Lots of Brain with a Bit of Heart: Combat in Girls und Panzer das Finale

After years of waiting, I finally got the chance to watch Girls und Panzer das Finale: Part 2 thanks to a sweet sale from Sentai Filmworks. The second in a planned six-part film series to wrap up the “girls in tanks for sport” franchise, Part 2 is definitely not a standalone movie. It introduces no new characters, doesn’t have any real major revelations, and is probably better thought of as an extra-long TV episode. Even so, I don’t mind one bit. What I’ve come to remember just from sitting down with this second movie is that there is something inherently joyful to Girls und Panzer, and I think it comes down to how it handles the portrayal of combat.

Whether by fists or by vehicles, I find that fights in action-oriented anime largely fall under two categories: brain-oriented and heart-oriented. “Brain-oriented” means ones where characters win or lose because of strategic or tactical circumstances. They don’t necessarily have to be “realistic;” there just has to be an internal logic. Stand battles in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, which focus on overcoming an enemy’s specific strengths and weaknesses, are a prime example. “Heart-oriented,” on the other hand,” comes down to essentially “they won because they wanted it more.” Most battles in Fist of the North Star are this way, even though the series ostensibly is a clash of different martial arts—ultimately, it’s about Kenshiro’s righteous anger. It’s also not uncommon to see hybrids that aim to achieve satisfaction in both. Gaogaigar is a notable example of a hybrid, especially because it involves taking a heart-based skill (“bravery”) as a power source for brain-based decisions while fighting (“the G-Stone is powered by bravery.”)

Girls und Panzer revels in its battle scenes. But while Girls und Panzer has a good deal of heart to it, that’s really not what side its bread is buttered on. Its tank battles are brain-oriented through and through, and what I find interesting is just how much the series avoids expository dialogue to convey that focus. Whether it’s JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure or Legend of the Galactic Heroes, brain-oriented fare often revels in that verbosity, and while I don’t worship at the altar of “show, don’t tell,” Girls und Panzer does make for a very compelling experience. In das Finale: Part 2, concepts like positioning are conveyed mostly visually without the need for diagrammatic maps. While I most definitely don’t have any sort of practical combat experience (in tanks or otherwise), the film makes you feel like you’re both an outside observer and in the thick of it. 

Of course, brain-oriented battles assume brains, and that it’s not just a bunch of empty tanks on autopilot. In this respect, characters in Girls und Panzer serve an important function. Aside from being cute girls whose personalities satirize cultures around the world (including Japan), their behaviors provide windows into how they think and approach both competition and life in general. For example, the first fight in das Finale: Part 2 comes down to exploiting underlying intrateam rifts by utilizing commonalities in certain tank designs, and it is incredibly silly while also making total sense.

A part of me can’t believe that Girls und Panzer is coming up on its 10-year anniversary. But every time it shows back up, I know that it’s going to deliver. The love and effort poured into the franchise is hard to deny, and the sheer amount of earnest fun is virtually palpable. Its breed of brain-oriented combat is still rare in this day, and as it gradually rolls to the finish line, I hope others take up the mantle.

Making and Sharing Lemonade: Princess Connect! Re:Dive Season 2

The first season of Princess Connect! Re:Dive was a surprise hit for me. In a seemingly endless field of mobile game adaptations, this one manages to achieve a nice balance between plenty of irreverent hijinks among its core characters with a bit of intrigue surrounding its greater plot and world. Season 2 flips the ratio, leaning more heavily into the overarching narrative, but I find it still enjoyable in its own right. In a certain sense, having the former take a more episodic approach gives more dramatic weight to the latter.

One thing I find particularly fascinating about Re:Dive is the way it connects to the original Princess Connect (sans Re:Dive) by giving the “player character,” Yuuki, more dimensions through turning his story into a redemption arc. It’s established throughout the anime that the world portrayed in the anime is something of a “redo” after a final battle against a great villain went horribly wrong, which renders Yuuki initially amnesiac. “Having things happen to you” is not the same thing as having a personality, but in giving this origin story to Yuuki, it lets him feel like a character all his own instead of an automatic audience stand-in. Takasaki Yu from Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club shares a similar circumstance, and like Yuuki, is there in part to show how great everyone else is.

