Blu-ray Review: GIRLS UND PANZER Delivers Fun On Caterpillars

(Where angels fear to tread, these girls rush in on treads!)

In the last quarter of 2012, when anime-fans were eagerly anticipating the (then) upcoming Attack on Titan, there was one series on television which turned into a surprise hit: the bizarre-sounding and silly-looking Girls und Panzer.

Last month, US distributor Sentai Filmworks released the whole series on Blu-ray, And I was curious enough to check it out. To my surprise I liked it a whole lot more than I expected I would, to the point where I was watching the finale with bated breath and white knuckles!

Wait, what? Am I saying this series is actually (gasp) thrilling? I guess I am. Read on to see why!


The Story:

Oarai is a girls' high school, with extracurricular activities like flower arranging, calligraphy and, recently added, Sensha-do: the ancient female art of tank battling.

Miho is a student who recently transferred to Oarai after suffering a traumatic Sensha-do accident, erroneously thinking it to be a school without Sensha-do. Unfortunately for her, after decades of abstinence the school restarts participating in Sensha-do contests. And knowing her to be a veteran player, the student committee strong-arms Miho into becoming a tank-commander.

Worse: even though the school only has a meager few old tanks at its disposal, the new team immediately needs to participate in a brutal international Sensha-do tournament between schools. It's a series of tough battles, where the stakes are higher than Miho can imagine, and where she'll have to face her fears, and some old enemies as well...


Girls-und-Panzer-BR-ext1.jpgThe Series:

"Dad, this is for girls... oh wait, ok, this bit is cool!" This was literally said by my son, as he joined me watching the last few shots of episode one. It's a typical reaction to Girls und Panzer, a series in which its producers use its inherent multiple-personality-disorder to great effect.

At its base, the series tells a very simple sports underdog story: a group of uniquely talented newbies challenges vastly more powerful (and scornful) opponents, and through dedication and brilliance manage to overcome the odds. It is such a cliche that it doesn't matter which sport you use.

Or does it? With its school setting you'd think Girls und Panzer would just be another Imazuma Eleven clone, only this time with a bunch of squirrel-voiced girls. But it's not. Instead, it manages to be something far, far different.

The sport here is a made-up one called Sensha-do, which amounts to "capture the flag" with tanks from World war II. As most boys will have played with toy tanks at some time or another, stating it to be a "typically feminine sport" allows for some wicked gender-reversal fun. At one point the students even state that driving a tank will make you a better housewife, and that it would be inconceivable for boys to even touch a tank!

To be able to show Sensha-do as being non-lethal, Girls und Panzer takes place sometime in the future, meaning some non-existent safety gadgetry is added. The teams shoot live ammo at each other, but all tanks have been given an extra layer of carbon on the inside to prevent the students from being incinerated, or from being showered with liquid-hot metal, or from the many other fun ways to expire in heavy metal. It's of course impossible in real life, but works as a lets-not-think-about-this-too-deeply-and-move-on device, one of several being employed in this series.

The sort-of future setting allows for some fun embellishments as well. The society portrayed is free of poverty, and people are happy when their property gets destroyed in a tank battle as they get doubly reimbursed. Many schools are housed on huge aircraft carrier-like ships, allowing entire landscapes to appear and disappear at will for the Sensha-do matches. If this all sounds silly, it is, but it allows for the battles to be diverse and balls-out brutal.

Which brings us to the girls and the tanks. The girls are all cloyingly cutesy caricatures, cringe-inducingly twee. This is juxtaposed against the tanks, which have been lovingly recreated to their tiniest details. Strengths, weaknesses, sounds, different versions... Studio Actas sure went full nerd on these vehicles. They look damn good, and the moment a tank starts to move, it is rendered as 3D cgi, in perfect perspective with its surroundings. The eclectic derelict collection of the protagonists never fails to impress and amuse, and the differences in interior, handling and armor are constantly highlighted throughout the series, as is the severe damage incurred by a direct strike from the enemy.

The story may be humdrum when put in a synopsis, but as seen in the series it's a cleverly used tentpole for both silly jokes and spoofed drama, combined with some awesome action sequences. With each match the stakes get higher while the odds get worse. Never mind the fact that the stakes, odds and Sensha-do itself are ridiculous, the battles are extremely thrilling. Director Mizushima Tsutomu is well-versed in the art of the cliffhanger, and on several occasions he coerced me into watching more episodes in a row than I had planned.

All in all it makes for an impressive total. Girls und Panzer knows it's silly, and manages to be silly fun when it should be fun, yet seriously exciting when it means to be exciting. If you are a fan of tanks, I challenge you to find something more entertaining than this series. it's the most fun I've had with these vehicles since I built Matchbox model kits, thirty-five years ago.
And I'm humming the end credits as I write this.


Conclusion:

Bizarre premise or not, there is no denying that Girls und Panzer is well-made and a lot of fun. Feel free to cringe at the cutesy characters and school drama, but once those tanks go rolling, this series fires on all cylinders, delivering thrills and tension.

Very much recommended!


On to the Discs:

Sentai Filmworks has released Girls und Panzer in a single two-disc boxset, with all ten original episodes and the two-episode follow-up finale included.

Audio and Video are very strong, as can be expected with such a new series. Girls und Panzer has been tailor-made for viewing on High Definition television, and the discs deliver demo-quality visuals. Sound is limited to two DTS HD 2.0 tracks, one English and one Japanese with English subtitles, but don't be lulled into a false sense of security by the absence of a 6.1 soundtrack. Once the tanks start to move, so will the very foundations of your house if you're not careful. One sudden tank ambush was so loud, it nearly had me hit the ceiling in shock.

Extras include trailers, promos, tv-shots, and clean (meaning textless) opening and closing credits. Mind you, the closing credits come in many varieties, each episode having its own version of them, and the disc has them all!
Also included are the two summary episodes which were aired prior to episode 11 and 12, to get viewers back up to speed on story, characters and tank details.

All in all I'm ridiculously pleased with this set, and am looking eagerly forward to the upcoming OVA collection, as well as the theatrical film later this year. "Panzer Vor!"

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