Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes.
So I was having a chat with Frog-kun one day about politics in anime. The conversation ended up veering away from Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought There and towards the question of military moe, how both this kind of show and that kind of moe is the cultural product of, maybe, a growing sense of nationalism in Japan. For the longest time since the end of WWII, there was this disconnect between many Japanese leaders and much of the Japanese public over the question of revising/repealing Article 9. Imposed on Japan by the US during the American Occupation, Article 9 is a provision in the Japanese Constitution that effectively prevented Japan from waging wars of aggression ever again. For the most part, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the party dominating politics for the better part of the post-WWII era, favored Article 9’s revision or repeal. The public, in keeping with memories of the horrors of war on their homeland, for the most part favored keeping Article 9 as is. The leadership featured a continuity of wartime leaders who wanted to normalize the country (starting with its military).
It’s been many decades since the end of WWII, and emerging from the intervening period of a belligerent past and the peaceful present is a budding subculture of military history and military hardware enthusiasts. They love guns and fawn over tanks. Is this enthusiasm by these Japanese enthusiasts for things military evidence that the Japanese public is becoming cooler to their previous pacifism? Is military moe evidence of this trend? I can’t answer the first question, but I can provide a response to the second. I will do that by analyzing the following moe military shows, Girls und Panzer and Stella Women’s Academy, High School Division Class C3 (henceforth, C3-bu).
Are Girls und Panzer and C3-bu examples of moe military promoting military revival? Just the opposite.
In addition to being moe military shows (shows juxtaposing images of the otaku understanding of cute with the contemporary version of martial), Girls und Panzer and C3-bu are also sports anime. A team of cute girls compete against other teams of other cute girls, all of whom use either specially modified or play-replica military hardware. For Girls und Panzer, it’s specially modified WWII-era tanks. For C3-bu, it’s play-replica airsoft firearms. Both shows take their time to celebrate and gush over their military hardware’s detail and specs. Girls und Panzer’s Miho Nishizumi commands a German Panzer IV. C3-bu’s Yura Yamato brandishes a Czechoslovak Škorpion vz. 61.
And then, the very broad similarities between these shows’ love for weaponry and ultranationalists’ calls for militarism end there. The anime tows the line of Japan’s larger pacifistic culture. In spite of their military dressing, both Girls und Panzer and C3-bu take rather strong positions against war.
The anti-war positions are strong, but they’re easy to miss without a careful viewing. These positions easy to miss because of their complementary nature. They serve more as elements rather than the main thrusts to the narratives of these shows. The main thrusts of Girls und Panzer and C3-bu are their sports game structures and their friendship/coming-of-age themes, with the former show’s strength is concentrated more on the games while the latter show’s centered more on the themes. Nonetheless, both shows invoke, rhetorically, the terribleness of war to illustrate key points about the games and themes. Simply put, sports games don’t play out as battle simulations, and social bonds are not borne through zero-sum conflicts.
Throughout Girls und Panzer, three big things stood out show that lead me to reason out the show’s anti-belligerent nature.
1. At the end of Ooarai Girls High School’s match with Saunders Girls High School, the defeated leader of Saunders, Kay, congratulates Ooarai’s victorious one, Miho, on her school’s win over her team. Kay reminds Miho that their match with each other was a game, not a war, and to think otherwise would be disrespectful to the tanks.
The Saunders Team plays with American tanks and runs on American stereotypes, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that one of the stereotypes that shine through from Kay is the Anglo-American penchant for fair play. Most things being equal, if Americans utilize enough clever wit and invest enough hard work, they can go far in life. These meritocratic principles are deeply embedded within American culture, from how Americans understand socioeconomic stratification to how Americans value sportsmanship.
However, at the end of the day, Japanese writers are behind the show’s characters and dialogue. Japanese writers wrote Kay, and through their characterization of Kay, they are bridging distinctions of preference between enjoying a game and fighting a war. The former frames is framed as more preferable than the latter by Kay, and Kay was written into the story as a positive influence, and nothing before or after this match narratively undermines this stance. The writers, through Kay, even make the radical assertion that viewing tankery as combat is an insult to the tanks. But how does that assertion make sense? Weren’t tanks were designed to be weapons of war in the first place?
