My Review of Girls Und Panzer!

When it comes to entitlement and birthright, Miho Nishizumi has a lot to be tankful for. Sorry, but I promised I’d make that joke at least once in this review, so at least it’s past us now. She hails from a family of highly trained, highly disciplined practitioners of one of their world’s most popular and prestigious forms of martial arts… Tankery. Yes, in this world, the most globally popular sport isn’t soccer, it’s full blown tank battles, and while it’s full extent is unknown, we do know that there’s a high school division that’s taught as a class, the students of which go to war with other schools in a yearly tournament. There are many nations taking part, and many different styles to contend with, but the Nishizumi family is at the top of the game. With the elegance of Wushu and the power of Krav Maga, the Nishizumi style of Tankery specializes in cold hearted dominance, seizing victory at the cost of all else, and with more than 18 tanks at their disposal, they had the force to overwhelm any opponent, even at the acceptable cost of several of their own units.

However, there is a black sheep in every flock, and the youngest daughter of the Nishizumi family… The comparatively gentle Miho… Doesn’t quite agree with the all-or-nothing approach that her family has long treasured. One day, during an important tournament battle, she abandoned her own tank to save the lives of several of her teammates whose tank had fallen into a deep river. Unfortunately, she’d been driving the flag tank, so when the parked vehicle was shot by enemy fire, her school wound up losing the tournament. Disgraced for her heroism, Miho was spurned by her family, which she repudiated in return. In order to get away from Tankery forever, she transferred to a school that didn’t have that class on it’s curriculum. Little did she know that on her first day at this new school, Tankery class would be brought back, and the student council would all but blackmail her into signing up for it. With the very life she’d been running from having caught up with her, will Miho become the leader her family never saw in her, or will history repeat itself?

Have I ever spoken about Actas before? Have I ever even heard of it before? I don’t think I have, which is understandable, because while they’ve done a ton of minor work on other studios’ projects, they really haven’t done that much on their own. From what I can tell, aside from Girls Und Panzer, the only major work they’ve done was the currently running Princess Principal, on which they shared duties with Studio 3hZ. They did Moetan and a few of what I understand are the less popular Transformers titles, but nothing else of any serious note, which is a shame, because I really like what they did with Panzer. I’ve never really had a problem with moe designs… Or ‘moe blobs,’ as they’re also sometimes called… But it’s kind of toned down here, taking a more grounded and natural approach to the big-eyed, chin-deprived features that are more closely associated with the trend. The moe design aesthetic works surprisingly well with the eponymous tank action, even if the animation doesn’t blend as smoothly as I’d like.

See, Girls Und Panzer uses a mix of traditional two-dimensional and more modern three-dimensional animation, and both work really well, at least for the most part. The slice of life aspects of the series, AKA the girls when they’re not operating heavy machinery, are done using 2D animation, and while I wouldn’t say any of it’s bad, it does feel wildly inconsistent. A great deal of it uses limited movement and smart budget saving tricks, such as selective framing and frozen talking heads, but it wouldn’t be to a distracting or noticeable degree if it wasn’t for certain other scenes that are so over-animated that they feel almost like they were done using rotoscope. The tanks in the series are almost always shown in CG, and while their movements don’t always look convincing or well integrated, they both look and move like real tanks, and the level of detail used on them is stunning. Unfortunately, while both sides of the animation are more or less adequate, they can look a bit cringey when both are moving at the same time.

You get a dose of this right in the first scene of the first episode, where we begin with a POV shot from inside one of the tanks, and we catch several glimpses of moe girls sticking their heads and whole bodies out of their respective tanks, and Good Lord does it look like an awkward combination. They just don’t move the same, and it doesn’t always look… Right. This gets better throughout the series, especially after they figure out that it looks much better to focus the camera on the girls while keeping the camera steady, negating any excess movement from the tanks so that they don’t have to move the girls with them, so it’s easy enough to get over. The character designs tend to get weirder as the cast expands, seeing how the main cast is geared towards normalcy with hairstyles that inform their personalities… The lazy girl has long thick hair, the delicate girl has lighter and fluffier black hair, the love-sick girl has hair that’s long, pampered orange locks, etc… But characters occupying the side tanks feature teams of military buffs, younger girls, girls who all look like clones of each other, so at least you can’t say they got lazy or uncreative with their moe blobs.

The soundtrack, by Shiro Hamaguchi, is mostly set to the style of military march music, and if you want a quick comparison, there’s a track called Panzer Vor that, early on, sounds eerily similar to the theme song from Disney’s Recess. There’s a lot of rolling drums at the base of the music, and it’s overlayed by a handful of different wind instruments, your standard marching band fare. There are a few exceptions, such as in regards to foreign characters, like the British tune The British Grenadiers, which acts as a reverse of a lot of the more standard tunes, as it starts with the flute and then adds in the drums. There was initially a beautifully rendered version of an old Russian folk song on the soundtrack, but because Crunchyroll couldn’t get the rights to it, they had to replace it with something else Russian sounding from the public domain bin. They went, of course, with the Pac Man theme, which didn’t even come close. Another noteworthy track is the cast being forced to sing the Goosefish song, but it’s nothing without it’s insane dance visuals. Honestly though, the most noteworthy music that the dub was able to retain is the opening theme Dreamriser, from the band Chouco, which is absolutely delightful.

