Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
A normal day in Ginza is disrupted when a portal to another world opens in the middle of the city. Warriors and monsters emerge from the gate, causing mass panic and numerous casualties. JSDF soldier Itami happens to be there, and thanks to his training, he is able to help the situation, escorting civilians to safety. When the crisis is over, he is one of a group of soldiers sent to explore the lands on the other side of the gate, a fantasy world that's right up the otaku soldier's alley. But real life is not the same as nerd fantasies, and the political scene in the Empire is very serious.
It would be easy to brush GATE off as a version of Outbreak Company with a military twist – both shows are based on light novels and feature otaku leads whose “special” interests make them ideal candidates for Japanese expeditions to fantasy lands. But where Outbreak Company is fanservice-heavy and a bit fluffy, GATE takes a more serious approach, with the protagonist being a soldier in the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) and a very real threat coming from the fantasy land he's sent to. The first episode bears this out – a regular day in Ginza turns deadly when a portal to another world opens and knights and monsters come pouring forth. Yoji Itami, a reservist, is in the area at a doujinshi event, and he quickly puts his training into action, shepherding civilians to safety and organizing the police force until the army arrives. Not only does this make him a hero, it also earns him a promotion to First Lieutenant and command of a task force sent to explore the so-called “Special Region.” While there is an element of happy excitement at getting to see a real-life fantasy land where dragons, at least, clearly exist, there's also a darker political motive for Itami and his group – they need to discover who their attackers are and what drove them through the GATE in the first place.
It's this political element that forms a large part of what makes GATE an interesting story. Essentially the Japanese government (and most other world governments; America, China, and Russia are specifically mentioned) sees the Special Region as a colonizable property – the invading forces indicate that it is still in the Medieval era in terms of technology, and the world is fairly certain that science will trump fantasy when it comes to guns versus dragons. Therefore this is new, unclaimed (except for those pesky natives) territory that could benefit the nations of Earth who are fortunate enough to stake a claim there – and Japan is uniquely posed to be at the front of the claimants. But what the modern world, like most would-be conquerors, forgets is that the existing people of the Special Region already have a political system in place. While the JSDF may be able to out-gun them, a conquered people is rarely a happy people, which means that other methods will have to be employed. Interestingly enough, by the end of these twelve episodes the JSDF has embarked on a form of Coca-colonization – buying the natives' trust and positivity by making modern Japanese goods available to them.
Luckily GATE isn't entirely a social studies lesson in anime form. Itami is a Captain Tyler sort of figure, better at his job than anyone really expects him to be, and his actions in episode one carry over into the rest of the show – when a village is destroyed by a fire dragon, Itami takes the survivors (with a focus on the orphaned children) back to the army base, unwilling to leave them to fend for themselves. He gets surprisingly little grief for this, which is one of the less believable aspects of the story; he may be a national hero and all, but he seems to get away with a bit more than he ought to in terms of how he deals with the populace, even, at one point, bringing a heavily armed guest into the Diet when the danger she poses is fairly well known among the other characters. On the other hand, it's very nice to have an older protagonist (Itami is thirty-three and divorced), as it cuts down on some of the usual shenanigans that often occur when the male lead has several close female associates. Of those women, only one, Kuribayashi, can be said to be really irritating, and that's less due to her personality and more to her protestations of disbelief every single time anything impressive about Itami is revealed. Granted, this could be due in large part to the way Maya Uchida delivers her lines, but it still grates. Lelei, a mage who serves as translator since she picks up Japanese very quickly, feels like the most stereotypical character, but the remaining three primary cast members are fairly interesting: the orphaned elf Tuka, priestess Rory, and princess with the unfortunate name of Pina co Lada. Pina is very invested in negotiating a lasting treaty with the JSDF, as she fears what they could do to her nation's forces in a battle, and this trait drives her personality, making her a good counterpart to the more laid back Itami.
As might be expected for a story that revolves around a military force, GATE is not shy about showing carnage. While it isn't terribly detailed, there is still a lot of blood and brutality depicted, with Rory, the priestess of a death god, taking the spotlight in the most disturbing scene in episode ten, when she massacres several groups of international special forces. Likewise some viewers may find it upsetting that in two separate instances a woman is told to barter her body for what her people want, using sex as a commodity. On the less disturbing side, though no less graphic, is the JSDF's fight with a fire dragon, a particularly vicious species that requires an impressive amount of modern firepower to bring down, showing that despite its Medieval society, this fantasy land is no dream.
Luckily the show knows how to lighten the mood as well, and there are fun moments throughout the series as well. Some work better than others, with the shopping trip in Tokyo being a low point and Pina's quick conversion to fujoshi one of the best, but overall there's a decent balance of moods as the show goes on. The Tokyo episodes towards the end are some of the weakest; we've certainly seen plenty of magical/alien beings in the city before in other shows, and this one doesn't do much to distinguish itself from them. On the other hand, Rory's testimony before a Diet member hell bent on making the military look bad is pretty wonderful.
GATE could be seen as glorifying Japan's military, and that may prove a problem for some viewers. But it can also be seen as a story of cultures colliding and trying to get along (or to poke each other into not getting along), or just as a story about an otaku finding out that bunny warriors exist but so do dangerous dragons. It isn't always spectacularly animated and there are quite a few off-model faces as the series goes on, but GATE is still a good watch, despite some story and art worries and an ending that makes “inconclusive” feel like an inadequate word. If nothing else, it could be a great way to sneak an anime reference into your history paper.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : B
+ Interesting in terms of both story and political science aspects, efforts made to make each character unique. Balances action and humor.
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