Girls und Panzer der Film (2015) – Band of Sisters

“The very best part is that all the boys will be after you! They just love girls with tanks!”

Sitting Duck’s rating: 52 out of 60 WWII tanks in a glorious death match

Sitting Duck’s review: There’s a genre of sorts in anime sometimes referred to as Cute Girls Doing Cute Things (hereafter CGDCT). As the name suggests, these shows follow a collection of junior high or high school girls, usually in some sort of after school club activity. Normally I give these shows a wide berth, as they’re often too low-key and sugary for my tastes.

One notable exception came out in 2012 and was called Girls und Panzer (hereafter GuP). As you might guess from that title, it’s far from being a typical CGDCT series. In fact, it’s more akin to a sports comedy in the vein of The Bad News Bears and The Mighty Ducks. Except the sport in question is simulated combat in WWII-era tanks. What’s more, it’s viewed in-universe as an activity for girls that is as classically feminine as flower arranging.

Just roll with it, okay? It’s arguably one of the less ridiculous aspects of the show.

GuP sticks closely to the sports comedy formula, as the Ōarai Girls High School is threatened with closure and their only hope in preventing this is through winning the National High School Sensha-dō Tournament (while I’m no sub snob, the English dub translation “tankery” just grates on my ears). As luck would have it, Miho Nishizumi, who comes from a family of renowned sensha-dō practitioners, recently transferred to their school. Unfortunately, her mother’s “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” philosophy along with her strict and regimented approach has soured Miho on the sport and she isn’t interested. But she’s eventually convinced and finds the relaxed and fun approach of the Ōarai girls a refreshing change of pace.

They’ll need every scrap of Miho’s tactical knowledge, as an unfavorable bracket draw has them facing some of the top teams in the nation, while they only have a small collection of secondhand tanks with inexperienced crews. But the laws of sports comedies decree that any underdog collection of scrappy misfits who resort to wacky shenanigans and applied tomfoolery are guaranteed victory in the end. Though in the spirit of CGDCT, there’s no lasting animosity between the competitors.

Incidentally, some time ago I was explaining the premise of GuP to someone and got to the part about the schools they compete against being themed on WWII nations. That person then asked if there was a French-themed school that surrendered at the beginning of every match. I tell you, you completely bungle the defense of your homeland one time, and people just won’t let you forget it. And in case you’re wondering, the answer is, “Not really.”

GuP was a surprise hit, so naturally there were a considerable number of spin-offs in other media. This would inevitably include a theatrical release film. However, the narrative of the main series doesn’t really allow for a side story type movie that is usually preferred in these cases. Instead, they went with a potentially newbie-unfriendly sequel. So how did it work out?

Our movie opens in the middle of a two-on-two exhibition match, with Ōarai and the Japanese-themed Chihatan Academy going up against the British-themed St. Gloriana Academy and the Soviet-themed Pravda High. It starts badly for the Ōarai side when some Chihatan units go and execute one of their trademark suicidal charges, which works out about as well as you might expect. Though for a while it looks like Miho could turn things around, ultimately the task proves insurmountable and the St. Gloriana-Pravda team wins. But it’s only a stakes-free exhibition match, so the loss is nothing to get worked up over.

The Ōarai team’s good mood is ruined upon returning to their school to find it in the process of being closed down. Turns out the deal the student council made with the chairman of MEXT (a ministry in the Japanese government which includes education and sports within its purview) was not as solid as they thought. Since the agreement in question was verbal (and therefore not legally binding), the chairman sees no reason why he should abide by it. With the realization that all their efforts have been for naught, a state of despondency falls upon the sensha-dō team.

Some unexpected help comes from Miho’s semi-estranged mother, who is incensed that the new high school tournament champions have been dealt with in such a shabby fashion by the powers that be. With her prominent standing in the sensha-dō community, she uses her influence to pressure the MEXT chairman into drawing out a new deal. The Ōarai team will compete against a university team to prove their mettle and save their school if they win. This time, everything is properly documented and notarized, so there will be no weaseling out. However, the overall structure of the match is not favorable for Ōarai, as the university team will be fielding thirty units and annihilation rules (that is victory goes to the team that eliminates all of the opposition’s units) are in place. With just eight units on Ōarai’s side, hopeless doesn’t begin to describe the situation.

