1944 – The war against the mysterious alien Neuroi rages on… In an alternative world where magic exists, nations around the world have put their differences aside to fight the Neuroi threat. Spearheading the resistance are young witches gathered from across the globe. Flying through the skies via “Striker Units” (mecha plane-like “leggings” powered by a witch’s magic) and equipped various WWII era weaponry (e.g. MG 42, Type 99 20mm cannon, BAR, and Browning .30 or .50 cal MG), these brave witches represent humanity’s last hope against the technologically advanced Neuroi. Strike Witches Season One opens with an introduction to our main protagonist, Yoshika Miyafuji (from Fuso – analogous to Japan), who is the daughter of the late Dr. Miyafuji, inventor of the Striker Unit. After experiencing the Neuroi threat first hand, Yoshika accepts second-in-command Squadron Leader Mio Sakamoto’s (Fuso) invitation to join the 501st Joint Fighter Wing.
The “Pantsu Issue”
Oh, did I mention that the witches fly around in their pantsu (panties)? Technically not all witches as a few wear tights, but yeah, pantsu (or one-piece swimsuits for Fuso witches) abound in Strike Witches along with some NSFW bath/onsen scenes. Of course Strike Witches isn’t the only fan service laden anime. There are plenty of other anime series (some widely popular), featuring “bikini armor”, absurdly low-cut dresses, disintegrating clothes, naked transformations, ubiquitous onsen/bath scenes, tentacle-like hoses (or just plain ‘ol tentacles >_>), etc., etc. Other shows feature a different type of “fan service” with copious amounts of gore, violence and torture as body parts and blood fly around as if the characters are inside a giant food processor. Some series even combine more than type of “fan service”.
So nothing new here. I’m addressing the “pantsu issue” first and upfront for two reasons. First, those who dislike that sort of thing are advised to skip both Strike Witches TV seasons. The movie has little fan service, but then again I wouldn’t consider it something that works well without the background provided by both TV seasons. Second, in my opinion if you can look beyond the pantsu, Strike Witches Season One is a surprisingly good, entertaining anime.
The Witches of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing (aka the “Strike Witches”)
Led by Wing Commander Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke (Karlsland (analogous to Germany)), the 501st JFW is a specialist unit stationed in Britannia to defend against the Neuroi hive in Gallia (France). Along with Yoshika and Mio, under Minna’s command are Flight Lieutenant Gertrud Barkhorn (Karlsland), Flight Lieutenant Charlotte “Shirley” E. Yeager (United States of Liberion (USA)), Flying Officer Erica Hartmann (Karlsland), Flying Officer Sanya V. Litvyak (Empire of Orussia (Russia)), Flying Officer Perrine H. Clostermann (Gallia), Pilot Officer Eila Ilmatar Juutilainen (Soumus (Finland)), Pilot Officer Francesca Lucchini (Duchy of Romagna (Most of Italy as Italy is divided in the SW World)), and Sergeant Lynette Bishop (Britannia (Great Britain)).
Almost all of the characters in Strike Witches (i.e. not just the witches) have the own real world WWII era counterpart upon which they are based, and the witches of the 501st JSF are no exception. Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke is based on WWII German ace Wolf-Dietrich Wilcke. Gertrud Barkhorn is based on Gerhard Barkhorn, the #2 ranked ace of World War II. Erica Hartmann is based on Erich Hartmann, the #1 ranked ace of WWII. Charlotte Yeager is based on Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to travel faster than the speed of sound. Sanya V. Litvyak is based on Russian ace Lydia V. Litvyak, one of only two female aces in World War II. Eila Ilmatar Juutilainen is based on Finnish ace Eino Ilmari Juutilainen, the #1-ranked non-German flying ace. Perrine H. Clostermann is based on French ace Pierre Clostermann. Mio Sakamoto is based on famous Japanese ace Saburo Sakai. Yoshika Miyafuji is based on Japanese ace Muto Kaneyoshi. Lynette Bishop’s pilot archetype is unclear, but is likely one of the children of famous Canadian WWI ace Billy Bishop (upon which Lynette’s mother, Minnie Bishop, is based).
