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Digital
Tuesday, 05 October 2010 00:00
Strike WitchesOf all the military uniforms I've seen in anime over the years, the ones used by girls of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing are probably the most unique, mainly on account of their lack of trousers or skirts. That's right, boys, these girls go into battle in their underwear. I'm sure there's a logical reason for that somewhere...

For this review, I'm using a tidy-up of our Digital review section as an excuse to revisit the digital release of Strike Witches, one of the first simulcast shows. Unfortunately, it's no longer available in this format - you could stream or download-to-own each episode only for a limited window after broadcast - so bear that in mind. You can now get the series on DVD from FUNimation, but I don't have that set yet. Just so you know...

So, about those uniforms. The 501st is made up of Witches, warriors with magical powers that, in combination with their magic-powered Striker Units (aircraft engines that strap on to their legs) give them the ability to fly. The theory is that clothing gets in the way of transferring magic from Witch to Striker Unit, so the less, the better - and to keep at least a modicum of decency, that means underwear - or in the case of the two members of the team from Fuso, school swimsuits - is the order of the day. Flimsy rationalisations? We got 'em.

Strike Witches MapSay what you will about the War on Pants™, though, the setup to Strike Witches is actually quite interesting. The series is set in a parallel world where following World War II the planet was invaded by the Neuroi, a mysterious alien race. No-one has actually had any contact with the Neuroi, other than in battle, but they've taken over a large chunk of the planet, with resistance restricted now to parts of Asia and Europe. Young Witch Yoshika Miyafuji, from the eastern Fuso Empire (Japan, to you and me) has just been posted to the Commonwealth of Britannia (UK), to join the 501st, a multi-national team of Witches who are protecting Britannia from the Neuroi that now control most of Europe. In addition to Yoshika, their newest member, there's Squadron Leader Mio Sakamoto, also from Fuso; Wing Commander Minna Wilcke, Erica Hartmann and Gertrus Barkhorn, all from Karlsland; Lynette Bishop, from Britannia; Perrine Colstermann, from Gallia; Francesa Lucchini, from Romana; Charlotte Yeager, from the United States of Liberion; Eila Juutilainen, form Suomus; and Sanya Litvyak, from Orussia. ::takes a deep breath:: They're all based on genuine flying aces of the past in one way or another - you can nip over to Wikipedia if you want to know more about that side of the show, and they're all determined to use their Witch abilities to save the world. Awww, bless.

But the war is just a backdrop for the series - while it plays a role and there's a battle-of-the-week in each episode, but for the most part the series takes one of the girls for each episode, and gives them some backstory and a problem to deal with. It's pure slice-of-life stuff, with a large dose of fanservice (provided by girls flying around in their underwear, mostly) and, eventually, a short, more serious arc where Yoshika tries to make contact with the Neuroi to close the series out. It's delightfully silly, and not to be taken remotely seriously as that both misses the point and spoils the fun.

Where you'll either love it or hate it is in the characters itself, and they're a mixed bunch. As with most anime shows with large female casts, there's been an effort made to make sure that there's someone in there to appeal to most possible tastes. The problem is, there are so many of them that unless a few of them tickle your fancy, there are going to be large chunks of the series where you're having to sit through stories about characters you really don't care for. Yoshika and Mio get decent airtime in pretty much every episode, but apart from them don't expect much screentime for characters other than those the episode is focussing on.

And some of those characters are a little bit bland, to be honest. Sanya may be adorable to look at, for example, but she barely ever speaks and only rarely takes part in missions (nighttime reconnaissance is her usual role, and that's almost always off-screen); Lynne may be a fan favourite, but take away her role as potential 'partner' for Yoshika and she doesn't seem to do much else.

What the series boils down to, then, is a thinly-veiled vehicle for fanservice. There's nothing wrong with that, in and of itself - I'm as partial to some shameless titillation as the next guy - but it would have been better if the experience had been tied to a little more in the way of a story. The closing arc about making contact with the Neuroi is okay as far as it goes, but came too late in the game to really change my opinion. Rather disappointing, then - but with a second season to watch, there's a chance for its failings to be addressed. Fingers crossed...

Rating - ***