Reviewby Richard J. Thompson, Apr 7th 2010
DVD Season One
In 1939, a great war began in the skies. Enigmatic and brutal, the alien Neuroi have devastated nation upon nation, crushing conventional military forces. To survive, desperate countries band together to field aerial combat units of young girls capable of using magic. Armed with new technology and weapons enhanced by their powers, these flying aces, called “Strike Witches,” form the best defense against the invaders. In 1944, Yoshika Miyafuji is approached to join the 501st Joint Fighter Wing by ace witch Mio Sakamoto. She must learn what it means to be a “Strike Witch” fast as she struggles to bond with her comrades and fight an enemy she neither understands nor hates.
Audiences familiar with Strike Witches from articles and forum posts that often focus on the character designs and their apparent lack of pants will be surprised to learn that this series is more than the sum of its fanservice moments. Airing from mid to late 2008, this Gonzo series became one of the studio's bigger hits, earning a second season and many fans, with two major draws: vibrant art with plenty of fanservice and a surprisingly well-researched alternate history storyline drawing details from WWII. The duality gives Strike Witches a chance to tell a thrilling war story about dynamic characters based on actual flying aces from WWII that divide their time between air battles with the Neuroi and downtime that often involves naked LesYay comedy.
Strike Witches will never be mistaken for a serious war film like The Battle of Britain but it manages to tell an entertaining war story about flying aces that never feels dull. The witches are the most important characters so naturally, they need to be fully-realized and multi-layered, otherwise the series won't really entertain anyone no matter how potentially “scandalous” it might be otherwise. Here the writers and the artists give the viewer different chances to enjoy themselves. On the writing side, each of the main girls is based on a real life ace pilot from WWII. Some of these should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of military history, with Charlotte E. Yeager being the one most likely to stand out to an English-speaking audience. Her personality, back story and the events in the series reference her real life counterpart, Charles E. Yeager, in ways both obvious and subtle. As with any alternate history series, prior knowledge of the time period can really enhance the viewing experience. Luckily, thanks to the show's solid sci-fi action spin on things, there's plenty in here even for the anime fan who isn't inclined toward war history. While many fanservice-heavy series feature static and sometimes quite bland characters, the girls of Strike Witches have some depth to go with their visual appeal. Their character designs skew young for reasons that actually have plot relevance. The “mecha musume” genre may not be familiar to many North American anime fans but it is a rich visual feast. Elements of WWII planes are incorporated to create the “Striker Units” each witch uses to fly and enhance their magic abilities. This, in effect, turns the girls into anthropomorphic combat aircraft. This unique concept is executed with a particularly strong visual flair in Strike Witches, and when it's combined with the animal features (such as cat ears) that appear when the girls use their magic, it's a lot of fun and visually stunning.
Battles are handled with a researched command on WWII aerial combat tactics and the unique requirements of taking on the Neuroi. Strategically, the plan of attack is the same each time: attack and distract the enemy until its core can be located then destroy the core to kill it. Tactically, these fights play out differently each time due to different witches being in combat as well as the Neuroi deploying a variety of units. Some battles are relatively easy but most are narrow victories. Despite having some natural talent, Yoshika Miyafuji's lack of a military background causes several problems in the series, especially in the later episodes. Her weaknesses as a fighter are typically countered by the skill of her fellow witches but she eventually becomes quite capable thanks to her trainer Mio Sakamoto. Different weapons and fighting styles are used by the girls but all are capable of giving the viewer an action packed battle that actually successfully blends its various CGI forms together into a coherent whole that might improve Gonzo's admittedly battered reputation a bit. The Neuroi especially have a sleek, otherworldly quality yet not so much that they seem out of place with the rest of the animation.
Some episodes are more focused on character interaction and fanservice comedy, with episode 7 indulging in both as part of a humorous adaptation of a real life incident involving Luftwaffe ace pilot Erich Hartmann. This episode provides a lot of laughs and several good character moments for Hartmann; while there are times the fanservice feels like a superfluous decoration, this episode has such fun with the characters that it just works. For those who are bothered by the nature of the series' fanservice, this episode is funny enough to make it worthwhile, including a hilarious lecture on discipline and the sheer domino effect that takes place afterward. For anime fans that have enjoyed the series' fanservice already, this episode will make you smile. Therein lies the duality that makes a show like Strike Witches work so well; it uses fanservice to appeal to one group of fans, but the series' high-action alternate history sci-fi nature, great character development and well-executed comedy make it possible for others to enjoy as well. However, there is plenty of the aforementioned fanservice and some nudity, and that might be enough of a turn-off to send some fans running the other way; the show is good enough on its other merits to see past all the pantslessness, though, and patient fans will be rewarded.
The English-language dub is as devoid of accents as the Japanese side, a moderate detriment given the international group of characters, but the excellent cast of VAs chosen for the English dub makes up for it. The English cast is a mix of regulars and surprise choices. Regular Cherami Leigh takes on the role of main character Yoshika Miyafuji with the same enthusiasm typical of her energetic roles. Here, her work is similar to her role in Strain: Strategic Armored Infantry, though more lighthearted. Veteran VAs Kira Vincent-Davis and Stephanie Sheh, rarely heard in Funimation's English dubs, both turn in excellent performances. They're backed by other veterans and also a new face, Jennifer Forrest, who plays the quiet Sanya V. Litvyak. The entire cast does a good job but special mention goes to Trina Nishimura who continues to show off her impressive vocal range, and Anastasia Munoz who is commanding as Mina-Dietlinde Wilcke. As for the Japanese language version, Rie Tanaka provides a lovely rendition of the insert song and WWII reference “Lili Marleen". Fans of Gundam Seed and Rozen Maiden will recognize Tanaka as the voice of Lacus Clyne and Suigintou respectively. Otherwise, the Japanese-language dub is solid; Mie Sonozaki in particular shines as a stoic warrior and hits all the right emotional marks.
This DVD release is rounded out with a short supply of on disc extras as usual. The standard issue clean opening and closing with trailers is included (and expected), but there's also a commentary track for episode 12 with ADR Director Scott Sager and English stars Cherami Leigh and Kate Bristol which is a fun and somewhat informative extra. Also included is a physical extra, a patch of the 501st JOINT FIGHTER WING's insignia, which has cosplay potential.
Strike Witches might not be for everyone, but it does a fine job of presenting a rich alternate history world and a fun, fanservicey war story that doesn't disappoint, provided you have a tolerance for said fanservice. Fortunately, there's much more to this show than just the lack of pants.
Overall : A-
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Numerous references to WWII including individuals, technology, tactics and units, great action scenes.
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