WWII References Abound
It should come as no surprise that I have a strong interest in WWII. As such, it should also be no surprise that the myriad of WWII references in Strike Witches is indeed a hook for me. From obvious things such as weaponry, WWII plane based Striker Units and WWII ace based characters (see above examples) to more subtle “Easter eggs” such as various WWII era ships and vehicles, WWII aircraft inspired Neuroi designs, events which reference a character’s real life counterpart (e.g. Erica stealing Francesca’s panties in EP 07 which pays tribute to Hartmann once stealing Hitler’s hat. *thanks to Strike Witches Wiki for that info*), and even a couple dog-fighting techniques (e.g. the “Thatch Weave” in EP 08 and Francesca telling Yoshika it would have been a different story at high altitude which is a reference to Yoshika’s A6M Zero based striker since the A6M Zero performed much better at lower altitude).
That’s just a partial list. After all, the entire story is based in a pseudo WWII world. There’s even a breaking the 4th wall line about how if the Neuroi were not around, all the nations would be fighting each other. LOL Strike Witches does a commendable job when it comes to paying attention to the details for the WWII stuff. In that respect, it reminds me a lot of Girls und Panzer. Actually, since Strike Witches debuted first, probably more accurate to say it the other way around. While a full tactical discussion is beyond the scope of this review, overall the show does a pretty good job of inserting tactics on some level. The witches use formations in flight, and there’s usually some sort of plan in place rather than just “go defeat the Neuroi.”
Likeable Characters Matter… a Lot
I’ve often thought that good, likeable characters (protagonists) can make up for a number of deficiencies in a story, but the reverse is not so true. At least for me, it’s just too hard to become immersed in a story (or even continue reading/watching) if I don’t like the protagonist(s). For Strike Witches Season One, that’s not a problem. In fact, I liked all the witches to some degree or another. There’s a surprising amount of personality for each character – whether Sakamoto’s infectious laugh and near obsession with training, Hartmann asking for “just” another 50 minutes of sleep, or Lucchini’s cat-like sleeping tendencies. They all have their own little quirks and fairly unique personalities which add a lot to the entertainment value. So many funny moments are created based upon normal, everyday interactions. One of the best “comedy duos” in my opinion is Barkhorn and Hartmann. I laugh so much watching those two.
Comedy isn’t the only attraction for the characters. Season One spends a lot of time – at least half of the season, on “mini arcs” which focuses on one or more of the various 501st JFW members. That time is well spent as it gives some appreciable depth and development to the various characters involved. For example, Barkhorn is a much better character after knowing about her concern (almost depression) over her little sister. It gives a valid reason for her moments of self-doubt, frustration and why at times she pushes herself too far. Strike Witches isn’t a “grim-dark” type of show, certainly not by today’s standards. Even so, the anime is still able to convey a sense of loss and sacrifice at times. This is no more apparent than in EP 08 which chronicles Minna’s background including the loss of her dearly departed boyfriend.
Overall, one gets a sense of development for the characters as the story progresses due in large part to Yoshika’s influence. Pretty impressive for a one-cour, 12 episode show with a large main cast. Yoshika herself undergoes change as well. She gains some confidence and becomes a bit less idealistic in her pacifist ways as she embraces her father’s slogan of using your power to protect many people. While outside the scope of this review, the change in Yoshika is very apparent when watching the Strike Witches movie. Strike Witches could have just relied upon fan service, but it didn’t.
To Do What One Can
The show’s twin themes of “do what one can” and “use your power to protect many people” do bring to mind the famous Spiderman quote of “with great power comes great responsibility.” So perhaps not the most original plot lines, but certainly positive, palatable ones which can work. Again, those individual “mini-arcs” provide depth to the story. Witches in the 501st JFW have their own personal reason for fighting on top of the whole saving the world from Neuroi thing. The common thread for all is the same – protecting those who can’t protect themselves from the Neuroi. The witches know they are the only ones who can do to job, and go about doing just that without histrionics or teenage angst. Perfect example is Mio’s dedication to fighting the Neuroi even after she loses her magic shield. Despite the danger in doing so, she still can fight and therefore will do so.
The “protection theme” comes across much better to me than it did in another WWII based show, Zipang. Strike Witches has a major advantage in that it is set in a pseudo WWII world where the characters battle against impersonal aliens. As a result, it entirely avoids any suspect revisionist history problems which is actually a smart move in my opinion. When Yoshika claims she wants to protect as many people as she can, she means just that – whether Fuso, Britannian, etc. Arguably Yoshika’s character may come across as unrealistically simplistic in her universal desire to protect all, but I’ll easily take that over WTF revisionist history themes of protection.
