Friday 30 December 2016

Anime REVIEW: Brave Witches

Brave Witches

Before Kantai Collection came along and flooded Japan with moe ship girls, the skies were ruled by the bare-legged plane girls of Strike Witches. With two anime seasons, a movie, multiple OVAs and a whole host of spin-off media, Strike Witches tapped into that same demand for cute anime girls, military hardware and of course buckets of fanservice. The franchise made a return to screens in 2016 but with the story of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing over the torch was passed to a new team of witches. Instead Brave Witches follows the 502nd Joint Fighter Wing in their fight against the alien Neuroi forces – taking place between the first and second seasons of Strike Witches elsewhere in Europe. 

Hikari Karibuchi
More than just Yoshika 2.0

Hikari Karibuchi is a young Fuso witch-in-training, who dreams of fighting alongside her older sister Takami – a highly skilled member of the Third Aerial Squadron. After discovering her sister is about to be despatched to Orussia to join the 502nd Joint Fighter Wing (the ‘Brave Witches’), Hikari participates and succeeds in a selection exam to be despatched to same area herself. On their journey to Europe, their ship is attacked by a Neuroi craft with the ensuing battle leaving Takami in a coma. 

Wishing to fight in her sister’s place, Hikari begs to join the Brave Witches – much to the scepticism of its members. Now the highly inexperienced and magically inept Hikari must undergo rigorous training to earn her place in the unit, helping to fend off any attacks from the Neuroi threat.

The 502nd Joint Fighter Wing
Leg-wear is still optional

As was the case with Strike Witches, the immediate problem when it comes to Brave Witches is taking a 12-episode series with a central protagonist and making all 10 members of the cast memorable and/or interesting. Strike Witches did a semi-decent job of this with its first season but admittedly had a second to build upon it. Brave Witches unfortunately doesn’t do a particularly great job – the show mainly focuses on Hikari with Ensign Naoe Kanno and Master Sergeant Nikka “Nipa” Katajainen usually in tow. The remaining Witches – Squadron Leader Gundula Rall, tactician Alexsandra “Sasha” Pokryshkin, Lieutenant Waltrud Krupinski, Master Sergeant Edytha Rossmann, Sergeant Georgette Lemar and Master Sergeant Sadako Shimohara - are left to either make their mark in one-shot focus episodes or quickly fall into obscurity. For the most part it’s the latter, to the point where it’d be very easy to watch this show and not remember the names of half the cast. Those that you can remember are horrifically one-note, the main offenders being tsundere Naoe and lecherous drunk Waltrud.

Despite all that though, Hikari herself is a pretty great protagonist. Despite being gifted with the battle-turning Magic Eye ability, Hikari is untrained, unfit for combat and has to reach her goals through hard work and determination. Even by the end of the series she hasn’t proven herself to be quite as skilled as her teammates, but her actions are enough to make her a valued member of the 502nd. It makes a nice change from the immediately gifted protagonists you usually see in shows like this, and why some of the best episodes Brave Witches has to offer are of her initial training.

Hikari Training
With all the force of a great typhoon...

Of course it wouldn’t be a Witches series without some mild alien threat and aerial action, which Brave Witches delivers on in only short bursts. While the series contains plenty of Neuroi battles, most of the action is usually saved for the climax of each episode in one swift burst. The animation is smooth but nothing outstanding, and also flitters between obvious CGI models of the girls which only serve to take you completely out of the moment.

But fans of the original need not worry, as Brave Witches isn’t completely detached from the rest of Strike Witches. Aside from a few event references here and there, Yoshika makes a quick cameo towards the end of the series and Eila and Sanya pop up a few times (the pair will also be prominently appearing in the forthcoming OVA/13th episode). With most of the 502nd as forgettable as they are it is nice to have a few call backs to the original, and Brave Witches juggles between references and standing on its own two feet pretty well. In this universe the world is currently one big battle ground, so it makes sense that a group stationed in another part of the world wouldn’t have that much contact with another. It all works towards building a wider Strike Witches universe, and whether the franchise needs it or not it definitely doesn’t go unnoticed.

Sanya & Eila
Christmas cameos!

But what’s undoubtedly the most bizarre thing about Brave Witches is that it seems almost adverse to heavy fanservice. On paper that might not seem like a bad thing, but just keep in mind that this is a franchise where Witches are completely against leg-wear even when they’re out of combat. That in itself is a concept so utterly ridiculous (especially since a fair few characters in this series actually wear tights) that trying to mask that seems futile. Strike Witches was extremely unabashed about the fact it was littered with panty shots and bath scenes, which was fine because the show was catering to an audience that wanted that. Brave Witches on the other hand doesn’t place so much emphasis on these things, which inadvertently makes it stick out all the more. There’s still the odd scene here and there and a frankly ridiculous sequence of the girls “sharing their warmth” in the freezing cold, but it never feels quite as blatant. It’s almost as if Brave Witches wants to pretend that it’s above such things, while at the same time keeping the bare legs because it’s partly what sells the franchise in the first place. If that’s what it is going for then that’s somewhat commendable, but if the show isn’t going to commit fully to it then what’s the point?

Maybe it’s just the fatigue of moe military girls brought on by the overwhelming success of Kantai Collection, but Brave Witches just doesn’t stand out in quite the same way Strike Witches did. Hikari is a great lead and her development was a pleasure to follow, but the basic storytelling, inferior cast and sub-par dogfights mean the 502nd just fall short of their predecessors. Of course, Strike Witches had two seasons to properly establish itself so maybe the same could be said of Brave Witches. However if this turns out to be the curtain call on the franchise then it won’t be that sad to see it go.

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