Management: This is a comprehensive review of own devising, where I go over a pro and con analysis of the material in an attempt to convince people to watch the show-in-review. Hopefully, in encouraging people in general to watch things I think are interesting, they’ll at least somewhat know what to expect while watching. For clarity’s sake, I’ll emphasize this: the review isn’t meant to be so much holistic as it is coverage of what I believe is of core importance to the show.
From the surface, Stella Women’s Academy, High School Division Class C3, or C3-bu for short, looks like it’s going to be K-On! with airsoft. It could also turn out to be Girls und Panzer, but with airsoft. Maybe Upotte!!, but instead of real guns, airsoft. Sabagebu! Its name translates from the literal Japanese equivalent of “airsoft.”
Not quite. Unlike all these aforementioned shows, C3-bu’s not treating girls with airsoft as fun and games, or airsoft as fun and games, or even airsoft as war as fun and games. It’s treating airsoft as war. And it’s treating war as war, and war is zero-sum. For the player of fortune, for fortune of victory, the fighting ends and fortune’s achieved only when one side wins it all and the other falls to hell. Other conditions notwithstanding, victory’s assured when the enemy side has been all shot. It is imperative that at least you must survive. It is imperative that you survive. You must survive. You are the player of fortune, after all. The player of victory… victory… victory…
…believes Yura after a certain point. It’d be closer to the mark to say that C3-bu’s more like Evangelion.
Yura Yamato arrives at Stella Women’s Academy. It’s her first day. It’s a fresh start from that pathetic period of a lonely life she called primary school. She arrives with fresh hopes that she’ll make fast and true friends, hopes that sometimes blossom into full-on surreal fantasies, fantastical surrealities…
…and on occasion, actual realities ala Haruhi style magical realism…
…only for that elation to be popped by constant doubts. She’s dragged into the airsoft club C3 after being witnessed to her chagrin by one of the club while roleplaying as a soldier, and as a club perceived weirdo among weirdos, the already trigger-happy weirdos of the club, lead by Sonora Kashima, tries to convince Yura to join by having her join them on a series of airsoft matches. The romanticism, the excitement, and the prospect of having finally found friends finally convinces her to formally sign up, marking the occasion by shaving her head a shorter length. A length suspiciously akin to Sonora’s hairstyle. The style’s kind of similar too.
It’s when her club’s first beaten in a scrimmage match by a team lead by Sonora’s rival Rin Haruna, when she’s taunted by Rin for surrendering out of cowardice and scolded by Sonora for having surrendered out of cowardice, that what would otherwise have been an happily ever after, but with airsoft, takes an unsettling diversion, a dangerous, perceived lesson counter to the one that was intended. This lesson gradually begins to consume her. Instead of principles of sportsmanship, playing with everyone, and playing for fun, she begins to fight for other reasons. To fight and win in order to be respected and loved, and she can only do that if she gets better. In her mind, she’ll become better if she more closely emulates her cool sempai Sonora… in skill, confidence, and even appearance.
And along the way, in a series of events that leave Sonora incapacitated during the big airsoft tournament, this perceived obsession to fight and win for love and respect is blurred and eventually overtaken by this perceived obsession to fight and win. To win in spite of sportsmanship, everyone, and fun, because her socially stunted character makes her perceive it in no other way except that which is conceptually simple. Win states are conceptually simple.
More than just airsoft, C3-bu is a coming of age tale, for Yura as well as some of the other characters. Yura, like many young people engaged in the throes of maturation, are trying to find a sense of certainty in their lives that will bring them emotional fulfillment. An identity you can call your own, a place to belong, and people that will accept you as you are clashes and conflates in the show with the conception of the zero-sum win state, and the show illustrates this point using Sonora’s and Rin’s backstories. The show references war and its zero-sum nature, and its secondary characters, even the otherwise cold Rin, on how airsoft shouldn’t be treated like war. Yura treats it as such, however, and as her mental fortitude starts to crack, the audience is treated to imagery disturbingly reminiscent of war, in direct contrast to the light and fluffy atmospheres of everyone having fun with airsoft.
