It's right-wing militarist wank, based on an internet novel series that the publisher asked the author (Takumi Yanai) to tone down for regular print publication. The army is great! Left-wingers are idiots and parasites who just want to persecute the military! Japan is the greatest country in the world, while America, China and Russia are greedy, selfish and evil!
...or at least that's the show's reputation. However so far the potentially offensive stuff is actually (a) tame, and (b) hilariously neutered by the author's idiocy. Furthermore the show's also quite an interesting study of the military carrying out a culturally sensitive peacekeeping operation, which is prominent, intelligent and well explored. Yanai himself has a military background. He knows what he's writing about. Despite the author's politics, the result is a lively, entertaining story with a unique slant on a familiar genre. I'd have happily marathoned it, watching all twelve episodes back-to-back.
Firstly, the premise. There's a magical gate. On one side is Japan, while on the other side is a fantasy world with elves, dragons and orcs. One day a fantasy army of 60,000 comes through and invades Ginza, Tokyo, although the show doesn't even come close to conveying the full scale of this. Animating that would have been expensive.
Anyway, the guys with swords get turned to marmalade by Japan's "not-army", aka. the JSDF (Japanese Self-Defence Force). The 1945 post-war constitution banned Japan from having an army. Instead they have a JSDF, i.e. an army that isn't allowed to attack anyone. They can only defend. Until 2015, in fact, they weren't even allowed to defend allies who were under attack. There used to be Japanese JSDF soldiers doing UN peacekeeper duty in situations where they couldn't use their guns. Takumi Yanai knows all this. He can't not. However Japan's government announces in ep.1 of this anime that everything beyond the gate is Japanese territory and that the JSDF is going through to secure it. No one ever says so, but this is basically the same as the British Empire treating the world as its personal property for centuries, or Japan in the 1930s invading Manchuria and Shanghai as a prelude to World War Two.
This makes it hard to take the show's politics seriously, which is a blessing. America is evil! Well, um, actually their goals are no different from Japan's in ep.1. China and Russia are evil! Well, yes. Anyway, Takumi Yanai reserves far more ire for Japanese parliamentarians who keep criticising the military for doing their jobs. Even the Japanese Prime Minister betrays his men to the enemy in ep.9 after being threatened with evidence of his corruption and bribery.
The show's about Japanese JSDF soldiers, but they're the same as soldiers everywhere. They're not flag-waving fanatics. They're just boots on the ground. Our 33-year-old hero, Youji Itami, isn't even particularly interested in his job, seeing himself as first and foremost an otaku. He likes manga. He has passionate conversations with a fellow nerd about girls with cat ears. He's not a slacker as such, but his priorities are to stay out of trouble, avoid drawing attention and start no more wars. He's too laid-back even to take a romantic interest in fantasy girls, e.g. elves, wizards, sadistic battle-crazed demigods in loligoth dresses. He's a soldier in enemy territory, with dragons. He's got bigger things to worry about.
Thus most of the show doesn't feel like "Japan, rah rah YAY" but simply as a modern army doing its job in highly unusual circumstances. The locals send 60,000 more soldiers to kill them in ep.2, who get splattered even harder than their chums did in ep.1. This isn't Tokyo any more, so there's no reason not to use air strikes and machine guns. It's a total massacre. "It's not war!" protests an indignant Macho Sword-Wielding Twat, who actually has a point. The show isn't even pretending that there's any challenge in pitting helicopter gunships against bandits with swords. It's a walkover. This is a culture shock for the local warriors. "This is a power that denies pride, honour and everything else. Is the goddess mocking us?" This show's a study of soldiers both modern and barbarian. The helicopter gunships even get played for self-aware comedy as the soldiers put on a Wagner CD in reference to Apocalypse Now.
Anyway, things calm down a bit. The JSDF set up trading posts, do deals with princesses and agree to sign treaties. They don't actually want to shoot people. Bulldozers and construction are just as important as being able to kill dragons. The locals start studying the JSDF's culture, language and capabilities. (Yes, language is an issue. The anime doesn't handwave that either.)
I particularly liked the show's realistically mundane insights into soldiering. Itami has to clean his gun, get the mud off his jeep and do paperwork. Why do the air force think it's a dream come true over here? Answer: they don't need to share their air space with civilian or U.S. planes.
The cast are fine. None of them are genre-transcendingly brilliant, but they're fine. Rory Mercury is a fan favourite, being a death god's 961-year-old apostle who looks about fourteen and loves nothing better than killing lots of people with a scythe the weight of a small car. (If you put down your sword, though, she's a massive tease but amiable enough.) Lelei is the clever one. I liked Lelei best, personally. Yao Haa is a lot of fun later in the season, being proud, determined and clueless. Pina Co Lada (...no, really) and her knights are particularly good, though, since they're the ones technically at war with the JSDF and it doesn't take them long to work out how long their empire would last against a tank division. What blows their minds even more, though, is boys' love manga.
The genre balance is reasonable, too. The JSDF are mostly male, but not entirely. Third Recon Team has two female members. Almost all significant fantasy world characters are female, though. The show's not without fanservice, but it's fairly insignificant and apparently much tamer than the manga. The latter's far bloodier too, although even in the anime it's made abundantly clear that if the army beat you in a fight, you're going to get more than tweety birds flying around your head.
Two female characters from the fantasy world are willing to use their bodies as negotiation chips, though. One of them's even been trained in it. This is... um. It would have jarred less if the anime (not manga) hadn't generally been fun and light, although in fairness it's not unrealistic to be reminded that this fantasy world will have that kind of darker side too.
Frivolous observation: a foreign commando unit in ep.9 appears to have codewords based on Fate/stay night.
I liked it. It's a lot of fun. The contrast is what makes it entertaining, with a completely modern camouflage-jacketed army working out how to handle orcs and elves. The author's hardly hiding his political opinions, but they're far less of a problem than I'd been led to expect. Americans (or Chinese or Russians) might feel differently, but I'd barely call this American-bashing compared with certain other anime. The U.S. President isn't lovely, but at least he's not peeing his pants or anything. Hello, Read or Die. There's still plenty of room for internet meltdowns over the show's politics, but personally I'm looking forward happily to Season 2.