First Impression – “Brave Witches”

Writer’s Note: A first impression is meant to be a middle ground between doing a preview before a show and a review after watching the entire thing. It’s particularly useful to new shows that won’t be complete for several months yet.

From a more self-serving perspective, it also lets me badmouth a show I don’t have the energy, time or interest in finishing when its terribleness is a foregone conclusion.

I do, however, have some standards. I won’t give even my first impressions on a series until I’ve given it a fair chance. In my experience, any anime that’s going to be worth watching is going to get there in three episodes or less. More to the point, since most seasons of anime are only twelve episodes, that’s 25%. And while it’s certainly possible to turn things around by episode four or later, when’s the last time you saw an apple that was a quarter rotted and thought, “Well, sure it’s rotting on this side, but I’m sure if I eat it long enough it will stop being poison?”

With all that out of the way, onward.

brave-witches

The Basics. Brave Witches takes place in a world roughly similar to ours during World War II-era Europe. Only it’s under attack by an alien threat known as the Neuroi. And when conventional weapons prove ineffective against it, the only option is to use magic-wielding girls with animal ears and tails and Striker units – essentially miniature propeller planes on each leg – to fight back.

Or…you know, nothing at all like our world.

From what I can piece together, Brave Witches is meant to act as somewhat of an interquel between Strike Witches Season 1 and 2. From what I can also piece together, very little differs between the three variations besides the character roster. And while I haven’t seen either of the main series seasons (and this outing largely removed any interest in me doing so in the future), I think I can pretty fairly evaluate it on its own merits – when or if they should ever turn up.

I should also point out right away that this is an ecchi series. There are lots of girls running about, often in little or no clothing, teasing a lot of skin but never quite going into the realm of actual pornography. And while I generally don’t consider it a negative in and of itself, I could understand why this fact alone would turn some people off of the series.

The Good. I’ll be blunt. I don’t really have a lot to say here. The animation looks nice and the concept of having to use magic to combat an alien threat in a pre-modern-day world is at least somewhat intriguing. And if the magic had more resembled traditional fantasy magic than, say, tiny weird plane boots, I might have been fully on board.

One of the things I hear most often in praise of this show is how historically accurate the technology is. And I really don’t know what to do with that. Obviously, this technology didn’t exist in our history. So I assume it refers to something like how planes of the era stalled in low air environments or something and so do the Striker units…or…I really don’t know honestly. Moving along.

In any event, the battle scenes are pretty fun to watch if you can get past the questionable technology. The use of firearms alongside magic makes for a little visual diversity, even if the show doesn’t seem clear on how much damage each should be dealing. There’s an odd inconsistency in watching machine guns tear the alien craft to shreds in one scene and then have the damage instantly regenerated in the next, seemingly for no other reason than plot convenience.

In short, the entire story seems to hinge on the idea that conventional weapons were useless against the Neuroi and then…it doesn’t. There’s a whole opening sequence that shows plane-mounted machine guns did zero damage. But the next scene we see witches carrying similar firearms and devastating entire formations of the enemy. Which merits at least a raised eyebrow or two.

A more cynical person might say the only reason they had girls fighting the aliens was for gratuitous panty shots. So…basically me. I would say that.

The Bad. Frankly, there’s more than enough to dislike in this one to make a multi-part column out of it. Out of the kindness of my heart I’ll only focus on the most glaring of these issues, though. So miniature plane boots get a pass. For now.

What irked me the most about this anime was that I really wasn’t sure the message it was trying to get across. And when I say “message” I don’t mean “moral.” If I’d been hoping a show about witches who kept finding reasons to show off their panties would teach me something about life, then the flaw was with me – not the show.

What I mean is this. Hikari, our protagonist, is your typical young, enthusiastic girl with something to prove to the world. Her older sister, of course, has a ridiculous amount of natural talent that allowed her to rise through the ranks of the military and achieve an enormous victory against the Neuroi. And despite everyone’s unfair expectations, Hikari can barely manage even the most basic flight maneuvers. At its heart, it’s an underdog story, with our hero succeeding not through inborn greatness but raw determination.