I mention Sonora’s and Rin’s backstories, and I want to transition to talking about Rin. Rin is fascinating, a character mired in subtle complexities that, thinking about it, are absolutely heart-aching. Back when C3-bu still played around with near total pretensions of being just a sports show, Rin was introduced as your typical ice queen antagonist who seemed to champion victory at all cost, and the big bad villainous rival to Sonora. In fact, the show flops her around as a red herring in the aftermath of the incident that left Sonora injured. Yura, after that certain point in her development where her conscious thinks of nothing but winning, joins Rin’s team as the what could constitute as the show’s dark side.
Except for being part of the supposed Sith, Rin finds herself secretly disturbed by how far Yura is treating airsoft as similar to war, subconscious flashbacks of beloved airsoft mentor losing in an actual firefight with live weaponry. In fact, I’d find myself hard-pressed not to be disturbed what she’s seeing independent of any childhood trauma.
Dull and lifeless eyes.
Bloodied and bandaged hands.
This one has her looking like she’s a washed up war vet.
Holy shit, this she looks like a freaking gas victim.
She pushes her friends and teammates, and in the process, pushes them away, and she becomes more isolated than ever. In this isolation, the one thing that prevents Yura from giving in to utter despair is the obsession of winning. Why? Because it’s simple to grasp, and there’s an easy certainty in simplicity.
The funny thing about this particular coming of age tale is that the people around Yura, most especially her friends, suffer from their own forms of social ineptness. Perhaps with the exception of Rin, none of the other characters are incredibly complex, and that’s actually fine. They’re teenagers with simple minds who want to have fun their own simple and airsoft ways. They aren’t deliberately being hurtful, but they can sometimes, at crucial times in Yura’s development, be self-absorbed. They neglect the warning signs, they fail to act, or they exacerbate through frustration or misunderstanding Yura’s unhealthy regression. When it comes to the portrayal of adolescents in anime, I find that rather refreshing.
What I don’t find particularly refreshing are the other tropes the show ends up unfortunately embracing. The show executes a welcome number of well-directed physical gags that adds a sense of decent pacing but, it also indulges with a mixture of sexualized fan service and cute girl slice of life at times that ultimately come off, beyond the benefit of juxtapositional contrast, at the very least as tonally dissonant. It tries to incorporate elements Upotte!! and K-On! that just don’t work for the character-driven narrative C3-bu is striving, and succeeds in many ways, of being.
It also tries its hand at being airsoft’s version of Girls und Panzer, what with its attempt at elaborate airsoft matches and initial enthusiasm for detailing gun specs, but the teams lack the a similar logical meticulousness that’s necessary to make sports shows compelling. Barring the fact that, without Yura’s fantasies, airsoft pellets lack the same kinesthetic weight of a tank shell, the dynamics of matches, who fires and hits who, are rather artificially contingent to the plot. There’s little suspension of disbelief, and as a result, there’s less stakes to the actual matches, and we’re left to compensate instead with how players react during and after games. Girls having fun and girls suffering might be enough to carry it for you, but the matches should be engaging too, in and of themselves.
In the end, Yura abandons the emotional bedrock that is her friends for ground that appears more solid. However, control of that ground is subject to the tides of war, of winning and losing, and she has to win. She has to win. It’s her patch of land. It’s the only thing she now has, however ravaged and burnt it may be. Fighting so fiercely and exhaustively for it, investing blood, sweat, tears, and one’s individual self-worth into it that when she loses it… she’s nothing. She has nothing. In her zero-sum mindset, the ground’s been taken, and the bridge to her previous bedrock has been burnt by herself no less in a fit of resolve or desperation . If her back was to the wall, there was nothing left for her to do to press forward… until she hit another wall.
Friendship however, like airsoft, is not war.