UPDATE: This is Part 2 of a series. It has nothing to do with Season 2 of GaruPan, if there is such a thing. Sorry.
After a three-month unexplained production break, Girls und Panzer came back with a roar. Oouri High is outnumbered 20:7 and in the middle of a fight with a much better equipped Kuromorimine Girls Academy (黒森峰 Black Forest Peak, three symbols together, see the trees in the middle?), led by Nishizumi Miho‘s older sister, Maho.
Episode 11: When we last saw GaruPan (the abbreviation based on the Japanese title ガールズ & パンツァー Gā.ru.zu ando Pa.n.tsā), they had just started their championship match. Over the previous ten episodes the teams had bonded, had become experienced, and they now know just how much is at stake. The night before the match, each tank crew quietly prepares in its own way — which for each one seems to include eating karaage of some kind. The scenes are a poignant reminder of how far they have come. Team Duck is playing volleyball in a darkened gym, while Team Rabbit spends their time watching nostalgic old movies like Kelly’s Heroes, and crying when the Tiger tank gets blown up. As the contest starts, the girls are already under pressure, because
the Germans Kuromorimine have taken an unexpected shortcut through the forest.
Fast forward three months, and the chase is on. Miporin (Miho’s nickname) has the OHS tanks start making smoke, and under the cover of the smokescreen tows their slow and heavy Porsche Tiger to the top of a disused volcano. The KGA team figures this will be a set-piece assault, at which they excel (after all, they have a training volcano on their school ship), but are soon disorganized by an attack from the rear by the student council members of Team Turtle (an ironic name, since the PzK 38(t) was at least as fast as anything else in the inventory, and appears to be the OHS tank of choice for close agile combat) . KGA starts losing tanks to track malfunctions, because their heavies can’t keep up with the maneuvering.
The fleeing OHS tanks cross two rivers. Fording the first one, the first-year Team Rabbit M3 stalls out and they are about the be swept away. Miporin gets a flashback to the event that lost KGA the championship last year, when she stopped the flag tank to go help a crew that had slid their tank into the ocean. Despite that, she takes time to rescue the M3, and they all head to a stone bridge over another river. When all the others have crossed, the automobile club shows their skills by getting their Porsche Tiger to do a wheelie, breaking the bridge. The episode ends with the OHS team entering the city, where they soon encounter a Maus, the never-fielded German 200MT supertank that was eight times the size of Team Ankou’s PzK IV (and three times the size of today’s M-1 Abrams). As with the Tiger in Kelly’s Heroes, it has trouble turning its turret in close quarters, but finally it gets turned around (while the girls watch in admiration).
In quick succession, both Team Hippo and Team Mallard are knocked out (the hall monitors raising one last defiant 75mm finger), and the episode ends with a shot of the rest of the KGA tanks headed for the city.
Episode 12: Episode 11 was thrilling. Episode 12 was heart stopping. OHS knows they can’t win in the city unless they can stop the Maus, and the rest of the merely heavy tanks — remember, KGA is driving all Tigers, or Panthers or variants. What follows is a series of lessons on applied mechanical innovation: MacGyver-Dō. They high-center the Maus by driving the Hetzer under it. They block the turret by driving the 38(t) onto its rear deck, doing the armored equivalent of jamming their swords hilt to hilt.
Then the PzK IV drives up on the embankment and shoots it in the radiator.
Similar heroics take out other KGA tanks. The OHS team dashes right to left across a crossroads as Kuromorimine arrives in town, doing the panzer equivalent of neener neener neener, and then takes off. KGA, never ones to take derision easily, follows them to the left, not noticing the M3, hiding behind a lightpole on their right. The first year’s put their Kelly’s Heroes homework to good stead by sneaking up behind a elefant and shooting it in its rear orifice.
The match ends with Team Leopon (what you call a cross between a leopard and a lion) using their Porsche Tiger (a cross between a Porsche and a Tiger) to block the entrance to an abandoned high school, while Miho in her PzK IV duels with her sister in a Tiger inside. They start with a spaghetti-western-style faceoff across the square,
and then proceed with a wild chase through the vehicle access roads of the school, taking pot-shots at each other down the cross streets. The end comes back in the square, when Reizei Mako puts the PzK IV into the tracked equivalent of a four-wheel drift (the automobile club will be so envious),
dropping a track and spinning out behind the Tiger, killing it with a shot to the engine, winning the match and the Championship, and saving the school.
Why am I so taken with GaruPan (all my bepestered friends want to know)? I think it’s because it’s true to itself. The baseline concept is absurd — small unit tank combat as a girls varsity sport; schools housed on aircraft carriers (“an over-reaction to previous lack of action on education”) — but once you accept it, and evaluate it on its own terms, you find the story well written and well portrayed. It avoids most of the high school anime clichés. There’s no fan service. No panty shots (believe me, I was watching).
