It opens up with an uninterrupted one minute, 44 second long take from a tank turret’s point of view. Just to restate, this is an anime—not even a movie, but a television series—whose first scene is a long take. The message is clear: Girls und Panzer means business.
Maybe I would have heeded the call of such a rare and gutsy opening gambit, had I not originally expected the series to be one of those trash shows that would be fun to rip apart. Yet on the same day I first started watching the show, I readily marathoned all of the at-the-time available episodes, with ironic amusement transforming into genuine enjoyment somewhere along the way.
Turns out, I was a massive fool. Girls und Panzer is stellar.
It’s a prime example of how far good execution can take a series. “Anime schoolgirls drive tanks” is one of those pitches that do not inspire much confidence at first blush, especially when paired with the kind of moe aesthetic that brings too many mundane cutesy slice-of-life shows to mind. Had this been any other studio with any other creative team, such unexciting predictions may most likely have come true.
But Girls und Panzer had studio Actas, along with a director who two years later would ably direct Shirobako and thus help P.A. Works climb out of the hole they dug themselves with Glasslip. Tank combat—”senshado” in Japanese, or its official English translation “tankery”—is a popular and prominent sport in sci-fi/alternate-history Japan, complete with yearly high-school national tournaments. So, ya know! Just another activity alongside soccer/football or softball! Tankery even commands the same kind of reverence as other sports, with participation regarded as not only building tank skillz, but also building character. Feminine character in particular; one can become a better wife by operating tanks, apparently!
Thus, in one fell swoop, Girls und Panzer is a sports anime, built on top of a ridiculous fictitious sport, that spends plenty of time reveling in the absurdity of sports and their surrounding culture. Actas basically took Moe Show Idea #351 and built it up as a surprisingly high-concept conceit, and made it work.
And none of that even gets into just how fantastic the tank action is—thrilling and intense without sacrificing too much strategy, tactics, or authenticity—and that there is so much of it to enjoy. Or how Actas does such an excellent job combining 3D graphics with 2D animation that it still puts shows that have come out in the years since to shame. Or the masterful tone-setting and sheer perfection of the military marches that make up the soundtrack.
That all isn’t to imply that Girls und Panzer is perfect, however. For one, there’s not much in the way of narrative inventiveness; at its core, this is a fairly conventional underdog-team-to-glory/escape-from-family-shadow sports story. More substantially, however, it’s far from a character-centric series, with most of the cast getting thin characterizations due to 12 episodes simply not being enough time to flesh everyone out.
The sole character with a fully three-dimensional portrayal by the end is the main protagonist, Miho Nishizumi. She’s a gentle soul from a hardcore tankery family whose unwillingness to become unwaveringly stoic like her older sister and her mother is more or less what drives her from her old family-owned school and into Ooarai High School. Her personal arc, figuring out that she can love tankery without betraying the ideals and kind personality that make Miho who she is, is the singular case where the series has spot-on characterization.
That’s not quite true of anyone else. The characters that rise up to slightly above two-dimensional? Miho’s first day of new school friends Saori and Hana, tank enthusiast Yukari, latecomer to the crew Mako; the Ooarai student council of president Anzu, vice president Yuzu, and PR person (a school student council with a public relations wing WTF) Momo, Miho’s older sister Maho, and the St. Gloriana tankery team’s Commander Darjeeling. (as in, yes, the variety of tea; you can never underestimate how gloriously loopy this show gets)
That’s already an absurd list of names to contend with—nine characters!!—and that still does not include all of the other Ooarai team members, or the team members from the other tankery schools, all of which are barely characterized at all! It’s understandable why the characters get the short end of the stick, given the sheer number of them combined with the lack of time to really delve deeper into them, but it’s still an issue nonetheless. Fortunately, being thinly-characterized does not mean that any of the characters are straight-up bad, and also: TANKERY.
Oooh yes. Four Matildas and Darjeeling’s Churchill, rolling deep. There’s the good stuff.
Girls und Panzer is so infectiously entertaining and such a well-done anime, that it’s exceedingly easy (for me, at least) to forgive its shortcomings. They pale in comparison to the allure of brilliantly-done tank combat and a world both compelling and hilarious. No wonder it’s inspired numerous usernames and clan tags in World of Tanks, and I’m pretty sure I was far from the only person who was motivated to take that game up thanks to watching this series.
In a more just world, we’d be calling 2012 “the year that gave us Girls und Panzer” rather than “the year that gave us Sword Art Online*”.
Now hopefully I’ll get to see the sequel film one of these days.
*Gratuitous shade-throwing aside, I actually like SAO, but it can’t hold a candle to girls in tanks.