I was originally going to do a double-feature writeup and compare this program to some other, based on a shared topic or trope or something. I didn’t do it, because from the jaw-dropping pullback at the end of the first episode, to the equally jaw-dropping arrival of the instructor, to the musical in the snow to the cliff-hanger battle before their spring break, Girls und Panzer is simply incomparable. It may not be high art. It may not be the greatest anime ever written. It is unique. (This is Part 1. Part 2, the exciting finale is here, and Part 3, post season commentary, is here)
The setup is simple: in a slightly-alternate-history version of our world, small unit tank combat has become a varsity sport for high-school girls. One can see why. Sensha-Dō (戦車-道) is literally the way of the tank, with way (Dō, long o) being used in a philosophical sense, like Tao (the symbols are identical), or like other martial arts (弓道 kyūdō, way of the bow). The localizers saw fit to translate it tankery, probably in parallel with archery, but tankmanship might be a better phrase. What better way to turn young girls into strong, resolute women? Women who are every bit as kawaii as the clatter of a caterpillar tread.
Our heroine (Nishizumi Miho) is the youngest child in a household devoted to Sensha-Dō. From the few scenes we have of her home life, it is a cold, dour, Prussian existence, redolant of oil and steel in the Kuromorimine (Black Mines of Mori?) Academy. How bad was it? In Episode 1, Miho is out of bed and has the bedclothes folded (panic breathing) before she wakes up fully and realizes with a smile, I’m not at home any more. The Nishizumis have dominated the National Competition for years. They won the National nine times in a row, and it would have been ten, except that Miho stopped her tank to go rescue the crew of a tank that had slid into the ocean, and let the flag tank be killed by the opposing team. Ostracized by her family, she fled to a school that didn’t even offer Sensha-Dō, only to find that the school has restarted the program, and is intent on dragooning her into a leadership positon.
Miho leads her team of girls — there isn’t even a token boy, I mean c’mon, boys driving tanks? — through the search for new tanks,
…sometimes in unusual places
…very unusual places
and then on to their first match, barely losing to the aristocratic St Gloriana Girls Academy (very British, they drink tea, in china cups, during combat). The other girls know nothing of tanks, or Sensha-Dō, and so do things like paint them in traditional Japanese fashion,
and fill them with homey touches like pillows and air freshners. It’s an approach she couldn’t concieve of, back in the Kuromorimine Academy, and despite the fact that the losing team had to do the Anko Dance (after which it’s impossible for a girl to get married) she finds she now, for the first time, really likes tanks.
The rest of the series alternates between thrilling tank battles and character development. For example, Isuzu Hana, the quiet girl from a flower-arranging family (Hana means flower), first breaks up with her mother over her choice of Sensha-Dō over calligraphy, but then reconciles after her mother sees the vigor that her new experiences brings to her flower arranging. They successively beat the Sherman tanks of the American Saunders Academy, the Italian Anzio High School, and the Russian Pravda High School.
That last battle had them trapped in an abandoned building, doing the Anko Dance — to raise their morale. Outside, the Russians have just finished an exciting drive across the steppe, while singing a traditional Russian folk song, written at the start of WWII. (As an aside – don’t get me started – it’s still in copyright in the US, so it was clipped from the Crunchyroll showing and can only be enjoyed by pirates and not by paying customers. It might or might not be available here. If it’s not, Google “katyusha girls und panzer”).
The Russian leader offers to take their surrender, whereupon one of the History Team members says “That’s nuts”. It’s at this point we learn why the Student Council is so intent on winning the Nationals. If they don’t, the school will be closed as a cost-cutting measure. Miho rises to the occasion, and the team wins in a wild battle in the snow.
The girls have now reached the National Finals, and are facing Miho’s sister, heading the Kuromorimine Academy team. The battle has just started, and the Kuromorimine Academy’s German tanks have surprised the girls by taking the shortcut through the forest — the anime doesn’t give us the name of the forest — when suddenly…the production team decides to take a three month break. So, we won’t know how things have turned out until the end of March.
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