|Some new twists on the standard formula, and enemies that felt genuinely dangerous throughout the entire season||The use of 3DCG in animation-heavy scenes was pretty harmful to immersion|
When I saw this series listed for the Fall season, I knew it would be one that I would look forward to watching. The Strike Witches series has always been something of a hidden gem, in my eyes. “Hidden” not because it is unknown, but because the thing that made it famous (pantsless girls and a camera that takes advantage of that) was not the thing that drew me to the series. It’s a series set in a world that is both like and unlike ours in ways that are interesting to learn. It’s a series with both magic and science-fiction, where teenage girls wear magi-tech legwarmers to fly while carrying normally vehicle-mounted weapons, and fighting laser-spewing crystalline aliens who spawn from giant storm clouds. And it’s a series about friendship, about heart, about learning about the people around them and the things that motivate them, and becoming better friends as a result; and then using that friendship, that heart, and the close bonds they’ve formed to accomplish something impossible.
It is because I enjoyed those things in season one of Strike Witches that I came back and watched season 2. It’s because I enjoyed those things in season 2 of Strike Witches that I watched the movie, and the OVA. And it is because I enjoyed those things in the movie and OVA for Strike Witches that I came into Brave Witches already prepared to enjoy leaning more about this world, and seeing more of these girls meet each other and become friends. I knew what I was looking for when I came to this series.
Brave Witches both does and does not follow that formula. While some of the characters from the 502st Joint Fighter Wing do make cameo appearances, including our former protagonist, Miyafuji Yoshika, the focus of this series is on the 502nd Joint Fighter Wing, and on a new protagonist: Karibuchi Hikari. Hikari is a bottom-of-the-class witch trainee at the start of the series, and it is only through a set of accidents, chance, happenstance, luck (both good and bad), and elemental stubbornness that she becomes able to join the 502nd. Her abilities in the beginning are way below par, and almost everyone is convinced that she has no place there, but with stubbornness, training, some encouragement, and a lot of effort, she overcomes the trials that are set before her, and in the process slowly makes her way into the hearts of the rest of the squadron.
This is very much a story of an underdog protagonist. Every bit of progress she makes is something she has worked for, trained for, and it all makes sense with what we know of her capabilities as established from the beginning. Hikari isn’t the sort of heroine who pulls out a super powerful magic potential as an answer to the current week’s problems. Even her unique ability, the Contact Eye, is very limited in scope and takes a dangerous setup to use. She will probably never be an ace witch with dozens of kills to her name. But over the course of the series she does become a capable fighter, a solid supporter for the squadron, and an emotional pillar for the group.
Hikari, however, is only one element of Brave Witches. Another element that diverged from previous established standards more and more as the season went on is the Neuroi: these strange alien forces that have taken over a large portion of the known world and which seem bent on conquering the rest of it. In previous seasons, up until around episode 9 (when each series would begin ramping up for the finale), the Neuroi functioned exclusively as single-episode plot devices: physical challenges that represented whatever emotional, psychological, or relationship issue the girls were struggling with in that episode. As soon as the girls overcame whatever personal issue they were dealing with, and thus defeated the Neuroi, that would be it, and next week there would be a completely new Neuroi doing something completely different (but probably just as ineffectual). The Neuroi had no strategy, no intelligence, no sign that they were actually trying to achieve a larger goal.
In Brave Witches that is quickly turned on its head. These Neuroi attack strategic targets: severing supply lines and destroying warehouses of food and ammunition. They advance quickly and with determination, and when halted by a lake that prevents their ground forces from getting into position, they sound out a unit that can freeze it solid within the same day. They use artillery strikes and blockades rather than trying to attack the witches openly, and they respond quickly to any attempt to bring in special weapons that could potentially threaten their hive. Essentially, they fight like enemies that understand the principals of strategy and tactics, which makes them by far the scariest enemies we’ve ever seen in this franchise. In my opinion anyway.
Moving away from the writing, I do feel that the production values in Brave Witches are one area where it suffered noticeably. While the art was generally fine for landscapes and still scenes, panning shots and the like, the choice to render virtually all of the aerial combat scenes in 3DCG was very jarring. Budget be what it may, but the girls did not look good when rendered that way. More importantly, they looked different, and having them suddenly go from their normal appearance to looking like an oddly fluid doll definitely hurt the sense of immersion. It wasn’t a show-killer, and I don’t know what sort of budget issues or deadlines Silver Link may have been facing when they made the choice to go with that animation, but speaking solely as a viewer I think that was not the ideal choice.
On the other hand, the music was handled quite well. The OP and ED are both catchy, with lyrics that fit the theme of the series. The various pieces of background music are well chosen, with lots of strings and brass to give it a period feel. The musics used during battle and for victories and other epic moments all feel appropriately patriotic. What got to me most was the moment when Sanya and Eila appeared in episode 7, the music changed to one of the iconic themes from Strike Witches. That was a great touch.
Overall I give this series a B rating. The score probably would have been a high B+ if not for the previously stated animation issues dragging it down. Still, I very much enjoyed returning to this world and getting to see more of it and the people living in it. The witches are all good people, so learning more about them and how they came to be who they are now is always worthwhile. And the increased intelligence of the Neuroi this season helped make it feel like these girls were genuinely at war, rather than just on vacation with occasional breaks to go shoot down marauding aliens. This was an enjoyable series, all things considered, and I hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of the World Witches franchise.
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