The English dub is unfortunately on the disappointing side, as Sentai Filmworks apparently decided that instead of trying to match the moefied voice of the characters… A feat that, like an accurate kansai dialect, is distinctly possible to pull off but still highly difficult… They would instead use more normal, natural sounding American teenage girl voices, most of which hit a lower register than you’d expect from a glance at the characters, and it doesn’t work as well as you’d hope. To be fair, it does start to sound a lot better after a few episodes, especially as Meg McDonald, one of Sentai’s most recent hires at the time, manages to find a connection to her character that may have something to do with the character herself growing in confidence and comfort with each passing episode. Actually, a lot of the cast of this dub are unknown names and recent(at the time) hires, including Rebekah Stevens growing into her role of the excitable tank nerd Yukari and Molly Searcy… Well, honestly being a bit miscast as the sleepy and quiet Mako, as you can just tell she’s struggling to give the character personality despite the restrictions of a lower register.

Caitlynn French was also hired around 2012-2013, but it’s arguable that she’s come a lot farther than her contemporaries since then, with plenty of notable star performances under her belt already, and even though she’s not playing the main character here, she plays around with the role of Hana, a girl trying to transition from the gentle delicacy of flower arrangement to the raw power of firing a tank cannon and finds a lot of character in this dynamic. There are a bunch of veteran actors in the cast, with recognizable voices like Monica Rial and Luci Christian popping up in the rest of the main tank class, and some incredibly talented names like Hilary Haag and Brittany Karbowski getting meatier parts as villains, but the most surprising for me was the boy-crazy Saori, and after stumping me for most of the first episode as I tried to place where I’ve heard her before, it hit me like a ton of bricks that she was played by voice acting veteran Jessica Calvello, who I honestly hadn’t heard in anything since 2003.

I mean, okay, she had like 6 or 7 jobs between 2004 and 2013, but none of them were really high profile, and now, she’s getting lead roles left and right, and deservedly so, with fan favorite performances in Attack on Titan and Maria Holic, to name a few. I’ve mentioned in other reviews how excited I was to see her coming back in a major way to the dubbing industry, and her performance in this is probably it’s biggest saving grace. The first episode does sound a little awkward all around, but she’s the only main actor whom I can confidently say was putting forth maximum effort since the beginning. That’s not to say she makes the dub sound good, however, because the deepened voices coming out of characters that are slightly grounded but still over-the-top in design is a hard thing to get used to. Hell, the perfect example of this dub’s problems is the student council president, a short girl with tsundere pigtails whose voice is way too deep for her stature. It’s kinda worth checking out at least once to see what Sentai’s newest hires of this decade are capable of, and to celebrate Calvello’s triumphant return to action, but the sub is way better.

Girls Und Panzer is what I like to call a Gimmick Anime. It’s not deep, it’s not high concept, it’s not a rip-off of anything more successful, it’s not following popular trends… It’s the kind of show(Well, manga, in this case) where the creator was able to come up with one weird, original concept and build a story, world and cast of characters around it. This may sound like a new concept for some of you, but if you think back, there have been plenty of Gimmick anime that have become successful over the years. High School of the Dead and Tiger and Bunny lit up the market back in their day, and over ten years later, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is still finding new ways to expand the universe it built off of it’s gimmick. All you really need to do is take your original idea, set it into a tried and true formula, populate it with archetypal or even subversive characters, and then find ways to market it, so that people get hooked on the new idea while being drawn in by the same old surroundings that the gimmick manages to cover up.

If that sounds cynical of me, well, that’s because more often than not, Gimmick anime don’t always work, and there are a myriad of problems they can go through. For example, the gimmick can get stale, exposing the characters as running jokes who can no longer support it, which is what happened to Dagashi Kashi, at least in my opinion. You can focus on the gimmick to the point that the series loses it’s sense of direction, which is probably how Bento wound up going off the rails with two unwatchable and thankfully skippable episodes. You can focus way too hard on marketing, which led to Strike Witches going overboard on fanservice to an unforgivable degree, or you can try to make your gimmick show more than the sum of it’s parts and fail miserably, winding up looking stupid and pretentious as a result, like Sasami-san@Ganbaranai. If your main character IS the gimmick, you run the risk of sacrificing plot, story and the rest of the cast as props to support the exploits of said character, like Squidgirl did. Or you could be like C3, and pick a gimmick that feels way too disturbingly similar to real life tragedies.

