Friday Night Light Tanks: Girls und Panzer

It’s a common misconception that military enthusiasts are nothing but a subcategory of gearheads, focused squarely on military hardware. While there are indeed people whose sole interest may be the weight distribution ratio on a late-war SBD Dauntless with extended fuel reserve, or the number and type of bolts used to rivet the post-factory armor skirts on the Jagdpanther, it’s the equivalent of a Red Sox fan who limits his enthusiasm to painstaking cataloging of every engineering detail of and renovation made to the plumbing system of Fenway Park since 1912.

Let’s take the sports analogy and run with it. Military hobbyism turns many of the same knobs: following a team(s), the immediate excitement of following individual engagements, the later, deeper satisfaction of being drawn into the metagame–discussing the evolution of tactics, the nature and progression of leadership over time, the sundry extraneous political factors that come full circle and affect the team’s performance on the field, etc.

For an outsider to either fandom, the fan’s enthusiasm may just come off as, “Go Blue Team!

When, in fact, the underlying statement could be, “Go Blue Team, this is the payoff for the past two years you spent hemorrhaging talent and resources while installing new leadership with their new, untested ideas. To boot, winning now against Red Team, your historical rivals, who putter along using the same moribund strategy floated on top a mountain of infinite resources, will be vindication for the time you spent being underestimated by every commentator.

The interplay between material superiority and tactical ingenuity is a crux for both areas of interest. Girls und Panzer’s ability to sense that intersection and recontextualize the two into a unique whole is what gives the show its eccentric charm and lets it bypass the thematic tank traps it seemed destined, on first glance, to fall into.

De-symbolization

Tanks occupy a special place in the iconography of the 20th century. Originally hulking curiosities, they later became a symbol for a “modernized” model of warfare built around speed, coordination (facilitated through modern communication hardware) and dramatic violence directed towards limited regions of a battlefront (to effect a breakthrough, eliminating the need to blunder against the rest of the enemy’s defensive line). On a broader scale, they symbolize that century’s industrialization of war, one of the new and innovative ways in which they’ve figured out how to kill you. While infantrymen and air power can and have been deployed as humanitarians (with mixed results), the very design and physical silhouette of a tank leave little room for false pretenses in most people’s minds–this is a machine for killing the enemy.

The biggest storytelling gambit Girls und Panzer plays is to try and decontextualize tanks from their onerous history. In the world of GuP, tanks, specifically, those deployed during the Second World War, are the primary instrument for sensha-do, a high school sport where teams of girls–because this is an all-girls’ sport–engage each other in tank groups of up to roughly company strength (15-20 tanks). The winner is determined via elimination or knocking out the opponent’s flag tank. Sensha-do is portrayed as an established sport with a storied history, and one whose character-building virtues are, much like with any other youth sport, extolled by schools and student governments.

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Despite the overt kookiness–entire towns float around the ocean on top of aircraft carriers for no discernible reason–this is also a world where the Second World War is confirmed to have existed. Yukari, the military nerd of the show’s protagonists, makes frequent and enthusiastic mention of each tank’s historical importance. At one point we get to see the militaria festooning her room (including a poster of Motofumi Kobayashi’s Black Knight, a manga about German tankers on the Eastern Front). All of the sensha-do teams depicted in the series, with the exception of the protagonists, theme themselves around a participant nation from WW2, fielding that nation’s tanks and even adopting its stereotypical mannerisms and dress.

All of this is treated lightly. The levity with which the titular girls view their tanks is shown when early in the series, before they’ve learned the practical benefits of camouflage, they all give their tanks outlandish custom paint jobs, including one in solid gold. Later on in the series, in the midst of a winter match, Yukari and another Ooarai player of the military otaku persuasion sing Yuki no Shingun/雪の進軍, a blackly humorous march about soldiers freezing to death in the era of the Russo-Japanese War. Even the flaunting of cultural stereotypes is executed with the same irreverence it brings to the rest of its worldbuilding and characterization. The show, despite what its central conceit might imply, doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone in its gangly little girl body.

