The Winter 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Girly Air Force
How would you rate episode 1 of
Girly Air Force ?
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How was the first episode?
I had a pretty serious interest in airplanes in my younger years, and a good portion of that old technical trivia is still rattling around somewhere in my brain, so I should theoretically be fired up about a series like Girly Air Force. Silly name aside, it poses the intriguing question of how humanity might respond to the appearance of a technologically superior enemy, and to its credit this premiere attempts to answer that question on both a human level and a technical one. Mix in some high-energy action and you end up with plenty of potential, but I somehow came away from this episode feeling ambivalent about the whole thing. It's not bad, but it hasn't grabbed me to the extent I'd expect it to.
Some of the blame can be pinned on the opening action scene, which doesn't do a great job of establishing the show's nerd credentials. As Kei figures out later in the episode, the Gripen plane he encounters is of Swedish origin, which seems like a bizarre choice for the JASDF's secret prototype. The aerial combat itself also sets off a red flag for me, as all the crazy stunts make Girly Air Force look more like a far-future mecha series than an action show with some grounding in current technology. Again, the show eventually offers an explanation (the Gripen is controlled by an AI that can withstand high-G maneuvers), but first impressions are hard to override, and my overwhelming first impression was that Girly Air Force was long on spectacle and short on research. I realize I'm being a nitpicky military otaku here, but nitpicky military otaku are theoretically this show's target demographic. You need to do your homework if you're going to win that crowd over.
For reasonable folks who don't get hung up on that kind of stuff, this premiere does a few things well while leaving some major questions unanswered. Kei and Minghua's argument outside the military base does a nice job of adding some depth to their “childhood friend” dynamic, and it's interesting to see how the two of them deal with the shock of their experience on the sinking ship. The script also gives us a workable understanding of why humans are having so much trouble fighting the Xi, and the reasoning behind Kei's recruitment has a vague whiff of plausibility to it. The big question here is what exactly Kei's relationship with the jet-girls is going to be, and since Gripen's anima hasn't been particularly talkative so far, that side of the story has the potential to go in any number of good or bad directions.
I'm going to need at least one more week to make up my mind on Girly Air Force. I appreciate its mostly-competent character writing, and the premise has some intriguing bits and pieces. On the other hand, I'm not quite sold on its aviation credentials, and the animation quality is all over the place. A lot will depend on Gripen and company; if the jet-girls turn out to be actual characters instead of bland harem heroines, Girly Air Force might be worth a shot.
Based on its blurb and advertising art, I went into this series with the full expectation that it was going to be one of those stories where there are special planes that can only be piloted by women for some arcane reason or another. Based on the end of this episode, however, that does not seem to be the case. Instead, the women appear to actually be the avatars of the planes, which for whatever reason must manifest in human form in order to direct the plane and (I'm presuming) interact with others. In other words, this looks to be more of an Arpeggio of Blue Steel situation, with Kei being the “lucky” guy who makes a connection with the avatar Gripen and will thus keep the plane stable and strong.
So it looks every bit like the standard hokey premise for having the male protagonist hook up with cute girls, but something akin to this has worked in other series, so why not? The rest of the premise – where alien-looking fighter craft are ravaging humanity, conventional weaponry isn't sufficient, and only these special planes are capable of fighting them off – is also as standard as it gets for anime, though in this case it feels like the writing is putting in at least a little more effort. The first episode takes pains to show that it's not some outrageous power or weird skill that allows the planes to compete; they can simply match the enemy for maneuverability, both in what plane is capable of and what the pilot can endure, which is the main thing that's devastating the conventional forces. That leads to some CG-heavy aerial combat scenes, some of which look very nice (the JAS fighting against the Xi) and some of which are shakier (the Xi against the conventional jets).
In other words, the two main hooks of the series are going to be the aerial fight scenes and the sexy girls, at least one of which is already making a connection with Kei; the opener suggests that the other girls might have their own male partners too, but we'll see. That Kei is apparently a Chinese refugee is also an interesting twist, and I'm curious to see if that will have any effect on the story going forward.
Overall, Girly Air Force is a new entry in a packed genre, but the first episode offers just enough unique hooks and production value that the series might have a chance to distinguish itself.
My initial expectation for Girly Air Force was that it would present itself similarly to something like Strike Witches or Kancolle. It's still a little unbelievable to me that “the earth is attacked by flying geometric shapes and conventional weapons don't work so girls in skimpy outfits must fight them in between slice of life shenanigans” is an actual anime genre, but it certainly is, so I can hopefully be forgiven for assuming a show titled “Girly Air Force” would fall in that vein. But ultimately, Girly Air Force proved it to be a far more traditional scifi adventure template, and also a surprisingly strong premiere in its own right.
