With the impending return of my daughter to the US Air Force Academy, the topic of women in combat comes to mind now and again. Here are a couple of entertaining anime that take a lighthearted twist on the subject, each with smart, likable heroines who grow under fire into admirable leaders.
Casual browsers expecting something that caters to prurient interests should look elsewhere. These are two of the most relentlessly wholesome anime of my acquaintance.
Bodacious Space Pirates
At some indeterminate time in the future, we find buoyant teenager Marika Kato on the colony world Sea of the Morning Star, a watery planet orbiting Tau Ceti. She attends an all-girls high school, where she’s a good student and popular with her classmates. She’s also a talented pilot and member of the school’s Yacht Club, which spends most of their time flying shuttlecraft simulators and then applying those skills in practice cruises aboard the club’s solar-sail-driven spaceship. Life is pretty much perfect.
One day, Marika and her single mom Ririka are paid a visit by a pair of shifty-looking strangers bearing astonishing news:
1. Marika’s absent father is dead.
2. He was a space pirate captain.
3. Space pirates operate under a government Letter of Marque that transfers to the nearest blood relative upon their death, so Marika is now the de-facto captain of a pirate spaceship, the Bentenmaru.
4. The two shifty characters are members of the crew and have been watching Marika for a while now. They think she has potential, and are eager to accept her as their new captain.
5. Oh, by the way, Marika’s mother was also a pirate before she retired to domestic life—the awesomely infamous “Blaster Ririka.” She simply hadn’t gotten around to telling her daughter all these piddling details about her heritage. Gee, thanks, Mom.
Marika’s perfect life is upended, but she’s an adventuresome soul, and the chance to voyage beyond her local planetary fishbowl is enticing. She steps up to the challenge, and the craziness begins in earnest. Does she have the right stuff to cut it as a fearsome pirate captain? Can she walk the fine line between law and larceny her new position demands? Can she keep both her grades and the Bentenmaru‘s profit margin afloat?
As it turns out, Marika Kato is going to surprise a lot of people, including herself.
Bodacious Space Pirates is a rollicking romp through the aether with a good-hearted pirate-queen-in-training and an appealing cast of supporting characters. It’s old-school space adventure, filled with humor, mystery, suspense, and action. Yes, the premise is silly, and the technical details don’t hold up under scrutiny. Don’t worry about that. It’s fun, and it looks great. The spaceships are cool, from bayonet-like battleships, to muscular pirate cruisers, to the sleek Yacht Club solar-sailer—and the images of Sea of the Morning Star and its environs are breathtaking.
The space pirates undertake missions that are too risky or politically awkward for government forces, and they also provide entertainment for luxury cruise lines, whose wealthy passengers enjoy the occasional hijacking by “real” pirates. Jolly good fun, that. A sweetheart deal among the cruise lines, pirates, and insurance companies makes the pirate theater profitable for everybody. So, we watch Marika learning to be a genuine ship’s captain, military leader, and space-age buccaneer while also having to competently ham it up as an actor playing a pirate, which adds some interesting twists to her already complicated situation.
One thing I especially like about this series is the depiction of the pirate crew taking Marika under their collective wing and gently teaching her the ins and outs of her various roles. They treat her with respect and let her make real decisions, some of them very difficult, while offering their technical expertise and experience when necessary. When Marika makes the call, they follow her unhesitatingly and loyally, even into serious danger. There’s a beautiful and funny scene a few episodes along where the crew, quarantined in a hospital with some exotic virus, hacks into the Bentenmaru remotely to create a “beginner’s manual” for the substitute crew Marika has pieced together from the Yacht Club, lest the replacements inadvertently destroy their heavily-customized ship. All the while, they desperately mask their actions to protect Marika’s pride.
It helps that Marika returns her crew’s respect, provides decisive leadership when they need it, and has inherited her parents’ keen intuition and skill at making sound choices despite limited information. This series, goofy as it can be, illustrates how good subordinates can help polish a green officer into a leader truly worthy to follow, and how a smart young officer can learn a lot from his or her subordinates without compromising authority. It also gets bonus points for depicting intelligent space battles in which electronic warfare is a key and decisive element.
There’s a brief, awkward scene about halfway through the series in which two same-sex friends are revealed to be something more than friends. Besides that, I couldn’t really find anything about this series that would be objectionable to anybody. Marika may be a pirate, but she’s got a strong moral compass, and her crew is very careful to work within the legal boundaries of their society.
I watched the subtitled version, though there is an English dub available. 26 episodes, currently streaming at Crunchyroll.com and Hulu.com, and it seems there’s a movie coming out next year as well.
UPDATE: On a related note, here’s Marika from the movie version, on a public service poster helping raise awareness about seeing-eye dogs. Not sure what the connection is between space pirates and guide dogs, but the poster’s pretty cool.
Girls und Panzer
Now, here’s a pacifist vision I can get behind—an alternate Earth where all the aircraft carriers have been converted into floating boarding schools, and tank warfare, aka “Tankery,” is an extracurricular activity for proper young ladies—like volleyball, or calligraphy, or flower arrangement. As one character notes in passing, “I don’t think it’s something that would interest boys.”
Miho Nishizumi is the youngest daughter of a family illustrious in the Tankery world, but a near-tragedy during a tournament has rendered her an outcast, and she wants nothing more to do with the sport. She enrolls at Oarai Girls High School, which has no Tankery program to worry about, but the school is in dire financial straits, and Miho is roped into forming a team to make a run at the world Tankery championship. Can she overcome the ghosts of her past and lead Oarai to victory? Can she turn a collection of oddballs and misfits into a fighting unit? Can she win out over her ruthless older sister at their inevitable showdown?
Like Bodacious Space Pirates, the premise of Girls und Panzer is ridiculous, but this is a delightful series with a ton of heart, and it’s turret-deep in tank geekery, from the lovingly-detailed collection of obscure armored fighting vehicles to the liberal sprinkling of tank trivia within almost every conversation, to the thoughtful application of innovative (and mostly genuine) military tactics by the perennially outnumbered and outgunned ladies of Oarai.
“Sorry, our camouflage is a work in progress.”
There are so many embedded yuks I lost count early on, but a few priceless moments include the discovery of a discarded tank in the faculty parking lot (“Why didn’t anybody notice this before?”), a shopkeeper rejoicing over the destruction of his storefront during a tournament…and the impending insurance payoff (“Now I can afford to remodel!”), and a little cafe that delivers tank-shaped salads on a miniature ammunition train. Every Tankery team, tank crew, and tank has a distinct personality, strengths, and weaknesses which make for some very interesting and entertaining battles, and nobody gets hurt beyond bumps and bruises. It’s farce, it’s satire, it’s action, it’s epic, and it’s a blast. At its heart, though, this is a story about leadership, friendship, and teamwork coming together to make something beautiful.
Nothing objectionable here, either. A couple of the characters are Wehrmacht fangirls, but it’s all about the tanks. As any military history buff can tell you, the Germans had the best armor in WW II.
Again, I watched this subtitled. 16 episodes, currently streaming at Crunchyroll.com.