Reviewby Theron Martin,
BD+DVD - The Complete 1st Season
In an alternate version of the 1930s where countries go by different names (the United States of Liberion, for instance) and magic works, a devastating invasion by the inscrutably alien Neuroi has united countries that might have otherwise been at each other's throats behind a common cause. Conventional weaponry typically proves outmatched against the Neuroi's beam weapons, so humanity has resorted to a wholly unconventional warrior: the Strike Witch, a young witch at the peak of her magical powers (i.e., in her teen years) who uses leg-mounted Striker Units to enhance her inherent magical ability, thus enabling her to fly with great maneuverability, carry weapons heavier than individuals her size would normally be able to manage, and generate defensive shields essential to repelling Neuroi attacks. 14-year-old Fuso (Japanese) Empire witch Yoshika Miyafuji is recruited by the eyepatch-sporting Major Sakamoto because Yoshika shows tremendous – if untrained – magical ability in her healing magic, but Yoshika is initially reluctant because she abhors war after losing her father to it years before. Desperate circumstances force her hand on a trip to Brittania to track down information about her father, however, and learning that her father is responsible for developing the Striker Units gives her an added push. Soon she finds herself teaming up with the other Strike Witches in the 501st Joint Air Wing stationed off of Brittania, where she gets a rigorous training amidst occasional battles against the Neuroi. However, not everyone is happy with the successes of the Strike Witches, and the Neuroi offer a few surprises of their own. But at least the Strike Witches are never caught with their pants down, because they don't wear any!
One fact about Strike Witches is impossible to avoid or deny: whatever else it may be, it is also an otakucentric fan service fest. The series is justly infamous for most of its female cast eschewing wearing pants or skirts, and the frequency of the in-your-face crotch shots practically dares viewers to try to ignore or overlook that. Several episodes find excuses for defined nudity and/or the obligatory girl-on-girl groping and breast size references, most of one episode involves a complicated round of panty thefts, and certain scenes, relationships, and character behaviors provide all manner of fodder for reading yuri subtexts into some of the content, though no clear lesbian relationship is showed or heavily implied. (One character does seem to be a lesbian, but her interest in a fellow 501st member is one-sided.) The core cast provides all the range of body and personality types that a discerning anime fan could ask for, too, and the animal ears and tails that appear whenever the witches use their magic are just too darn cute. As quality fan service goes amongst titles that actually have nudity, this one only ranks in the middle of the pack, so it is only borderline for being worth watching simply as a fan service exercise. Fortunately its merits run deeper than that.
In fact, what Studio Gonzo does here in Kazuhiro Takamura's lead directorial debut is actually very clever: they have cast the corps of teen girl warriors as stand-ins for WWII-era fighter planes and pilots. Except for Yoshika, each girl in the 501st is named after a prominent fighter ace (or aces) from her respective nationality; the most obvious one to American viewers will be Charlotte “Shirley” Yeager, a tall, brash, and busty take-off on Chuck Yeager (even down to being the first Strike Witch to break the sound barrier in one episode), but military combat aficionados should have a field day trying to identify all of the other pilot references. Each girl's Striker Unit is, to some degree, modeled off of features from one of the prominent fighter planes of her nationality, and the sounds it makes when its wearer is in flight are taken from those planes. Some of the small details and plot points can also be traced to actual historical details and events: Major Sakamoto's signature maneuver belonged to one of her namesakes and her use of an eyepatch over her right eye and the scene in which her magical shield gets shot through mimic an incident attributable to her other namesake, for instance. Even the trigger for the panty theft episode may have a foundation in actual history, as culprit Erica Hartmann's namesake, the “ace of aces” Erich “Bubi” Hartmann, once reportedly borrowed and put on Hitler's hat. References to jet engine development and the evacuation of French and British soldiers from Dunkirk are also present, the namesake for the carrier that takes Yoshika and Sakamoto to Britannia was the flagship for the Japanese armada which attacked Pearl Harbor, and the whole first season is, effectively, an allusion to the Battle of Britain. And there are more, too, if one looks for them.
Strip out the historical references, though, and most of what's left is heavily derivative of a long history of mecha, sci fi, and shonen action series, albeit tweaked for the predominately female cast and fan service emphasis. Almost none of the basic plot or character developments have even a slight taste of originality to them, and most of the characters are stock personalities. That does not prevent the series from putting some distinctive twists on them, however (Major Sakamoto's blustery behavior, distinctive laugh, and back-slapping is something one would more expect from a male character, and doubtless that was done intentionally), nor does it keep the content from being entertaining. The high-spirited mood, likable personalities and character interactions, and effective teamwork can carry the series even when the fan service and historical references do not, and the writing holds up in the occasional seriously dramatic scene. On the downside, the climactic battle is abrupt, over-the-top, and done in an overused fashion; it harkens back to the climax of Bubblegum Crisis 2040 if nothing else.
Beyond that, the action is another plus. Most of Takamura's previous directing experience is as an Animation Director, and that shows here in the staging of the flight and battle scenes. Watching the Witches zoom around, throw up magical shields, and shoot at things can be a surprisingly exhilarating experience, one supported by detailed animation and excellent use of CG effects. The overall design aesthetic and execution is not terribly impressive, but the battles and action scenes certainly got full effort. Takamura also did the character design for the series, which fully explains a design theme often reminiscent of the Mahoromatic franchise, albeit with extensive attention paid to details like military uniform designs that are consistent with countries of origin.
Aside from the “no pants” thing, arguably the second most distinctive feature of the series is its musical score. Seikou Nagaoka, whose previous music directorial efforts include El Hazard, Stellvia, and much of the Tenchi Muyo franchise, produces a spirited score which captures well the flavor of soaring, energetic military themes and evokes the feel of the time period. Even the typical-sounding J-pop opener and closer abound with enthusiasm.
Funimation's English dub is a hit-or-miss effort which mixes Funi regulars and a relative newcomer or two with guest appearances by a couple of prominent non-regulars. Cherami Leigh certainly gives Yoshika the proper degree of high-pitched spunk and Kira Vincent-Davis does a pleasing (if occasionally slightly inconsistent) interpretation of the deeper-pitched Sakamoto, but the appropriateness and effectiveness of other casting choices and performances varies. The script makes adjustments in places but nothing that should be problematic. The original Japanese dub was nothing exceptional, either, so the English dub doesn't lose any ground to it, but this is merely an average production overall.
Funimation has released this series twice before in DVD form (in the springs of 2010 and 2011 respectively), but this release also comes in Blu-Ray form for the first time. That does not make this worth a double-dip for those who already have one of the earlier releases, however, as the Blu-Ray is an upconversion which does not does not significantly improve the visual quality; as Blu-Rays go, this one has a softer look and feel than most and never fully gives the sharp impression one would expect. The increase in audio quality is more noticeable but, again, not a major improvement. Extras are the same as on previous releases: clean opener and closer and an episode 12 commentary featuring Kate “Lynne” Bristol and Cherami Leigh speaking with English ADR director Scott Sager.
Strike Witches does have merits beyond its fan service, but being able to tolerate said fan service (it cannot be simply ignored) is a requirement for being able to appreciate those other merits. Indeed, some potential viewers may never be able to get beyond the ridiculousness of the “no pants” thing. Those that do will find a basic story and set of characters that offer many potential hooks, which offset a somewhat rushed and trite resolution. For those that do get drawn in, more is yet to come, as Funimation is also releasing the second season on Blu-Ray.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Stirring musical score, fun action scenes, historical references.
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