" you ask? Well, it is the imaginative heart of this show! Tankery - proper name: sensha-dō - is the latest marshal arts craze in the near future sci-fi world of Girls und Panzer. Basically, it involves the use of World War II-era tank designs for the purpose of staging mock, non-lethal battles against rival teams. Yeah, I know...this sounds like every guy's dream sport! This is why, at least for me, the show's premise that "panzerfahren" (literally "tank driving") is the preferred competitive sport of high school and prep school-aged girls is particularly hard to swallow. It does give it the old college try at explaining the inexplicable, though:
Yeah, not buying it! But in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.
Into this situation is thrust Miho Nishizumi, that auburn-haired girl who was attempting to hide her eyes behind her knees in the above video. You see, Miho comes from a family that heads a distinguished tankery academy. Ironically, despite being very skilled at sensha-dō, she wants nothing more to do with the sport because she almost lost a teammate in a tankery accident. In fact, this is the precise reason why she disobeyed her family, particularly her overbearing mother and sister, and transferred to Oarai - it was one of the few schools without a tankery course.
As you probably surmised, Miho is eventually forced by Anzu into being the team captain for Oarai's relaunched tankery program, and soon surrounds herself with a colorful cast of characters who will make up her initial team (a bit of A League of their Own here). For example, there is Saori Takebe, a girl who is obsessed with finding a husband, and hands out relationship advice as freely as the late Ann Landers...despite the fact of never actually having a boyfriend. Then there is the kind-hearted Hana Isuzu, a girl raised to follow her mother in the art of flower arranging, but who instead adopts tankery because she craves a more powerful method of self-expression. Then there are my two favorites: Yukari Akiyama and Mako Reizei. Yukari is the lonely outsider, a girl who has always been fascinated by tanks, but has been embarrassed to share her passion with others at the tank-free school. And Mako is the poor, flat affect girl who suffers from "low blood pressure" - something that (conveniently) prevents her from getting up in the early morning in time for school, and could lead to her failing her courses despite her otherwise excellent academic record. As you can see, Miho basically rounds up a "Dirty Dozen" for her initial team, and collects additional oddball characters during the course of the series, from a volleyball team without a volleyball program (also cancelled at the failing Oarai), to even some computer geeks who want to try their hands at real tankery after practicing online (an online pal of mine tells me that Girls und Panzer was inspired by World of Tanks, so the inclusion of video gamers as a team is no surprise, and is also a fitting tribute IMO).
It's All About Character
Now, here is one of the things that so surprised me about this show: by the midpoint of this series' 12 episodes, I found myself actually caring about these characters, and what happens to them both on and off the battlefield. This is perhaps one of the greatest things I can say about Girls und Panzer. Unlike so many recent big budget, flesh and blood movies and television shows, the character development in GuP is positively phenomenal. I don't think there is a single throw-away character in the entire series. Everyone feels real and authentic, each possessing their own peculiar personality quirks, as well as possessing an interesting backstory. Take, for example, Yukari, the girl with the tankery obsession. There is a bittersweet scene where Miho and the rest of Anglerfish Team (Miho organizes all of the girls into separate teams based around one particular tank) go to her house to find out why she didn't show up for school. Two surprises await them: first, Yukari's parents informs the team that they are the first real friends Yukari ever had because of her self-enforced isolation due to her passion for tanks. After that startling revelation, her parents take Miho and the others to Yukari's room, where they find this:
...a room covered in tankery militaria (that might be a neologism). When Yukari arrives, she is visibly embarrassed and fears that her team will abandon her because of her tankery obsession...but they don't. As is a constant theme with GuP, friendship is about accepting people for who they are, quirks and all. Yukari realizes that for the first time in her life she now has true friends with whom she can be herself.
Girls und Panzer is loaded with such wonderful moments, something that elevates the totality of the GuP experience, making it all very memorable. It also helps that unlike the oft cynical and sarcastic characters in American shows, these girls are just plain nice people, making you want to cheer them on all the more. How refreshing. Hollywood and American television scriptwriters could learn a lot from Girls und Panzer when it comes to developing likeable, three dimensional characters.
