It's a bit odd. Gentle, funny and mostly action-free despite being about fighter pilots. But also odd. I liked it quite a lot, although it's keeping reality firmly and deliberately at arm's length. Some of its plot developments and character decisions would have been absurd in a realistic show, but...
Hisone is a D-Pilot, riding a phone-eating dragon that can transform into an fighter jet. She flies it from the inside, which means getting eaten and then later regurgitated, while wearing a protective suit to keep you from being dissolved by its stomach acids. She'll also encounter the love-crushing control freak government minister, the yoghurt-selling senior citizen and the sexist banter of the pilots on Gifu air base. Oh, and she'll have to escort shrine maidens to a flying island to save Japan.
There's quite a lot here. Firstly, it's written by Mari Okada, an award-winning writer/director and one of the best-recognised creators in anime (bar voice actors). She had a difficult childhood, suffered from social anxiety and was constantly told that she wouldn't survive in the real world. Her work has often been personal, but here she's writing about an adult female protagonist with insecurity, no friends and no social skills, trying to make a career in the mostly male world of the Japanese not-a-military-honest. Yeah. Write about what you know. It's got wacky dragons, but underneath that is a story about a woman's workplace struggles. Mind you, it's funny. It's not oppressive or savage (e.g. Aggretsuko). Hisone's a whimsical goof and a goldmine of comedy reactions. She licks dragons. However there's still a fair amount about sexual comments, men judging your appearance to your face and the bitterness of one colleague who's hit a gender-imposed ceiling and pretty much resents everything.
"You've got to be twice as tough as the boys!"
Mind you, that's only part of Hisone's problems. More of them come from being Hisone. Her perception of romance made me howl with laughter, for instance. She filters it out. Her brain can't process it, because she's still overloading at the stage of "A FRIEND!!!".
Then we have the story elements, which include:
(a) It's impossible for real and dangerous in-universe reasons for Hisone both to keep her job and be in love. For what it's worth, it's often assumed in Japan that a woman will quit her job when she gets married. This leads us to...
(b) The Worst Plan in the World. This is from ep.7 onwards, although fortunately it's less prominent than I'd been expecting/fearing. Iboshi must be some kind of genius to devise a plan with such an absolute, 100%, cast-iron guarantee of risible failure. He's mad and it's ridiculous. Which is sort of the point. In fairness, though, it does half-work (although the other half achieves exactly what you'll have been predicting). The only way to make it even semi-sort-of-work would have been to kill people or something. This is Iboshi's solution to the Problem of Love, incidentally.
(c) The D-Pilots will have to escort a flying apocalypse in a ritual that was last carried out 74 years ago. Let's count back. That's... oooh, the end of World War Two. The show's making no attempt to talk about Japan's wartime history, but that's still a heavily loaded reference. (Military idiot males screwing it up for the rest of us, in the context of a show about fighter pilots.)
(d) Oh, and it involves sacrificing a woman. Literally.
If you halved the show's level of absurdity, you'd make it absurd. As it is, though, it's wonderful. It's like magical realism, via plotting.
That said, though, the characters are funny and often weird. Nao is a small, fierce girl who resents and tries to bully Hisone, only to discover that Hisone is too clueless to recognise what she's doing and instead loves her for it. Lilico is a very strange nerd with even worse social skills than Hisone and a very weird voice. "Oh, I don't need to know about you." Mayumi is big and adorable, but is also making significant efforts not to scare people. Then there's Hoshino, whose anger and problems have put her in a state of denial that could easily have got her and her dragon killed.
It's an offbeat show. It also has limited action and no real fight scenes, despite being about fighter pilots. (Good.) Instead it's built on weird thematic depths, character-based comedy and the inherent oddness of the premise. It's a show by Studio BONES, which has a reputation for resisting the digitisation of anime and focusing on hand-drawn animation on paper, and the creators were aware of that. They wanted visuals that belonged in a hand-drawn world, which no one else had done before. They succeeded. We have cute and slightly whale-like dragons that can turn into planes, Transformers-style, and will eat their pilots to be directed from inside their stomachs. Hisone's most important relationship is with her dragon, Masotan, by the way. This is satisfying and feels right.
This isn't a flamboyant, melt-your-brain anime. It's charming, deceptively deep and somewhat eccentric. Simple art. Fun music. It's nice.