WAR IS PANTS! THESE GIRLS FIGHT IN THEIRS, SO WE CAN STAY IN OURS. In 1939, a great war began in the skies. Enigmatic and brutal, the alien Neuroi have devastated nation upon nation, crushing conventional military forces. To survive, desperate countries band together to field aerial combat units of young girls capable of using magic. Armed with new technology and weapons enhanced by their powers, these flying aces, called Strike Witches, form the best defence against the invaders.
Strike Witches has an unusual premise. Originally created by artist Humikane Shimada, the Strike Witches franchise features his unique character designs that are - in essence - cute girls presented as anthropomorphised warplanes.
The series occasionally takes a shot at being sincere but despite the heavy themes of war, duty and loss, as a series it is never exactly profound.
Any serious engagement with the wider plot is undermined by the fanservice and the fact that the antagonistic neuroi are not the most memorable enemies. Generally, these hostile invaders are a faceless and uninteresting assortment of abstract, vaguely mechanical life forms. They serve principally a device for the filmmakers to provide the girls with a target against which to perform their amazing aerial assaults. This is good for dynamic animation sequences but bad for storytelling and emotional investment in the characters and their plight.
The visuals borrow from fights sequences and styles popularised by other anime with alien invaders. With a little magic mixed in, the action in Strike Witches presents a stylistic midway point between Evangelion and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.
The strength of the series rests almost entirely upon the shoulders of the witches themselves.
From a legacy of anthropomorphic art developed from what is commonly known as "mecha musume" the Strike Witches are svelte teenage girls who magically merge themselves with machinery. The girls are deployed in battle wearing automated leg armour styled like warplanes.
These little women are the weapons of war, wearing the colours and uniforms of their nations with pride as they defend the world from the neuroi and all - I might add - without the aid of skirts, shorts or trousers! Yes, the Witches shun wearing any clothes on their lower halves aside from scanty panties or swimsuits. While this prevents them from getting any bothersome outerwear entangled in their flight equipment, it also offers the audience an uncompromised view of their... appealing aerodynamics.
To amplify the cuteness of the characters in combat, magical activity is indicated by the growth of "kemonomimi". Animal ears and tails pop out as they summon their powers fly into battle. If the personification as warplanes lacked a certain delicacy, embellishing these beauties with the features of bunnies, puppies and kitties heightens their adorable aspects.
If from the surface Strike Witches seems shallow, it is worth noting that there is a larger context and depth to the franchise that is by no means obvious in the Gonzo rendition of the series. The characters hail respectively from the alternate universe's equivalents of the warring nations such as the Fusō Empire (Japan) and Karlsland (Germany). The show is also replete with historical references. The girls themselves were created in homage to a number of real life figures, namely ace pilots who rose to fame during World War II. The striker units and guns are all based on WWII era planes and weaponry, (for example Japanese fighters don the colour and style of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane). With these details, it becomes clear that the characters have been carefully and thoughtfully crafted. For fans of the original light novel series and those with an interest in history, the series is rich with references that add an extra dimension to the fanservice.
Setting the historical context aside, as a fan of the mecha musume style developed by Shimada, I was a little disappointed by the end result of Strike Witches by Gonzo. The narrative meanders whilst lacking any real consistency or substance to keep the audience hooked. Even the elaborate battle sequences are not enough to revitalise the lacklustre plot.
The characters, however, are great fun. All very different and quite delightful, the multinational mixture of focused militaristic maidens and mischievous minxes make for some great dynamics. With almost exclusively homosocial interaction, there is a distinct tint of yuri in the steamy bath scenes and in the privacy of the girls' sleeping quarters. The Witches share bonds that are emotional and tactile. Their kinship becomes intense and admiration blossoms into devotion and longing between many of the girls.
The animation has the typical Gonzo gloss, the scenery and settings are finely detailed, the CG machinery works effectively with the 2D characters. While the battles are not particularly enthralling, they are by no means clumsily composed or poorly delivered. The girls are gorgeous down to their dainty under garments and animators make the most of providing the audience with good in-flight fanservice.
There are lots of memorable and highly comic moments and episodes. Sadly, the more serious side of the show is not very well developed and this weakens story as a whole. While it is pleasurable enough to watch, it is far too late in the game when the combat and warfare actually becomes as engaging. Had there been a more sincere attempt to match the sexiness with a little narrative substance, Strike Witches could have risen to heights that it is never able to reach.
On a more encouraging note, the concluding episodes are open-ended and have sufficient strength and interest to tempt me to watch more (such a cute new witch dropping in last minute on an unsuspecting Miyafuji).
The invitation to enlist for Strike Witches 2 is made all the more attractive by the fact that the sequel was produced by not by Gonzo but by AIC. The change in production team may just give the franchise what it needs to reach new heights.