The Humor of Tankery
Another surprise for me was just how funny GuP could be. Usually, when it comes to cartoons, be they American cartoons or Japanese anime, the humor is usually over-the-top, ham-handed humor along the lines of what is found in Family Guy. Girls und Panzer takes a much subtler and smarter dialog-driven route closer to what is seen in such American cartoon classics as Home Movies or King of the Hill. While there are a few instances of cringe-worthy, over-the-top stuff, more of it is clever humor like this (sorry for the over-sized vids today; technical problems to blame):
Then there is this moment:
This is a shot taken during a climatic battle when Oarai is confronted with a dreaded Maus tank. What does Team Oarai do? Why, they have all their tanks try to hide behind a single, small structure! LOL! I found this to be hilarious because it is a well-directed zinger straight at the heart of the World of Tank's community where a panicked team will often get irrationally desperate for cover, as seen here. Zing!
Girls und Panzer has all sorts of funny moments like this that really had me LOLing more than once, and made me like the hard luck Oarai team all the more.
All is fair....
"Yeah, yeah," I hear you saying, "but what about the tank combat?!?" Well, if you are in it for tank warfare, you will NOT be disappointed. Like everything else about Girls und Panzer, the actual tank on tank action (that sounds...wrong) is executed with thoughtful detail, and is filled with moments that will truly have you on the edge of your seat.
As mentioned previously, Team Oarai is in a desperate bid to capture the #1 spot in the tankery tournament. To do that, Miho must defeat a series of competing schools in an ever more difficult series of battles where the hard luck Oarai school is almost always at a disadvantage. But Miho is their secret weapon: an Ender Wiggin (or a Heinz Guderian, if you prefer) in the art of tankery. What results are a series of fights, many of which are modeled after such World War II battles as Stalingrad, where Miho really shows off her tactical genius by implementing some truly clever stratagems that brought a smile to my lips more than once. But winning battles is not just about smarts as Miho, unlike many of her competitors, understands. It is also about teamwork, both amongst the various tank crews, as well as the tanks themselves. This will prove to be the ace up her sleeve, the "Miho Style" as it comes to be known amongst the tournament participants, a tactical approach that inspires her teammates to greater feats of glory, as well as winning friends from former tournament enemies. It is a wonderful tactical evolution to see unfold over the course of the show.
I was particularly impressed with the tremendous detail, both inside and out, that went into re-creating the various tanks, really almost all the most well-known tanks from World War II! As you watch GuP unfold, you realize that the girls of Team Oarai aren't the only characters in this story - the tanks are just as much characters in their own right, too! Each is given its own unique personality that is in keeping with the actual historical performance record of these iconic vehicles, making them as much a part of the team as their panzerfahren operators (you can see this in the previous video concerning the team's acquisition of a historically cranky Porsche Tiger). Because such detail was lavished on these vehicles, the inevitable moments of combat seem all the more nail-biting intense because the vehicles feel as real as the characters operating them.
As I watched these fights take place, I kept thinking how Hollywood, despite its obsession with CGI, has never come close to delivering the type of intense tank action as was featured in this anime. Again, how badly are you doing your job if a cartoon is putting you to shame?
Now, as I wrote at the beginning of this article, I initially felt the idea of putting school girls in a combat environment, even a mock one, was...curious at best, outright wrong at worst. I just didn't "get it". However, now I can say that I was wrong. Director Tsutomu Mizushima's choice was inspired, largely in light of how he handled this issue. You see, I assumed that Mizushima was going to do what I just know an American director would have done in his shoes: cast girls, but have them act as guys. Have you noticed this disturbing trend in American entertainment? How every gal is a foul-mouthed virago who is just as likely to throw a punch, or pull out a 9mm, as any action hero guy? I always asked: why even bother casting a gal, then? What's the point? Well, Mizushima doesn't make this silly mistake, but rather keeps the all girl cast as very feminine girls (bear with me on this, guys! See where I am going before you stop reading....). The end result is that this leads to some very funny moments that are, at least to me, quite believable. For example, take a look at this tactical map and tell me this isn't exactly what a female tank crew would do to it in their spare time:
You just know it's true! LOL! There are all sorts of funny little feminine touches like this throughout the show, and instead of it rankling my manly-man sensibilities, actually made me laugh at the wonderful absurdity of the idea. And that, in the final analysis, is why I loved it: it is some of the most honest humor I have come across in a very gender-neutral long time. What is more, it also made the tanks and the combat seem all the more "hardcore" by way of contrast against such feminine softness (for lack of a better term). Brilliant!
