Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why Girls Und Panzer Hasn't Tanked Yet

     We're about halfway into the Fall anime season now, and if one show has astonished me so far, it's Girls Und Panzer. That's right, the show about highschool girls that practice the fundamentals of tank warfare as a martial art. We all knew there were people who were going to watch and love it automatically, but let's ignore those people for a second. Let's instead focus on why you, a general audience anime fan, will enjoy this show with its absurd premise (and not in spite of it).

It's a story about characters

     Okay, so maybe those slice-of-life shows do have plots, but even so they aren't as accessible (they are different in their very nature). Luckily for you, though, Girls Und Panzer doesn't have one of those stories but instead has a more approachable, traditional one. It has setups, payoffs, action (and I mean "action" in a storytelling sense, not a "shoot them with your guns" one), and a plot. What's to complain about?

     Let's look at this one piece at a time, though, lest I get ahead of myself. So, Girls Und Panzer has an actual story. Characters have goals and the plot (which exists) advances. There's always some kind of progression happening, both throughout and in-between episodes. "They need to find and fix the tanks." "Now they need have this mock battle." "Next they have a competition with another team." These aren't too simplistic nor too difficult to grasp, and the story is always working to complete these goals. It really surprises me to think about it, but Girls Und Panzer has a really strong driving force behind it. There's not really much more to say, so I'll move onto the characters.

"You like the characters in Girls Und Panzer, Sato-San? I-I never thought you were that kind of person. . ."
     What did Girls Und Panzer do right with its characters? Well, a lot of things, really, but the first is that it took its time. The first episode starts with a flash forward to the main cast in a tank battle, and that goes on for about 4 minutes. Pretty much everything after that to the end of the second episode is devoid of tank warfare and instead devoted to developing the characters. Not observing them, mind you, but actually developing them, showing you their personalities, and letting you get an idea of who's who. An example from the first episode: the main protagonist, Miho, transferred to the school specifically to get away from the tank warfare sport (some translations call it "tankery" but every part of me refuses to do that), but due to some extenuating circumstances may have to enroll in it. During an advertisement for it shown in school, Miho has to tear herself away from watching it. It's a fairly subtle little sequence, lasting for about 3 seconds and not having a lot of attention called to it, but it's clearly being communicated that she doesn't hate tank warfare itself, or at least a part of her doesn't. It further drives home some points about her personality.

     Okay, so great, there are some nice touches of character development. Just because there are one or two of these, though, doesn't mean that the characters are instantly going to be a success. No, what's good about this is that these small but important pieces of character conveyance are throughout the show, or at least the first few episodes. I won't get into the particulars of other examples, but I think you get the idea. The series makes a concerted effort to let you get to know the cast as characters. This actually leads me to my next point, which is that:

It Knows (How) To Prioritize Things

     This series has a great sense of prioritization. It knew to prioritize the characters over the tanks, and the character personalities over the character actions (read: characters over characters doing cute things). This is present throughout the rest of the show. Take the first episode: there are literally 21 characters that make up the main cast of tank operators. How many were introduced in the first episode? All of them. How many does it actually spend time on? Only the main 3 (and to a lesser extent the 3 student council members). It doesn't even bother telling you the other characters' names, which is a good thing. Trying to show you each of the 21 identities and have you match a name and a face with them would have been an information overload, and would have made it impossible to actually start telling you a story. So instead Girls Und Panzer just focuses on what's important. The other characters that it doesn't really explore still have some identity, even if it's only as a team. I can't really tell the members of two of the tank teams apart, for instance, but the teams as a whole have some personality, like the one made up solely of former volleyball players. Or this one:

Lord yes.
     But my point is, the other characters were there. They were introduced. The series knew not to spend time trying to get you to know each one immediately, however. That's prioritization, and done well at that. Another example: after the first competition match, the show doesn't stop for 3 episodes to have the characters train, it pretty much just gets right to the next competition. In the end, then, basically it just boils down to the show not wasting your time and using what time it does take wisely. Moving on.

It Has An Interesting Setting

     Yeah, that's right, I'm actually listing the setting of this series as a positive, the reason being how genuinely intriguing it is. It definitely takes place in "our" world, but by the same token there's obviously a different culture. They do say that World War II happened, but it's also a world where only women use tanks (and it's even silly to imagine men using them), schools and surrounding towns are actually giant aircraft carrier things (and I mean giant, with entire mountain ranges hosted on the decks), people eat sweet potato ice cream, and, of course, tank warfare is a competitive sport. HOW?! HOW DID THIS COME TO BE?! I'M DYING WITH CURIOSITY! (Insert Hyouka reference here.) This is a good thing. I'm honestly interested as to what happened to make this world the way it is. The show has gotten me involved in its setting.

