A review of Girls und Panzer

What comes to mind when you think of tanks, those armored war machines? Maybe you think of the Eastern Front, of Stalingrad and Kursk, or of North Africa, of Patton and Montgomery trying to chase down the Desert Fox Rommel. If I had to guess, these and other World War II-era campaigns were on the minds of the creators and writers of the 2012 anime Girls und Panzer. Yet instead of writing their tanks into a war story, they put them into a sports anime, and instead of a bunch of grizzled soldiers, they created a cast of schoolgirls to man those tanks.

You might already know something about Girls und Panzer if you read this blog for the anime at least. I’ve known about it for a long time myself, since it got a lot of attention when it first aired as an original anime about ten years ago. Granted, that was back during the massive wave of Cute Girls Doing Cute Things, but forming a tank crew and engaging in mock combat isn’t exactly a cute thing, or at least it wouldn’t traditionally be considered so. But then maybe that serious tonal gap was part of the appeal, just the thought of a bunch of schoolgirls blasting each other in WWII era-accurate tanks.

Until last week, I couldn’t have addressed the appeal of this show, but I’ve finally gotten around to watching the original 12-episode anime. So is Girls und Panzer just a novelty, or is there something more to it than “schoolgirls drive tanks”? I’ll get into it in depth below, but not before giving the usual spoiler warning. I guess this show is pretty well past the date where that would matter much, being over a decade old now, but I still have a lot more in my backlog, so I’d better show proper consideration for all the other backlog-watchers.

It looks like totally normal school life here, but there’s plenty to spoil believe me

Miho Nishizumi is a transfer student starting a new year at Oarai Girls’ Academy. Miho is clearly enthusiastic about her new school, having even memorized the names and birthdays of her classmates and immediately making a few new friends. But though her enthusiasm is very real, we soon learn the true reason for her transfer to Oarai specifically: it doesn’t have a Sensha-do team. But just what the hell is Sensha-do, and why is it so central to her school transfer? And why, despite her wishes, are the student council president and her officers demanding that Miho join the school’s suddenly revived Sensha-do program?

When “voluntary” electives aren’t voluntary, I know the feeling. Also notice the vice president’s glasses-style monocle.

Despite the student council leaning on her hard to take Sensha-do, they can’t actually force her to sign up for it. However, they can use carrots instead of sticks to encourage their student body to join the team: triple the credits, many more meal tickets at the cafeteria, and a nicely put together propaganda video espousing the value of practicing Sensha-do in which we learn what it actually is: mock combat with refurbished World War II-era tanks. Apparently tank warfare is the perfect sport for young women, training their bodies, sharpening their minds, and even making them more attractive to the opposite sex. Sure, why not?

I guess some guys do like women in uniform, but the student council is likely exaggerating a bit here. They have their reasons, some of which will only emerge much later in the story.

This pro-Sensha-do initiative is successful, with many of Oarai’s girls deciding to join the team, including Miho’s two new friends Hana Isuzu and Saori Takebe. They have their own reasons for joining the new tank team (my favorite of which is Saori’s “get a future husband right away,” which sadly doesn’t come off, or at least not yet.) But Miho is still extremely reluctant to follow them onto the team, flashing back to a memory of her previous Sensha-do service, of her diving into a river after a drowning fellow tank crew. She clearly has some trauma associated with this sport she’s trying to escape from, and she simply can’t bring herself to return to it despite the enormous pressure placed upon her by the student council, which seriously insists that she in particular join.

But she finally gives in. Not a big surprise to us considering the premise and the very first scene of the show, but though Miho finally decides to break through her fears and return to Sensha-do, she’s deeply moved by her new friends sticking with her in facing down the council. With the three of them now on the team, along with the student council president and her officers (who to their credit also join and man a tank crew themselves) they prepare for the challenges that lie ahead. Despite Miho’s insistence that she’s no good at Sensha-do, the council officers know otherwise: the Nishizumi family, namely her mother Shiho and her older sister Maho, are legends of the sport, and Miho’s natural talent and leadership skills soon emerge in their own right.

Maho Nishizumi, seen here looking scary as all hell

But Miho will have to prove herself not just to her new school but to the other, far better-established academies around Japan, including her old school Kuromorimine, where Maho still captains the Sensha-do team. Miho’s previous conduct on that team, namely her abandonment of her tank to help save another crew on their team whose tank slid into a river during a match, while absolutely commendable, led to their team losing the match and was condemned as “heresy” against her family’s established “Nishizumi style” of Sensha-do. Will Miho be able to help train and build Oarai’s rusty tank team doing it her way, and will they be able to compete head-to-head with their better-practiced and equipped rivals — up to and including Maho and her Kuromorimine fleet?