Only, you know, not that at all.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that determination is Hikari’s only asset. The first half of a true underdog story is setting high expectations. And the second half is seeing the protagonist unexpectedly (and sometimes only by luck) surpassing them. Not surprisingly, without that second part the story sort of falls apart.

Her rise from the dregs to a position in the much-sought-after 502nd Joint Fighter Wing, on the front lines during wartime, is the worst sort of hand waving. It isn’t just that Hikari lucks her way through a test or two in lieu of any real skill. That much I could (and have) stomached. No, the problem is that she somehow manages to consistently fail at every task put in front of her, but regardless, we just cut to a commanding officer shrugging and promoting her anyway.

The immediate implication we’re given in the show is that the protagonist is so bad, so utterly incompetent at being a witch that if by some miracle she graduated it would only be because of the worst sort of nepotism. The show goes out of its way to tell us this. Then, in the next breath, it not only skips her all the way through school but straight to the front lines. And we’re never any closer to an explanation as to why than various officers pointing out her obvious flaws before sighing and rubber-stamping her file.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me set the scene a bit.

The first episode begins with various scenes of the Neuroi destroying towns, villages, cities and shrugging off enemy aircraft fire like it isn’t even there. It then shows two separate scenes where Hikari fails at the most rudimentary witching skills. And before you know it, there’s an announcement at school that due to a shortage of able bodies to fight in the war, the military has grudgingly allowed a student volunteer (and even then only in support roles outside combat areas). The idea is that among the upperclassmen, someone is advanced enough to at least fill a support role.

And then, the upperclassmen are just ignored, for literally no reason aside from some arrogant first-year student volunteering first.

Now, I should clarify at this point that the volunteer isn’t Hikari. In fact, she has no interest at all until her hastily-established rival, Mia, raises her hand. In one of the previous scenes displaying Hikari’s ineptitude, Mia flies circles around her and is in every way an objectively better witch. And it’s at this point, with an actual war going on, with mankind on the verge of defeat, that our plucky hero asks to go instead of someone who might actually be able to help.

In this situation, any competent officer would say, “I don’t care how plucky she is. We’re obviously sending the girl with the better scores.” But, of course, that doesn’t happen. Instead of sending the better witch, they hold an arbitrary competition to see who’s faster.

The competition ends up being a race with no skill component whatsoever, with the witch who finishes first being sent to the war. Anyone with an even passing familiarity with cliches knows that the outcome should be for the protagonist to win by sheer determination alone. But no. Neither witch finishes in the allotted time and both are disqualified. Then a bunch of people sort of shrug and send Hikari to the war anyway, despite both witches failing equally badly.

This sort of highlights my major problem with the show in a few ways.

First off, the military requested a witch to be sent to help because they were short on manpower. Only, once the race is over, they don’t choose anyone else. There was an entire academy of witches left to send – including the aforementioned but quickly forgotten upperclassmen – but because the two least qualified candidates couldn’t finish a race within the time limit, it’s probably better we just lose the war, right?

Speaking of forgetting things, remember Mia? I mean, the show spends almost three minutes trying to set her up as Hikari’s rival. She has more natural talent. She’s arrogant. She belittles the hero. So what happens to her after the race? I honestly have no idea, because they never even mention her again.

You see the problem here? Everything in this show exists as a contrivance to move the protagonist from Point A to Point K. Except, she’s barely even qualified to be at Point A in the first place. With each move to another Point she seems less and less like she belongs there. And without earning her trip from one point to the next, everything she does seems tremendously pointless.

They spend the first half of the second episode explaining that, of course, Hikari won’t be allowed anywhere near the front lines. And just as you’re wondering what sort of plot device will change all that, the Neuroi attack. Her sister is knocked out of commission and with her own Striker unit (of course) destroyed, Hikari has to don her sister’s advanced prototype gear. Again, the cliche guidebook says she should save the day with nothing but spunk, moxy and various other 50’s slang words, but by this point it probably shouldn’t surprise you that none of that happens.