Okay, to be fair, Girls Und Panzer almost falls to that last issue, with tanks fortunately being a lot more removed from reality than lifelike toy guns and thus not nearly as uncomfortable to think about, but aside from that, it really doesn’t have any of those other problems. It fused it’s gimmick with one of the most enjoyable story structures you can pick, the ‘underdogs proving themselves in a tournament’ structure template, and in doing so, it was able to keep the story simple, hold to a consistent direction, keep it’s gimmick fresh with the increasing difficulty of each battle and the challenges both during and inbetween, and it had so much realism in the movement of the tanks and the tactical usage of terrain and strategy that they were able to get away with some otherwise ludicrous logic fallacies… Which, to be fair, was more for the sake of keeping the show from crossing the threshold from tank violence to actual human casualties. Yeah, I’ll believe a human sticking out of a tank is too small a target to hit, because a moe show like this one REALLY doesn’t need to get that dark.

Of course, being a tournament style show that only has 12 episodes, it did wind up facing one other potential problem. Using Yuri on Ice as a begrudging example… Seriously, I really wanted to like that show more than I did… It’s entirely possible for a large cast to feel underdeveloped in a story that seems to be focused more on performance performance performance, with interchangeable stock characters just kind of existing for the sake of existing, and it’s just as possible for a show like that one to carry low or even no stakes. Again, though, this is a problem that Girls Und Panzer manages to avoid. The characterization is a bit light, with no individual characters having arcs outside of the tank battles, and the few that do exist being resolved for better or worse by a simple win/loss, and honestly, none of the characters… Not even in the main five… Are particularly memorable as individuals. Even the villains, who are a lot more fun to watch, are little more than stereotypes.

Up until my second time through the series, this was my one major problem with it, but now that I’ve seen it again, the characters are developed… Enough. The main cast may not be made of definitive characters, but you know enough about them to like them and to know why they’re in the game, and what they’re getting out of it. They don’t go above and beyond, but it’s acceptable. They even change by the end, albeit in smaller and more subtle ways than some viewers will be used to. The supporting cast is largely interchangeable, but with the exception of some cosplayers towards the end, none of them feel wasted or unimportant. They even wind up getting small arcs to themselves, like when the bumbling underclassmen wind up scoring major achievements in the last fight. Besides, when you really get down to it, this isn’t a character based story… It’s mostly plot driven, and while it’s not going to break any barriers, a team of underdogs surrounded by less important but still kind of interesting stock characters while battling foreign stereotypes that still manage to pull out redeeming qualities whenever needed is a scenario that’s more than enough to support a tournament show.

In other words, Girls Und Panzer’s biggest accomplishment is in execution. The parts for the most part don’t feel like anything special or revolutionary, but when it all comes together, you wind up with an intense, energetic sports anime that’s able to use likeable characters and smart writing to create a series of truly heart-pounding fights, full of devastating twists and sudden, unexpected challenges that you can’t help but cheer every after every single one that they overcome. I will admit that I had a lot of problems with the first episode, and I found it really despicable that the student council would use such cruel and extreme tactics to force Miho to take tankery, but even that becomes forgivable about halfway through the series when you realize that there isn’t just the joy of success and the developing bond of the tankery class on the line, oh no, there are actual stakes at play here, and the more you grow to love and identify with these characters, the more you’ll want them to overcome all odds and win it all. Not bad for a show that needed two inbetween ova episodes to help us keep up with all of it’s characters.

Girls Und Panzer is available from Sentai filmworks. The inbetween episodes I just mentioned are all available on the home release. A six episode OVA series is also available from the same company, along with another OVA and the first of seven feature films, although I’ve seen none of these, so I can’t speak as to their quality. Two different manga series, Girls Und Panzer and Girls Und Panzer Little Army, are available stateside from publisher Seven Seas. There are actually a ton of different manga titles (and one game) that aren’t available stateside, along with one light novel, but I’m sure we’ll get them eventually.

Girls Und Panzer is by no means a masterpiece, but it still had every excuse in the book to not be as great as it is. Not only was it saddled with a production team that hasn’t done anything else of note until this year, it was also limited to 12 episodes and almost as many named characters as Fullmetal Alchemist had, and despite these problems, the final product is nothing short of amazing. It has some flaws, but aside from the easily excusable logic and safety issues, the only problems that hold me back from giving it a perfect score are the occasionally shakey animation and the handful of character arcs that get resolved way too easily at the end. None of these problems keep the series from being a blast from start to finish, nor do they manage to derail that overall feeling that the people working on it fully enjoyed what they were doing and believed in it with complete sincerity. I know a world where recreational tank battles have achieved world-wide popularity is a hard concept to imagine, but this series makes me believe in it one hundred freaking percent. It’s exciting, it’s smart, it’s suspenseful, and it’s honestly one of those rare titles that I’d recommend to just about anyone. I give Girls Und Panzer a 9/10.  

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