It's about schoolgirl tank battles. It's a lovely, happy show.
It's not particularly deep, mind you. Most of the characterisation is simple (albeit often broad and colourful) and only a few characters have any real complexity. That's because the cast is so huge that the show has to break them up into themed groups. We couldn't have kept track otherwise. There's the volleyball team, the school's Public Morals Committee, the history fangirls (Saemonza, Oryou, Caesar and Erwin Rommel), etc. There are lots of tanks, each crewed by 3-6 girls. I don't think there's a single anonymous girl among our heroines at Ooarai School. They'll end up with eight tanks and 32 named characters, not counting teachers, relatives, opposing team members and other supporting characters.
It's like watching ants. Likeable, cute, mini-skirted ants who never stop joking and encouraging each other. They're working as a team, supporting their friends and of course blowing the living daylights out of each other in tanks.
Yes, the show really is about tanks. Big tank battles. It's incredible. Ep.1 explains that live tank warfare is a favourite hobby of schoolgirls worldwide, encouraged as an afterschool activity and seen as the epitome of femininity. I was laughing my head off. Tomoko was boggling. If you want to be truly ladylike, drive tanks! "Train the part of you that makes you feminine!"
You know judo and aikido? These girls do "tank-do", or rather "sensha-do" as the DVD's subtitles call it. This involves driving around at top speed in your tank, crushing everything under your treads and firing live ammunition at your enemies. No, really. However this whimsical girlish hobby has been made completely safe, apparently, by making the explosive charges too weak to penetrate the tanks' armour plating. No one gets killed, or even hurt. Instead all tanks have an onboard computer that makes a white flag pop up when in real life you'd have been immobilised. (Those little flags popping up are quite cute.) This makes the show harmless and cuddly, but it's hardly plausible. We're seeing real tanks, blasting each other to bits with artillery shells and often getting blown up in the air, somersaulting and/or on fire. The battles are no holds barred and a more realistic show would surely have casualties, especially when you're up against supertanks like the Panzer VIII Maus. That's a real German tank, although fortunately they developed it too late in World War Two for it ever to see action. It's a monster. It's like two tanks put together, with another tank on top.
This show is a deranged but charming mash-up of (a) school sports anime, (b) lovingly animated ultra-violent tank warfare, and (c) cute schoolgirls. It's a mad combination, but it works like a dream. The mismatched elements fit better than you'd imagine, neutralising each other's drawbacks.
I admire sports anime, for instance, with all that camaraderie, intensity, character-building, etc. It's just that it helps to like watching sport. Here, though, the "sport" is schoolgirl tank battles, which are both thrilling and intrinsically funny. You can see girls' heads pop like meerkats up from tank hatches.
Similarly, tank battles are thrilling, scary, ultra-violent, etc. If you like war movies, car chases or any other kind of action movie, this will be right up your alley. What they're not, though, is fun. Crewing a tank in real life is grim, claustrophobic and scary. Tank crews will be hard-bitten soldiers who shout at each other a lot and have a life expectancy of about half an hour. They probably won't be carrying teddy bears or frilly seat covers. This show's heroines, though, will paint their tanks pink, use them as inspiration for flower arranging and sort themselves into "Duck Team" or "Bunny Rabbit Team".
These are the best tank crews ever.
Finally we have the fact that it's a schoolgirl anime. Such shows are often blatantly for a male audience only and you might be thinking that this is another such. Not so. I've seen it on lists of Top Ten anime recommended by women. This might be because it's: (a) charming and fun, (b) subverting a military genre with cuddly girlie heroines, and/or (c) doing that Fullmetal Alchemist feminist thing of portraying it as normal that girls can do every kind of traditionally male activity. These girls repair tanks. They do action hero stuff. They dive into rivers with tubes in their mouths to recover drowned vehicles. Hell, just the Automobile Club's feats of engineering will blow your mind if you think about what they do in the available time.
Here's all the Girls & Panzer anime to date:
1. TV series (2012-2013) - episodes 1-12
2. TV series (recap episodes, 2012) - episodes 5.5 and 10.5. The tank battles are so lavishly animated that the production team blew their deadlines twice and had to fill in with recap episodes. (They're in the DVD extras menu.) Personally, though, I enjoyed those episodes. The visuals are just a clip show, but the voice-overs are analysing the tactics and historical background behind events so far.
