Reviewby Nick Creamer, Nov 23rd 2016
Girls und Panzer der Film
Having triumphed against her sister in the national championship, Miho and her friends allegedly ensured the future of Oarai High School. Unfortunately, it turns out the promise they worked all season to fulfill was totally non-binding, and so now it's looking like curtains for Oarai once again. In order to save their school a second time, Miho will have to prove the merits of Oarai's team on an even greater stage, facing off against a university team. The odds are stacked against them, but Miho is ready for a challenge.
Tsutomu Mizushima is not an arthouse director. In contrast with those directors who generally leave a clear aesthetic signature on their productions, or who impart all their works with some socially relevant commentary, Mizushima's work is defined by polish, momentum, and an irrepressible sense of fun. His direction is snappy, and love of both anime and goofy genre films clear in all of his works. Mizushima is an entertainer above all else, and his Girls und Panzer der Film is absolutely designed to entertain.
The film's absolute focus on its core goals is actually one of its more unusual qualities. While many films embrace the widely accepted wisdom that things like “narrative” and “character development” are useful tools for creating compelling drama, the Girls und Panzer movie largely dispenses with all of that. The film opens in the midst of an expedition match, pairing the original season's faux-British and faux-Russian teams off against the heroes of the first season and some new allies. This expedition match doesn't really serve any narrative purpose, and in fact, it's made clear very early on that there are no stakes here beyond the immediate rush of the battle. And yet, that match carries on for a good twenty minutes, as Miho attempts to corral useless allies and spars with old foes all across a golf course and seaside village.
As soon as that match concludes, Girls und Panzer der Film's actual conflict is introduced: the school administration were just kidding about saving Oarai High School last time, and so now Miho's group are going to have to fight an even tougher team to save their school. Also all their friends will be fighting with them. Thirty tanks each. There's an amusement park and a mountain on the course. Go shoot each other.
That's basically it, as far as narrative goes. Girls und Panzer der Film wraps up all of its actual plot into a concise twenty minute interlude, mixing that with some goofy comedy courtesy of Miho's friends and a little more character work for the original series' underserved squads (the six freshmen, the hall monitors). There's also some light seeding of a barely-there connection between Miho and the antagonists' team captain courtesy of their shared love of a very strange bear mascot, and the introduction of a whimsical Finnish team who eventually literally float away on a tank-raft. After that it's off to the races, for an hour-long fight that defies all traditional rules of narrative structure in favor of having an incredibly good time.
Of course, if any franchise could pull off a film that discards narrative entirely in deference to more action scenes, Girls und Panzer is the one. The original series stands as one of the most viscerally entertaining and can't-put-downable shows of the last few years, marrying a silly premise and lighthearted tone to some of the most intelligently composed sports battles out there. While many shows rely on character work and narrative consequence to impart their battles with a sense of impact, Girls und Panzer soars by making sure the audience understands exactly how impactful each action is. And with thirty tanks facing off against thirty more tanks, Girls und Panzer der Film's second half is one of the most impressive and entertaining battle scenes you could imagine.
Part of Girls und Panzer der Film's strength comes down to its effectively understated character work. Girls und Panzer's characters aren't rich human beings, but they're all distinctive and endearing, something that's very important for a film that stars around thirty relevant protagonists. You don't feel invested in individual members of the historical squad or freshman team, but it's easy to feel invested in them as a unit - whether through goofy shtick or minimalist individual arcs, all of Girls und Panzer der Film's stars earn their moments in the sun. The film is able to put all of the goodwill engendered by the series proper to work, banking on our existing investment in characters like Anchovy and Katyusha to forego basically any purely character-focused scenes here. Essentially the only human conflict that's given any substance here is the repairing of the relationship between Miho and her sister, which earns an adorable flashback in that one pre-battle preamble.