That said, at no point does the series attempt to use its historical asides as a jumping-off point for explorations of the nature of WW2 or the actions of participant nations. They aren’t excused, they simply aren’t referenced at all, as they are superfluous to the story. In that sense, GuP, a TV anime from 2013, is indicative of this current point in history, with WW2 right on the precipice of departing from living memory and entering the same abstracted realm inhabited by the First World War. While the horrors and hugely deleterious impact of WW1 are still understood in the abstract, there’s a concurrent strain of media content to reinterpret elements of the conflict as kitsch–e.g. cartoony pickelhaube helmets or caterpillar tanks in your favorite videogame–or recontextualize them entirely into realms that bear no overt allegorical reference to the conflict from which they were derived. Whether or not this phenomenon is a net good or net bad is up to the individual.

Viewers for whom any evocation of WW2 imagery must come preinstalled with aforementioned moral base-covering should steer clear of this show, as its willful omission, combined with its whimsical attitude, will be infuriating.

The Direction of the Main Blow

When it comes to matters of theme, Girls und Panzer is solidly in the camp of the sports anime. And it relishes every opportunity to wallow in all the associated tropes.

GuP’s central character, Miho Nishizumi, is a recent transferee to Ooarai High, an all-girls’ high school. The viewer quickly discovers Miho transferred to this school because of its lack of a sensha-do team, a sport with which she has some history. Of course, this is all for naught when the student council reveals Ooarai will be reinstating sensha-do and appointing Miho as captain since she, of course, is a scion of the legendary “Nishizumi School” of tankery.

If this sounds not all that dissimilar from Remember the Titans, that’s because it is. Much of the first half of GuP’s 13 episodes focuses on Miho’s attempts to create a sensha-do team with virtually no resources. Unlike other teams, Ooarai has to make do with only a handful of tanks from a hodgepodge of different nations. Whereas many major teams have more than a dozen tanks at their disposal, at the onset of the season the school must make do with five.

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There’s no better high school sports story than an underdog story. In light of its perennial shortcomings in resources, Ooarai relies on Miho’s veteran leadership and tactical skills. After spending an episode exhibiting the requisite moé girl tropes, Miho quickly assumes the tactician role–i.e. team captain–without a single look back. To the show’s credit, her tactical prowess is shown rather than just told, and done so in a way that feels authentic to both the technology and the sport.

To get a better understanding of this, here’s a profile of the five tanks Ooarai starts out with:

Panzer IV Ausf. D–“Anglerfish”/”Goosefish”

The captain tank for Miho and her crew of friends. The Pz.IV was one of the workhorses of the German army throughout WW2, and is a partial embodiment of Ooarai’s tactical dilemmas: underpowered offensive abilities and weak defense, but reliable, decently fast and capable of rapid upgrade over time.

StuG III Ausf.F– “Hippo”

Not a tank at all, but an “assault gun” (think of a cannon with a tank chassis built around it) operated by members of Ooarai’s history otaku club. Similar to the Pz.IV, the StuG was designed to assist infantry attack fortified positions, but quickly got repurposed to combat tanks as well.

Panzer 38(t)–“Turtle”

Operated by the Ooarai student council. A Czech tank design appropriated by the Germans after their occupation of Czechoslovakia in the late 30s. Like many Czech designs, it was well engineered and cleverly designed, but ended up highly inadequate against the tanks being rolled out en masse later in the war.

Type 89 I-Go–“Duck”

Another infantry support tank, this one piloted by members of the volleyball club. This is a Japanese design, and like most of that country’s WW2 tank designs, substandard before the war even started.

M3 Lee–“Rabbit”

An American design operated by six excitable Ooarai freshmen. The Lee was a rushed design that sported the curious feature of having a cannon in a swivel turret on top combined with a powerful anti-tank cannon mounted in the body. Despite its copious firepower, it was a mediocre design through and through.

Much of Miho’s dilemma throughout the series is developing ad-hoc strategies based around her team’s limitations both technical and skillswise. Whereas many sports anime and manga are content to establish the ultimate game-winning tactic as “GANBATTE!” here, more often than not, we see foresight and ingenuity carry the day.