No bouncing boobs. No contrived miscommunications. No clueless male lead (in fact, no boys at all). The plucky comic relief role is shared among several characters (Takebe Saori looking for romance, Akiyama Yukari and her love of tanks, the entire first-year crew of Team Rabbit), so there’s no resident idiot.
The battle scenes are well done, and exciting, and totally unrealistic, given that modern tank battles are rarely fought at pistol-shot ranges. But these aren’t real battles. “Sensha-Dō isn’t war, it’s a sport, and the tanks would be sad if we forgot that”. While some of the scenes are absurd, none of them are physics-violating silly (OK, except for the idea of placing an emphasis on safety when you are using shells that can push a 25MT tank sideways). The Dō part of Sensha-Dō keeps getting emphasized. Saunders High cuts back to only five tanks, to match Oouri High, because that’s what’s fair. Nishizumi’s sister lends them her Focke-Achgelis Fa 223 Drache (Dragon) helicopter so that Isuzu Hana can quickly get to her hospitalized grandmother. The spirit of the game dominates.
Another aspect that makes GaruPan special is the fact that, while the main characters get most of the attention, we see enough of the secondary characters to make them real people, with real personalities. Kadotani Anzu, the imperious and manipulative student body president turns out to be a very good leader, who cares about both her school and her people. Her machinations are directed at saving the school, and when they lose their first match, she’s the one who says they all have to do the Ankou Dance. She’s constantly pushing Miporin into new and uncomfortable roles, knowing that she will grow into them. And when the chips are down, she’s the one dashing through the opposing lines, and breaking up their formations. There’s an interesting contrast between her and Kachūsha, the tsundere Pravda team leader. Both are short, but Kadotani never thinks about it. Yes, she has Kawashima Momo make a back for her to get up on the tank, but only after trying it herself. Kachūsha, on the other hand, is always climbing up on Nonna‘s shoulders so that she can be above the others. At the very end, Anzu thinks nothing of taking a running start so that she can leap up and hug the not-very-tall Miporin.
Even characters with bit parts can reveal a range of personal feeling. So Sono Midoriko, best known for hating it when people compress her name to Sodoko, reveals that she really does believe that the hall monitors protect the school, when she’s out trying to find more tanks; and the night before the final battle, she’s busy making up posters with rules for cheerleading.
We may not like her, but she believes in what she’s doing. On the other hand, Kay, the Saunders high school team leader is a typical blonde American, bouncy (and probably speaking Osaka-ben), fair-minded, and an enthusiastic competitor.
She is also a good loser (arms around Miporin: “Exciting! I never thought I’d be able to have a match like this!“), who is tough with her own people (hand on Arisa’s shoulders: “We’re going to go over what happened here.”). It’s little touches like this that bring out the personality of the characters, and adds a dimensionality that you don’t normally see.
Finally, we have Miporin, Nishizumi Miho. At the start of the series she was a nervous, insecure girl, prone to panic attacks, and as emotionally scarred as the stuffed bears in her apartment. By the end of the series, she’s grown and matured. She’s still prone to panic attacks, but now they are about emotional decisions (as with the M3 rescue). Difficult tactical decisions, which used to leave her clutching her knees, she now handles with cool ingenuity. She’s not fully recovered (when the girls suggest she needs a boyfriend, the camera cuts to the bears again), but she’s found her Sensha-Dō.
Most reviewers are saying it’s the best anime of the season, and I’d agree. The series is a typical, even clichéd, sports story about how the underdog team claws their way to the finals — what one reviewer calls a “Go To Koshien” story, referring to the stadium where the Japanese National High School Baseball Championships are held. In that genre, as with zombie, vampire, and coming-of-age stories, the creativity is in how you handle the clichés. GaruPan does it extremely well. I’d love to see a sequel, but I fear they’d have to take the story in a totally different direction.
The music is good, in context. The main theme is re-used throughout, with variations and in different arrangements. This works well in the anime, but it gives the soundtrack album a lack of variety (clips available halfway down this page — for some reason, none of the Disk 2 clips want to play). The first disk starts with a military band version, and ends with an orchestral arrangement. In between, there must be four more arrangements of the same theme. The best parts are the military brass bands, as you might expect. The rest is incidental music, some of which is quite nice, and some of which is really distinctive music I don’t remember hearing at all in the anime. The second disk includes some surprises. There’s both the OP and ED songs, which are usually left off of anime soundtracks due to copyright issues — they are very often made-for-anime versions of J-pop songs. There’s also two versions of Katyusha (which, you will recall from Part 1, was left out of the US broadcast, again, because of copyright issues). One is the straight orchestral arrangement. The other is the Kachūsha version, sung by her Russian-speaking seiyu, Hisako Kanemoto. Finally, oh joy, is a full rendering of the Ankou Dance, by Sayaka Sasaki.
I have more insightful comments in Part 3, and Part 4 (soon). Meanwhile for more of my reviews check the Anime tag, below.