Girls und Panzer

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Director: Tsutomu Mizushima
Writer: Reiko Yoshida

Actas: 2012-2013
Japanese; also versions dubbed in English & subtitled in English

300 minutes November 2013

High-school tankery

Over the past quarter century, anime has gone from a special interest to a major influence on American popular culture in general. An important reason for this may be the sheer diversity of anime, in artistic styles, in genres, and in the age and sex of its intended audiences. For example, there is a well established genre of sports and games anime, in which characters compete in activities ranging from martial arts to auto racing to go. Girls und Panzer is an example of this genre: a series about girls' high schools fielding competitive teams in formalized tank combat.

Obviously, this is a thoroughly fantastic premise! Girls und Panzer could almost be regarded as classic Wellsian science fiction, which starts out from one impossible assumption and explores its implications. But prose science fiction seeks the necessary suspension of disbelief by carefully working out the scientific, technological, or social implications of its premises. Anime has a different method available: convincing visual depiction of imagined realities. This series provides careful depictions of over two dozen real world tank models, some of which go through a series of modifications over the course of the storyline. Episode plots often turn on differences in performance between different tank models, often including questions of one tank's ability to pierce another's armor.

This sounds as if it ought to be far too lethal for any kind of sport. The dialogue offers some rationalizations for lower lethality — the use of less-penetrating ammunition, the lining of tank interiors with shock-resistant coatings, and the mounting of sensors on the tanks that signal incapacitation when the simulated damage is severe enough. In addition, the visual portrayal makes battles less lethal than they would realistically be, even under these conditions. The result is sensha-do: "tankery" or Panzerfahren". The suffix do (from the Chinese tao), meaning "way", implies an ethical or philosophical emphasis, in contrast with jutsu, which implies a more tactical emphasis, and in fact the difference is a major theme of the series.

Girls-und-Panzer-400 For the central character, Miho Nishizumi, it's an inner conflict. Miho is the younger daughter of a long-established tankery family; her mother is the head of tankery at an acclaimed tankery school —one whose characteristic style aims directly at victory, not counting the cost. At the start of the series, Miho is profoundly alienated from tankery, and in fact has just started at a new school, Ooarai Academy, which has not had a tankery program for many years. The first episode shows her waking up and reminding herself, happily, "I'm not at home!" Two other girls, Saori Takebe and Hana Isuzu, offer her friendship — and then the complications begin, as the president of the student council approaches her and tells her to sign up for tankery (newly reinstated) as an elective. Miho resists, and her friends back her up, offering to take whatever elective she does, even though both are actually interested in tankery; their loyalty persuades her to change her mind, and the main story is under way.

As a school that is just starting up tankery, Ooarai faces major obstacles: They have no one but Miho with any experience, and they haven't built up a pool of tanks, but have to track down the old tanks left over from their old program and refurbish them. (It's established that the rules of tankery allow only tanks from before the end of World War II, so there aren't issues of technological obsolescence to contend with, at least.) This leads into a classic sports plot: The struggle of an underdog team to prove itself and gain victory. Much of the focus is on the social relationships within the team: Miho's developing relationship with the crew of her own tank, Saori and Hana and two other girls, Yakuri Akiyama and Mako Reizi; her gaining the trust of several other crews as a team captain; and above all, her working through her own self-doubt and coming to belief in a different style of tankery, one based on mutual loyalty.

All the members of Miho's crew, or Team Anglerfish, turn out to have valuable abilities. Mako is the most intelligent of them, able to figure out how to drive a new model of tank by scanning the manual. Yakuri is a classic fan, who has memorized the histories and performance statistics of all the classic tanks; she also is a careful observer and a daring scout. Saori is a quick and skillful radio operator. Hana shows a quiet aesthetic sensitivity—but is able to turn it to focusing on aiming her guns and hitting very difficult targets. All of them also make intelligent and useful suggestions from time to time, which Miho characteristically follows through on.

