Girls und Panzer and the Potential for Propaganda

What I’m about to say might sound like I made up the whole thing, but I swear it’s true.

It was at a screening of the Love Live! Sunshine!! film that I struck up a conversation with a young mother. Although she was there in part to accompany her daughter, she was clearly an anime fan herself. At some point, the series Girls und Panzer came up, and she expressed skepticism over the tank-battling anime. From the tone of her voice, I could sense her concern over glorification of the military, and the potential role of the series as propaganda for something more sinister.

I tried to assuage her fears and present the anime as more of a sports series with a plot close to that of Love Live (save the high school from shutting down by winning a big competition). I don’t know whether or not she ultimately believed me, but I understand her hesitation, especially given today’s political climate. Although I consider myself a fan, in a world where guns are glorified and strongman politicians try to create cults of personality built around violence, I sometimes grapple with my fondness for Girls und Panzer.

I’ve argued before that Girls und Panzer separates a love of tanks and strategy from a love of warfare and nationalist loyalty, and I still believe this to be the case. In the anime’s setting, tanks are considered purely for friendly competition, and all ammunition is designed not to kill. There’s even a team of characters introduced in the first film who are basically a criticism of meaninglessly charging toward defeat out of a sense of “honor.” But it’s not as if the series is impossible to interpret as pro-military, especially if one takes only a surface glance at it. And in this world, sometimes a surface glance is all anyone has time for.

Girls und Panzer is not entirely devoid of concerning elements, as I think it’s hard to actually fully decouple tanks from their origins—especially because all the tanks in the series are from around World War II. As an individual viewer who tries to stay open yet critical, I feel that I’m able to stay open but at least somewhat skeptical. I can see what the series does well and the positive messages about keeping things in the realm of mock combat, and at the same time, my radar goes up for more alarming aspects. However, I’m aware that it’s possible someone more naive or predisposed to enjoying the glorification of military violence might take from Girls und Panzer what they want, and in the process twist the friendliness of the series into a “cute girls tell me war is good” message. It’s the old Gundam problem, where toy sales of cool giant robots obfuscate the anti-war message. As to whether or not Girls und Panzer is anti-war, it at least portrays a world where true war no longer exists.

Having the heroines use the minds and tools available to them to overcome opposition and achieve their goal is simple and effective storytelling. Couching it in historic military hardware makes it a near-endless pool for nerds to deep-dive into. But while I truly think that the series is not made to push people towards a militaristic patriotism, I can’t deny that some of the ingredients are there. It sounds odd to say that supervision is necessary to watch Girls und Panzer, but I think there’s a certain truth to it. If someone can’t provide their own voice of reason and caution, it can be treacherous territory.

Over Half the Movie is Tank Battles: Girls und Panzer der Film

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Girls und Panzer is quite upfront about what’s in it: you have the cute girls, and you have the tanks. In spite of its seemingly vapid approach, however, the TV anime is actually quite robust, and I rate it very highly. But a television anime is different from a film, and a major question about the film sequel, Girls und Panzer der Film, is whether it can succeed similarly in spite of the new format. In this respect, I find Girls und Panzer der Film to be a very strong work, but one which is not as adept at drawing in skeptical or uninitiated viewers as its TV prequel.

Synopsis

Taking place right after the original TV series, Girls und Panzer der Film follows tactician Nishizumi Miho after she has led the ragtag rookies of Ooarai Academy to become the champions of competitive tank sports. Having defeating her former school in the grand finals, their efforts were supposed to save the school from being shut down, but because of a legal loophole their work isn’t done yet. With the help of old friends and foes alike, Miho and Ooarai Academy continue to fight for their school.

Television vs. Film

When it comes to the TV anime, I don’t believe it is absolutely necessary to be a fan of both cute girls and tanks. The show sports strong narrative and characterization as well as celebration of military hardware (as well as war simulation as competitive sport), such that a lukewarm reception of one aspect could be saved by the other. Because the series was more structured and more adept at its dramatic progression, it ends up being more enjoyable than other shows of its ilk.  It’s only when either one or both elements together create wariness in a viewer (dislike of moe designs, fear of the show’s potential role as military propaganda) that the anime doesn’t really work.