Also, I want to discover what event led to this abomination, that I might ensure future generations can never create it.
     But there's more to it than just the setting itself. Girls Und Panzer does a great job of showing it to you, as well. There's very little setting explaining exposition crammed in here; nobody even talks about tanks until about halfway through the first episode. You also don't know that the school exists on a massive carrier until the end of the first episode, or that the tanks actually all have carbon coating ensuring the girls don't die a horrific death until someone says it in passing. It's all so ridiculous and outlandish you can hardly believe it, but the cast treats it with a naturalness that lets you suspend your disbelief just a little further. And speaking of disbelief, let me move on to the next thing I want to talk about:


. . .

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     Okay, moving on for whoever didn't just close their browser tab in a desperate attempt to retain their sanity, you can pretty clearly see that some of the tanks (specifically the main casts') have been painted. This is less dumb than it sounds and looks. That hot pink tank? It makes a strong impression, right? That's something that sticks itself into your memory. This actually serves (very cleverly) two purposes as far as the story is concerned. The first is that it further solidifies the identity of the tank teams. Okay, so the girly first-years drive a tank that's hot pink. Great, I love it. It hammers in their personality, so now I know who they are even if I don't remember what half their faces look like. The second is that it helps the audience (who, being general anime fans, can be assumed to not know all of these tank models by their physical exterior) know which tanks are which and who's driving what. Does any random person know what a 38(t) tank is or what it looks like? Probably not. But since it was painted bright gold, you can go, "Oh yeah, the 38(t) was the gold one, which the student council drives, which has so and so properties. Okay, now I remember! *goes back to staring intensely at the screen*" Around episode 4 or 5, they actually ditch the ridiculous paint jobs, but by that point you've begun to recognize the tanks by what they look like, so it's no longer an issue for the viewer.

     What does all this accomplish? Well, this show takes its tanks very seriously, being extremely faithful to them and their specifications and all that, so it's good that they made it approachable to people other than tank nerds. But the other thing is that knowing what the general characteristics of the tanks are helps make them stand out that much more in the action, which is my final point.

It Has Good Action

     If I haven't already destroyed my reputation by talking about how floating ship islands and bright pink tanks are a good thing, then I'm going to do it now by saying that Girls Und Panzer is a really intense show. I mean, a part of you would think that a show about tanks would have to be at least a little bit exciting, but it really took me by surprise. It helps that ever since Madoka, we can never be sure if/when one of these shows is about to turn dark, so there's no assurance that everything will work out in the end to keep us from taking the fights seriously. Honestly though, this show understands the basics of action. There's a setup to it, you know which characters you want to win, you know who you don't want to win (and why), and it's exciting. They did a great job with the tanks, for instance. Attention is called to it in the episode, but the first time the protagonists fire the main cannon, the sound it makes is really loud (good sound design: check) and there are some very well done fast cuts that call attention to how awesome the thing is/is supposed to be (effective editing: check). The end result is that it's genuinely engaging. The excellent animation quality helps, but the fact that I had an actual reaction to something like this:

     . . .is a good thing, especially considering how much of a cynic I am when it comes to "good" action. Bottom line, it's not bland, ridiculous, or boring, and that's great.

     So. Girls Und Panzer. No, it isn't for everyone. Most people don't have identical tastes, and there will be plenty who can't get past the premise. But I would still encourage you to give the series a chance. It's well made, does a lot of things right, and is by no means a "moe anime slice-of-life/cute girls doing cute things for sweaty men to get a rise out of" show (which is not necessarily to accuse other outwardly similar shows of having such agendas). There was a special for it that came out this week, and I thought it did a great job of showing why the main series was good, in that it didn't do what the special did. See, Girls Und Panzer (the main series) doesn't really do things like this:

     . . .where it's trying to sell you on the characters personalities alone. Instead, it combines all the elements of an effective show (developed characters, a driven story, strong animation and action, and engaging presentation) to create, you guessed it, an effective show. And that is why Girls Und Panzer hasn't tanked yet.

     But no, actually the only real reason I like this show is because of smug hat girl


  1. Well, you've got me convinced. I'm off to go download the first episode now. Character driven stories are my favorites and from what you described here, I think Girls und Panzer will be something that appeals to me. Also, there is something very endearing about shows with ridiculous settings that are able to make them work seriously.

    Oh yeah, and THAT title pun.

    1. Excellent! I hope you like it!

      "Oh yeah, and THAT title pun."
      It is rather glorious, isn't it?

  2. You make it sound much better then I expected it to be so I guess I'll try it out. Hopefully it's better then that silly girl gun anime last season (I forget the name)

    That title pun is so bad it's good.

    1. It was much better than I expected it to be, too! As for that other anime, do you mean Upotte? If so, lord yes, it totally is.

      Thank you! :P