Making the vanilla Princess Connect the backstory for a bigger and better sequel turns out to be a solid idea, and it actually reminds me of another game franchise: Street Fighter. The very first game is widely regarded as the worst one just by virtue of awkwardly imprecise controls and the lack of a large playable character roster, but the roots were there. And like Princess Connect, it’s the sequel that would become more of a gold standard—and the sprinkling of story from Street Fighter would become the exciting backdrop for Street Fighter II. After all, how much more awesome is the rivalry between Ryu and Sagat when the canon says Ryu scarred Sagat with a Shoryuken and drove the former champion to develop his own leaping uppercut? 

For that matter, the way that various characters in Season 2 of the Re:Dive anime show up to reward their fans without overshadowing the Big Plot feels like how a fighting game anime would ideally work if adapted into a TV series. I never finished Street Fighter II V, so I can’t say how that one goes.

Princess Connect! Re:Dive Season 2 gets around to more or less wrapping up the big threads established from Season 1, but given that it’s a mobile game, there’s inevitably going to be some more story. I hope it can keep up the general joy and excitement that made me a fan in the first place. 

Redefining Traditions and Expectations: Turning Red

Turning Red is Disney Pixar’s latest theatrical animation, and its focus on life as an Asian middle schooler hits close to home. Like many Asians from North America, I was a kid who took overachieving to heart due to my upbringing. I wasn’t dedicated as some of my peers, mind, but it was enough that getting a B+ used to summon deep and gut-wrenching dread. But when I looked at TV and movies, it was clear that characters who were like me were few and far between, and the ones who did appear were often relegated to support characters even when factoring out physical appearance. 

This has changed over time, with the mainstream rise of the “nerd” and protagonists like Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic carrying a similar energy, but that particular cocktail of emotions shared by so many of Asian descent remained a rarity. That’s why I was so taken by the heroine of Turning Red, Meilin Lee. A 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian from Toronto, her story is the latest in a line of works addressing generational trauma—and one of those symptoms is the way that Asian kids are expected to get those straight A’s, learn piano and violin, get into a good college, have a successful career, have a family and kids, and on and on. 

Yet, the key is that the pressure placed upon us does not come from malice, neglect, or simple fear of ruining family reputation, but rather from what is practically the opposite. For our elders who had to endure unbelievable hardship, they do not want us to suffer as they did, yet the context in which many of us are raised is so fundamentally different that it creates inherent tensions.

The way Turning Red pursues this complex relationship through Meilin is nothing short of brilliant and powerfully relatable. Within her is a turbulent embrace of both 2002 North American pop culture (boy bands!) and the traditional culture of her parents, and the way they merge and split and get thrown into the blender feels so much like what I experienced as a kid and still do today. It’s a film where I instantly saw myself—not simply because it’s about Asians but because it tells a personally familiar story in a way that assumes that such experiences are natural and common.  

Not a Circle, but a Sphere of ’Em: The Orbital Children

I’m not the kind of anime fan who thinks having specific names on a project is the be-all, end-all. That said, as soon as I saw that there was a new anime by the director of Dennou Coil, Iso Mitsuo—with character designs by Yoshida Ken’ichi (Eureka Seven, Gundam Reconguista in G), no less—I knew I had to watch it. The Orbital Children (also known as Extraterrestrial Boys & Girls) is in many ways a spiritual successor to Dennou Coil, but rather than elementary school kids’ experiences in a world where augmented reality is commonplace, it’s about young teens in a world where humanity has to grapple with the consequences of “rogue” artificial intelligence and failed space colonization.

Orbital Children is set in 2045 aboard a space station and follows five kids ages 12–14. Three of them are from Earth, having won a promotional trip to the station, while the other two are the last surviving members of an attempt to bear and raise children on the moon. When an asteroid hits, the emergency forces them into a fight for their lives, but also into a confrontation with how they view the world, humanity, and themselves. Underlying all of this is the fact that the failure to create and sustain life in space is the result of a defunct artificial intelligence known as “Seven,” which was the most powerful ever before being shut down for going out of control.