In several matches Miho uses her faster tanks to draw the enemy into a killzone kept in overwatch by the tanks with the more powerful cannons, a frequent WW2 tactic. In one lopsided match, she realizes the enemy team is monitoring Ooarai’s radio communications and spins it to her advantage, relaying false information over the radio to draw enemy groups into ambush while sending messages via cellphone. At one point, the Pz.IV and StuG are pursuing a fast Soviet tank through an abandoned village. The superior speed is negated by breaking off the StuG and using its extremely low chassis profile to pile snow on top of it to set an invisible ambush in a side street–another tactic taken from reality.

Schwerpunkt

One might now think of this show as a series of hard-bitten wargames painted over with a thin veneer of humor and glossy moé character designs, but that’s not the case. Despite its adherence to authenticity in the technologies and tactics of the game, the show emphasizes the nature of sensha-do as a sport early and often. “Sensha-do is not war,” is a recurring phrase throughout the series.

This is perhaps where the series sticks closest to its traditional sports roots. Virtually everyone the Ooarai team faces off against is sportsmanlike in their own way. Refreshingly, Saitiniya’s inspiration for the series seems not to have included any axe to grind about Japan’s treatment in the war, something not shared by many anime/manga auteurs known to draw themes from WW2. Again and again we’re treated to a suite of very pre-00s sports manga lessons:

  • Graciousness in defeat, graciousness in victory
  • Cheating is bad
  • Overconfidence never pays
  • Safety and love of the game are more important than winning

The last lesson in the list forms the crux of Miho’s character conflict, insofar as it’s the driver that compelled her to cut ties with the rest of the Nishizumi clan and seek a transfer to a school without a sensha-do program.

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Of course, GuP is not a character drama, and there’s no basis for anyone to ever assume such a direction was possible. The show’s 13 episodes leave little storytelling breathing room (one of the major matches from the manga being relegated to an OAV episode). Director Tsutomu Mizushima inserts a handful of new character backstories and subplots into the first half of the series, which, while serviceable, aren’t much more than token buttresses to a narrowly focused tournament story that may not have translated as effectively in anime form.

Mizushima is a veteran director, having worked on a slew of different 2000s and 2010s anime including Big Windup, Joshiraku, Dokuro-chan and Squid Girl. Based on his previous work, one of Mizushima’s greatest directorial strengths is striking a balance between humor, action and plot development within the confines of whatever production limitations he’s saddled with. The make-it-look-easy gracefulness with which he trims and economizes the storytelling of GuP speaks to that expertise. Not only is the show visually impressive and mechanically authentic, it, like many of Mizushima’s other works, strikes a tone far more coy, wry and clever than anyone would expect from a boilerplate moé anime.

One of Mizushima’s recent projects, SHIROBAKO, takes an inside look at the production of TV anime in contemporary times. It portrays a studio who produces moé anime that in one way or another subtly transcends the boundaries of said subgenre. If that show is in any way autobiographical (it’s hard to assume it’s not) then Girls und Panzer is the embodiment of its argument that the established system can still turn out the occasional gem.

2 Comments

  1. Great post. When this show came out, everything about the marketing and promotional media screamed, “skip unless you’re a war otaku who hides his airsoft guns inside a hugpillow.” It’s definitely unexpected that there’s actually good storytelling lurking within.

    At the same time, the claim that this kind of show implies anything about WW2 “departing from living memory” is questionable. You said yourself that this is a recontextualization, a pastime that Japan pursues with equal zeal whether the culture/history in its scopes is domestic or foreign. I can’t recall where I saw it (Tokyo Damage Report?), but there’s a bit about Einstein being caricaturized as “the sinister Jew who bombed us”, complete with topical t-shirts, which sums up the national attitude quite well. Really, the Japanese are good at treating symbology, no matter how loaded, like a toy chest of props to dress up, play house with, and, inevitably, imagine as little girls. Meanwhile, the actual payload behind them will remain in the public mind (with an intensity matching the mood in ongoing foreign affairs), whether the subject is the Yasukuni shrine, Unit 731, or the impact of US occupation. Just because these things aren’t in the children’s cartoon on AT-X doesn’t mean they’re not on the pages of the Yomiuri Shimbun, and pretending otherwise is just silly.

  2. Supremely dispointed by the lack of desperate Soviet infantry ambush tactics like jumping on a tank and tossing a molotov through any available opening.

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