In 1939, the world was invaded by a mysterious and powerful enemy known as the Neuroi. In a flash, most of Europe fell under their occupation. Conventional weapons and military tactics are useless against the Neuroi, thus necessitating the recruitment of magic-wielding girls known as witches. Strike Witches tells the story of Yoshika Miyafuji, one such witch who was recruited into the colorful 501st Joint Fighter Wing. By relying on teamwork, their magic, and the striker units which allow them to fly, the 501st become Europe’s best hope for liberation.
If you’ve been looking for a World War II themed magical girl anime with lots of moe lolita fanservice, then your search is over. Strike Witches is the only anime I know about that panders to that particular niche. For me, this series is about some kind of adolescent wish fulfillment (as a lot of anime is). It serves the same purpose as the tesosterone-fuelled power fantasy of Dragon Ball Z or the zombie/boobie saga that is Highschool of the Dead. The only difference is the backdrop against which Strike Witches expresses the fantasy.
The setting consists of an alternate earth in the mid-1940s, concentrating mostly on Europe. Like Valkyria Chronicles, the recognizable countries have had their names changed. Various elements of the story are inspired by real life. Each of the witches is modeled after a real pilot, and their striker units and guns are based on real weapons. The cast is all-female because in this world, only females can use magic. As you might expect from living on a military base together, the witches get very close to each other.
Strike Witches presents Humikane Shimada’s take on the magical girl genre, albeit manifested in a way targeted toward men. At least this is what I think; I doubt women (even Japanese women) relate to each other by getting naked together and comparing breast sizes. It’s like some kind of warped, masculine version of female bonding – an expression of how some men want women to interact with each other. By using these characters in lieu of actual historical planes and people, the fantasy is complete. Maybe learning about the real World War II is a bit dull for you. But spice it up with young girls who get into sexy antics, and it just might catch your attention!
I realize there is something fundamentally insulting about that kind of anime. Perhaps it’s best understood from a Freudian perspective: Strike Witches excites the id but your superego prevents you from embracing it wholeheartedly. I found many things to like about the series, but something just makes me uncomfortable. Like if I enjoyed it too much, I would be a pedophile.
So certainly, I can give the show props for its setting (I enjoy period shows and there is a dearth of World War II anime these days). I can even commend the fact that it centers many of its episodes around a relatable emotional theme. But even when the goal is simple – showing how one deals with responsibility or derives strength from friendship – the execution usually falters. You don’t see enough of Yoshika’s journey before you get interrupted by fanservice or battle scenes. The series just doesn’t strike the right balance between ambition and ability.
Despite having reached this understanding of Strike Witches, it’s still difficult to look at the material with much objectivity. Does it accomplish the goals it sets forth? Almost but not really. Is it enjoyable despite its flaws? I think so, but I do happen to be in the specific niche that it caters to. I hesitate to call it trash, even though it has a lot of trashy elements. But I can’t really say it’s good. Strike Witches for me truly brings out the turmoil of Freud’s psychic apparatus. Indeed it brings on the fun and the ecchi, but in the basest way possible. It appeals on a subconscious level, but is that enough?
Though most of the characterizations tend to follow well-established archetypes, I like the way in which each episode ultimately revolves around the people. Strike Witches is about more than Yoshika’s experiences at war. It’s about all the girls and their individual struggles. Some are less interesting than others, but overall I feel the anime covers some interesting topics.
The 501st are a lively bunch, and though their usual yuri antics are pretty groanworthy, there are some real, meaningful interactions between the crew. I liked watching Yoshika and Lynette help each other become soldiers. The subplot with Sanya and her homesickness was a good one too. There are a collection of small, character-driven stories that elevate the series above being just another ecchi fanservice show.
Even though you won’t find many original characters – Perrine is a by-the-books tsundere and Lucchini is more or less a reskin of Ed from Cowboy Bebop – the cast is large and diverse enough that it’s not such a downer. As a unit, the 501st works because each member drives some of the action, and they all get a good amount of screen time.
If there’s one thing that absolutely stands out about Strike Witches, it’s the visual design. The characters are moe to the max, but the more interesting design choices lay in the mecha. The Neuroi are an intriguing enemy, having the same black, honeycombed skin but coming in various futuristic shapes. Each witch’s striker unit is modeled after a WWII-era plane, which blends well with the alternate history setting. I also liked seeing real life period weaponry being wielded. It’s a retro-sci-fi that works, unlike the now cliche steampunk style.
Battles and action scenes are magnificently animated. Strategic panty shots, the arc of bullets, chaotic maneuvering, explosions, everything is rendered in loving detail. Though there is obvious CGI use, I didn’t find it overly distracting.
The sound design isn’t bad either. I particularly liked the choice to use propeller engine noises for the striker units, as opposed to something more magical or futuristic. The music carries a sort of retro feel as well, and works well with the dogfights.