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Fried Take - "Girls Und Panzer" (2012)

Logic dictates that I should loathe Girls Und Panzer. On paper, it represents everything I hate about modern anime. There's a harem of cute girls that fit into very recognizable archetypes. The setting is a fetishistic take on a very niche interest, and uses aforementioned cute girls to pull in otaku audiences, to cynically rake in money from merchandise. Not to mention the style and format seems very similar to sub-KyoAni "let's make a club" garbage that needs to die already. Maybe that's why it took almost three years for me to watch it. Because I thought, despite its popularity, that it was just another one of those shows. Like I said, logic dictates that I, of all people, should hate it.
So why do I love it so much?

It certainly isn't for lack of trying to make me hate it. Trust me, everything this series threw at me was like a taunt, a dare to bash it and write it off as nothing more than the typical tripe that permeates every anime season. All of the elements are there. There's the clumsy protagonist, the docile and sweet friend, the fiery and headstrong pal, the shy girl who's secretly a nut, and the cold, calculating stoic one who actually has a heart of gold. You've seen this all before, right? No need to watch another formulaic, "cute girls doing cute things in cute ways because cute" show, right?

Wrong. Right from the outset, at the very core of the show, Girls Und Panzer does more to establish these characters as more than walking stereotypes than virtually every series in this vein made since Haruhi Suzumiya and its KyoAni ilk. It does that by, you know, actually giving a damn about making them interesting. Most of the major characters have fascinating backstories, which drive them to pick up "Tankery" (more on that in a second,) which make them tick as characters, which basically make them feel more fleshed-out and diverse. Of course, this may sound like Writing 101, but it's shocking how much anime these days expects us to care about characters while giving us barely anything to care about. By going the extra mile to actually populate the narrative with compelling leads, along with a huge, wacky supporting cast, Girls Und Panzer hooks the viewer in right from the get-go.

What about that narrative, though? Is it more club-making, idling-the-days-away-cutely tripe? I'm surprised to be saying this, but no. It's actually a lot better than that. The basic set-up is that a series of all-girl academies have taken up the sport of Tankery, which is exactly what it sounds like: driving tanks around and shooting at each other. They do this because militaristic propaganda convinces all of the girls that it will make them better women in the eyes of society. Our heroine, who comes from a long line of tank-driving women, reluctantly takes up the sport to overcome her fears of failure and pull her school to victory, on top of making new friends.

The best part about this concept is that the director, Tsutomu Mizushima, seems to recognize the basic absurdity of the premise. This is a man who's taken shows that should have been forgettable and turned them into some of my favorites, such as Witch Craft Works and Blood-C, and also has a deft hand at crafting comedy, as evidenced by his numerous, numerous hilarious series. Both he and accomplished writer Reiko Yoshida (Bakuman, K-On!) end up creating something has the best of several worlds. Moe nuts get cute girls. Military geeks get technical jargon and lovingly researched tech. And the rest of us get a show that's, ultimately, a very sly and savvy satire, poking fun at the militaristic side of Japan's conservative party. It's made explicitly clear that this is a nationwide propaganda machine fueled by shame-y and jingoistic speeches. While we do cheer for the girls to win in their tank battles, we also know that what's going is ethically dubious, adding a whole other layer of fun meta-awareness to the product.

That's what makes Girls Und Panzer work so well from a narrative standpoint, I feel. If you want to shut your brain off and just watch cute girls eat ice cream in between shooting each other in tanks, you totally can. But if you want to look at it just a little below the surface, it's a fun and rewarding experience as well. "Accessibility" is the key word here. Nobody is left out, regardless of what kind of viewer they are, and the much-appreciated lack of serious fan service adds to that. It's a show that, really, I'd say anybody ranging from twelve to twenty-nine would be able to enjoy and get something from, and that's a rare feat these days.

It doesn't hurt that the production values are pretty impressive as well, despite the CG looking like pure ass (it's a TV anime, so don't pretend you're shocked.) Yeah, the girls are drawn in a kind of weird style, with arms that are just a little too long and heads that are ever-so-slightly too big, but everything has a nice sense of fluid motion to it, and is rendered with bright, vibrant colors. Also, even though the tank CG is not the best, it isn't as jarringly awful as other series, and actually seems to improve as tank battles start becoming the main focus in later episodes.

And by those battles becoming the focus, Girls Und Panzer really managed to win me over. This isn't just a cute girls being cute show with tanks thrown in. For all intents and purposes, this should have been a shonen series. It could have been about a bunch of hot-headed boys who triumph against the odds and fight in tanks. It could have been for adolescent males. But it wasn't. The director and writer took the series in the right direction by putting young girls in a traditionally masculine anime role, then fleshing both them and the world they inhabit out with impeccable writing and deft direction. While, yes, it could be argued that it falls into some pitfalls inherent to anime with a focus on moe, it still manages to be both entertaining and accessible for all genders, not just male otaku with a concerning predisposition towards young girls.

Despite me wanting to hate it and tear it a new one, Girls Und Panzer wound up being one of the most refreshing and lovable series in recent memory to me. For once, I can see why this show has amassed the popularity it has, and wholeheartedly feel like it deserves it.


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