Advertisements for The Orbital Children do not shy away from making associations with Dennou Coil. In comparing the two, I prefer Dennou Coil, but this has largely to do with format differences. Whereas the latter is a 26-episode TV series given time to both meander and slow-build its narrative, The Orbital Children is only six episodes and originally released in Japanese theaters as two 3-episode “movies” before becoming available on Netflix. I also am a bigger fan of the character conflicts and the eerie quality of AR as experienced by kids, but I also really appreciate the earnest confrontation with science and technology through the lens that The Orbital Children provides. In many ways, it feels like a spiritual successor to Dennou Coil precisely because it better conveys the concerns of children who are older but while still grounding it in this science fictional setting. 

Ultimately, the series asks the audience whether we’re too afraid of how things might turn out to be that we shield the young and try to keep them from learning more about the world in the ways that make sense to them. Rather than forcing them to go one direction while trying to hide all the bad stuff out there, isn’t readier access to more information and faith in their intelligence and reasoning the better way to go? When I think about this, I can feel my own fear influencing my beliefs, but there’s an element of realization that has hit every generation: Try as you might, you can’t truly control how kids think, so it’s better to foster learning.

The Art of Love: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop

Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is a rare sort of anime film, managing to be highly stylized while delivering a more conventional romance that nevertheless has plenty of surprises. There are no supernatural elements like in Your Name. or Ride Your Wave, and yet it feels otherworldly.

The premise: Sakura “Cherry” Yui is a young and shy haiku poet who greatly prefers writing over speaking. “Smile”—real name Yuki— is a successful streamer, but who wears a mask because she’s embarrassed about her large front teeth. When the two bump into red other and accidentally swap phones, they inadvertently jumpstart a new friendship. Learning about their respective passions, they both grow closer through their art forms. Their budding feelings for each other, in turn, help each respective individual discover more about themselves. 

One thing I love about WBULSP is the way it celebrates multiple forms of art without pretentiousness. There’s the contrast between the tradition of haiku and the cutting edge of live streaming, but there’s also the environmental flourish of graffiti and the retro timelessness of 1960s (?) Japanese music. Distinctions between high and low art fall by the wayside as each artist finds ways to express themselves through their chosen medium. Colors and sound dance playfully throughout, making scene after scene both an aesthetic joy and an emotional one. The additional side plot about an old man looking for a lost vinyl record seems to be a silly detour but then transforms into one of the most impactful moments of the film.

Cherry and Smile don’t so much break out of their comfort zones as find ways to expand them, discovering and fostering confidence through their works. The romance feels like a bit of a slow burn, but it’s the kind that steadily and reliably progresses, as opposed to being full of fits and starts. Neither of them feel as if one is a pure audience stand-in or that the other is too perfect a partner, resulting in a romance that feels very equal in the best of ways.

Expectation vs. Reality in My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! X

After finishing Season 2 of My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!, I’ve been thinking about how the “villainess as protagonist” that has reached English-speaking fans over the past couple years, but also the specific qualities that make the character of Katarina von Claes especially charming. What I realized is that it’s her contrast between her perception of herself and the reality of who she is to other people. She thinks of herself as a cunning mind, but she’s actually incredibly naive.

The premise of the series is that Katarina is a girl from Japan reincarnated into the body of a “villainous elder daughter” character from her favorite visual novel. Knowing the often unfortunate (if not deadly) fate that awaits her along every route, she tries to rewrite game history and avoid all bad endings for Katarina. In doing so, however, she ends up making all the boys (and even some girls) fall for her as she breaks down social mores of high society through being a Machiavellian spaz. Katarina can both concoct a years-long scheme to future-proof herself, but is utterly clueless to the affections of those around her (until they’re made beyond outright).

I was trying to think of a similar character, and what I came upon is a very different heroine who is actually also an isekai protagonist who reincarnated into a girl’s body: Tanya Degurechaff from The Saga of Tanya the Evil. The subject matter may differ (magical international war vs. magical romance), yet the similarities are prominent. Like Katarina, Tanya’s goal is to survive, but their mistaken ideas about how other people think constantly throws wrenches in the works and leads to more trouble. In both cases, there’s a comedy of errors.