2. Win or lose (albeit mostly win), at the end of each tankery match, the Ooarai Team befriends all the teams they played against.
Every nationally modeled and stereotyped team that Miho’s school plays against before finals, Saunders Girls High School (American), St. Gloriana Girls High School (British), Anzio Girls High School (Italian), Pravda Girls High School (Soviet/Russian), are all schools that accepted the outcomes of their matches graciously. Ooarai befriends each of the teams, and these teams for Ooarai in its final match against Kuromorimine Girls High School (German). In defeat, Kuromorimine also falls in line and parts with Ooarai on friendly terms. In Girls und Panzer der Film, the aforementioned teams, in addition to Finnish and Japanese stylized ones, offer their tanks and services to aid Ooarai in its hour of need.
In these acts, Ooarai and the other schools transcend not only the competitive pettiness of athletic rivalries. They also transcend historical wartime animosities. Each of the schools Ooarai fights against are stylized after one of the major powers, either Allies and Axis, that fought with and against each other during WWII. Ooarai befriends all the schools, whether Allies or Axis, and all the schools join together on its side to support Ooarai.
3. The Ooarai Team utilizes a motley of tanks from different nations.
The rules of tankery tournaments restrict teams to fielding WWII-era tanks. Beyond that, the teams are free to present-and-play, mix-and-match whatever tanks they possess. They can range from a Italian tankettes to a German supertank, though with the exception of Ooarai (at least until the movie), each team sticks mainly to one country’s line of WWII participating tanks. Ooarai is forced to make do with what tanks they could find lying around, and they end up with a motley of tanks from different nations: American, French, German, Czechoslovak, and Japanese.
Regardless of their country of origin and varied specs, Oorai’s tank otaku, Akari Akiyama, gushes over and treasures every tank in her team’s (and every other team’s) arsenal. If Akari’s universal love for tanks is indicative of anything in the show, it’s that this love can transcend not only school rivalries, but war and borders as well. Transcending war and nationality, and adopting principles of universal sportmanship, moe and military manage to coexist with each other in Girls und Panzer.
Yura is a freshman high schooler. She starts off with low self-esteem and no friends. She’s encouraged to observe her school’s airsoft club, C3-bu by zealous club recruiters. Finding her club mates friendly and the sport intriguing, she eventually joins it, and she participates with her team in an airsoft scrimmage with another team. This experience frightens her so much that she gives up without a fight. The opposing team’s stern and cold leader Rin Haruna scolds her for being weak. Her team’s captain and friend candidate Sonora Kashima is furious at her for being a coward. This combined experience traumatizes her emotionally, and as she mires in an rut trying desperately to figure out what she did wrong, she comes up with an answer. If she is to find a place where she can belong to, she must prove her worth to them. To obtain worth, she must win.
To win, she must learn how to play airsoft well. To win, she has to make sure her team doesn’t hold her back. She hones her skills to a pro-level degree, and as circumstances render Sonora incapacitated and unable to fill the leadership role, she commandeers her team and drills their performances to efficiency and success in subsequent scrimmages, at the cost of exhaustion and discontent among her club mates. Her club mates’ desire for fun conflicts with the objective of winning. And when most of her club mates confront her and chastise for her authoritarian conduct and her obsession with winning, Yura quits C3-bu and joins Rin’s airsoft team.
Her coldness and sternness tied to her principle to win at any cost, Yura believed Rin’s coolness and sternness belied a kindred spirit she should emulate. She believed she was in this whole other league of players who understood her drive to win and would allow her to use the team as a springboard to victory. She believed that she found the place that would accept her. However, Rin becomes concerned by Yura after she wins a match with a suicide tactic. During Yura’s next and last official in Rin’s team, a teammate gets injured. Every nearby player, friend and foe, abandons the game and rushes that injured person’s side. Yura ignores her teammate and presses on with game like it’s war. Rin subsequently dismisses her from her team.