But far more of Girls und Panzer's appeal comes down to its understanding of how to make fights exciting for their own sake. Few shows regularly manage consistently visceral and self-justifying fights, and for good reason. In a medium where fluid fight choreography is the exception rather than the rule, it's hard to convey the pace and stakes of battles without relying on voiceover (“she's going for his weakness!”) or preexisting emotional investment. Girls und Panzer is the rare exception to this issue; though there are moments within this sixty-tank scuffle that are hard to parse, it's always clear who has the upper hand, what a given feint is attempting to accomplish, or how bad a situation is for one or the other side. You can sense shifting dynamics, suspense, and desperation purely in the physical mechanics of how the film's fights play out. By using the film's far-too-many characters as a kind of tonal chorus and always focusing on the salient strategic variables, Girls und Panzer der Film constructs a “narrative of battle,” where all of the rising tension, plot twists, and dramatic peaks of a conventional narrative are here expressed entirely through fighting.
It also helps that the film looks terrific. The film's traditional animation is actually very fluid, and certainly far above the level of a television production. Though the show's art design has always been a little bland, its characters are expressive, and plenty of jokes and character moments are sold largely through physical gestures and body language.
That said, it's the film's use of CG animation that feels truly praiseworthy. Girls und Panzer's characters spend most of their time cooped up in metal boxes, and so it's greatly to the film's credit that the character acting of the tanks is somehow very strong. The tanks' CG models don't squash and stretch or endear themselves through other classic animation principles, but their movements are lively and expressive, feeling surprisingly reflective of the personalities of their crews.
Girls und Panzer's heavy reliance on CG also allows it to operate entirely outside the limitations of traditional animation. Traditional animation is a tricky art form - though it can convey the movements of characters on a still frame with relative ease, it is almost impossible to “move the camera” in animation. Moving the camera, particularly either swinging it on an angle or moving it towards or away from the frame, implies countless redraws, as the perspective of all characters and objects in frame change relative to the camera's positioning. This doesn't mean these shifts aren't done, but they're techniques to be used sparingly, and are often the crowning animation achievements of a given work.
With Girls und Panzer's canvas of CG tanks on a CG set, none of those limitations apply. Girls und Panzer der Film constructs a golf course, town, forest, mountain, and expansive amusement park just so it can blow them to pieces, its camera's eye spinning wildly all along the way. The show consistently adopts the perspective of one of the actual tanks, creating a sense of visceral engagement and enhancing the solidity of the terrain. Other shots spin wildly around uneven embankments, marrying the film's CG terrain to splashes of traditional animation in order to convey frantic momentum. Girls und Panzer der Film doesn't just rely on CG because it has to, it's a consistent, gleeful demonstration of the kind of setpieces only CG can create.
And those setpieces sure are something. Girls und Panzer's last hour feels like one of the imaginative, directionless games you might play as a child, where all of your toys are heroes and villains fighting across the treacherous expanse of your bedroom. Or it's the most satisfying competitive videogame match you've played, or a nail-biting soccer match from your glory days. Supported by its steady marriage of engaging characters, smartly grounded conflict, and dynamite direction, Girls und Panzer der Film answers questions like “what if a tank was chasing another tank on top of a roller coaster,” or “what if one tiny tank used two other tanks as ramps to fight a super big tank.” The film is a celebration of goofy action and sports drama untethered from the mundane and sensical, its sturdy dramatic foundations letting its overt story ideas run wild and free.
Girls und Panzer der Film's dub is a generally solid effort, with the cast's many distinctive voices making it easy to parse conversations even as half a dozen characters are shouting over tanks exploding on-screen. I found Molly Searcy's Mako affectation to be a little stiff, but the other leads are well-cast, and some characters even feel a bit more fully realized in dub (like the student council's Yuzu Koyama, who comes across like much less of a one-note airhead here). The film's music is just as strong as its direction, offering a lively and eclectic mix of marshal anthems, orchestral songs, and even a well-placed polka jig. In fact, “tanks flying in circles shooting at each other while polka plays in the background” might sum up Girls und Panzer der Film better than any of my words could hope to. The film barely has a plot, is full of one-note characters, and has basically nothing to say except “tanks are sweet and fights are fun.” I found its argument in favor of that point utterly convincing.
Overall (dub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Offers consistent tank-based thrills from start to finish, uses its reliance on CG animation to construct marvelously inventive fight scenes
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