Strike Witches: The Evil Without

In our roundtable discussion on whether or not anime is art, Ray brought up an excellent point about that infamous scifi-fantasy-loli-pantsu fanservice vehicle, Strike Witches.  To wit, though the show has actual fodder for intellectual discussion, the mere fact that it shows school girls in a permanent pantyshot state renders this moot for the vast majority of viewers.  You cannot rehabilitate such a thing, the argument goes.  No amount of light will overpower this darkness.

Gaze into the abyss!

Nevertheless, with licensing confirmed for S1 and a second season reportedly on the way, an attempt should be made to see just what is good about this show.  And so, with both eyes open – fully cognizant of the anti-intellectual properties of the show – let us try to find some spark of creativity inside.

This was my original review of the Strike Witches preview in March 2007:

I practically fell out of my chair laughing when the opening credits for the Strike Witches prelude rolled across the screen.  The show at once incorporates elements from brash, militaristic anime mecha (Gunparade, Gundam, and the more serious moments of Full Metal Panic), cutesy mahoushojo, and simultaneously gritty and over-the-top “female warrior” archetypes (think Gunslinger Girls, Black Lagoon, and the dire moments in Magical Nanoha.)

How can a show that dares so much in the first few seconds not be worth watching?  How can anyone fail to be reduced to giggles at the sight of deadpan, 1920s-style mockumentary with flying robot-suited anime girls in the place of fighter planes?  The latest of science, technology, and magic indeed!  The attention paid to detail is captivating.

Strike Witches is a strange smorgasboard of anime archetypes, all thrown together in some cosmic blender.  Even things that logically do not fit together are added to the mix – for example, there are WWI-style base camps and raw recruit/drill sergeant hazing scenes.  There are also stereotypical schoolgirl interactions, catgirls, and gigantic, overly visible spell channeling circles of the type found in Fate: Stay/Night and the aforementioned Nanoha.  Sadly, and a bit disturbingly, it seems that fanservice made the cut as well.  It’s especially jarring when it involves cat-eared, half-machine schoolgirls who can lift two tons.

Smile like you mean it.

Strike Witches takes place in an alternate universe, and understanding the setting is key to understanding many details about the human interactions therein.  When the characters are always nice to each other, and have faith in their fellow human beings, this isn’t simply to be dismissed as a saccharine “everyone gets along and pitches in” tale.  Rather, this is to be understood in the context of the fact that the second World War never happened.

Of course, it’s not as though WWII was the lone incident of darkness in the entirety of human history.  Take away the Holocaust, take away the Rape of Nanking, take away Dresden and Hiroshima, and there is still a long and brutal history of war, oppression, and slavery to contend with.  That said, the importance of WWII in the modern mileu should not be underestimated.  Even if the darkness was always there, WWII and its aftermath made certain things starkly clear.  For centuries princes balanced lives, money, and justice on scales in the depths of their hearts, but right there in the public eye Truman made the admission that he had to weigh Japanese lives against American lives in using the A-bomb.  For centuries men and women had railed against the injustices of slavery and racism, but it took the systematic extermination of a people based on race – and an enemy fiercely concerned with its own racial superiority – to drive home the point that such biases unambiguously lead to evil.  This was a historical proof, a reductio ad absurdum written in the flesh and blood of millions.

When we state that WWII drove home the evil of humanity, we are admittedly operating in a certain ignorance of historical fact.  This, however, is the ignorance exercised in pop culture.  It is the ignorance present in the minds of virtually all characters in the Strike Witches universe.  There, humanity is not merely a morally dubious and lazy collection of louts that spend too much time on the Internet and cut each other off in traffic.  There, the Strike Witches are collectively the last, best hope against an inhuman menace that seeks only to destroy.  In the world of Strike Witches, evil is not found in the heart.  Evil is external, and humanity is united in opposition to it.

Even the Taisa can only cheer.

10 thoughts on “Strike Witches: The Evil Without”

  1. If I may nitpick, is there not a betrayal in the plot that would suggest humanity is not entirely united? Also, I could swear one of the characters said something along the lines of ‘if it wasn’t for the Neuroi, our superiors would be at one another’s throats’ (but my memory could be wrong). Still, I won’t claim that SW is a Wieselian journey into human evil, or anything.

    I think there were some posts during the show’s broadcast examining the relationship between the understanding of WW2 in modern-day Japan and the version of the 40s that Strike Witches presents. Den Beste, for example, wrote something arguing that Japan has a different attitudes to the Japanese Army and Navy of WW2 and that this might inform SW. (I know so little about Japan and Japanese history that I can’t really comment.)

    On a not-particularly-related to Strike Witches note, I think the idea that the Second World War (more specifically the Holocaust?) is our pop-cultural go-to event for Bad Stuff definitely has legs.

  2. “In the world of Strike Witches, evil is not found in the heart.  Evil is external, and humanity is united in opposition to it.”

    Except the episode with the friendly alien suggested otherwise; the aliens only attacked humanity because it thought that’s how humans communicate. They imitate human war machines, and fight humans because they think that’s the way humans interact with one another. The start of WWII being the first thing the aliens saw when they arrived. It says more about us than what it says about the aliens.

    So the story is the exact opposite to what you suggest; evil IS found in the heart, and without that evil in humans the aliens would have attempted to make first contact peacefully.
    When in Rome, do what Romans do.

  3. Thanks for these well-thought-out comments. 

    @IKnight – Certainly perfect unity amongst human beings is an illusion, perhaps even in the most desperate of times.  Above, I bring up the general cultural assumptions that inform the public in the Strike Witches world – assumptions which are informed by but by no means perfectly indicative of reality.  These assumptions give rise to the general spirit of camraderie and goodwill seen in the show.

