Senshado. Tankery. The Way of the Tank.
“A strong, but delicate art that aims to make women more polite, graceful, modest, and gallant, both on and off the battlefield. To learn tankery is to armor the heart of a maiden, the soul that embraces and burns with femininity. Intense and strong like a tank's iron. Cute and lively, like the clattering of its track. And finally, passionate and precise, like its main weapon. If you train in tankery, you will become a better wife, a better mother, a better student, and a better worker. You will become healthier, kinder, stronger, and men from all over the world will fall to your feet-”
Well, if that's not the most hilariously nonchalant, yet enticingly charismatic recruitment narrative I've heard for anything, ever, much less tanks. Sign me up- Wait a minute. I'm a man...
Girls und Panzer was directed by Tsutomu Mizushima and scripted by Reiko Yoshida. Character designs were done by Humikane Shimada. Produced by Actas as this studio's first independent work, we follow the story primarily through the perspective of Miho Nishizumi. Strong-armed by the Student Council into joining Ooari's revived Tankery elective, Miho Nishizumi finds herself responsible, as the only individual on her team experienced with Armored Fighting Vehicle, or AFV, strategy and tactics, for leading her friends and other saps excited by the prospect of operating tanks, gaining credits, or becoming better women, to victory in the national Senshado tournament. If not, there's always next year, right? Why is Miho so knowledgeable about tank operations to begin with? Speaking of which, why is she, a Nishizumi no less, a familial relation to one of the oldest and most feared Senshado think tanks of Japan, here in Ooarai to begin with?
I'm going to make this point clear: “Girls und Panzer” is not a play on “Girls und Pantsu.” Director Mizushima made in emphatic that he would tolerate no panty shots in his series. In fact, outside a couple of onsen scenes, which, aside for some minor cleavage, are rather tame in any event, there's little to no overtly skeevy fan service in this show at all, however cynically exploitative one may conceive the concept of female adolescents juxtaposed to military hardware. For all intents and purposes, Girls und Panzer is a show about girls and panzers, a show that combines slice of life and tank battles, and you know what? It works.
How? Because of how seriously and seamlessly the show engages in both premises, provided that people are willing to suspend their disbelief about the absurdity of teenage high school girls driving steel ton AFVs. Particularly pressing is the willingness to tolerate this show's usage of moe. Moe is a far encompassing term, but the majority of the anime community outside Japan's come to associate it with cute and often underage members of the female sex. In this context, moe in shows carries with it a rather negative connotation of shallow, white-knight fetishization when relied upon as the primary draw. To juxtapose full-on moe next to weaponry is another fetish entirely, and I don't fully disagree with that assessment. It certainly has some truthful merit, but it's also lead to an unfortunate overgeneralization that any show that contains cute girls and slice of life is meant to be fap material for pedophilic shut-ins. To characterize that stereotype to Girls und Panzer, I have one thing to that.
In context, this series has shown that it is perfectly mature enough to use both to drive part of its narrative and add depth as well as charm, because at the very most, it is only used as an element, and one that isn't imposing at that. Some of this medium's most universally celebrated shows have incorporated elements that are, without a doubt, superficial, and yet they remain lauded by many, because they were more than just that. Girls und Panzer should be considered no differently.
Slightly less pressing, but still of utmost importance to understand is that, beyond rejecting or even merely tolerating this show's mainly predominantly female and adolescent cast, this fact should be taken with sensible humor. It's a universe where entire cities are straddled on giant aircraft carriers, where Senshado is a martial art, a pastime, and a sport where in-universe precautions are taken to ensure that casualties are rare, where the tank crews are staffed entirely by women because it's considered a womanly pursuit. Instead of scrutinizing on how situating cities on ships are possible, harking on tankery as a sport is stupid because it's dangerous in real life, becoming indignant on how it's making a derogatory statement of propaganda towards men, ask yourself... Does it matter? Is it explained in context? And honestly, do you think the staff, who happen to be filled with male individuals, is going out of their way to say that women are better than men, potentially alienate the very demographic that they know would make up the consumer base for their DVDs and BDs? It's funny, and it's even more so because the cast takes the world they belong to and the sport they participate in seriously, like it's a natural thing because to them, it is. That doesn't preclude taking everything this series has to offer with a grain of salt, only that we manage to see events from their perspective. By extension, it also applies to the other competitor schools, whose tank commanders are defined by nationalistic traits similar to the ones in Hetalia, though with more nuance and less homo, enough to be amusing without immersion-breaking.
