Girls und Panzer is the Best Show of Its Kind

Girls und Panzer is one of the latest in a long line of anime and manga which mix a unique activity or concept with a cast of cute girls, in this case World War II-era tanks. I’ve enjoyed many such shows over the years, but I think Girls und Panzer is actually the strongest anime I’ve seen in this genre because it possesses qualities which give it the capacity to reach an audience beyond the fanbase one would normally expect. More than the spectacle and the juxtaposition of girls and tanks, Girls und Panzer delivers a good story.

In the world of Girls und Panzer, the act of piloting tanks is considered a traditional feminine martial art and widely revered sport, much like archery. Referred to as senshado, or “way of the tank,” in a fashion similar to how bushido is “way of the samurai” and judo “the gentle way,” and tankery in the official subtitles (invoking the similarity in reputation to archery), the main character Nishizumi Miho comes from a prestigious family and school of senshado. Because of an event in her past, Miho has deliberately transferred to a school without any tankery in order to escape it, but has the unfortunate timing of coming in right when the school decides to bring it back. As the only person in the entire school with experience in senshado, Miho gets roped into participating so that they can compete in a national tournament, and along the way rediscovers her passion for the art.

It’s a strange premise to be sure, though not that different from girls playing mahjong in a world where the game is enormously popular (Saki), or one where girls use magic to become half-human/half-airplane (Strike Witches). Also, while Girls und Panzer may not be as firm in establishing extremely distinct personalities and quirks for its characters as those other shows, it also goes beyond simply being a large cast of cute girls by doing three things especially well. First, it establishes a protagonist with a solid sense of purpose and desire in Miho, who becomes the moral, narrative, and strategic anchor for all of the other characters (of which there are many; it’s a cast of dozens). Second, it has well thought-out narrative arcs for its characters which give the story a clear sense of direction. Third, it knows how to create tension and anticipation to keep interest in both the characters and the premise of the show itself.

Compare Girls und Panzer to Saki, for instance. In both stories, the main heroines have the problem that, in spite of their talents in the specialty of their series, neither of them find it particularly enjoyable, and part of both Girls und Panzer and Saki is that they discover what it means to have fun doing either tankery or mahjong. What does it mean to have fun, though? What do they achieve by learning this? For Miyanaga Saki, it’s never really clear. She plays a lot of people who are as strong as she is, and learns that mahjong is fun, but the idea just seems to end there. For Nishizumi Miho, on the other hand, Girls und Panzer shows how moving to a different school, breaking from her family and their established methods of senshado, and discovering the fun of tanks all have a significant impact on her because Miho’s greatest strength as a commander—adaptability—is given room to grow in a way it wouldn’t be able to otherwise. In this way, Miho’s character becomes somewhat of a poster child for the philosophy of  Bruce Lee, particularly the following quote:

“In memory of a once fluid man, crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” 

It was a criticism of traditional martial arts schools for being too caught up in perpetuating restrictive rules which could prevent people from reaching their true potentials. Girls und Panzer as Jeet Kune Do analogy.

Even before all that, though, the very first episode works to establish the idea that Miho is something special, building up that sense of anticipation which pays off when you see her in action. In this regard, Girls und Panzer reminds me a lot of Initial D and how it would hint at its main character Takumi’s skill at racing, so that when he finally gets behind the wheel you’re already invested in him. The show also follows the Initial D school of stopping an episode right in the middle of action and never giving a good point to walk away, which makes it hard to watch just one episode at a time, unless you were delayed for the week, or even months as the case may be, as Girls und Panzer‘s final episodes aired after a long break.

As for the tanks themselves, I am not a tank fanatic or particularly knowledgeable about them, so I can’t comment in that regard, but what I can say is that the series does an excellent job of portraying the tank battles in terms of thrill and excitement. Each of the tanks are shown to have particular strengths and limitations, and seeing the utilization of these qualities in terms of strategy and tactics, especially positioning, invokes the same feel one can get from the battles in Banner of the Stars or even Legend of the Galactic Heroes, where the unorthodox strategist Yang Wenli is in some ways similar to Miho. The actual animation of the tank battles is also very impressive, and is probably the best integration of 3D and 2D animation that I’ve ever seen. Very rarely does the show make its use of 3D appear awkward, which makes it easier to stay focused on what’s happening and not how strange everything looks.

