There’s a reasonably well-justified tendency among anime fans to hastily dismiss the potential merit of any permutation of the whole “cute girls doing cute things” motif that’s so nauseatingly ubiquitous in modern anime. In recent times, we’ve had a spate of these lusterless shows – whether it be “cute girls climbing mountains!” or “cute girls that are actually anthropomorphic guns or something!” – and the results are nigh-invariably uninspired dreck that’s not worthy of anyone’s time. With this in mind, it’s only natural to approach the simple premise of “cute girls driving tanks” with caution. It is against all odds, then, that Girls und Panzer manages to not only be worthwhile, but also one of the most consistently entertaining shows in recent memory.
Girls und Panzer’s story is a simple one. Schools from around the world compete in a sport called Sensha-do, or “way of the tank.” In this universe, “tankery,” as it is colloquially known, is seen as a dignified martial art that helps girls hone their grace and femininity. Miho Nishizumi, the protagonist of this story, was a very capable captain of Sensha-do in her previous school, but due to a traumatic experience in the semi-finals of the previous Sensha-do tournament, she distanced herself from the sport by transferring to a school that doesn’t participate in the Sensha-do, Ōarai Academy. Unfortunately, her new school takes up Sensha-do soon after her arrival. Even more unfortunate is that the school council is aware of her accomplished past as a commander and coerce Miho into being the captain of this newly established Sensha-do unit. While the sheer implausibility and silliness of this premise can be seen as the show’s greatest detriment, it is simply a plot device necessary to get the girls into some tank battles, which is definitely where this show shines brightest.
The tank battles, simply put, are amazing. Takaaki Suzuki, the military adviser for Girls und Panzer, shows a great understanding of the ins and outs of tankery. As the rules specify, each tank needs to be of World War 2 vintage or older. These tanks are presented with great accuracy and attention to detail, each one having their strengths and weaknesses based on their real life counterparts. The battles themselves are often loosely based on real historical battles, generally involving Ōarai playing the underdog, and each one taking place at various unique environments. The many distinct and varied locations coupled with the accurate depiction of each tank lends itself well to some genuinely engaging strategies, both from Ōarai and their opponents, and are genuinely exciting to watch. As these battles are loosely based off historic events, many of Ōarai’s schemes mirror well-known strategic maneuvers and consequently remain both entertaining and satisfying to witness unfold.
With that said, this is hardly a serious anime about battling tanks; the excitement incited during these battles is enhanced twofold by how infectiously silly and fun the different girl’s personalities are. In stark contrast to their competition, the girls of Ōarai Academy are a convivial bunch. They paint their tanks pink, do an embarrassing dance to improve morale, and cherish friendship over winning the match. Cheesy, right? Well, it is, but the show embraces this cheesiness in a way that makes it feel genuine and endearing. What makes Girls und Panzer’s comedy so special is that it’s never afraid to laugh at itself and how preposterous its premise is. Each tank on Ōarai’s side has a team of operators amusingly framed around their unique clique. For example, one team is composed of gamers who approach Sensha-do in a similar way that one approaches a video game. Another team consists of history buffs who romanticize past historical battles and leaders, attempting to emulate them with their hilariously over-the-top antics. Ōarai’s opponents are similarly depicted as caricatures of their respective nations, such as the British team being refined in composure and perpetually drinking tea during the match, or the cocky American team that stoops to utilizing underhanded tactics. The battles contain a fair share of unorthodox stratagems that contribute to this pervasive sense of fun as well. Even when the girls of Ōarai are up against seemingly insurmountable odds, the show never loses touch of its deft sense of humor.
But Girls und Panzer isn’t all fun and tankery. During the time spent away from Sensha-do, the show does attempt to have a few more serious plot lines, which generally yields poor results. The show spends an inordinately long time attempting to set up its admittedly silly plot in a comparatively serious way, and falls flat on its face in doing so. Thankfully, this is only an issue for the first episode and a half, as the show picks up steam once it gets to the Sensha-do tournaments and generally takes itself less seriously. Due to the massive size of the cast, minor conflicts are dismissed almost as soon as they’re introduced. For instance, one minor arc involves a character who gave up the family business of arranging flowers to take up Sensha-do. This is met with harsh disapproval from her family, but is soon after entirely dismissed after her parents watch one of her matches. There isn’t any character development as the result of this, and the parent characters are never seen again in any meaningful context. It only serves as a shallow feel-good moment that slows down the momentum of the show. Most characters, while entertaining enough in the context of the group, are relatively two-bit and characterized solely by their unique quirk when looked at on their own merits. Miho is the only character to receive any real development, and even that plays out in a fairly predictable manner. However, these breaks from tankery only compose a very small fraction of the show. Most of Girls und Panzer’s episodes are dedicated to their engaging tank battles and, provided one is enjoying the ride, it becomes possible to overlook their fleeting, minor flaws in storytelling.
The animation and soundtrack are generally excellent and complement each other appropriately. The soundtrack marches with militaristic tunes that fit well with the action taking place on screen while the tanks are rendered using very detailed CG that looks great in motion. Unfortunately, some of the CG environments during the battles aren’t as well-realized as the tanks are, often appearing flat with repetitive textures. This is most apparent during the earlier episodes, where it’s clear that the production staff had a limited budget; CG heavy scenes are marred by a poor frame rate and the environments are at their worst. Fortunately, this is remedied as the show goes on and, by its final episodes, the show is an absolute delight to look at.
In the end, Girls und Panzer won’t make you re-evaluate the way you view anime or present you with a profound take on life, but what it does do is present a thoroughly entertaining and refreshing variation on the whole “cute girls doing cute things” theme. Despite its flaws, Girls und Panzer’s infectious silliness and engaging battle scenarios should have any viewer plastered with a permanent grin on their face, screaming “Panzer Vor!” for the duration of any given episode. It’s a simple pleasure, but one well worth the time.