Girls und Panzer der Film makes no concessions. The film immediately starts with a tank battle and ends with a tank battle. In contrast to many anime, films, etc. where we see either multiple small battles without any real sense of connection between them, or the focus is on a single duel, the last fight is a continuous 50-minute campaign. It showcases elaborate strategies on both sides, lovingly introduces new tanks to the story, and brings together characters in battle that had previously never joined forces. This film is made for people who love Girls und Panzer, and while it happens to have a solid and enjoyable story overall, newcomers are clearly not its target audience.

Slim but Effective Character Narratives

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The battles themselves are fantastic. It’s rare in even the most action-packed shows and movies that a single battle will go for nearly an hour, especially one where you have a strong sense of where all the pieces are positioned and how they influence each other. Girls und Panzer der Film accomplishes just that. However, I have to re-emphasize that the concluding battle is so long that you have to enjoy tank combat at least a little bit. Either that, or you have to be so invested in the characters that seeing them develop and grow gives you great joy, even if it’s amidst the explosion of tank shells.

That’s not to say the film meanders needlessly, or that it doesn’t know how to tell a story. Girls und Panzer der Film, despite its enormous cast of fan favorites, keeps its narrative nice and focused. Perhaps nothing is more surprising than the fact that fan favorite Akiyama Yukari does not take over the film, but that’s because it isn’t really about her. While considered a possible weakness of the original TV series, the light characterization of Girls und Panzer (where characters are defined either in groups or from a few simple and easy-to-grasp qualities) works in the movie’s favor because one can easily grasp many of the girls’ motivations in only a few minutes. Seeing Miho reunite on good terms with her sister Maho (the commander of the team she defeated in the championships) was a joy. Even my favorite character, Anzio’s squad captain Anchovy, makes an appearance, and shines in her own special way.

Girls und Militarism

The elephant in the room (though not really because I already mentioned it), is to what extent Girls und Panzer der Film promotes militarism. While it’s easy to write Girls und Panzer off, either as a series that is clearly designed to get Japanese men to enlist in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces or as simple fluff that shouldn’t be overthought, I don’t think it’s so simple.

When it comes to the question of whether Girls und Panzer glorifies war and militarism, the answer is yes and no. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but let me explain. On a surface level, the appeal in this respect is obvious. Get people to fall in love with the girls, associate them with tanks, and you might see some otaku driving them once they hit enlistment age, and while the anime isn’t quite that simple, that initial impression carries a lot of power. That being said, if you watch the series, tank combat is presented as a sport akin to archery or soccer, and it presents a world where tanks are no longer weapons that take millions of lives but rather tools for friendly competition. Is this whitewashing history, or is it presenting a kind of utopian alternative? I think cases can be made for both, which is why it’s more complicated than what is evident at first glance.

So where does Girls und Panzer der Film fit into all of this? I argue that, even as it celebrates tanks and tank combat, the film makes a rather prominent criticism of patriotism. In the movie, a new school is introduced call Chi-Ha-Tan, where the girls try to make up for their lack of skill with sheer fiery gusto. However, they’re also constantly sabotaging themselves because of the members’ desire to preserve their “honor.” When comrades are taken out, they believe that the best solution is to charge the enemy and fall in glorious combat. They despise turning their backs to the enemy, because they need to make up for everything. Unlike Saunders Academy (the American school), who believe in overwhelming force as a strategy, they have no actual strategy, and are instead merely victims of their own zealousness.

In other words, the science of senshadou (way of the tank) reigns, and foolhardy aggression (the kind of thing encouraged in Japanese citizens during World War II) is a mistake.

Conclusion

Girls und Panzer der Film deftly balances its two extreme components through efficient storytelling, compelling action, and overall cleverness. It’s not as newbie-friendly as the TV series, both in the sense that it’s a direct sequel and because the tank combat is much more important, but it also doesn’t let the desire for fanservice (both technological and girly) get too much in the way of a solid narrative. It even adds an interesting new angle on the image of itself as a work that promotes militarism. Girls und Panzer der Film does a lot in two hours, and leaves a lot to contemplate, even if the movie might seem pretty light on thoughtful content otherwise.

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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.