3. DVD mini-episodes (mostly about ten minutes long, 2012-2013) - mostly just light-hearted side-stories for the purposes of comedy or fanservice, but the fifth one (Snow War!) is a proper mini-episode set during ep.9. It's about Yukari and Erwin's reconnaissance mission to spy on the Russians.
4. This Is the Real Anzio Battle! (2014 OVA episode, 37 minutes) - set during ep.7 and shows the Italian battle that the show skipped over, but with a comedy epilogue containing spoilers for ep.12.
5. Girls und Panzer der Film (2015, 2 hours), which is a sequel and is followed by another of those ten-minute OVA mini-episodes.
All I've seen so far is 1-4. (There's a DVD set of 1-2 and another, rather cheekily, of just the DVD mini-episodes. I enjoyed them, but the main show gives you more for your money.) The main TV series has almost no fanservice, incidentally. It even avoids panty shots when schoolgirls in miniskirts are standing beside a helicopter taking off. The mini-episodes have quite a lot, alas, but they don't show naughty bits.
Tomoko wasn't a fan. Firstly, she didn't like the Japanese voice acting. Admittedly there are an awful lot of girls and they do tend to sound quite similar, but I thought they were fine. Besides, the cast's so huge that most of the characters only get the odd line here and there, so there wouldn't have been much point filling the cast with veterans. (Japanese voice actors get paid by the episode, not by the line, so hiring all these cast members will already have made the show very expensive.)
Tomoko's other problem was that the girls can be both bubbleheads and implausibly competent. They're in the world championships! (Mind you, this is a championship between girls' high schools that have their own private tank army, so that's a fairly exclusive club.) Personally, though, I liked that. I like the fact that the Ooarai girls screwed up so badly against the Russians in ep.8 and didn't listen to their commander. I think it's a plus. I like their unprofessionalism and the fact that they can get carried away with their own enthusiasm. It's realistic. They're inexperienced newbies who've been pushed into it by their student council.
Despite that, though, their success is plausible thanks to our heroine, Miho Nishizumi. She transferred to Ooarai Academy from a prestigious tank-driving school. She was the losing side's flag tank commander in the finals of last year's national championships. (Unfortunately she starts ep.1 hating sensha-do and wanting nothing to do with tanks, but she's not going to have much choice in the matter.) She's got tanks in her blood. She can read a battlefield at a glance. She's modest and a bit shy, but she's also a bloody brilliant commander, not least in her willingness to discard her plans and improvise if everyone else wants something else (even if she disagrees). She's thoroughly likeable... and I really, really wanted her to win that final battle and prove her stiff-necked mother wrong.
Their enemies are all nice. Each is an affectionate exaggeration of a country known for tank battles, so we have Britain, America, Italy, Russia and of course Germany. The British are beautifully polite and drink ridiculous amounts of tea. The Americans are loud, wealthy and can overwhelm you with numbers. The Russians are led by a pompous tsundere. The Italians (2014 OVA episode only) reminded me in places of Hetalia. However they're all warm-hearted people who'll come up and congratulate you afterwards, praising your skill and wishing you all the best.
They also have the best music. It's just awesome. Every country gets real traditional anthems, marching songs, etc. These always put a grin on my face. Did we really hear the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy for the Russians? The Americans get "The Army Goes Rolling Along", i.e. the official U.S. Army anthem. That was brilliant, but occasionally we also get some enormously entertaining singing. Katyusha and Nonna singing the Soviet-era song "Katyusha" is a fan favorite, as is Erwin and Yukari's snow-marching "Yuki no Shingun". (Jolly, fun delivery. Soul-crushingly bleak lyrics.)
Then there's the military fanboy stuff. Look at those CGI-animated tanks. I knew nothing about tanks before I started watching this, but even I can see how painstakingly they're reproducing the originals. It's a work of military geek art. The show's battle tactics are real. The historical references are real. A bit of googling will yield pages and pages of tank nerds going apeshit about Girls & Panzer and explaining how even things that might look like goofs (e.g. Miho riding "heads up" when it could get her killed) is something that real tank commanders do too, even under fire. It's about visibility. You don't get the same view with a periscope. Then note that: (a) Miho's sister does the same, making it a Nishizumi School thing, and (b) they're both doing so in tanks that had cupolas for their commanders to do that (a Panzer IV and a Tiger I).
It's great. Well worth a look. The concept is ridiculous, obviously, and it's an audience-pleasing show rather than an intellectual one. No one expected it to get anywhere, but somehow it became the sleeper hit of 2012 and a regular in the Top Five shows in Japan.
"Keep calm and FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!!"