Will we see a Season 3? I think there’s enough material from the light novels and enough love for the series that it’s bound to happen. Katarina’s too charming not to have more, and the inconsistency between her self-image and how others perceive her is too strong to deny.

Navigating Your Cultures: Himawari House

The cover of "Himawari House" by Harmony Becker, showing the three Asian girls Nao, Hyejung, and Tina by the window. Next to them are a bottle and glass of tea, as well as some sunflowers.

There are stories I can appreciate and enjoy, and to which I can emotionally connect. Then there are the stories that I can feel right down to my bones, as if they extracted a part of me and converted that piece to an artistic medium. The Wind Rises was one, Encanto is another, and now the graphic novel Himawari House by Harmony Becker joins that list.

Himawari House is the story of three Asian girls who come to live together in Japan as exchange students. Nao is Japanese and White, originally from Japan but having grown up in the US. Meanwhile, Hyejung is South Korean and Tina is Singaporean. Though their circumstances are different and they come from different countries, they form a friendship amidst struggles with notions of identity and belonging.

In reading this, I’m reminded of my experience with the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy. I naturally couldn’t relate to the ultra wealthy or the old-money families, but could see many elements of the Asian culture I grew up both in and around, transcending class and manifesting in that story in specific ways. With Himawari House, however, I found myself relating to all three characters throughout because I would see in them pieces of my own personal struggles as a part of the Asian diaspora. 

I was born and raised in the US, so I understand a young Nao’s desire to integrate into American society surrounding her at the expense of her roots. I studied abroad in Japan at around the same age as them, so I also know what it’s like to experience Japan as a foreigner with some Japanese skills who nevertheless can pass looks-wise before it becomes clear that I’m not from there. I have limited connections with the lands of my parents and those who came before them—I’ve visited literally only twice in my entire life, once when I was very young and once when I was well into adulthood. Like Nao, those trips are still a part of me. Lingering memories of the former combine with resolve from the latter to hold onto some of it, while knowing the language in an imperfect manner leads to feeling caught between worlds. 

Himawari House’s portrayals of the Hyejung and Tina’s relationships with their parents also hit home. It’s all there: the looks of concern and disappointment from Hye’s parents and Tina’s description of her mom as some whirlwind of concern, love, guilt, and motherly affection. Much like Encanto, it’s like getting walloped over and over, except instead of punches to the gut it feels akin to elbows to the ribs. Which is to say, different but just as painful in its own right.

The comic does wonderful things with language in order to depict the experience of being ostensibly multilingual while also being exposed to new languages and getting reminded that maybe you don’t know your parents’ tongue as well as you maybe should. The dialogue is written with the caveat that this book is primarily for an English-literate market, but often Japanese and Korean are added as well to express what is being spoken in the original language—and to show the moments when the characters’ language comprehension fails. All the characters are also given noticeable accents in their speech, which add to the sense that they all come from different places. In English, Hyejung struggles with “f” sounds due to the lack of it in Korean while Tina speaks Singlish—a patois of English, Cantonese, Hokkien, and more—that she purposely dials back when talking to non-Singaporeans. 

There’s a note in the back of the book by Becker discussing her decision to incorporate accents into the book despite their historical use as racist mockery. In essence, she’s aiming to reclaim accents as a point of pride—a natural product of learning new languages—and I can really get behind that idea. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, but I think Himawari House pulls it off with aplomb.

Based on conversations I’ve had, this book is more than capable of finding readers beyond Asian peoples and communities. That being said, I feel that it speaks to Asians on a whole other level, and that’s okay. The joys and travails of Nao, Hyejung, and Tina are universal on some levels yet deeply personalized on others, and I find myself reflecting on my own sense of self within the cultures that are a part of me.

