After the emptiness of Season 2, I'd been expecting another lazy rehash of the usual Strike Witches elements. It's not. It's surprisingly good. This film has a structure and a point, making it comfortably the easiest recommendation of any Strike Witches anime I've seen so far.
(It also has no nudity and very few panty shots. This time, they're going for a family audience.)
Once again, our heroines have disbanded. This has never made sense to me. In the alien invasion equivalent of World War Two, you've got a top military unit that can save entire countries. Redeploy them! Send them to another country with Neuroi! But no, that's not how the very very stupid military high-ups operate in the universe of this series. The 501st Joint Fighter Wing always breaks up at the end of every series, then has to reform at the start of the next one.
Anyway, Miyafuji's back in Japan and happily living a magic-free life. She lost her powers at the end of Season 2 and she's not bothered at all. She's going to be a doctor. She's also going to befriend bears and fall over waterfalls while trying to save dogs. (She's not very intelligent.)
Then, one day, a soldier girl called Hattori arrives. Hattori sees Miyafuji as a war hero and an idol for all soldiers. Hattori comes from a military family and believes loudly that hierarchy is everything, orders are absolute and that a soldier should be soldier-like. She also has no combat experience, whereas Miyafuji is a veteran... and a gentle good-hearted scatterbrain whose strengths absolutely do not include military discipline or paying much attention to orders.
That's pretty much the film's first hour. Neuroi hardly appear. The film shows a surprising lack of interest in rebooting everything so that the 501st can be fighting together again, even though we all know that'll surely happen eventually. Hattori and Miyafuji travel to Europe. I was waiting for the film to cheat and give Miyafuji back her magic powers, but I kept waiting. She potters along in her usual manner, doing what she can and being yelled at for being too helpful by Hattori. An officer shouldn't cook! An officer shouldn't help clean the deck! "What am I allowed to do?" asks Miyafuji obediently, but of course she'll stop being obedient at the next crisis (i.e. soon).
Hattori doesn't even back down when Mayafuji's disobedience saves a life. Orders are orders. Miyafuji put the whole ship at risk to save one person.
I liked all this. It's an interesting relationship. I'm not sure if Hattori ever actually apologises, strictly speaking, and ultimately I was a bit disappointed by how easily the film forgives her earlier attitude. She's got a big mouth for a fourteen-year-old with no experience, talking to a famous veteran. She gets off lightly, I think. (I also dislike her saying nothing about her inability to cook when ordered to assist in cooking. Result: failure.) That said, she has some significant conversations, she looks pretty depressed at times as she reflects in a typical bottled-up fashion and she does conduct herself admirably in the final battle.
I'm also grateful for the film not just being action set-pieces for fan-favourite characters. (Girls und Panzer der Film, I'm looking at you.) This is the story of Hattori and Miyafuji. The other girls show up eventually, of course, as do the Neuroi... but only when appropriate and they're in different countries during that first hour. Sakamoto doesn't appear until right at the end. I like Sakamoto, but I'm pleased that the filmmakers resisted the temptation to shoehorn her in earlier (and ditto for others).
Early on, there's a distracting nugget of worldbuilding. The Neuroi arrived in 1939... so does that mean Japan's 1930s warmongering still happened, as per regular history? Ewww. (Italy gets off lightly too, if we're playing the game of Real World Analogies, but Italy's got nothing on Japan.) That said, though, the Neuroi is blatantly by now a fantasy metaphor for the Nazis. Mankind's now got them confined to Germany (ahem, Karlsland) and the German witches talk about taking back their homeland.
It's pretty good. It's still an anime about schoolgirls in their knickers vs. alien invaders, but it's a much more solid film than I'd been expecting. I like the character work and I like the action finale. Everyone shows up, but the film doesn't forget that Miyafuji's the main heroine. Even with no magic powers, she'll still fight Neuroi. With only a jeep and a machine gun she can barely lift, let alone wield. Awesome.