Anime, and Japan in general, is famous for ultra-specialized tastes and strange sub-sub-sub-genres. Sometimes this reputation is exaggerated (frankly, the US internet can give Japan a run for its money) but sometimes …
So today we have Strike Witches and Kantai Collection, which are both entries in the genre “cute girls wearing WWII military hardware as costumes fight alien invaders”. I am not sure what’s more shocking: that this is a genre, or that these two shows are actually pretty good.
A unifying feature of these shows is that the “plot” is more of a loose excuse to create the desired setting, which in this case was based on a set of slightly nonsensical “mecha girl” pinup pictures. So Strike Witches takes place in 1944, where bizarre aliens called Neuroi have taken over most of Europe. Conventional military forces are (as always) completely useless against them, and the only thing that works are Strike Witches — young girls with magical powers (that cause them to sprout animal ears), wielding heavy weaponry and flying by means of leg-enclosing … propeller … things that are vaguely themed after WWII aircraft. All of the characters are female versions of famous WWII aces, from all the various sides: Perrine H. Clostermann, Erica Hartmann, Eila Ilmatar Juutilainen, Charlotte E. Yeager, and so on.
The actual story of Strike Witches never rises above the standard-issue — they fight the aliens, new, more threatening aliens appear, they figure out how to beat them, etc. Someone has self-doubt, and must learn to believe in themselves, and two people who were formerly rivals must learn teamwork to succeed on a crucial mission. In a way, this actually helps, because the real reason to watch the show is the cute character designs and the sheer WTFness of the setting; the paint-by-numbers plot does its business and gets out of the way.
The setting’s strangeness extends beyond the basic setup in curious ways. It takes place on an alternate Earth, with a few subtle changes (countries have different names) and one important distinction: girls don’t wear pants. This is literally never mentioned or addressed in the show, but we can see from background shots of civilian life that women between the ages of 12 and maybe 20 simply don’t wear pants, skirts, or other lower-body covering. It’s such blatant cheesecake it’s sort of breathtaking — rather than bothering with locker-room antics, or upskirt camera angles, or any of the usual ecchi anime techniques, they just do away with subtlety all together.
The question of “Should I watch Strike Witches?” is kind of a strange one. It is what it is: a light action show with cute characters, a bizarre concept, and no pants. If the logline “Gender-flipped, animal-eared WWII aces in their underwear use plane-based mech units and tommyguns to fight aliens” makes you say, “Sign me up for that!” or “That is so strange I want to see it”, then this is your show. If not, then this may not be the show for you, since it delivers exactly what it says on the tin.
The world of Kantai Collection is, if anything, stranger than that of Strike Witches. “Kantai” means “fleet”, and the show (“KanColle” for short) is based on a FTP browser game. In the game, the player collects a team of WWII fighting ships, mostly Imperial Japanese Navy ships, each of which is portrayed as a cute girl with a personality theoretically based on the wartime performance on the vessel in question. (E.G. a ship notorious for using a lot of supplies is a big eater, etc) The girls wear a kind of weapon harness, based loosely on the armament of the ship, which they use to fight the alien Abyssals who have taken over the world’s oceans. (Whose ships are mostly dead-eyed alien girls.)
Given the task to make this game into an anime with some kind of story and world design, they … did their best. According to the show, the girls have the reincarnated souls of warships (?!), and they get recruited to fight for humanity in the service of an Admiral whose face and voice we never see or hear. (Because he’s the player from the game.) They’re roughly divided up by ship class, so the destroyers are all middle-school age girls, while the battleships are older. The carriers are archers, whose arrows magically turn into planes piloted by tiny chibis whose role is never fully explained.
Once you just kind of go with the flow as far as the concept is concerned, the show works surprisingly well. We followed Fubuki, a Special Class Destroyer who joins the fleet late but quickly becomes key to ongoing operations. While the plot is again pretty standard — she has trouble fitting in, she works hard and steps up to a leadership role, etc — it’s better executed than Strike Witches, and the action scenes, perhaps because of better CG, are nicely done. There’s a lot less obvious cheesecake and a lot more good character interaction, including a few genuinely touching moments. Towards the end of the series, things get a little strange — the battle plan roughly follows historical events, first at the Battle of the Coral Sea and then the Battle of Midway, and ominous premonitions imply that some Fate is forcing a repetition. This is left sort of hanging at the end, but a second season is on the way.
KanColle also has a lot of genuinely fun, if somewhat broadly drawn, characters, though they are again 100% moe girls.. This one is much more of a solid recommendation for me; a big source of the attraction is still the WTF factor of the bizarre setting, but given that it’s well-executed and entertaining. (Though it feels a little strange from a historical point of view — it’d be hard to imagine a similarly irreverent take on WWII going over well in the US, and we won the war!) I’m curious to see what they’ll do in the second season.
Speaking of seasons, the new one is starting up! Hopefully by next time I’ll have some fun new shows to write about.