A Tale of Two Shows
While I’ve been complementary so far, Strike Witches Season One does have its flaws. One issue I have is with the ending itself. In contrast to strong start which continued for the first nine episodes, starting in the EP 10 things start to unravel a bit. There’s a definite sense of “OK, we need to wrap things quickly with only three episodes left”. I have mixed feeling about the humanoid Neuroi. It was certainly an unexpected development, but its desire to peacefully parley was a bit sudden. Maybe the emergence of the “Warlock” had something to do with that; one of those, the enemy of my enemy is my friend deals. Still, EP 06 foreshadowing notwithstanding, that plot line could have used more time to develop.
Where I thought things noticeably went downhill was at the end of EP 10 along with episodes 11 & 12 with the “Warlock” and betrayal by Trevor Maloney. To the show’s credit, some of that (i.e. Maloney being an ass) was foreshadowed way back in EP 03 and again in EP 09, but the inside betrayal plot still came across more as a quick way to wrap up the season rather than a naturally progressing event. The Warlock itself along with it merging with Akagi (and evidently the Gallia hive core) exacerbated the problem. How the hell were they even able to build something so sophisticated like the Warlock in the first place? I don’t know if adding one more episode would have allowed for a significantly better finish, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. As it was, I thought the ending was sub-par compared to the rest of the show.
While the sub-par ending is probably the biggest issue I have with the first season, it’s not the only one. There are times when Strike Witches can be a bit inconsistent. Most of this occurs early in the series with Yoshika. For someone who’s never handled a firearm, she’s awfully good her first time out… with a 20mm machine cannon. Same goes for her flying. She’s pretty darn good for her first time in a Striker Unit as she nimbly dodges Neuroi energy beams in EP 02. Early in EP 01, we see the 501st JFW (before Yoshika joins) in action against a Neuroi. During that battle, Lynne seems to perform just fine – no trouble flying and shooting. Yet much EP 03 is based upon her NOT being able to perform well in battle. She even tells Yoshika that she has trouble flying and shooting simultaneously.
Finally, there is the issue of the fan service. In general it’s not a problem for me. In fact, at times it even provides a basis for some good humor. However, I do think it could be toned down a little, especially for the younger witches (Lucchini in particular). If you want to keep the fan service, fine, but at least make the younger witches older. Heck you could add a few years to everyone’s age it wouldn’t hurt the story. Just make it age 25 *gasp* instead of 20 when witches begin to lose their shields or whatnot. Seriously Japan, real life doesn’t follow gymnastics where everyone peaks under age 20.
Odds and Ends
I’d be remiss if I didn’t cover two final topics. First, the music – I’ve listened to the OST and it’s simply superb, particularly the background music. The OP, Strike Witches ~Watashi ni dekiru koto~ (Strike Witches ~To Do What I Can~), fits seamlessly with both the show’s main theme in terms of lyrics and the show’s relatively light-hearted atmosphere with its upbeat melody. I really liked how the ED, Bookmark A Head, was sung by the seiyuu for the main characters for that particular episode (e.g. in EP 04, it’s sung by Misato Fukuen (Miyafuji) & Mie Sonozaki (Barkhorn)). The entire cast singing Bookmark A Head for the last episode was the perfect way to end the season, and Lili Marleen sung by Rei Tanaka was beautifully done. Then there is the background music which is some of the best I’ve heard in anime.
Sadly, the show’s visual quality doesn’t come close to the soundtrack’s. It’s not bad, but it’s not good let alone great, even considering when the show originally aired. It’s very easy to tell that Strike Witches Season One was not made with high-definition in mind – something made painfully clear if you compare Season One with Season Two directly. It will never happen, but this is one more show that I’d like to see a “visual remastering” done with the first season brought up to the second season or even movie’s standards.
Putting It All Together
Finally, while I’ve written about individual aspects of the show, I want to end with the sum total. Strike Witches Season One does a fine job maintaining the proper, relatively light-hearted tone. It’s really not a true comedy show, but I found it quite funny – more so than even Girls und Panzer. Like Girls und Panzer, it does a fine job integrating and balancing comedy with action and more serious moments. There’s nothing jarring in that regard. Pacing for the first nine episodes was good, though again I thought it was kind of rushed towards the end.
Strike Witches Season One is not one of the finest anime ever produced. But that’s fine – anime is entertainment after all, and in that regard Strike Witches succeeds. A simple test for me is whether I want to watch a show more than once, and Strike Witches Season One easily passes that test. It’s a fun, entertaining show with endearing characters and at times surprising depth. I’m glad that the first season was not the last.
[Screen Caps – One Row For Each Episode]