Also an absolute joy, at least for similarly interested minds like mine, are the seamlessly integrated historical references scattered and layered throughout the series. If no one caught on to its invocation earlier on in this review, the original utterance of “Nuts” was a famous response uttered by an embattled American general to his German counterpart regarding the latter's demand to have the Allied command stranded at Bastogne surrender during the Battle of the Bulge. Interestingly enough, the show makes that very same reference in Episode 9. If I was a girl in Ooari High School, I'd definitely would have found myself riding along in a StuG III. I'm a history enthusiast and war buff, and to pick out how much effort was spent in integrating these references into the show is outright outstanding. These references transcend not only utilize words; they transcend them. As samples, Episode 5 delves into the effect that intelligence gathering and deception has determining the currents of battle. Episode 6 goes into a totally fitting monologue on the history of the American M4 Sherman tank. Episode 9 demonstrates Soviet T-34 tank strategy in action and highlights the importance of morale during armed engagement, and Episode 11 makes a subtle reference to the Germany's lightning armored mobilization into the heart of France, bypassing the heavily fortified Maginot Line using the thickly wooded Ardennes Forest. Hell, one of the characters is based off Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
A delight for tank aficionados and a great source of tangential learning from everyone else are the tanks themselves. While originally made for anime goers, overtime, it's gotten attention and praise from many tank fans as well. Going so far as to hiring a military expert to advise its creators during production, this show has taken great pains to make sure each tank looks and runs as authentically as can practically be, from the stops of a Type 89 to the rivets of a Panzer IV. Some liberties no doubt were taken for entertainment value, such as tread speed and pressure fatigue, but, for the most part, it was dead on. The series goes so far as even to even illustrate the drawbacks of individual AFVs, such as the Type 89's pathetic show of firepower against most of its contemporary armor and the Porsche Tiger's awkward tendency towards engine malfunctions.
But how do these tanks look when animated? Fantastic. CG has always been a tricky technique to incorporate within cell, but here, not only do the tanks look absolutely fluid, rendered in CG, on the move, and scenic, rendered in cell, when they aren't. Not a significant detail is lost during these transitions, all of which to make the show that much more thrilling to the pupils. This isn't even mentioning how amazing the muzzle flashes, dust clouds, smoke screens, and shell bombardments look. In fact, the show's art, from the backdrops and set pieces, to the lighting and shading, are all just sights for sore eyes. And, for what it's worth, I think the character designs aren't half bad either, once you get used to them.
The tanks might look nice during a fight, but how's the actual fight itself? Rather than simply piling one bigger spectacle after another, the show goes out of its way to use strategy and tactics, the actual strategy and tactics of tank warfare to move the currents of battle from one point to the next. Offense vs defense. Open field vs urban combat. All-out assaults vs hit and run strafes. Team Formations. Rear Guards. Positioning. Scouting. Decoys. Feints. Traps. All of these maneuvers and more are utilized, taking into account mission objectives, area surroundings, general, specific, and overall tank characteristics, the most innovative of them responsible by Ms. Nishizumi and her knack for bold, unorthodox, but nonetheless wildly creative and effective solutions. That doesn't go to show everything she does is brilliant. She, as much as the other tank commanders, have their shares of brilliant moments and demoralizing blunders, but unlike the others, Miho, like all great and potentially great military leaders, is able to adapt to the fickleness of the battlefield and, with a little luck, turn temporary setbacks into permanent victories.
Like candy, constant excitement proves tiring to audiences after a while of non-stop consumption. One answer to this dilemma is greater and greater amounts of spectacle to keep them interested at that same level. It gets to a point though where the previous spectacles become harder and harder to top, to the point that the next attempt might either end up a dud because of desensitization or be so ridiculous that it breaks immersion. Sole dedication to this method is especially troublesome for a series whose spectacle relies on some realism, like Girls und Panzer's tank battles. The other answer then is to generate pacing, to allow the audience to have lulls in their action so that the next action sequence that comes about feels that much sweeter to people. Girls und Panzer is an excellent example of good pacing, and it all stems from its slice of life. The show begins in media res, the hook, where we get a tempting taste of all the tanks rolling along. Then, we start at the top, getting grounded into the characters, the setting, and the situation, building up for another climax all the while. We get a match, then we get a break with the characters. We get another match, fight and flight, then another, rest and digest, one climax after another, until we get the final one and we're blown off our rockers, pumping our fists, gasping for breathe because of what was just witnessed, and it's significant because it's the first time those reactions happened with this much intensity. First times, just by their inherent nature, can be really intense.