The other crews are mostly less distinguished as individuals, and more linked to the "personalities" of the tanks they drive. Team Turtle, the student council, take advantage of their tank's maneuverability to get in among other teams' tanks and disrupt their formations — though their initial gunner also tends to get overexcited and fire wildly, not hitting anything. Team Hippo, operated by history buffs, drive a mobile antitank artillery piece with a fixed mount gun rather than a turret, making them the heavy hitter of the force. Team Duck, run by the former volleyball team, drive a comparatively low-powered tank and compensate by relying on subterfuge. Team Rabbit, crewed entirely by first-year students, have a fairly good early tank, and progress from timidity in the early matches to aggressiveness and daring in the final match. Three other teams are recruited later, as more tanks are uncovered: Team Mallard, driven by the hall monitors, in an exceptionally durable tank; Team Anteater, made up of three online tank gamers who have never met face to face, whose tank is taken out of action in the final battle without firing a shot; and Team Leopon, the school's automotive club, driving a Porsche Tiger, an experimental model that repeatedly breaks down and has to be repaired — but is able to play a key role in the final conflict, taking on the role of Horatius (or Gandalf, a reference apparently more familiar to most present-day fans).

The battle scenes built up slowly. The initial five crews start out in a "last tank standing" contest against each other, in which Team Anglerfish claims the victory. This is followed by an unofficial meet with tanks from St. Gloriana Women's Academy, a British-themed tank force, which narrowly defeats them, and whose leader thereafter is consistently supportive of their efforts. Finally, they enter an official contest, as one of sixteen tank forces, and participate in four matches, of which three are shown: against Saunders College High, an American-themed force; against Pravda High, a Soviet-themed force; and against Kuromorimine Women's College, a German-themed school whose team is led by Miho's older sister, Maho. The final contest thus has several different things at stake — not only winning the tournament, but Miho's proving to herself that her approach to tankery is valid, and the fate of Ooarai High School after the competition ends. The meeting with St. Gloriana is an elimination contest, ending when all of one side's tanks are disabled; the official contest has a "flag tank" on each side whose defeat ends the battle, making for somewhat artificial strategies that wouldn't really work in war — making the point that "tankery is not war".

Miho's distinctive style is shown as having two key aspects. One is that she is loyal to her teammates and unwilling to abandon them — which pays off when, in the final combat, her rescue of Team Rabbit enables them to play a major role in the rest of the fight. The other is that she is quick to change her plans, and especially to figure out what plans the other side is committed to and devise ways of disrupting them, as seen in her measures against radio espionage by Saunders College High and her deliberate disruption of Kuromorimine's excessively rigid battle order. This latter quality, especially, seems like the sort of thing that might make her an effective commander if she were ever in an actual war. Her worst fault is difficulty in keeping her enthusiastic team under control — which nearly loses the match against Pravda when they fall into one of its commander's traps. Through all of this, also, she gains the respect and sympathy of the other team leaders she goes up against, as one of them remarks to her before the final round. And in return, they have things to teach her than can help her formulate her own ideas of tankery, and move beyond the rigorous demands of the Nishizumi style.

The battle scenes are extremely well done. On one hand, they are kept simple enough and coherent enough so that the viewer can keep track of what's actually happening, much like the brilliant opening scenes of Master and Commander. On the other, they convey a sense of unpredictability and tension that makes them exciting to watch, even on a repeat viewing.

Interspersed among the battles are scenes and even entire episodes devoted to characterization, especially the episode preceding the final match against Kuromorimine, in which each tank's crew finds something fitting to do, from watching old movies to getting the Porsche Tiger into better shape. There are humorous aspects to many scenes, emerging naturally from the characterization rather than being forced.

Finally, Girls und Panzer is an imaginative job of world-building, with ingenious ideas ranging from the use of gigantic ships as schools (the Ooarai Academy is on a relatively small ship, slightly less than five miles long!) to the sensha-do orientation film that discusses how crewing tanks makes girls more feminine, more attractive, and better wives and mothers to the carefully worked out rules under which tankery contests are held. The setting extrapolates from extensive research on the real world, and creates a world that is largely revealed through Campbellian indirect exposition, trusting the viewer to make sense of it. The premise is a bit too improbable to be justified as hard science fiction or alternate history, but the consistency with which it's developed is a pleasure to watch.


© 2013 William H. Stoddard

Girls und Panzer
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Girls und Panzer
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Horatius at Khazad-dum

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