And will Saori net a boyfriend? Well, I already gave that away, poor girl. Just wait until college.

In some ways, Girls und Panzer is very much your typical sports anime (or sports series in general.) We have all the usual story elements here: the prodigy who quit the sport after a tragic incident that she still blames herself for, but who gets called back to the sport to guide an underdog team to ultimate victory. Said underdog team is full of  wildly differing and sometimes over-the-top characters who have to be taught how to operate together as a team, which they do end up getting down before the big tournament where they win upset victory one after another by using their clever tactics against their rivals’ superior forces. There’s even a “the school will get shut down if we don’t win” plot running through most of the story, raising the stakes for the characters and the viewers considerably.

I’m not very much into the sports genre. Not into sports much in general honestly. The only sport I ever played was track and field in high school just because it meant I didn’t have to risk running into or touching anyone else because fuck that. But I have seen a few older sports movies that follow this general formula, like the ice hockey comedy classic The Mighty Ducks (and there’s a good test for the “90s kids” reading if you remember that movie or not, since it seems to have fallen out of our culture unlike say the far worse Space Jam, only remembered for meme purposes.1) Girls und Panzer hits a lot of the same standard plot points with similar outcomes for the cast.

My favorite character so far, Miho’s tank driver Mako Reizei. I know the feeling.

But though it follows the standard sports series formula, Girls und Panzer follows it in its own unique way. Yes, partly by being about schoolgirls who drive tanks. This premise was an extremely effective hook since it got me to watch a sports anime, which I normally wouldn’t bother doing. The novelty and spectacle of the show’s mock tank combat is definitely a positive as well — though I am a big history nerd (history being my other big love next to anime, games, and music, the only one out of them I don’t write about on this site all that often) I don’t know much at all about military history. At least not when it comes to the specifics: I can tell you all about the factors that lead to the declarations of war across Europe in 1939, about Hitler’s blitzkrieg, the division of Poland and the fall of France, the thwarted invasion of Britain, and the utterly disastrous attack on the Soviet Union. But don’t ask me about the specifics of the various armies’ equipment, and that gap in my knowledge beyond the basics extends to their tanks.

I don’t even remember which tank this was, but it certainly had some issues

My overly long-winded point is that though I don’t know about the specifics of tank combat, I was still able to appreciate all the tank combat featured in Girls und Panzer, and there was a hell of a lot of it. Aside from one match that gets completely glossed over (Oarai vs. the Italian-themed school Anzio, the subject of a separate OVA I’m going to have to watch soon) each of Oarai’s matches is depicted in full detail, starting with a practice game in which Miho proves her skill so well that everyone insists she become both the commander of her own tank and the team’s overall captain. Miho soon rediscovers a passion for tank combat, pulling her tank teams together into a cohesive unit. (Though not a perfect one: never chase an enemy feigning retreat into an ambush! Miho knows that, but some of her teammates don’t and make this mistake in their match against the Russian-themed school Pravda against her orders.)

Miho commanding her tank — not shown here, the rest of her crew inside.

If you’re thinking Girls und Panzer is over the top, I’d agree with you. The concept in itself is utterly insane if we’re looking at it from a realistic angle: while the matches in the show are represented as mock tank battles, the shells they fire at each other sure as hell don’t look mock in any sense. I think there was a line early on about the shells being blanks or “safe” or something, and while I’m absolutely not an expert in ammunition, tank armor, or any related subject, I’m pretty certain that Miho and her fellow tank commanders aren’t too safe riding around mostly standing outside the tank as we so often see them. Even the inside of the tank doesn’t look terribly safe, since very often direct hits in these matches result in smoke and flames. And while nobody in the show gets seriously hurt, Miho’s team is constantly calling the others on their radio to ensure everyone’s all right when they’re hit. Then there’s the incident in Miho’s recurring flashback, which implied that drowning was a serious threat for the tank crew she rescued from the river.

All that considered, while Sensha-do seems to have its dangers, I can mostly suspend my disbelief for the purposes of Girls und Panzer, I think for two reasons: 1) the story and its characters are both fun and compelling enough to justify said weirdness, and 2) the show almost immediately establishes its world as kind of a weird place. Why in the hell, for example, do these girls attend what are essentially boarding schools built on impossibly massive aircraft carriers, complete with artificial grass and hills? Again, there’s an explanation somewhere in the series that’s mentioned once in passing, but it seems like the writers really just thought it would be cool to do that without any other more substantive reason. And that’s totally fine with me. It’s weird, but it fits in with the weirdness of somehow non-lethal tank combat sports.