Epoch Epoxy: Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative

Every so often, I’ll come across a specific type of retcon in a long-running series that essentially says a certain important character or thing was unseen in the background all along, and that the audience just wasn’t aware of this. It’s a kind of shortcut to make new information not feel shoehorned in, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing—just evidence that things weren’t planned from the outset, for better or for worse.

The Gundam franchise has sort of always been this way, whether it’s the Mobile Suit Variations line that talked about all the other aces fighting in the One Year War offscreen or anime such as 08th MS Team showing events from a different perspective. But the film Gundam Narrative takes it to a whole other level, being what is essentially spackle for a specific period in the Universal Century timeline.

Early Gundam series were not made to overly adhere to a finely tuned canon, as they were usually set years apart chronologically to emphasize the idea that “things have changed.” But as the timeline has become more dense with sequels, prequels, sidequels, and spin-offs, there developed a certain unexplained plot element that had no real answers: why did the crowning technology from the film Char’s Counterattack, the Psycho-Frame, stop being used in later UC works like Gundam F-91 and Victory Gundam? It’s the kind of thing that can be explained by simply saying, “Stuff happened,” but the space-opera minutiae fairly present in Gundam potentially makes that an unsatisfying answer.

The result is a movie about three kids—Jona Basta, Michele Luio, and Rita Bernal—whose lives are tied to major events throughout the Universal Century series. They were there when a space colony fell on Australia before the start of First Gundam, but burgeoning Newtype powers resulted in them being able to evacuate their town to safety. They were involved in the Cyber-Newtype experiments that were a major element in Zeta Gundam. And now their story takes them to being directly involved with the aftermath of the events of Gundam Unicorn and the hunt for the third Unicorn-class mobile suit, known as Phenex. 

Gundam Narrative basically tries to act as a bridge between two eras, and while the story is decent on its own, the focus with reconciling that incongruity results in an unusually jargon-heavy work (even by Gundam standards!), and a bit of weakness when it comes to the social and political themes that usually come part and parcel with the franchise as a whole. I’m not sure if it’ll end up being anyone’s favorite Gundam, but it’s also not a hot mess. Gundam Narrative serves a function, and it’s fairly entertaining while doing so, but I tend to prefer something with more meat on its bones.

A Rival of Her Own: Odagiri Manabu vs. Amamiya Maya in Shoujo Fight

Shortly after I reviewed the first 16 volumes of the manga Shoujo Fight (or Shojo Fight), Volume 17 was released in English. I normally wouldn’t write about the same series after just one volume, but the introduction of an antagonistic character named Amamiya Maya has set off a compelling rivalry. However, rather than with the protagonist, Oishi Neri, the rivalry is between Amamiya and Neri’s best friend, Odagiri Manabu.

Many sports manga revel in the relationships between side characters, Shoujo Fight included, but up until recently, Manabu’s have been more about developing friendships—and one romance. This has all changed with the appearance of Amamiya, and what makes this particular rivalry stick out in my mind is the way it brings out a fiery side of Manabu that is also true to her otherwise gentle demeanor.

Amamiya is the captain of another volleyball team, but she also went to the same elementary school as Neri and Manabu. She’s essentially a narcissistic sociopath with a knack for social engineering, and she uses this skill to both manipulate her unwitting allies and extort her enemies. As young children, Manabu was on the receiving end of Amamiya’s exploitative actions while also being resistant to them—her caring and genuine heart the total opposite of Amamiya’s. In current times, Manabu is shown to instinctively recognize Amamiya’s tactics, and she bristles at the way the latter controls her teammates. Amamiya also has an obsession with mirroring Neri that contrasts Manabu’s own complementary bond with Neri, setting them up as “equals” of sorts. 

As of Volume 17, Amamiya’s facade is starting to slip, but it’s notable that this isn’t solely because of Manabu’s actions. Other characters, including older ones with more life experience, are starting to call out Amamiya’s actions and behavior, and the cumulative effect between them and Manabu might be the key to breaking the sociopath’s hold on her teammates. I’m eagerly anticipating Volume 18 to see how this all turns out.

