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.

I Wish Virtual Youtubers Became a Thing Much Sooner

One of the biggest transformations that occurred from the internet of my younger days to that we have now is the integration of the web into our flesh-and-blood lives. Whereas once you could reasonably maintain some kind of distinction between “online” and “IRL,” the latter term isn’t even really used anymore because it’s kind of pointless. Every major platform wants you to integrate because it helps them make money.

I’m under no false assumptions that Virtual Youtubers are some defiant rebellion against the greed that makes companies share information, but what they do represent is a purposeful separation of selves between who you are among close friends and who you are to an audience—while also making it obvious that there is a distinction in the first place. Of course, there are plenty of famous cases of performers being very different in public and private (see Freddie Mercury for one famous example), but the use of stylized moving avatars reduces the chances of the two sides being conflated.

The way VTubers have reintroduced and even kind of re-normalized an element of pseudonymous presentation makes me wish that they arrived sooner. Perhaps the internet would look different if VTubers were more quickly embraced before Facebook, et al could make everyone think that putting photos of yourself everywhere for all to see should be the default.

Very broadly speaking, that’s what online icons and avatars were for. And when it comes to hiding your face but wanting to communicate, things like chat rooms and voice chat have and still fulfill that function. But where VTubing is able to go a step further is in its ability to convey facial expressions that add an additional layer of interpersonal connection while also keeping that active and outright facade in place. How much more comfortable might people be talking “face to face” if the faces are virtual? 

In the video above, Apex Legends player discusses his favorite Virtual Youtubers, but also brings up all the points I’ve made above. Namely, he likes the fact that it gives viewers something to look at while still maintaining some semblance of privacy for the streamer, even if it’s for someone who shows their face normally.

I understand the programs used by VTubers can be expensive and time-intensive, especially if you want something professional-looking like your favorites. Still, I imagine a world where this sort of thing becomes accessible to a great many more people, and they can maybe engage with their online communities more comfortably.

Why Did I Ever Stop Reading Fanfiction?

I don’t really read fanfiction these days, but that hasn’t always been the case. My very first internet community was a video game fanfic site, and I spent quite a few years indulging in the hobby. At some point, though, I simply fell out of it—and I haven’t returned since. When I see people I know who are well into the realm of adulthood like me who still read and write fanfics, and when I see something like Archive of Our Own spring up around two decades after I quit, I can’t help but wonder where the differences lie. Why did I stop whereas others have kept going?

While reflecting on all this, I came to a conclusion: I stopped reading fanfiction because I no longer need it to fulfill the reason I began in the first place. The root desire that led me to fanfics no longer applies to me today.

What Fanfiction Gave to Me

When I first discovered fanfiction, it came at a time when many of the things I enjoyed felt confined in certain narrative ways. Video games like NiGHTS into dreams… had plots and characters, but they were very sparse and minimal—more vehicles to get people playing than elaborately unfolding stories. Many cartoons I grew up with, like King Arthur and the Knights of Justice, never reached proper conclusions. This was also the era of anime OVAs at the video store, and those were often just little samplers not meant to be complete stories. 

What fanfiction gave me was the opportunity to explore these limited settings. It often felt like the canon product only gave us a thin slice of the worlds they were presenting. I wanted to see how other people imagined what was beyond the visible parts of those universes, both external (other physical areas and aspects) and internal (the internal worlds of characters beyond what is shown to us). Of course, fan sequels were a huge part of this, continuing the stories where they might have ended (in my opinion) too soon.

Why I Stopped Reading, Maybe

However, more and more of the stories I experience now feel more complete and more satisfying. The worlds they portray are endlessly complex and intricate, sometimes even overly so. Rather than wanting more and more, I find myself often wanting less and less. And if there is some unresolved element, I’d rather use my energy to move on to another piece of entertainment. My current mindset is, why read fanfic of one manga when I can read two manga instead? Not only that, series like Naruto literally have gotten sequels, and while there’s plenty to potentially disagree with when it comes to the direction Boruto has taken, I don’t feel strongly enough about it to check out fan versions. Heck, I’m not even that interested in reading the multiple endings of We Never Learn, where the author drew out a happy ending for each girl.