Yura became both something Sonora and Rin were not, despite Yura’s early beliefs to the contrary, and her incessant attempts to copy what she imagined them to be. Yura was not a girl who’s playing a game as an individual for fun like Sonora, or a comrade concerned with the collective enterprise of her team like Rin. She was a person who approached all airsoft and all competition as something zero-sum, and victory as something sacred and inviolable. Yura was no longer having fun like Sonora, and Yura reminded Rin disturbingly of a war that took the life of Sonora and Rin’s active-duty military reservist and beloved airsoft mentor.
For Girls und Panzer, war creates undesirable conflict. For C3-bu, war created agonizing loss. Through one tailored lens, military moe, far from being a stoker of belligerent sentiment, was a vehicle by which the creators of these shows could impart, through a trending narrative premise, anti-militarist and co-existence values to its audience. Political satire does engages in this socializing process all the time, the hosts transmitting their values to their amused viewers while they’re are engaged with and attentive to the content of the hosts’ comedy. Students in school retain classroom knowledge more easily and quickly if they’re already interested in the subjects of said knowledge.
But isn’t it an objectively a gross contradiction to pair moe and military together? Is it possible for shows with cute girls to carry anti-war messages while simultaneously carrying weapons? Weren’t weapons designed to kill, and don’t wars facilitate mass killing? Won’t it just inherently promote the opposite message at worst, and a confusing one at best? Is it not just naturally jarring and self-defeating? Wars do have the intended effect of causing or at least risking death, but when it comes to weapons, I’m reminded of the weapons in thematically rich shows like Rurouni Kenshin and Katanagatari. Rurouni Kenshin ruminates on the question of whether or not it’s possible and reasonable to use swords to protect others without claiming lives. Katanagatari demonstrates an example of a sword being used in a therapeutic, non-aggressive, and non-lethal ways. Is a sword inherently a murder implement, and do modern weapons like tanks and firearms inherently promote militarism and wars?
The United Nations possesses a statue on display called “Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares,” where a man literally beats swords into plowshares. In the context of Rurouni Kenshin and Katanagatari, Girls und Panzer, C3-bu, you literally see the designs of weapons and the actual weapons themselves being used for exclusively benign and constructive goals. Tanks are given a new lease on life as a sports vehicle, and the exterior designs of guns are re-purposed for a non-lethal contact sport. In neither show is there any intention of tankery and airsoft being used a bridge for soldiering.
I return to this previously baffling assertion made in Girls und Panzer that suggested it would be insulting to use tanks for war aims. But weren’t tanks designed for war in the first place? Aren’t tanks inherently weapons of war? This assertion, as I mentioned before, is also radical, because it borrows from the postmodern literary/epistemological concept of the Death of the Author. Take a branch, for instance. Branches grow from trees, and they’re evolutionarily designed by said trees to be sites where they can grow leaves and produce seeds. If a large branch breaks off from a tree and a person later picks it up to use it as a walking stick, or firewood, or as a weapon, is that person using that branch incorrectly? Death of the Author informs us that this person is not. That person just gave a new meaning to this branch’s life, a new lease on this branch’s existence.
Through the lens of the Death of the Author (or perhaps better phrased as Death of the Engineer), neither the tanks nor the designers of these tanks create absolute meaning for themselves or their creations, respectively. People alone possess the power to create meaning for things. If some people decide that tanks are sports vehicles instead of the war engines like they were originally designed to be, then tanks become that for these people. And enough people in Girls und Panzer adhere to this view that tankery has turned into a mainstream non-lethal sport. Similar thing with C3-bu and airsoft. Similar thing with Rurouni Kenshin, Katanagatari, and their respective swords. Moe military in Girls und Panzer and C3-bu doesn’t combine extant jarring concepts of “cuteness” and “war” together in a narrative. It creates a new concept, and one that harmoniously balances both cute and anti-war. The creators of both of these shows are that they birthed this radical innovation. To varying degrees, the creators of both of these shows create a discussion around it.
Management: For more on C3-bu, here is a link to a post written by yours truly.