What Drives Them—Gundam Reconguista in G Part III: Legacy from Space

The third Gundam: Reconguista in G film continues the trend of breathing new life into a less beloved Gundam series. The edits make it noticeably easier to follow than the TV series, although I do acknowledge that the story is rarely ever straightforward or presented plainly, and this is a sticking point and the reason G-Reco is fairly divisive.

But as I watched Gundam Reconguista in G Part III: Legacy of Space, I had an epiphany of sorts that I think helps explain this split opinion. Namely, the key to understanding G-Reco is to get into the minds of individual characters. I understand how this sounds a little obvious (plenty of stories are about achieving personal goals), but what I mean is that character actions can seem inscrutable until you actively try to get into their heads.

The story as of Part III: As alliances and allegiances have shifted since Part I and Part II, Earth’s great continent-states now send forces into space to meet with Towasanga, a nation on the other side of the moon, created by the descendants of the humans who settled in space colonies in the Universal Century era. Not only do Towasangans have access to technology unobtainable by those on Earth, but the Towasangans see themselves as arbitrators between the Earth and the far-off colonies of Venus Globe, which provide to the Earth the photon batteries needed for it’s civilization to function, and thus see the need to equip themselves for conflict amidst the increasing tensions on Earth. Bellri Zenam, still thinking about the deaths he’s seen and caused, tries to figure out what he should do and where he fits into the big picture.

One of the big differences between G-Reco and other Gundam series is that there aren’t two major sides, like Federation vs. Zeon or Earth Alliance vs. ZAFT. Rather, there are multiple governments and factions: Ameria, Gondwana, Towasanga, Capital Tower (which is then further divided into the Capital Guard and the Capital Army). These groups are then conprised of singular people who think independently and have their own ideas of right and wrong, which results in G-Reco being more confusing when you think primarily in terms of who is on what side, and which side is winning because these positions are always in flux. Rather, the important thing is actually to understand what motivates each character and how it affects their decision-making.

Bellri, for example, is initially driven by his opposition to the Capital Army and its inherent militarization of what is supposed to be a neutral defensive force. Upon meeting Aida Surugan, he’s also moved by his own horniness. By the third movie, he’s also filled with regret—both from having accidentally killed his own teacher in mobile suit combat and learning why having a thing for Aida is a bad idea—and his actions reflect this. Bellri constantly tries to avoid dealing lethal damage, but also isn’t so naive that he thinks he shouldn’t do anything. When he loudly shouts that he’s about to fire and does a purposely bad job of aiming, one gets the sense that he’s trying to deliver warning shots that are nevertheless real and dangerous.

The Char Aznable of the series, Captain Mask, is motivated by something very different: improving the standing of his people. As a descendant of that Kuntala, people raised to be human livestock when food was abysmally scarce on Earth, Mask’s kind are still discriminated against. It’s little wonder why he’d be so willing to ally himself with the powerful and influential. To Mask, it’s all a means to a noble end.

So when the forces of Towasanga show up, and many seem to have pursuit of glory in mind, it highlights their hypocrisy and elitism. Particular attention is paid to the female commander Mashner Hume and her boytoy, Rockpie Geti, who are overly eager to mix business with pleasure. It’s as if the film is trying to say that the only thing that’s worse than ignoramuses perpetuating war on Earth is ignoramuses who live in space who are supposed to know better and perpetuate war anyway. Still worse is the man who consciously exacerbates all this: Cumpa Rusita, the leader of the Capital Army.

I will admit that I remember little of this section from the TV series, but the slightly condensed nature of the film brings with it better pacing that makes certain events feel less abrupt. The restoration of Raraiya’s memories now comes across as strange yet reasonable, like it takes going into space to jog her memories. Bellri learning why he shouldn’t be hot for Aida also has a realness to it, as he’s shortly after shown to be struggling with some serious emotional turmoil (and his insistence on calling her Big Sis from then on feels a bit like a self-reminder).

The next parts of G-Reco are originally where the series went from okay to great for me, but I’ve also read that Tomino plans on doing some heavy changes to the end. As Bellri and Aida reach Venus Globe in Part IV, I’d like to see how it might reshape my experience. For now, it’s still a fun and contemplative ride.