This isn’t to say that everyone should do what I do or be where I’m at. Fanfiction is great, and it holds so much energy for joy and discovery. I also look at what seem to be the common directions that fanfics go these days—alternate-universe settings for characters, shipping, etc.—and those aren’t really my jam either. In my younger days, I searched for Gundam Wing fanfiction because I wanted to see people come up with their own mobile suits. What I got instead was decidedly not that. Fair game, but not what I was seeking.

Maybe I’ll Be Back Someday

It would be silly of me to say “never.” What the past couple years has taught me is that the future is indeed unpredictable, and I may find myself in a place where I need the comfort of fanfiction. See you in another decade maybe.

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.

Kizuna AI, Uruha Rushia, and the Search for Authenticity

A confluence of events has me thinking a lot about how people connect to Virtual Youtubers. Just recently, we’ve had both the final concert from pioneer Kizuna AI—who coined the actual term “Virtual Youtuber”—and the termination of Hololive’s Uruha Rushia not long after a different incident involving controversy over a rumored real-world relationship. When I think about just those two examples, I realize that their respective stories have a lot to say about the very way people engage online through these highly detailed virtual avatars.

VTubers generally exist as a form of kayfabe. They want viewers to embrace the idea that these artificial selves are real, and even when all parties understand it’s an act, the willful suspension of disbelief is important. But there are a few key differences between AI’s approach back in the burgeoning days of VTubing and the style that Rushia, as a member of Hololive, engaged in. First, AI’s content for most of her career involved uploading clips to YouTube with streaming being secondary content, whereas Rushia is the opposite in that live streaming was the foundation. Second, one of the big AI controversies was when fans thought they were trying to make her into more of a brand than an individual performer, while Rushia ran into trouble because of the perceived blurring of lines between her virtual and real selves.

The fact that streaming is live (as opposed to pre-recorded) inherently changes how viewers interact with someone. It means being there in real time, more or less. Certainly, there are things like superchat readings, where messages sent with monetary donations aren’t responded to until a later stream, but you know that when the figure on screen reacts to something, you’re seeing it right then and there (or at least with a slight delay). It’s somewhat like the difference between video chatting with a friend versus receiving a video message from them, and I don’t think it’s surprising that many would find the former more engaging. 

Having things live also means that things can go in unpredictable directions. That’s often seen as a plus, but that uncut nature is exactly what brought Rushia trouble. After all, the initial ruckus happened because she seemingly received a Discord message from a guy—a male YouTuber with his own massive and intensely devoted following—which for her more obsessed fans broke the immersion they had with her character personality as a yandere wife. The situation, in turn, is made all the more complicated by the fact that devotion to VTubers is often expressed through money via things like the aforementioned superchats. This exact series of events couldn’t happen to a VTuber who only uploaded clips, or at least not nearly as easily.

In contrast, one of the biggest controversies of Kizuna AI came not from the perception of peeling the curtain back too far, but from practically the opposite. Up until a couple years ago, it was not officially known who was the voice behind Kizuna AI, but fans knew there was a singular person bringing the character to life. When Activ8, the company behind AI, started the “Multiple AI Project” that would result in her being split into multiple versions, the fan backlash was the result of fear that they were going to replace the original, ater revealed to be voice actor Kasuga Nozomi. In other words, the concern was that making AI a vessel or suit that anyone could jump into and “become” her would be essentially stripping the character of her unique identity (brought forth by Kasuga) and providing cheap imitations. If we go by wrestling terms again (a natural extension of describing all this as kayfabe), then this was a Fake Diesel and Razor Ramon moment:

I’m also reminded of the Vtuber kson, who is a rarity in that she is willing to stream both as her flesh-and-blood self and as a Virtual Youtuber. In an interview on the Trash Taste Podcast, she mentioned that her fans in Japan enjoy her IRL stuff less. While kson says she’s not sure why that’s the case, she thinks it’s because they relate to her anime form more. Here again, immersion seems to be a big factor. This is not to single out Japanese fans or anything, but it speaks to the different wants and desires from VTuber fans, as well as the power of “chara moe.” Only, now these characters can be directly interacted with on a level not seen before.

