By Andy Hanley.
For all of the abject horrors that World War II brought to bear, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the war machines that were so instrumental in the fighting. While the First World War was largely won and lost by weight of numbers and boots on the ground, with a smattering of mostly clumsy or abortive attempts to use cutting-edge technology, the Second was a whirlwind of technological progress that became a vital part of the very fabric of its conflict – in the seas, the skies, and of course on the ground where tanks took on a pivotal role across almost every theatre of war.
It’s no secret that there’s a substantial crossover between anime fans and otaku of other different stripes, and a fascination with military technology amongst both fans and production staff has led to a number of projects that looked to leverage this. Strike Witches was arguably the first successful progenitor here with its anthropomorphism of WW2 aircraft and characters based around famous pilots, which led the way for a similar treatment of naval craft in Kantai Collection, while most recently High School Fleet also took to the seas in imagining a world of all-female crews piloting well-known ships.
While all of these franchises have boasted impressive successes in their own right, they pale in comparison to Girls und Panzer, and particularly its theatrical outing – Girls und Panzer der Film – which arrived off the back of an already successful TV series and continues to screen in Japanese cinemas even after its home video release, with takings of well over £17 million.
When you enter the world of Girls und Panzer, the first noteworthy element is the pains it goes to in distancing itself from the inconveniences of history – for all of its depictions of WW2 tanks, military regalia and anthems, you won’t find a single mention of the war itself or the real use for these fearsome weapons. Instead, the show is a love letter to the craft and technology within these hulking beasts – their strengths, their weaknesses, and their evolution as they were upgraded and superseded. In a sense, the series should probably be called Panzer und Girls to give the tanks themselves top billing – it is they that are the stars of the show, with their quirky characters who ride in them mostly in place to keep its story moving forward while injecting the odd bit of drama, comedy or friendly rivalry into proceedings.
This alternate take on Japan helps in aiding the framing of the series as simple, innocent entertainment – this is a world where the pinnacle of ladylike refinement for a young girl is to crew a tank, practicing an art form known as “sensha-dou” (or “tankery”, if you prefer) which itself gives rise to tournaments where competing schools battle it out for supremacy by leveraging those tank driving skills. If letting schoolgirls fire live tank shells at one another sounds dangerous, the series hand-waves away any such concerns with some vague talk of carbon fibre plating to assuage these worries – any sense of genuine peril to life and limb is largely written off, taking us to the real truth that Girls und Panzer is, when push comes to shove, a sports anime.
We’re introduced to this off-beat world via Miho Nishizumi, a daughter of a well-known and fearsome school of tankery, albeit one that she is desperate to leave behind after a bad experience has left her vowing to never climb into a tank again. This becomes problematic when her new school – previously a tank-free zone – suddenly makes a major push for girls to join the high school’s tankery club, wooing her two new-found friends to join in the process. Reluctantly, Miho joins her friends and rediscovers the joys of the sport, only to find pressure lumped upon her as the national tournament rolls around. As it turns out, Ooarai Girls High School is (in a popular plot contrivance buoyed by Japan’s declining birth rate in reality) faced with closure, and only winning the tournament will give it the boost in reputation required to save it. Does Miho have the tactical nous to prevail, the temperament to cope with the pressure, and above all does she have what it takes to defeat her own sister and the true heir to the so-called “Nishizumi style”?
The true goal of Girls und Panzer is to deliver pure, unabashed spectacle – tanks trail through snow or crunch over tarmac, crashing and smashing into both one another and the scenery left, right and centre; shells whistle past, exploding with force all around. In this, both series and film exceed any expectations spectacularly, bringing you into the midst of its breathless battlefields that often take on the feeling of a stunt-filled action movie. Whenever one of its tank battles begins, there’s little time to pause for thought or analyse events (the kind of thing which slows the pace of so many sports anime to a glacial crawl) – we dart around the battlefield to take in its highlights, with the series making excellent use of CG to bring its tanks to life and occasionally even dropping us on-board for some impressive first-person sequences.
It’s during these protracted battles that the series also shows how smart it is in knowing when to let go of any strict adherence to realism – for all of its aforementioned love of the tanks themselves this still remains a secondary concern to entertainment value, and if that value is accentuated by stretching the concept of what these vehicles are capable of to their limits and beyond, then the series has no qualms about pushing those limits.
This is particularly true of Girls und Panzer der Film, which has both the drive and budget to raise the bar and does so in spectacular fashion, book-ending the movie with two massive tank battles strung together with a thin but serviceable plot to bring back its cast of characters (and their tanks of course) while introducing a few newcomers. Even if you haven’t seen the TV series, you can appreciate this theatrical outing as a big-screen anime blockbuster filled with high octane thrills and spills and with no shortage of fun to be had, and you can be guaranteed you won’t find many films that offer up this kind of pure, concentrated entertainment during this year or any other.
The EU Premiere of Girls und Panzer der Film takes place at Scotland Loves Anime’s Edinburgh leg on 23rd October 2016.