Now for the characters. Being that it is but one cour, the show can't afford to linger on any one person for too long without ruining battle momentum, considering how many of the girls take up the screen. Outside of Miho then, it relies on a principle that shows should be following more in the first place: “Show, don't tell.” Compared to other series, Girls und Panzer has much less verbal hand-holding. Off the field and especially on it, each vignette of these characters doing something carries with them precious statements that speak volumes about them on their own: their personalities, their proficiencies, their interests, their aspirations. Granted, outside of Miho and perhaps her personal tank crew, all four of these aspects are relatively simplified, but, using inference, they are simplicity thoroughly defined, and above all, a unifying message between all of them gets across. The message is especially poignant in Episode 5, where the Student Council shows Miho their memories of Ooari using a photo album. They never explicitly say that they love their school, but that right there is more than enough to convey to the audience, or at least to me, how much it means to them. This method of narrative also extends beyond to the plot, the tactics, and the tanks as well, so that not a single moment is wasted trying to explain something the viewers can contextually figure out on their own. None of it feels contrived, and you know what? I appreciate that the staff assumes us, or at least the majority of us, as intelligent enough to do some mental legwork.
For what it is, the character depth is fine the way it is, and any further fleshing out is better off relegated to future sequels. That being said, I do have one complaint about the characters in regards to their friendships, particularly the main heroines. It's a criticism that's more valid in the beginning, and it might be just my cynicism or ressentiment talking. They're a bit idealistic. To create such fast and true relationships with people to the point they are willing to give up their preferred elective and stand up against the Student Council with you despite having just recently met... I end up asking myself: Why have I never met friends like that? In addition, some of the character drama could be better executed, like Hana Izuzu's for example, as some of it seems rather sudden, even taking slice of life into account. That being said, both issues are far from enough to be a major detriment. I guess predictability in terms of storytelling and character development also may be a drag for some, but I've always considered the means rather than the ends to be something I take to heart more.
On the music side of things, I won't deny I'm rather partial to marches. Lighthearted yet prideful, dignified yet stirring, pompous yet boisterous, combined with the fact that they comprise the most memorable portions of the OST, original scores and borrowed ones, British, American, Russian, German, I found myself stomping my feet to them in rhythm fairly often. But more than how I like them on their own, I love how they are used in tandem with the show's visuals. Since there's only so many I can talk about, I'll try to keep examples controllable. My elation was rather high, for instance, when an abridged version of “U.S. Field Artillery March” by John Phillip Sousa was playing alongside a formation of moving Shermans. Then there's a lovely band arrangement and seiyuu vocal chorus of the popular folksong Russian “Katyusha” by Mantei Blanter and Mikhail Isakovsky to a mobile spread of Soviet armor. It's quite likely that some of the pronunciation may have been off, but from what I could tell, they tried rather earnestly to come close, and regardless, the singing's outstanding. Unfortunately, it was cut upon official release to international audiences due to private domain issues. Lest I forget is the anime original “Senshado March: Panzer Vor!” and its melodically constant derivatives by Shiro Hamaguchi. A love letter to of everything great about military marches, the steady cadence of snares and horned bass, the bombasts of cymbals, the blasts of trumpets, the tight, orderly frivolity of the piccolo, it's a wonderful piece that stands on its own to the classics.
I'd be remiss to forget discussing the OP and ED, so, being obviously J-Pop, how do they hold up? For J-Pop, they hold up pretty well. The OP, Choucho's “Dreamrider,” incorporates a nice rhythmic riff at the beginning and end reminiscent of march cadences, but it otherwise uses electric guitars, electronic synthetics, and drum sets, and the art and animation, scenic and fluid, outside introducing tank teams, hold no illusions in emphasizing what's given from the title. And yet, through, once again, a great use of pacing both from the great vocals and engaging visuals, everything feels very dynamic, like, suspension of disbelief withstanding, it's going somewhere good. The ED, “Enter Enter MISSION!” by the seiyuu of the main heroines, can't help but be incredibly charming in how competent, enthusiastic, and earnest the singers are, despite the sappy atmosphere. Plus, the visuals consist of chibi versions girls of the various Ooari armor crews riding in super deformed versions of their tanks. You'd have to be a pretty jaded and bitter anime fan not to crack a smile at that.
Overall, once one gets used to the aforementioned concerns, Girls und Panzer is a fun show that, while not incredibly “deep” or complex, should be given credit as much for its technical precision and narrative intuition as well as its terrific music, its played-straight humor, its abundant historical references, its smart, well-paced, and exhilarating tank scraps, and yes, its cute, but never quite fetishized, high school girls.
Now, time for some light historical research.
I give Girls und Panzer an 8 out of 10.