Man, do I hate this saying so fucking much. But it does apply here, both to Oarai’s first real match and more generally to the tactical trickery Miho has to use to constantly overcome the enemy’s greater numbers and firepower.

The absurdity increases with the various rival schools to Oarai, which each have a national theming to them despite all apparently being based in Japan: the British St. Gloriana, the American Saunders, the Italian Anzio, the Russian Pravda, and Miho’s old school Kuromorimine which I’m pretty sure is supposed to be German-themed (from the tanks, the uniforms, the school’s iron cross emblem, and the fact that Kuromorimine translates as “Black Forest Peak” — not sure why it’s not called Schwarzwaldberg or however you’d translate that into German.2) I think the idea was to pit Oarai’s mix of tanks from around the world against nationally themed WWII tank fleets, and it’s to the story’s credit that these other schools, or at least their Sensha-do teams, go all-in on that national theming, with the British school’s captain being extremely proper and drinking tea, the Russian school’s captain eating borscht while they have the Oarai girls surrounded and besieged, and the Italian school’s presumably drinking olive oil straight or something. Again, it’s all pretty goofy, but it works as a part of the generally over-the-top feel of the series.

The WWII theme aspect of the show also lets the writers throw in some nice historical references — take for one example Oarai’s vice president’s response to the Russian captain Katyusha’s demand for their surrender.

Despite all that, Girls und Panzer has an emotional core to it. Again, that’s not unusual for sports series, with the captain Miho forming bonds of friendship with her tank crew and her other teammates, and even with her rival captains from the other schools and their friends. Miho also has to face her own family, however, and this is where I found the series just a little lacking. The setup is fine: Miho has a different approach to Sensha-do than her extremely strict mother and her older sister do, and her actions as a tank commander at their school led to her transfer out and even her attempted and failed escape from the sport. And as you might have guessed, the final match in the tournament sees Miho fighting against and overcoming Maho, after which she earns her respect and even her hardass mother’s, who previously said she was prepared to disown her younger daughter over her transgressions. Her disgracing the Nishizumi style of Sensha-do is apparently just that great an offense that she needs to be legally written out of the family. I mean fuck, really?

What a household to grow up in. Much to her credit, Maho does try to stick up for Miho when speaking with their mother, but Shiho isn’t having it, at least not before Miho can prove herself on the field of mock tank battle.

However, the show never explains exactly what the Nishizumi style involves. “Iron rules and a heart of steel”, sure, but does that mean you have to abandon your potentially drowning teammates to their fates? In my mind, Miho without any doubt did the right thing in abandoning her post to save them. So it lost them a match — there are always more matches, but people’s lives can’t be replaced.

But then since I’m not even sure just how lethal or non-lethal Sensha-do is meant to be, even taking into account my willing suspension of disbelief, it’s hard for me to say how much danger any of the girls might be in in any particular circumstance. And combined with the very general and somewhat vague idea of the Nishizumi style we’re given, it’s hard for me to gauge just how unreasonable Shiho is being. Somewhere on a scale from “very” to “impossibly” as far as I can tell, but again, I can’t very well. Maybe if I knew more about tank warfare I’d be able to judge more effectively.

There’s also the fact that Sensha-do seems to be inherently unbalanced, since schools with greater resources can put far more tanks on the field than Oarai can without any kind of handicap in place. But that’s not a flaw in the story as I see it; seems more like an intended aspect of the sport and yet another obstacle for Oarai to overcome. And after all, it only takes a direct hit on the captain’s tank to win a match, no matter how many other tanks are still operational.

That quirk aside, I enjoyed Girls und Panzer a whole lot. It had everything a good sports anime (or live-action show or movie for that matter) should have: suspense, action, and some emotional connection among the characters as they form bonds around the sport. Those who despise the use of 3DCG might have a hard time with the series at first, since the tanks certainly don’t look hand-drawn, but I’m fine with it and generally with the use of CG for animated vehicles and machinery. I have a real problem when it’s used to animate characters especially, but that isn’t the case here. If anything, Girls und Panzer seems to be an example of how to effectively and more or less seamlessly blend 3DCG and traditional animation, because there wasn’t a single moment while watching the series that I was taken out of the action by an awkward-looking scene.

And man, some of those tank battle scenes just look good. If you wanted to see a set of schoolgirls rolling through a seaside Japanese town in full armor blasting the shit out of each other, be sure to watch Girls und Panzer. Though if it hadn’t had that emotional core and those endearing characters (for as much as some were intentional caricatures even, yeah) I wouldn’t have liked it nearly as much. And points for those historical references.