Fortunately, the day of the match sees a sudden influx of “transfer students” for Ōarai who just happen to have been members of the sensha-dō teams at their respective schools. And what do you know, they also brought along their tanks as “personal effects”. While this is highly irregular, the captain of the university team has no objection to these reinforcements. But even with the now balanced numbers, the greater experience of the university team still makes an Ōarai victory a longshot.

So the first question concerns how accessible this sequel is to those completely unfamiliar with GuP. For such people, it’s advisable to check the DVD/Blu-ray extra “Girls und Panzer in (About) Three Minutes”, where chibi versions of Anglerfish Team (the crew of Ōarai’s command tank) sum up the background and events of the TV series. This should be enough to prevent newbies from being utterly lost, even if it is a rather inelegant solution.

Let’s start off by acknowledging the weakest part of the movie. GuP wasn’t exactly known for its brilliant character development, with much of the cast being little more than stock CGDCT archetypes. At best they were serviceable. Though considering the huge number of characters (the Ōarai team alone has thirty-two members), a bit of skimping on this front can be forgiven. The movie continues this trend, which could be a deal breaker for any newbies who place a high priority on decent characterization. Though fans of the series finally get an explanation for that weird bandaged-up teddy bear in Miho’s possession. As it happens, it’s not a metaphor for her strained relationship with her mother.

The real draw is the tank battles. Of the two-hour run time, about eighty minutes are devoted to the tanks slugging it out and this is where the movie shines as it employs a show don’t tell principle. If this remark sounds odd, let me elucidate. Action scenes in anime have a somewhat deserved reputation for being incredibly talky. This can involve two combatants constantly yammering at one another, viewers being made privy to the protagonist’s thought processes for each punch thrown, or bystanders acting as a Greek chorus. Much of this comes from how so many of these shows are originally manga that get faithfully adapted to a fault. Being an original production, GuP isn’t a slave to these conventions. Though there a few Greek chorus moments, these work as they’re in the context of a spectator sport. Otherwise, the action is allowed to speak for itself.

Stakes and numbers aren’t the only things that get jacked up. There’s also an injection of Fast and Furious sensibilities. The original GuP mostly respected the laws of physics, with the tanks performing in an authentic fashion. About the only point where reality was bent a little was the manner in which the Ōarai team disabled the Maus during the final match. The movie however is completely gonzo, giving reality a wedgie and shoving it into a locker. We get tanks leaping over chasms, tanks skimming over pools, and even tanks traversing roller coaster tracks.

You thought I was making up that last one, didn’t you?

As might be expected, the quality of the animation received an upgrade. Like so many TV anime, GuP operated under a tight budget and tighter deadlines. So it should come as no surprise that the integration of the cel-style 2D animation and the 3D computer generated elements was not always seamless. While still not perfect, the degree of successful integration is much more consistent in the movie.

Another area of improvement is the voice acting in the English dub. Though there were a few standouts, too many of the dub performances in GuP ranged from stilted (unfortunately including some of the primary characters) to straight up wooden. Perhaps another director got assigned to the project here, because many of the same actresses who previously underwhelmed provide more natural sounding reads for their lines this time around.

In the end, it all comes down to expectations. If deft and nuanced characterization and sparkling dialogue are what appeals to you, turn back and flee while you still can. If the idea of high school girls duking it out in antique military vehicles while making physics-obsessed killjoys weep in despair fills you with glee, you may have come to the right place.

Didja notice?

  • The movie that Rabbit Team is shown watching on the night before the match is 1941, which has some relevance later in the narrative.
  • “What Chihatan is really famous for is blindly charging into the enemy and getting completely wiped out!”
  • Huge slam on Prometheus out of nowhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s