I’m not someone who thinks that having strong feelings for online performers, virtual or otherwise, is inherently a doomed path. In my eyes, it’s not all that far removed from other forms of escapism and fandom, which I think are beneficial overall. However, what’s clear to me is that the varying degrees to which people want to engage with both the virtual and the real means that every strategy comes with inherent advantages and disadvantages—especially when you factor in the desire for success as a Vtuber, however one wants to define it. Perhaps what all this comes down to is a genuine human desire for safe emotional connection and authenticity, and Virtual Youtubers allow for a taste of that in times when we feel alone. It’s just not without risks to both performers and viewers alike, and I hope everyone can maintain their sanity because doing this can make anyone extremely vulnerable.

Is Loving a Genre Like Supporting a Local Sports Team?

I’ve been mulling over something lately: Is it safe to define a genre or trope preference in fiction as a case where you’re more accepting of less-than-stellar results? Much like supporting a local sports team through thick and thin, is being a genre fan about enjoying even the mediocre?

I’m ready to admit that the analogy falls apart under close scrutiny for a whole host of reasons. There’s no clear metric for winning vs. losing with something subjective like fiction. Supporting a player or a team, something made up of real people, is very different from being into a particular fiction genre—a more fitting comparison might be a favorite animation studio or book imprint.

But when I think about a genre I enjoy—giant robot anime for instance—there’s something about my appreciation that feels like it goes well beyond considerations of quality. When Good Smile Company announced a ton of new model kits for their Moderoid line, the sheer variety and obscurity of the line stood out to me. Some of the excitement came from the representation of series I consider personal favorites: Godannar!!, Reideen, Granbelm, Rayearth, The BIg O, and more. But it also came from seeing new or relatively obscure things get the spotlight, like Daitei-oh (the Eldoran series that never officially got an anime), Zeorymer, Promare, and iDOLM@STER: Xenoglossia. Not all of these series are genre-defining heavy hitters, but that they exist as merchandise fills me with warmth.

In contrast, I’ve watched a good amount of idol anime at this point, but I still don’t see myself as a fan of the genre. I appreciate the titles that stand out, though.

Perhaps, however, supporting your local fiction genre also comes with being able to recognize that you have a bias towards the tropes and expectations that come with it, because sometimes having a truly disappointing instance stings extra hard. But I also wonder if, like how you have sports fans of consistent winners and those of perennial underdogs, there’s a difference between the fans of a genre that’s seeing the limelight and one whose star has faded a bit—or, for that matter, a genre that may have once been big versus one that has never really ascended in the first place.

Exploring My Feelings on K-Pop

Like all people not living under rocks, I’ve noticed the rise and sustained international popularity of Korean pop, with a fanbase nigh-unmatched in current times. I first caught wind of its global rise about ten years ago, when one Starcraft 2 tournament after the next would feature music videos of hits such as “Gee” and “Bubble Pop!”—Korean esports and K-pop seem to go hand-in-hand. But while there are K-pop songs I enjoy (and I can appreciate the creativity of BTS), there’s always been a sleek and shiny veneer that I’ve felt preventing me from embracing the genre entirely.

For a long time, I’ve wondered what exactly was the nature of my reticence. Recently, though, I read a 2019 article by a student journalist Yuzu I. comparing K-pop and J-pop (a genre I’m relatively more familiar with and enjoy more), they laid it out in a way that helped me to clarify my own thoughts and feelings. Essentially, the big difference between the two—or rather K-pop and the idol strain of J-pop that is so prevalent—is that K-pop is about presenting an image of perfection, whereas J-idols want fans to follow along in their growth like unpolished gems that their support to achieve greatness. It’s that “out-of-the-box” flawlessness that I think has always given me a slight pause when it comes to K-pop.