    I’m glad that you think there is merit in the concept of WWII as a cultural touchstone for evil.  In America and Europe, the Holocaust is probably the most prominent evil aspect of it. In China, I imagine the Nanking Massacre is given priority, and in Japan, the beginning of nuclear warfare seems to have the most weight.

    @Vallen Chaos Valiant – There is indeed eventually proof that the Neuroi are not so much evil as tragically noncommunicative. However, I would argue that if you seek a statement on the human condition, you cannot ignore the show’s focus on the essentially good-hearted title characters themselves.   Thus, I think the suggestion that Strike Witches is an affirmation of human evil (as you said, the opposite of what I suggested) goes too far.  Most of the people depicted are generally good, if flawed.

    This is not to say that the darkness of the human heart is not present as historical fact – as I noted, even without WWII, “there is still a long and brutal history of war, oppression, and slavery to contend with.” Viewed from the perspective of the average person, however, the Neuroi are not at all understood (it says so repeatedly in the narration), and it is easy to cast humanity as the heroes and the aliens as evil aggressors.  Culturally, then, this is how things stand. Note that the line you quoted about the cultural apprehension of evil is preceded by a reminder of “the ignorance present in the minds of virtually all characters in the Strike Witches universe.”

  4. There was a post recently at Colony Drop arguing that when mechanical designers adopt elements from WW2 German military hardware they’re not making a moral point, just making their designs look cool — because in Japan that aesthetic doesn’t have the same associations. While I think I’ve seen designers even here in the UK adopting that aesthetic without intending to bring the Holocaust into it, in general I think that’s a good point.

    I guess since different parts of the world associate different Bad Things with WW2, it’s a kind of convenient signifier for which everyone can provide their own horriffic-cultural-memory signified. Or something, I’m not very good with signifiers and signifieds and whatnot.

    I found myself musing on a tangentially related subject the other day.

  5. In essence I agree with your assertion that the show in some ways seeks to establish the notion that without the horrors of WWII humanity would be more united. This point is made clearer by the fact that the titular girls are mostly all from different countries, countries that were at odds with each other during the war. Not only are they working together against a single, non-human, enemy but also they have been collected into a single fighting unit. Unlike the men, in the series, who are still separated by nationality and are basically useless against the aliens, the Strike Witches are a completely integrated multi-national military force who (with the aide of magical powers) are the only ones able to halt the total annihilation of the human race.

    I think Vallen Chaos Valiant also makes a very important point, which cannot be overlooked when evaluating this series. It would seem that above all else the over-riding point of the narrative (besides pantsu) is to say that humans are an inherently violent race and we solve are biggest problems by killing each other.  And the only way we are going to be able to survive against impossible odds is to not only join forces but to go one step further and become one force. It is too bad that the Strike Witches are the only fantastic element in the series. It is as if the creators are saying, “Yes! Here is the answer to human survival, but its a fantasy and therefore impossible.”

    But that is just my take, I’m probably reading way too much into this vehicle for panty shot fan-service.

  6. Fantastic comments.

    IKnight
    – Certainly. Even the swastika itself has different connotations in Asia than it does in Germany. Incidentally, it may amuse you to know that a reader recently expressed disapproval with our positive review of Code Geass because of the “fascist” elements present in its character designs.  Of course the uniforms were inspired by Nazi Germany, but that’s kind of the point: in the world of the show, the military does have political clout and the government is tyrannical.

    freehrm – So interpreting the Strike Witches’ spirit as the goodness of the universal human spirit is impossible, because they are not average humans?  I certainly agree that they aren’t normal, but I don’t see the futility of a dream of peace as the ultimate take-home lesson.  Yes, humans make war and do bad things to each other.  Despite that, there will always be those who wish for peace. 

    The Strike Witches differ most from regular humanity in their powers, not in their psychological composition. This is of course my own interpretation, but I think it has some support in the show: from the very beginning, all the moments when the audience is set up to identify with them are intensely “human” moments.

  7. I have a pet theory that magical girl stories usually position young women as the highest moral agents, capable of being misled but never ill-intentioned — something which goes beyond the usual tendency for central characters to be, on the whole, good people. Admittedly my knowledge of the genre is limited and mostly consists of ‘hybrid’ titles (like Nanoha, Princess Tutu and, well, Strike Witches; Uta Kata is the textbook subversion). Whether that constitutes a separation between them and the rest of humanity I don’t know. I don’t really have any evidence for it in the first place.

  8. @IKnight – Definitely check out Magic Knight Rayearth, Sailor Moon, and Pretty Cure for their takes on the genre.  The first two are classics and the last is a rehashing of stereotypes (I may review it properly at some point in time, but there’s a summary of my views on it.)

    All three of the shows I just mentioned have a singular point that isn’t necessarily true in shows like Nanoha: their power does not exist in a vacuum; it is given to them for a purpose.  There are also shows like Yume Tsukai, where the magical girl part is just dressing and the bulk of the show is something else entirely (in that case, social criticism.)

  9. Hi guys
    At last I got no idea what the problem of this anime is.
    It’s good balanced, funny, a bit weired (all animes have to be a bit crazy ya know) and it takes place in a nearly good setting (..)
    I know that the Japanese love those German names and WWII weaponary and (of course) half-nacked girls, flying around, too.
    (I dunno anybody who doesn’t like that,too –
    exapt those who dunno care for animes or stuff like that)

    In a list whit the animes Allison to Lillia, Valkyria Chronicles, He.S.My.Mstr, Wolf Rain (..) it makes a good look.
    In my oppinion it’s an very good to awesome (10/10 pts) anime.

  10. my friend watches strike witches… i try to watch animes my friends are into, but i cant be bothered r work up the time and download to watch them…\

    besides, im more into xxxHolic and Deathnote

    just randoms like that

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