Gainax’s latest TV show, the unwieldy-named Stella Women’s Academy, High School Division C3, focuses on the adventures of a survival game club at a prestigious girl’s boarding school. Ingeniously tapping into both the popular “little girls doing things” genre and the wide-scale marketability of the expensive toy guns industry, Stella Women’s Academy replaces the toy robots of yesteryear with toy guns — pretty much the same thing, really, except instead of being marketed to children a la Gundam, they’re marketing to manchildren a la every other anime of the last decade.
“Survival game” is the Japanese term for what American’s refer to as “airsoft,” although the Japanese still refer to the guns themselves as “airsoft guns,” just to make things appropriately confusing. Either way, it’s a pseudo-sport wherein people use realistic toy guns to shoot plastic BBs at each other. It’s similar to paintball, but the guns are accurate reproductions of actual firearms and there’s a heavy emphasis on reproducing a militaristic feel, whereas paintball has kind of become its own sport. While airsoft has survived for decades in Japan on the shoulders of military otaku, in the United States its success has fit in nicely with rising popularity of Call of Duty, camouflage fashion and other aspects of our post-9/11 uptick in military-derived pop culture.
Pairing girls with guns isn’t exactly a new concept, but despite the the long-standing crossover between military and anime otaku, airsoft is rarely seen in anime. There was that scene in Bubblegum Crisis, and brief appearances in earlier Gainax works like FLCL and Otaku no Video, but that’s about it. In the 1980s, when airsoft was the realm of the most serious military nuts and reenactors, it wasn’t uncommon to see airsoft guns converted to resemble guns from contemporary anime. Back then the technology of airsoft guns was limited to spring or gas powered machines, the reliability and performance of which limited the customer base to a suitably dedicated niche. The result was an emphasis on historical accuracy and an insistence on making sure that every obscure German World War 2 machine gun was available for purchase. The growing popularity in Japan, the U.S. and elsewhere, is largely thanks to the introduction of electronic-powered guns, cheaper prices and video games.
Airsoft’s appeal shouldn’t be too hard to figure out: it’s as active as you want it to be, involves cool toy guns and there’s a high degree of customization for both your firearms and your own outfit/gear. While looking through the websites of Japanese airsoft clubs, it’s readily apparent that there’s a huge emphasis on perfecting your gear and fitting into the “theme” of your team, be it historical or contemporary. In the U.S., most players tend to either be adults who want to pretend they joined the military and like to obsess over flashlights and MOLLE gear, and teenagers who are happy enough wearing hoodies and probably got into the sport because of an interest in firearms cultivated by video games.
Anecdotal experience based on my peers would suggest that airsoft occupies a second tier step on a three step path to gun ownership that goes 1.) video games like Counter-Strike or Call of Duty, 2.) airsoft and then 3.) actual gun ownership, sometime after reaching adulthood. The realism of the airsoft guns makes for a decent primer on how to handle real firearms, and while the stakes are obviously lower, handling them helps to instill an awareness in gun safety that proves useful with the real thing. In Japan, where gun ownership is severely restricted, it isn’t difficult to guess why these expensive toy guns manage to have such appeal.
Recent years have seen Chinese manufacturers make significant inroads against Japanese airsoft manufacturers, first by the outright copying of Japanese products and later by moving into their own development, but most of the innovation in the industry still seems driven by Japanese manufacturers. At the forefront is Tokyo Marui, the company responsible for introducing the aforementioned electronic-powered guns into the market in the early 1990s. These electronic airsoft guns were more reliable and cheaper to produce than their predecessors, and much of airsoft’s modern popularity can be traced to this shift in technology. Unsurprisingly, Tokyo Marui is a consultant on Stella Women’s Academy, and nearly all of the guns featured in the show are products that they sell.
Stella Women’s Academy attempts to walk the line between introducing newcomers to the sport (and thus new customers for Tokyo Marui and the hobby as a whole) while appealing to existing fans as well. Early episodes revolve around the protagonist Yura’s introduction to the game via girls at her school, who are desperate for new members to join their survival game club. The show attempts to introduce the concepts behind airsoft, as the club members try and convince Yura to join. Guns are cool! Live out your action film fantasies! You can be Rambo! All of these convincing arguments are used to persuade Yura, as well as the viewers, to jump into the hobby.
The anime-isms are laid on thick, with much attention given to Yura’s perfect trigger pull technique, which club president Sonora recognizes due to Yura’s perfectly-constructed onigiri. “It falls apart softly in my mouth, but doesn’t crumble in my hand… This rice was squeezed together without being squeezed!” Through flashbacks we learn that Sonora’s father prepared her for airsoft shooting by forcing her to make countless onigiri, in a plot point that somehow manages to be even stupider than teaching your son how to drive fast by using a cup of water. Sonora’s dad also trims his bonsai tree with an airsoft gun he keeps in his jacket like a psychopath, so the show expects us to treat him like an expert.
For existing airsoft enthusiasts, there are plenty of touches to remind you that this show knows what it’s talking about. Characters are shown sweeping up loose BBs, a common chore as airsofter’s houses will invariably become littered with the things. There’s also a strict adherence to the kind of gun safety rules that Internet nerds obsess over; namely trigger discipline, which means that characters keep their fingers off the trigger unless they’re about to shoot. The guns featured are recognizable and accurately rendered, as the show’s growing Internet Firearms Database page can attest. While I wouldn’t want to guess how the average airsofter will take to the little girls dominating the show, it’s clear that Gainax was trying to make it just as appealing to existing hobbyists.
Not to be left out, the perverts receive some attention as well, with Sonora popping up nearly naked and later in a high school gym class swimsuit in the second episode. The third episode even features the now de rigeur anime onsen scene. My gut instinct tells me that the girls in Stella aren’t quite as marketable as they could be to tap into this particular demographic, but what the hell do I know?
Stella Women’s Academy piqued my interest because of the airsoft angle, but my patience was sorely tested after watching just a handful of episodes. The little girl angle, the intolerably high-pitched voices, the stupid plot point about a girl struggling to come to terms with firing a plastic toy gun; it’s not exactly great television. Yet, despite the attempts by some Western fans to lump this in with a pervasive gun fetishism epidemic, I don’t really buy it. Yes, airsoft guns are startlingly realistic. Yes, Stella features little girls. But ultimately, it’s kids playing with toy guns, and isn’t nearly as sinister as something like the video game industry being in cahoots with real gun manufacturers.
There’s no reason that combining airsoft and anime shouldn’t work, as decades of successful sports anime can attest. Stella’s weakness is that it attempts to to play to too many niche interests and seems unable to come up with an interesting story. For those looking for anime with girls and/or guns, try anything by Kenichi Sonoda or the Cat Shit One OAV. If you’re just looking for underage girls doing dumb shit, something tells me anime has you pretty well covered in that regard, too. Maybe Stella gets better in later episodes, but I’ve given up on sticking with it. Those fucking voices.