In the end, it’s all about eating a good meal with your true friends. That chicken katsu looks great too. Every other fucking anime I watch has to make me hungry, doesn’t it?

There’s another major title in my anime backlog down. Though I still have to watch that Anzio OVA, and then there’s the Girls und Panzer film (titled der Film, of course.) I have a lot of various OVAs and films to follow up on, actually. Maybe I just need to knock through all those one weekend.

In the meantime, you can look forward to more music, more anime, and maybe even something about my game backlog soon if my fucking horrible schedule allows for it! Until next time.


1 See also Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”. Its use as a joke back in the day was funny and it completely worked for that purpose, but it’s a pretty awful song in my opinion. That might be why the “Rickroll” worked so well.

Not that Mighty Ducks wasn’t also pretty goofy at points, but I remember it being pretty enjoyable back when I was a kid at least. At least we still have good movies from roughly that period like Bill & Ted and Back to the Future that people remember fondly. But now I’m way off track, which is why I put this bullshit tangent in the endnotes.

2 On that note, it bothered me for a while that Girls und Panzer was only written halfway in German. Fully translated, it would be Mädchen und Panzer, but I guess many more viewers know the German word for tank than its word for girl. And I’ve gotten used to the title by now — it just took some deconditioning from my high school German classes.


6 thoughts on “A review of Girls und Panzer

  1. This show has been on my long list of “anime I need to watch” for such a long time. My son has seen it. He’s a war history guy and will talk about this forever. He and his best bud want to go to the tank museum. It’s somewhere but I have no idea.

    Really great review. It makes me want to consider pushing it up on the list and watching.

    Onto the brief comment on The Mighty Ducks. Yes. I agree. So many memorable animations and movies that seemed so much better at handling a sincere story with good characters and development back then. So many original ideas. Unlike today, where everything seems to be a rehash and redo of what was once a good story. The 90’s were a good time to grow up.

    Have a great rest of your week!

    • Happy to hear, and I hope you can get to it soon, since it’s worth the watch. I get the feeling I missed something not being that much into the military side of the history, but it was still a good time.

      I don’t know what kids are watching these days, but there are definitely some classics that have fallen out of the cultural consciousness, which is a shame. Thanks for the wishes, and same to you!

  2. Girls und Panzer does a lot well, but one of the few things it doesn’t is the explanation of what the Nishizumi Style entails. This is by design: there needed to be a reason for Miho to leave her family and find her own approach towards Panzerfahren. Having said this, I’ve studied the series quite extensively, and as a practitioner of Japanese martial arts, I believe I’ve got an answer. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I’ve previously written about the topic in some detail.

    We recall that Girls und Panzer is all about sportsmanship and doing things fairly, to the best of one’s ability. The classical interpretation of the Nishizumi Style, that it’s about outright destroying an enemy and driving them into the ground, is inconsistent with this presentation. Instead, I see it as a style that’s disciplined and rigid. If the Nishizumi style had truly been merciless and ruthless, other schools would shit bricks every time they faced them. Instead, Darjeeling comments on how they’re boring to fight, and Katyusha responds to them by bringing their own big guns in.

    Finally, I’ll risk tooting my horn one final time: the technical aspects of Girls und Panzer are a topic I’ve also explored at length in the past. The survivability of Panzerfahren matches are waved away with færie dust, but everything else is actually pretty consistent with how WWII-era tanks and their weapons behaved. If time allows, I cordinally invite you to take a look at some of my older posts, which comment on some of the details seen in Girls und Panzer!

    • I’ll be sure to read some of your Girls und Panzer posts — I’m definitely lacking some background here, and it sounds like you have a perspective that can help me understand some of that nuance I might have missed. Your view of the Nishizumi style does make sense just from what I’ve seen so far; based on what their opponents have said about them, they just use certain tactics to deal with Maho’s fleet, whereas Miho’s own tactics are unpredictable, given that she can adapt quickly to any situation and deal with it creatively as Maho herself says. I also expect the film and/or the other anime out there in the series will clear up Miho’s position with her family a little more, because it was left a little vague at the end (though the scene between the sisters in the last episode was nice and satisfying.)

      • The challenges surrounding Miho’s family situation from Girls und Panzer are implied to be slowly improving with time. Miho herself, however, still lacks the confidence to see this for herself, and Maho looks like she’s giving Miho enough space to reach a point where she can address things. These elements are only touched upon in Der Film, and Das Finale is where I hope things are addressed, since this was one of the biggest aspects Girls und Panzer leaves unanswered insofar. As for the technical details, I like to think I go into enough depth without overwhelming folks!

  3. Pingback: OVA/spinoff review: Girls und Panzer | Everything is bad for you

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