To be clear, I don’t think that the J-idol route is somehow more authentic; it’s merely presented as such. The two are different approaches towards the same end of getting loyal fans and hitting it big culturally and/or monetarily. That’s okay—they’re products designed to engender certain feelings in their audiences, like so much of entertainment. The ability to see your heroes improve and level up until they’re the strongest around is a hallmark of certain manga genres, and I can’t help but note that similarity to something like AKB48.

I find that the aesthetic of K-pop perfection is not limited to Korean pop culture or its music. It might not even be the primary driver of that aesthetic, as I often get a similar sense from more visually oriented forms of social media like Instagram, or even the way that video production has changed over time with Youtube. I understand why such things have occurred, and I don’t think it’s right to fault people (or even companies) for wanting to make their stuff look good. It reminds me of the concern among mothers about the pressure they feel from “Instagram moms” whenever their own lives are less than idyllic. I’m not saying that K-pop (or anything else) needs to show its performers behind the scenes screwing up and getting into fights—merely that while some can take positive inspiration from this totality of spotless presentation, I’m not naturally inclined towards that.

Unless, perhaps, you give it to me in the form of a cool cartoon. 

The Ongoing Dream of a Truly International Super Robot Wars

In recent years, the Super Robot Wars franchise has been looking hard at international fans, and that has been reflected in part by the mecha that show up in it. In interviews for Super Robot Wars T and Super Robot Wars 30, the game’s director mentions that titles like Gun x Sword and J-Decker were, in part, nods to fans outside Japan. It reminds me of how different Japanese giant robot series became the spark of inspiration in different parts of the world, as well as how I once had my own half-formed idea for an American-fandom-centric SRW. Together, all of this makes me want to entertain the notion of a truly international SRW that puts the entire spotlight on those anime and manga that introduced countries to mecha and maintain that enthusiasm.

Shows like Golion, Grendizer, Transformers, Groizer X, etc. Furthermore, I’d like to see the roster be even broader than that. In that respect, limiting it to things that can connect to anime might even be too narrow. Ideally, a game like this would include Robot Taekwon V and The Iron Giant.

One question that arose as I engaged in this thought exercise is whether series that were heavily localized should come in their original Japanese forms or their adaptations. Should Golion and Dairugger be two separate titles, or should they be joined under the Voltron banner? Then it hit me that Super Robot Wars is all about modifying plot details to make crossovers work. Thus, you could split the difference between the Japanese and the American versions, and just find a way to make Golion and Dairugger connected within the new storyline.

There are giant robot fandoms around the world with their own idiosyncrasies, and I’m actually a bit sad that I don’t know them all. I wish I was an experienced polyglot so I could explore these communities and memories in greater depth. I think the real reason I’d love to see an international SRW is because I want something that celebrates these histories.

What Do Toxic Gamers and Fascists Have in Common?

“Fascism is not a specific ideological system with particular content. It’s just a strategy for taking power and maintaining power against the rule of law, and against the majority in a democracy.” –Jamie Raskin

Years ago, I wrote my thoughts on the use of slurs online by gamers to insult others (language warning). I expressed the idea that many of the people who use these words aren’t aiming to be racist or sexist, and that part of the problem is that we live in a society where describing someone as gay, black, or whatever else can be viewed as demeaning in the first place. But the above quote from United States Congressman Jamie Raskin stuck with me because of the way it describes fascism as a strategy rather than a belief system, and it had me reflecting on the strategic use of words to harm others.

What I’ve come to realize is that I had approached the topic of online toxicity from a limited angle. Freedom of expression and the full repertoire of a language are important things that I still support, but there’s another dimension to consider.