Though the promotional feature focused on the actual girls, it seems like Girly Air Force's true protagonist is Kei Narutani. The first portion of this episode features a ship he's riding coming under attack by the mysterious Xi, before a strange, glowing fighter jet appears and fights them off. And when that jet itself crashes into the ocean, Kei leaps to the rescue - only to find the jet's pilot is a young girl, who kisses him before collapsing into unconsciousness.
From there, Kei spends the rest of this episode hunting down that strange plane, until he ultimately learns that its “pilot” is actually an “autonomous piloting device.” But all the way through that journey, I found myself consistently impressed with how much thought Girly Air Force had put into its conflict and characterization. This isn't a world where vague waves of enemies attack a vague semblance of human civilization - this is a world where a clear and specific threat has caused cataclysmic damage to actual countries, and the results are things like civil unrest and a massive wave of immigration from China to Japan. Kei's friend Minghua distracts herself through chores to stop thinking about her parents left behind, while Kei himself dreams of becoming a fighter pilot in order to avenge his mother. Everything that happens here has a cause and a consequence, and there's a genuine sense that the world exists even outside these few characters.
It might seem like a small thing, but it's remarkable how much a little thought in terms of worldbuilding and characterization can make your story feel that much more coherent and sympathetic. While a weaker show would characterize Minghua as obsessed with Kei because “they're childhood friends, and that's what that archetype does,” Girly Air Force offers the much more human “I'm an outsider in Japan, and you're the only person I've got left.” When a military officer explains the threat of the Xi to Kei, he doesn't just handwave the uselessness of traditional military equipment - he directly articulates the specific strengths of the Xi, and how the military has designed a weapon to counter them. And even Kei's ultimate importance to the plot feels reasonably executed - he's theoretically a nobody, but the fact that this temperamental AI responded to him means they have to put up with him. It's rewarding to watch a story where it actually seems like thought has been put into how the pieces put together, as opposed to everything feeling like a contrived justification for whatever face-off the author wants to depict.
In visual terms, Girly Air Force is a pretty middle-of-the-road production. Though there are some bright spots of solid character animation, they're very inconsistent, and the character designs aren't particularly distinctive. I did appreciate the energy of this show's dogfight sequences, which abused the opportunities afforded by CG to indulge in plenty of diving and swooping, keeping energy high while simultaneously demonstrating the fundamental threat of the Xi. On the whole, while this show seems to be setting up a narrative template you've likely seen before, that narrative is executed with enough thoughtfulness that I'm happy to give this one a recommendation. That'll teach me not to judge a cute-girls-flying-fighter-jets book by its cover.
I came very close to giving this a 3 because it feels like a relatively harmless planes-are-girls story in the vein of any of the numerous ships-are-girls stories that came before it. But there are also a few things that definitely give me pause. The title isn't one of them, although it is a bit off-putting; however I suspect it's simply being used without knowledge of any negative connotations. My issue is more with the idea of the fighter jets as strictly female. While it is the norm in many places to refer to vehicles in the feminine (with answers as to why ranging from the Freudian to the folkloric), Girly Air Force feels like it may be gearing up to take it too far. There's an early mention of an “egg rate,” which seems suspicious, and the fact that the Gripen's anima immediately kisses Kei when he attempts to save its pilot, earning him the nickname Prince Charming, doesn't feel like it fits comfortably with Director Yashirodoori's view of the plane as strictly a machine. In fact, he's quite verbally abusive to it, which is fine if it's a machine, but if she's a humanoid person, we've got more of a problem. This may not prove to be a persistent issue with the series, but it's definitely enough to make me cautious about going farther with the show.
That aside, this episode seems pretty basic. It definitely is trying hard for shocking in a few places, such as when Kei and his friend Minghua are nabbed by the JSDF (who amusingly chuck Kei into the van and gently set Minghua down), but the truly grim moment is the opening, when strange aircraft known as Xi are actively attacking civilians escaping Shanghai. While bloodless, it is a intense, especially since at that point we don't know that the Xi are considered an unaffiliated militia rather than the air force of some country or other. After that opening things lapse into much more comfortable and well-trod territory, with Kei and Minghua having a strained childhood friendship that's struggling to change and Kei feeling like he needs to do something after his mother's apparent death at the hands of the Xi. Rumor has it that there are grandparents Kei and Minghua are now living with, but they're conveniently absent from the episode, allowing Kei to head off to a JSDF base in the night in search of the hot pink plane he met at sea.
It isn't wholly surprising the source material is a light novel, but it also doesn't feel bog-standard at this point. That does feel at risk of changing in episode two, with the anima of the pink plane apparently coming home with Kei and Minghua. With two more anima girls in the credits, this is very likely to become a harem story. I couldn't guess yet how typical of the genre it will be, but if that's a genre you enjoy, it may be worth giving this a second episode to see how it irons out its other issues and gets the rest of the plot going.
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