Another thing I want to say is that with a show like Girls und Panzer which glorifies a well-known and still relevant weapon of war, it is easy to criticize it as promoting militarism in a very direct manner. However, I think it isn’t so simple, as the transformation of tanks into a “martial art” resembles the origins of many sports, including judo, which was specifically modified from its combative origins to be a way for self-improvement and healthy competition. It’s possible to criticize all competitive sports for promoting aggressive tendencies in people, but I think  Girls und Panzer has the potential to separate the beauty of machinery from its function of war.

For some, the premise of Girls und Panzer sells itself, but for the skeptical, or those who avoid this type of show like the plague, I would dare say that this is your best bet for finding something you’ll actually want to watch. Either way, it has the potential to become the standard by which all shows of its kind will be judged.

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12 thoughts on “Girls und Panzer is the Best Show of Its Kind

  1. Additionally, Girls und Panzer has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor outsiders can enjoy. The opening shot of little girl heads popping in and out of multicolored, realistically-detailed CG tanks, airdropping tanks in parking lots, tank themed cafes, flower arrangements, and bedrooms; it has moments of sheer absurdity that bring levity to the conventional sports drama formula.

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  2. Was just planning to read / not act, but this line sold it: “invokes the same feel one can get from the battles in Banner of the Stars”. SOLD!!

    Also that absurdity sounds pretty hilarious kenya :)

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  3. I think the show took great care to make itself palatable to viewers who wouldn’t be sold (or, like myself, would actually be directly repelled) by the “cute girls doing something ridiculous” premise. I felt there was a slow but very intentional shift in tone from the show regularly poking fun at the absurdity of its premise early on, to assuming a decent level of investment by the viewer once the major matches got rolling, resulting in a dramatic tone it couldn’t have gotten away with at the start. Obviously this is common to many sports shows, but I think Girls und Panzer had to work doubly hard to convince skeptics it was worth watching, and I think it definitely succeeded.

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  4. I will admit that I have a problem with the lack of focus on the characters, and it’s enjoyable enough… but I found myself getting into some problems because I felt that discussion of the tanks dominating the forums while it was on was weird. I’m not a big fan of machines being more important than characters unless there’s significant anthropomorphization going on, though I admit that’s almost entirely my fault for thinking that way.

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  5. I quite agree. I was among those who would “avoid shows like this like the plague”, but all the positive chatter caused me to take a look at it (after the show stopped airing), and I was utterly charmed.

    I think another difference between Saki and Girls und Panzer is that the characters in Saki seem to win through mystical, supernatural powers. Miho wins in Girls und Panzer through tactical cleverness. Unlike a lot of shows where a character is described as brilliant, we actually get to see Miho being brilliant, we see her sweating the details, planning ahead.

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    • While I didn’t write the show off outright, I did delay my viewing of it until after it was all over. I saw a lot of hype around Girls und Panzer, but personally speaking I find it difficult to gauge a series based on others’ opinions because often times people are only communicating about 10% of what they mean (arbitrary number), and I’m not perceptive enough to read into the meaning behind their words.

      I also think it’s the case that tanks are simply easier to understand than mahjong, even if you don’t know anything about tanks other than “they’re big and metal and shoot things.”

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      • I don’t “gauge series based on others’ opinions” so much as let the existence and nature of others’ enthusiasm persuade me to take a look at things I hadn’t found time for. “If they like it that much, maybe it’s worth taking a look at”. It may be an imperfect strategy, but it’s led me to some real gems.

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  6. What was helpful to me was that I didn’t really need to know about tanks to get into the show, much as I didn’t really need to know about mahjong to get into Saki. That being said, I at least learned how to play Reach Mahjong because of Saki, so hey. :P

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  7. I found it enjoyable only when the panzers were around (they are by far the most moe thing in this). When the girls were by themselves it was a black hole sucking any form of entertainment and leaving only bland and generic pandering garbage. Panzer vor.

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  8. Pingback: Please Get Loud When the Piano Gets Loud: Otakon 2013 | OGIUE MANIAX

  9. Pingback: Over Half the Movie is Tank Battles: Girls und Panzer der Film | OGIUE MANIAX

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