One problem with how easily slurs get thrown around online isn’t as simple as whether or not the words are deeply offensive to different peoples and cultures. It doesn’t matter how silly it is that some gamers will throw these words out even if they don’t actually apply to the person on the other side of the screen. The individuals who behave this way, whether they’re conscious of it or not, are basically trying to hurt the person they’re talking to by any means necessary. They’re using slurs as buckshot and hoping the spray will do damage. Similar to fascism, this is less an indicator of beliefs and more of a method to exert power over others—however limited in this specific context—even if they might also actually be racist or whatever. But what happens when the context gets larger?

It’s no secret that Gamergate was basically a precursor to the fecal stain that is Trumpism and the alt-right in the United States, which bring with them the very real threat of actual fascism. And while I truly do not believe that all gamers who ever used slurs to insult others are inherent fascists or will inevitably turn into them, that desire to use words not for the ideas they represent but as tools to probe cracks and fissures in order to do harm feels all too similar to what I see from the fascists who try to undermine American society day in and day out. Donald Trump, right-wing media, the Republican Party, and others in power lie endlessly because “meaning” is meaningless to them—they’re just trying to find the thing that sets people off and helps them maintain power.

Beyond the scope of words alone, this mindset bears scary resemblance to the kinds of strategies we’re finding out were deployed in an attempt to stop the transfer of power in the US on January 6, 2021. Whether through enraging a mob and turning them violent, or trying to exploit gaps in the Constitution and other legal documents, what we saw a year ago was an attempt to twist words and their meaning into crowbars to try to pry open and undo American democracy. Though cliche, I can’t help but think of a famous line from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power.”

Calling someone a slur whether in frustration or contempt is not an automatic pipeline to undermining the foundations of a government; I’d even hazard a guess that most people who engaged in the former never got anywhere close to the latter. But the ease by which words are weaponized in smaller contexts feel like they should be scrutinized more carefully. After all, the alt-right specifically targets gamers, seeing gaming as a resource for young and disaffected men. The racism and sexism expressed in them are a major part of the problem of how words are abused, yet they’re also reduced down to cudgels meant to inflame and diminish. While we should avoid censorship as a blunt form of enforcement, the less weight we feel the weight of the words we use, the more easily they become the tools of fascism.

Best Anime Characters of 2021

BEST MALE CHARACTER

Ikari Shinji (Evangelion 3.0+1.01: Thrice Upon a Time)

For as many strong and unique characters as there were this year, there’s really only one right choice for me.


Shinji was never my favorite Evangelion character. However, seeing his transformation from the original TV series all the way to the final Rebuild of Evangelion movie feels nothing short of profound. It’s almost unfair to compare him to other characters because of this long arc of this through multiple versions, but the way he finally comes into his own after 25 years of being the poster child for emotional and psychological turmoil in anime makes what was already a lasting impression into something even more enduring. The boy became mythology in the most unexpected way.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Laura (Tropical-Rouge! Precure)

In the Precure franchise, there are rarely characters of Laura’s disposition. A mermaid with ambition to become the next queen of the seas, Laura is a haughty and proud sort whose closest equivalent is Milk from Yes! Pretty Cure 5. One part of what makes her work as a character is that she fluctuates between earned and unearned confidence, and her friends are there to teach her when the latter occurs. 

But what I think seals the deal for Laura is the fact that she overcomes one of the most common pitfalls of mid-season Cures, which is losing much of her original identity once she joins the team proper. While she gains legs and learns how to live in human culture, her mermaid origin still plays a significant role and gives an extra facet to her character. Laura has to navigate the worlds of both land and sea, and that process is both endearing and hilarious.

Final Thoughts

There was no shortage of strong characters this year, but in the end, I felt that both Shinji and Laura both showed an immensely satisfying amount of growth in their own ways. For Shinji, it’s arguably unfair to be tapping into something with as much history as the Evangelion franchise, but it really feels like Eva has the closure it needs, and it comes courtesy of the Third Child(ren) himself. Laura meanwhile all but perfects the “unusual sixth ranger” by making sure the show doesn’t forget what made her an interesting character in the first place. 

I won’t say who they are, but a few characters got real close to taking the top spots. Some of their stories are still ongoing, so we’ll see if they make it to the top of the list in 2022.