What does Panzer Vor mean again?
Girls und Panzer is a weird beast. Is it a cute girls doing cute things anime? Is it a sports anime? Military anime? Comedy anime? The most accurate answer I can give is: all of the above. It may seem like a bit of a cop out but Garupan is one of the rare shows that manages to do many things at once and do each of them pretty well.
Girls und Panzer was mostly an afterthought for me when it began airing in fall of 2012. Really, it was an afterthought for everybody. With unheralded studio Actas working on it and the bad memories of Upotte fresh in everybody’s minds, nobody really paid a “cute girls plus weapons” anime like Garupan much heed. It seemed doomed to be another mediocre show that tried to capitalize on a niche otaku interest by slapping cute girls on it like the aforementioned Upotte, or this season’s Rail Wars, to use a more contemporary example. I mostly picked it up on a whim because I saw a blog post that drew comparisons between Garupan and Saki, which I had enjoyed well enough. What followed was a slow build from “This is kind of neat” to “This is actually good” to “Holy crap you guys, this is easily the best show of the season! Everybody watch it right now!” Similar progressions were taking place all over anime twitter and the anime blogosphere at the same time as almost everybody came to know the joy that was Girls und Panzer.
Garupan is the rare show that can resonate with a huge variety of viewers in ways a lot of anime can’t. The show has this broad appeal because it manages to do so many things well. Some people love it for the military feel and the tactics, others for the cute girls and still others for the quirky sense of humor that pervades the show. Most people liked it for several of these reasons but at the end of the day, the fact is that an astonishing number of people whose tastes almost never intersect were all gushing about Girls und Panzer in late 2012 and it was pretty awesome to see everybody come together like that.
Girls und Panzer can be empirically shown to have widespread appeal, but there’s still the question of what about the show allows it to appeal to so many different people. One of the biggest things to note about Girls und Panzer is the fanservice, or more importantly the lack of it. Fanservice has a way of turning many people away from an otherwise promising show and the expectation with most shows like this is that the girls will end up being eye candy for the viewers to ogle alongside the phallic weaponry. However, the director of Girls und Panzer made it clear going in that this wasn’t going to be that kind of show. (Although I’m not sure how many people believed him.) Garupan is basically devoid of fanservice and even the one or two scenes that did involve swimsuits or a bath didn’t focus on the girls as sexual objects but felt more like communal moments of bonding. In a genre and medium known for appealing to the baser instincts of its viewers, Girls und Panzer stands out for bucking this trend. It treats its characters and its viewer with a level of respect that was refreshing to see.
The “no fanservice” mandate wasn’t the only major contribution director Mizushima Tsutomu made to Girls und Panzer. Mizushima has a unique style to his comedy that was used here to great effect. I’ve mentioned in the past my distaste for loud-mouthed tsukkomi characters who point out every little weird or unexpected thing that happens around them or shows that seem to try too hard to point out how zany they are. Mizushima is nothing like this. His (good) shows are very silly but never use these obvious tactics to ensure that the jokes land. Like Ika Musume before it and Witch Craft Works after, Girls und Panzer is able to pull off incredibly outlandish things, such as gaudily painted tanks or using a tank’s main gun as an alarm clock, without so much as a wink to indicate that this is anything but completely normal. Of course we as viewers know that these things aren’t normal but the show gets its humor from the fact that the characters act like these absurd occurrences are nothing out of the ordinary. I like this style in general but it is specifically important to Girls und Panzer because the comedy isn’t the primary goal of the show. The jokes and sight gags are more of a side show and overt cues to make the comedy more apparent would have threatened to undermine the rest of the show. Instead the comedy is able to remain in the background, amusing anybody who chooses to notice it but not bothering anybody who wishes to ignore it in favor of things more central to the plot.
The real thrust of Girls und Panzer is the tank battles or sensha-do (or panzerfahren if you prefer). This is there the show really excels. Sports anime tend to break down when they take too much artistic license with the sport being played to the point where it breaks the viewer’s immersion in the game itself. The good news for Garupan is that the sport of sensha-do doesn’t actually exist. (Also note that a combat sport involving heavy military weaponry is explicitly for women only, another example of a quirky aspect of the show that is simply accepted by the cast.) The lack of any real-world sensha-do means there’s no existing meta-game or other facts regarding the sport for the show to screw up. The writers are free to make up the rules as they see fit as long as they’re consistent and fair, then write their story within the confines of those rules. That alone wouldn’t be enough to make the show work if the tactics employed by the characters were so outlandish as to break suspension of disbelief. Would the tactics that Ooarai uses work if sensha-do was real? Nobody can say for sure, although a tank expert would probably have more to say about this than I. What matters here is that the tactics Miho employs have that inherent truthiness to them that makes you believe that they should work even if you can’t know for sure.
Aside from the tactical brilliance of Miho, the battles are beautifully choreographed. The camera angles are spectacular, especially when the show goes into a first-person view inside the tank to really give the viewer a sense of immersion as the battle unfolds. Immersion in general is a great strength of the show and the extent to which you feel like you’re part of the action rather than a mere bystander makes the tank battles of Girls und Panzer exciting and enjoyable. I already wrote a post about how much I liked the final showdown (spoilers) but that entire battle as well as the ones that led up to it had me on the edge of my seat thanks to a great sense of spectacle and the skillful way the show builds tension throughout each battle.
Back on the comedy front, the opponents Oorai faced in these battles were key in making the show fun when the tanks weren’t in motion. The use of schools themed after countries is important here both because it allows for some country-specific humor and saves time when introducing the opponents. Because each school has an associated country we already have a sense of who they are and what their personality is like without actually seeing them. The Americans are boisterous and outgoing, the British are refined and slightly arrogant, the Russians are hardy and condescending and the Germans are ruthlessly efficient. The show still shows us these traits but we pick up on them much more quickly and can fill in the blanks much more easily because of the nationalities associated with these schools. It also allows for fun moments like the Pravda team breaking into an impromptu rendition of Katyusha or Darjeeling’s extremely dry and British sense of humor that comes out while she watches Oorai’s matches.
To accompany these schools, Girls und Panzer has a distinctive soundtrack that adds to the military atmosphere. In addition to the catchy Oorai Academy march there were versions of famous national marches for the British, American, Russian and German teams. Now you can get worked up over the use of Nazi marching music (and some have) but to me the use of some German music or tanks or symbols (short of swastikas) is merely in keeping with the WWII theming of the show and not a tacit endorsement of the ideals that were behind those things. Anyway, the soundtrack did a great job of enhancing the feeling that each of these schools represented a distinct culture and style of combat as well as being catchy in its own right. The brass/marching band feel of the OST also makes it stand out from other OSTs giving Girls und Panzer a unique sound you don’t get in other anime.
Ultimately, what makes Girls und Panzer so notable is how unique it is. There aren’t any other shows quite like it out there. It eschews the fanservice that many shows succumb to sooner or later. It avoids going out of its way to point out its comedic moments the way many comedy anime will. It handles its combat choreography with outstanding skill and the tactics are far more believable than those of other anime centered on competitions. Finally, the national and cultural theming, enhanced by the unique soundtrack is something that Girls und Panzer has all to itself. When an anime does so many things well that other anime struggle with it’s no wonder it gained the approval of such a large and varied fan base. If you haven’t seen Girls und Panzer I highly recommend you give it a shot regardless of your personal taste. Who knows? It just might surprise you. I know it surprised me.