Hikari doesn’t just fail to repel the attack. She isn’t just outmatched in battle. She’s completely ineffective, only managing to survive because the 502nd Joint Fighter Wing swoops in to bail her out while she flails about the sky uselessly.

At which point there’s a good deal more shrugging and they put her in the 502nd to fight on the front lines. Why? Because she asked, of course.

To put this in perspective, it would be like someone applying to be janitor at a football stadium but they completely blow the interview. Despite having better candidates, they’re given the job anyway. The following Sunday, the team’s star quarterback is injured, so the coach puts the janitor in the game. The team is promptly beaten 82-0 before the referees just end it out of pity. And afterward the coach says, “Well, you’re terrible and by all accounts we’d have done better with no one taking the snaps at all, but eh. You’re our new starting quarterback, I guess.”

By this point I was pretty irritated at the protagonist just being handed promotions for no good reason. I wanted to finish off a third episode but I was afraid that Hikari would somehow assassinate her army’s own General and then just take the job herself.

To my surprise, however, the third episode was my favorite of the bunch.

Why? Well, a member of the 502nd, Naoe, hates Hikari. And she spends the entire episode effectively arguing my exact points as to why Hikari shouldn’t be within a thousand miles of where she ended up.

She argues (correctly) that a seasoned frontline combat unit can’t babysit someone who hasn’t mastered even basic combat maneuvers. She even argues (correctly) that Hikari is a worse replacement for her highly skilled sister than no one at all. And when Hikari explains that she’ll just have to get stronger, Naoe hits her with the devastatingly accurate statement, “If working hard were all it took to get stronger, it’d be easy!”

“Right now,” she goes on, “we need someone ready to fight!”

And when Hikari argues that they’ll never know until they try, Naoe counters, “The weak put others in danger, too.”

I remember seeing the exchange and thinking, “Wow. I’ve never seen a show write dialogue so clearly aware of its own shortcomings while clearly being entirely accidental.”

The point of this – and Hikari’s subsequent failure to improve through training – is that the front lines of a war are a bad place to learn the fundamentals. Hikari isn’t just being naive when she ignores the very real possibility that having almost no magical power and her inability to fly well will probably get her killed. She’s being selfish by saying she’s more or less indifferent to anyone else who has to die protecting her.

After her commanding officers agree (again) that she’s useless, they decide to send her back home. But there’s another surprise attack where she fails to be useful in any way, almost getting two other witches killed when they try to protect her. And what’s worst of all is that it happens because she refuses to fall back been ordered. It was at this point, I realized, that in addition to being utterly useless, she no longer even met the requisite likeability to qualify as an underdog.

But, of course, it couldn’t end with her getting sent home despite that obviously being the choice any intelligent officer would make.

In the last few minutes there’s yet another Neuroi battle that ends with her doing nothing. In her debriefing, Naoe says that Hikari did nothing and in no way changed the outcome of the battle. So, naturally, Hikari’s dismissal is put on hold…despite there being no new information that contradicts that decision. And at least one new incidence of failure to follow orders that nearly caused three deaths.

In short, business as usual.

In Conclusion. I have a hard time saying this was a terrible series. That’s mostly because I haven’t watched the main series and I really don’t think I’m the intended audience for this sort of show. That being said, this show being terrible makes it very easy to say it’s a terrible series, extenuating circumstances notwithstanding.

For me, there’s just no point in watching the rest of the series.

From this point on, Hikari is bound to progress as a character and witch. Not because she’s shown signs of growth thus far but because the plot will need her to. She’ll inevitably need to save the day in the end. And when that time comes, I’m sure her (probably very sudden) growth will be just as contrived and feel just as unearned as everything else in the series.

In the end, I’m not really sure what the writers were trying to accomplish. The whole thing is a mystery of the most head-scratching variety. Hikari starts out as an energetic, likeable girl with something to prove by succeeding. By the second episode it was clear that she might never succeed. By the third episode, her constant decision to put her own needs ahead of the safety of others actually made it hard to like her. And by the end of what I saw, with an unearned position on the front lines, I wasn’t even sure what she was trying to prove anymore.

It’s certainly a…different direction to take the classic underdog story, though probably not a worthwhile one.

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