Hype is a funny thing. Ever since Strike Witches debuted, all I heard from some anime fans was how it was nothing but creepy loli bait and an example of everything wrong with modern anime. A big portion of the criticism was that the girls don’t wear pants or skirts, instead having a formal military shirt with panties or a swimsuit underneath. Admittedly, it’s weird at first, but after an episode or so, I just accepted it and didn’t think anything of it. And yes, in addition to that peculiar fashion style, the show has nudity (and like much nudity in anime, it’s gratuitous), but its execution didn’t really feel lurid or in bad taste. Most importantly, I got engaged in the first season because it had a good story (in some ways, feeling like an old-fashioned World War II film at times) and a wide array of characters, some of which underwent development throughout. I enjoyed the unique setting and concept. The action scenes were pretty well done. It even had a couple plot twists that were surprising. To sum up, I felt Strike Witches got an unfair rap, and while it wasn’t perfection, I thought it wasn’t given enough credit for what it did right.
Before I move onto discussing season 2, what was the first season about? Basically, Strike Witches is an anime about an alternate WWII timeline where a group of teenage girls in Striker Units, a.k.a. flying combat boots, battle against alien threats called Neuroi. The main character is Miyafuji, a cheerful girl who has healing powers and, because of this, was reluctantly roped into helping the war effort in season 1. I say “reluctantly” because her father was killed in combat, and she understandably wants nothing to do with war. Originally wanting to just help out on the sidelines, she turns out to be very skilled in a Striker Unit, and decides to use this ability as a way to protect the world and her new friends on base: Commander Mio, officer Minna, and fellow soldiers Lynette, Perrine, Erica, Gertrud, Francesca, Charlotte, Eila, and Sanya.
One thing you’ll notice right away is that the second season is a bit more episodic than the first season. It seems more focused on exploring the characters in compartmentalized standalone stories. Of course, the downside to this is that because there isn’t as much of an overarching storyline, the plotlines can feel disconnected from the Neuroi threat, such as a treasure hunt in a beach cave (where Perrine wants to find some treasure to help rebuild a destroyed bridge for some school children), or Francesca befriending a girl while on vacation in her home country of Italy. This also means the fanservice quantity is a bit higher this time around; with not as much combat, that means there’s more time for bath, hot springs, and beach visits. Depending on your feelings about fanservice, this could be a good or a bad thing. At any rate, it’s hard to deny that a plotline such as a mechanical bug crawling into the girls’ panties is anything but fluff. And truth be told, I felt a little self-conscious watching a plot like that as well.
The second season did seem to have more nitpicks this time around. Six months after the events of the first series, Miyafuji gets a letter from her supposedly deceased military father. Wanting some answers to this puzzling event, Miyafuji returns to the Naval base, her old stomping grounds, and winds up getting back into fighting the Neuroi (who were assumed to be all wiped out last season) alongside Mio and the rest of the previously disbanded crew. Two problems I have from this: First of all, the question of how Miyafuji’s dead dad sent her a message is put on the backburner for quite a few episodes, which is rather frustrating, and when this plot thread is finally rejoined, it’s never quite explained. Yes, he left blueprints for a new, more powerful version of a Striker Unit that he designed, but it still feels like an afterthought when it should’ve been more prominent, given that the whole reason Miyafuji was a pacifist in the first place was due to her father dying in combat. Second, the reunion of the Strike Witches in the first two episodes feels pretty sloppy. The group parted ways when the Neuroi threat was seemingly eliminated, but they just show up out of nowhere to help Miyafuji and her commander Mio in a battle. I think some of them had flimsy excuses for how they just happened to come across the two during battle, but mostly their reappearances were glossed over.
Another elements which remains as disappointing as the first season concerns the Neuroi. The villains have no personality, being soulless pieces of floating metal and all. They feel more like targets in a video game (the analogy is further driven home by the girls counting down how many targets they have to shoot before it’s destroyed). I prefer adversaries which have characterization, because if the villain is truly slimy, you can’t wait for them to be taken down; in other words, they get the audience to feel something. Because of that, the Evangelion-style laser-shooting flying ships didn’t interest me, aside from the obvious danger they posed to the characters. This was especially lame since the show didn’t answer any questions from the first season whether the humanoid-esque Neuroi that didn’t attack Miyafuji was truly an anomaly or just luring her into a trap.
One other thing that felt like a missed opportunity: In episode 3, Miyafuji and a couple of others are trained by an old lady, who teaches them to fly using brooms (Strike Witches, get it?). I was initially intrigued, because I thought this might be a lesson of “traditional” flying trumps technology, but it turns out the brooms aren’t used after this episode; it was just for training purposes. There’s a brief flashback to this episode in the finale that gives Miyafuji some inner strength, but the aerial combat still predominantly uses the Striker Units as in the previous season. There’s nothing new here.
And that’s really the main issue I have with Strike Witches 2: It doesn’t reach very high. It does have its moments of goodness (such as when Miyafuji is told in episode 8 that she is restricted from flying, which frustrates her), and there are no major problems with it, but aside from the higher focus on peacetime activities, it doesn’t really do anything substantially different than season 1, so it feels like more of the same. Ultimately, it poses the question: Is it better to take a risk and bomb (see my opinion of Panty & Stocking), or play it safe and be lukewarm? Both situations aren’t ideal, of course, but I can definitely see why someone would prefer the former option, because then it showed the crew wanted to experiment and simply didn’t execute it right. Sadly, you don’t really get that feeling here.
A relative rarity for anime, Strike Witches‘s second season completely switched animation studios. Due to Gonzo’s financial problems in 2008, duties were handled by AIC this time around. Thankfully, the animation quality didn’t suffer all that much, and the character designs remain basically the same. I won’t bother criticizing the typical TV anime budget shortcuts, as it’s to be expected given time and money limitations, but luckily the battle scenes rise above it, what with the characters flying all over the place, to and from the camera. One aspect of both seasons I’ve enjoyed is the rousing orchestral music by Seikou Nagaoka (Tenchi Muyo!, Stellvia). I particularly liked the piece that plays during the “next episode” previews.
The second season comes in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and its artbox is the best of both worlds: It’s a throwback to the sturdy artboxes common a few years ago, but unlike those, it saves shelf space by being about the size of two Blu-ray cases. It’s also handy that the box leaves room for the first season’s Blu-ray set inside. The artbox features a group shot of every main character in a circle and is easily better than the first season’s rather unremarkable solo shot of Miyafuji. The Blu-ray cases inside the artbox also contain double-sided slipcase artwork from manga-ka Humikane Shimada. In terms of special features, we get a couple English commentaries (on episodes 5 and 9, specifically), textless songs, and FUNi trailers. Typical stuff. The Blu-ray image quality is crisp, colorful without being overpowering or oversaturated, and has minimal artifacts. Though that’s to be expected for a HD show.
I genuinely liked the English dub; in particular, Cherami Leigh was perfect for the chipper Miyafuji, and Kira Vicent-Davis was appropriately stern as Mio. If I had a minor complaint, Trina Nishimura as Francesca spoke with such a high-pitched, fast, screechy tone that it was occasionally hard to decipher what she was saying. Nevertheless, she was well-cast.
Strike Witches 2 isn’t really bad, but it doesn’t take any risks either. I didn’t dislike it, but I also can’t say it raptly held my attention either. Bottom line: If you liked the first season, you’ll probably like the second as well, with the caveat that if you’re looking for something new, you best look elsewhere.