I’ll just say it: the neat thing about Strike Witches is that it’s like a good stew, a whole bunch of things thrown together that work together to make a cute little show. It’s HUGELY formulaic, which makes dissecting it fairly easy, but also shows us that formulas are formulas because they WORK.
Where do you want to start, plot, character, or construction? Tell you what, I’ll roll a die. II. Okay, that’s character.
Strike Witches is basically the story of Yoshika Miyafuji, who is pulled into the 501st Joint Fighter Wing, a.k.a. the Strike Witches. Like all the members of the 501st she is a combination Magical Girl and Gunslinger Girl.
More importantly, she is a type you recognize from a hundred other anime: small, cute, naive, and VERY earnest. She wants SO MUCH to be a good friend, is TOTALLY loyal to her friends, is SO determined to succeed that she’s hard not to like.
You know who she reminds me of most? Ochaco from My Hero Academia. Oh, and how about Chise from The Ancient Magus’ Bride? Aoi from Shirobako? Even little Chihiro from Spirited Away.
See it? She’s a type.
So is the other key character, Mio. You’ve seen her before, too, the veteran reaching the end of the line but unwilling to let go. There are a half dozen of her in the Gundam franchise, and you see her in cinema all the time, especially in Westerns. John Wayne in The Shootist. Robert Vaughn in The Magnificent Seven. Henry Fonda in My Name is Nobody.
So Yoshika is a type and Mio is a type, and together they both form a complementary couple and also allow the writers to anchor their character arcs together. I’ll show you that when we get to plot.
The other girls are secondary, of course, but to make them distinctive they were each given a major personality characteristic that motivates their actions outside of battles. (Inside battles, of course, they are all perfect soldiers.) So we have Minna, who is motherly, Erica, who is lazy, Perrine, who is attracted to Mio, Gertrude, who is a hardass, Francesca, who is impetuous, and so on.
By giving them each ONE distinct characteristic the writers could keep track of them all, and by picking the characteristics carefully they can be used to create conflict between the girls that drives action. And apart from that, who cares? The show is about Yoshika and Mio.
Well, the plot is simple, right? Strike Witches versus the Neuroi, Overcoming the Monster. Boy that was simple.
Well, not quite THAT simple. All battle and no fun makes for a very dull series. Besides, the protagonist is Yoshika. Doesn’t she need a plot?
Of course she does. Her story is Rebirth, the transformation of the sweet little girl who heals injured bunny rabbits into a warrior, a full member of the Wing.
In a certain sense it’s a coming-of-age story, and you’ve seen a zillion of those. To be really honest, Yoshika reminds me of Heinlein’s Johnny Rico in the first half of the novel Starship Troopers. Just like Yoshiko Johnny goes from Civilian to Warrior. (What makes Starship Troopers great is that in the second half Johnny develops from Warrior to Soldier, and we get a sense for the difference between those roles.)
And Mio has a plot as well. She’s reaching the age (20) where she’s losing her magic. Her story is Tragedy; strive as she may, the day will come where she must leave the Wing or be killed in action.
The combination of one character’s rebirth and another’s tragedy is very effective so long as the two are tied together somehow, and the writers of Strike Witches weren’t the first to figure that out. It’s the same basic combination of plots that makes A Star is Born work.
And you know A Star is Born works. They made it in 1937. Then again in 1954. And 1976. And 2018. The exact same story. And it worked every time. It works because the plot arcs are in different directions, and so long as there is some kind of affection between the characters, those different directions create tension by threatening to tear them apart.
To keep them together Mio and Yoshiko are basically senpai/kouhei, right? There’s a relationship every Japanese kid understands!
What the Neuroi plotline does is ratchet up the tension on the other plots. Yoshiko must learn to fight or she could die. If Mio finally fails, she could die. Oh, and by the way, the Neuroi might conquer the Earth, and Yoshiko and Mio (and the others) must fight them off together. No pressure. But that’s the cord that ties the two of them, and their plots, together.
This is where our stew gets some spices to go with the veggies (characters) and meat (plot). The producers made a number of decisions meant to pull in different sorts of audiences, although for the most part they targeted older boys.
Lots of it. Get them girls nekkid and get them in the bath! And then there was the single most annoying element of the show, the constant use of crotch shots. Not just panty shots, crotch shots. Totally gratuitous.
There was also plenty of double entendre and sometimes triple, and when Mio finally kisses Perrine we know where they are coming from, too, wink wink nudge nudge.
- The combination of Magical Girl and Gunslinger Girl.
In the 501st, although the level of smut suggests a male audience, the presence of themes from Magical Girl shows, specifically Transformation and Unity, suggest an attempt to appeal to girls as well.
I mean, if the baths we see in anime are any guide, Japanese girls know what other girls look like. Casual nudity? So what?
But the Magical Girl genre is empowering in part because Magical Girl shows include the Transformation (in Strike Witches the girls grow cat-ears and tails when they use their magic). That suggests that you, too, can be magical if you seize the power to do so. And the idea of Unity, that together we can do things that individually we cannot, is common in the genre. Look at the Sailors: they are always strongest when they fight together.
At the same time, though, each witch has a weapon, and usually an accurately drawn weapon, the more obscure, the better. I mean, Yoshika has a Type 99 cannon, a weapon more often found in the wings of Zero fighter than the hands of a 14-year-old witch! Several of the girls have German MG-42’s, while poor Francesca is stuck with a Breda-SAFAT .50 cal, which was a major league piece of crap. (That’s probably why she carries a sidearm, too.)
Toyz for boyz, right? All that hardware keeps it from being a girly-girl show about girly-girls.
- World building
There are two elements in the world building that are key, I think. One is that it’s Neuroi versus the Earth. The time period is roughly that of World War II, but by making it Us vs. Them there is a crew representing all the major combatants plus Finland (allied with Germany during the war).
Well, there are no Russians or Chinese. I guess there’s no markets for anime in Russia or China. (There’s a Russian character in Brave Witches. But no Chinese anywhere in the franchise.)
Making the Wing international not only emphasizes the Unity theme, it also gives viewers a glimpse of what might seem to be other lands and cultures, or at least caricatures of them.
And they decided that a witch would lose her powers by age 20. That explains why pretty little girls are doing all the fighting, and what Mio is up against.
You’ll notice that’s a deus ex machina. WHY does a witch lose her powers at 20? Hello? (Crickets.)
The answer is “because that lets up keep the characters at the age of our target audience.” But it works. It’s there, it’s treated as real so far as the characters are concerned, and it is not so difficult to believe that the audience trips over it.
Now, if you’re asking me if I think they deliberately threw all that stuff in there – you know, I bet I do. You know why? Because there’s nothing really unique in there. They sat down and said, “Okay, let’s throw this and this and this in there, and what else do we need to make this work? That, that, and the other thing? Throw ‘em in the pot!”
Then they let it simmer over a low flame until the flavors melded and ended up with a tasty, tasty stew.
It works. So help me, it works.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.