Rounding up this fantastic show is some fantastic music. As you might expect, Girls und Panzer is filled with military marches, some original, such as Team Oarai's lighthearted and catchy tune, and some classics, such as the Panzerlied, which was prominently featured in the movie, Battle of the Bulge (sorry Bulge, I think GuP is now my preferred tank story!):
So What's Not to Like?
This section is mostly for parents who might be wondering if this show is suitable for kids. I would say that it is definitely okay for the 13+ crowd as Girls und Panzer is really a PG-13 production at heart. While there is military violence, as I wrote above the battles featured in this show are all non-lethal, so they really have more in common with NASCAR crack-ups than they do with real war. And while there are swear words, it really is a very small amount for a six-hour series. There is also a scene where one of the girls is (I thought distastefully) stripped down to her underwear while washing her tank, as well as two or three public bathing scenes where are girls are nude but covered by water, but that is the closest to nudity in GuP.
Now, I do want to address one point I have seen mentioned elsewhere: there is a strong Wehrmacht theme running throughout this series (with a name like Girls und Panzer, who would have thunk it?). I think the character of "Erwin" sums this up nicely (she is a military history fanatic):
However, after initially watching GuP with a very critical eye for some sort of Axis worship (Japan was a member of the Axis Powers after all), I think it just comes down to the very real fact that to this day, rightly or wrongly, Hitler's panzer korps are still considered the finest armored force the world has even seen (I would beg to differ after seeing what American armor did to Saddam Hussein's army in Desert Storm, in record time no less, but whatever). Therefore, all the German miscellanea that is featured in this show has more to do with the continuing cult of Wehrmacht armored superiority than it does with some sort of fascist tendencies in the anime. In fact, the tanks from every nation are treated with respect in this show, even if panzers are given a slightly higher pedestal because of their admittedly superlative historical war record.
Lastly, the only thing that would have made the experience more enjoyable for me would have been the availability of an English dub. While the original voice actors were excellent - particularly the actress who gave Mako her hilarious sleepy murmur - having to listen to schoolgirls babel in Japanese for six hours is a bit much!
And that is about it! Seeing how this show so strongly champions friendship and respect for one another, I would say its virtues far outweigh any imperfections it has.
I laughed, I cheered, and I wanted more when it was all over - that was my final reaction to Girls und Panzer. This really, truly, was a superlative piece of entertainment, be it anime or otherwise. Funny, uplifting, and filled with edge-of-your seat thrills, GuP is the type of refreshingly original entertainment that we used to be able to expect from American cinema once upon a time. Seeing how carefully implemented every character, every battle, every tank was, I have no doubt that this show was nothing less than a labor of love for all those who were involved. I mean, something this perfect must be! I, for one, am very glad to hear that Mizushima is not done with everyone's favorite sensha-dō martial artists. With a special direct to DVD episode in the works (covering the strangely omitted battle against Anzio Girls High School), as well as a feature length movie, there promises to be a lot more tank action for tankery fans the world over. Panzer Vor!
For more information about Girls und Panzer, please visit here: http://www.girlsundpanzertv.com/
Unfortunately, Americans need to wait until early 2014 for the English dub DVD of GuP to arrive in the States. Until then, feel free to watch all 12 subtitled episodes for free over at Crunchyroll: http://www.crunchyroll.com/girls-und-panzer/girls-und-panzer-girls-und-panzer-pv-611759