Last year, on Altair & Vega, there was an interesting feminist critique of Girls und Panzer. In that essay, author the_patches takes the show to task for false feminism.
Gendering the sport of tankery in this manner takes something from the province of men and boys and places it in the hands of girls and women–at least when compared to our social norms. The show plays on a subtle inversion of how we normally align gender roles. Since waging war is currently considered mainly the province of men, the idea of high school girls doing it implies an upending of the social order and therefore seems progressive. But it really isn’t.
While that certainly is one way to look at the feminist structure of GaruPan, I’m not sure it’s the best way. I agree with the_patches that the recruiting film, and remarks made in the anime make it clear that the social order has not been upended. Because of that, and despite the fact there is a certain amount of gender-symbolism-poaching going on, GaruPan isn’t really carrying that kind of a femininist message.
Instead, I’d like to think of the feminism of GaruPan as the basis of a gedanken experiment in an alternate approach to sports and team building and leadership.
GaruPan asks what a competitive team sport would be like as practiced by a gender with a more balanced testosterone/serotonin ratio. The use of tank combat as the target sport is brilliant, because anime about the more traditional sports brings a lot of baggage along. Those sports already have female teams, and most of the anime about them (not that there’s a lot) deal with the issues associated with women playing known sports in a man’s world. Since GaruPan is about Sensha-Dō as a sport, nobody in the audience has any preconceived ideas about what the rules, tactics, and ethos might be.
So what we get is a particularly womanly way of doing things. Onna-Dō, if you like. Tank teams are more supportive of each other from the start, for example, without the need for any chest-bumping male bonding rituals. There’s none of the samurai swagger of “I’ll go out and sacrifice myself for the team“. In fact the arc that has the Napoleonic arrogance of Kachusha clashing with the overconfident arrogance of the Ōarai team (yahoo!) is the one they come closest to losing.
In the end, Girls und Panzer doesn’t have a strong feminist message. But a core theme of the anime is an idea a boy’s team is most likely to overlook: “Sensha-Dō isn’t war, it’s a sport, and the tanks would be sad if we forgot that”.