When Cute Anime Girls Go to War

There’s practically an entire anime genre featuring cute anime girls carrying big guns and going to battle. Off the top of my head, Girls und Panzer, Sora no Woto, The Third Aerial Girls Squad (the series the SHIROBAKO crew creates during the second cour of that series), and Violet Evergarden come to mind. Add to that franchises like Kantai Collection, which, if you’re not familiar, features characters that Wikipedia describes as “moe anthropomorphisms of World War II naval warships,” and the category is firmly entrenched.

art by NEKO (reprinted w/permission)

Over on our Tumblr account, I post lots of fan art illustrations. Recently, I’ve been posting artwork showing characters from the Girls’ Frontline mobile game. I’ve also come across some illustrations of anime-style girls in the world of Battlefield 1, the setting of which is very appropriate, since that game takes place during WWI and in a few days, we’ll celebrate both Veterans Day / Armistice Day and the 100th anniversary of the armistice between Germany and the Allies on the western front during WWI.

Its an exciting time for me—I’m a WWI nut and in my professional work as a historian, I’ve been particularly involved in the 100-year commemoration of the Great War during these last several years. I was talking to a colleague yesterday about how wonderful the National WWI Museum in Kansas City is and how I spent hours browsing books in their gift shop when I last visited. I enjoy reading about the war, maybe especially so because we don’t hear a lot about it in the U.S., as opposed to in Europe where the devastation was felt everywhere, where it still impacts the continent.

And considering all the brutality and tragedy of the war, and the artwork I’ve been reblogging, I’m left to wonder: is it okay to moe-ify war?

Certainly in one sense, that answer is a resounding YES. Yes, it’s okay. Yes, we have the freedom to do so. But more than “okay,” one could argue for the goodness of doing it, of developing our own expression no matter the content, and that it helps us develop more fully our capacity as creative beings.

But on the other hand, I think of perhaps the furthest end of such a question. Survivors of WWI are ceasing to exist, but if we take something more recent, like the on-going conflict in Palestine, or more horrendous, like the Holocaust, and wonder whether it would be okay to moe-ify that, most of us would at least pause before answering, and many, like myself, would find it hurtful and in very poor taste to do so. It’s one thing to write historical fiction that decries the horror of genocide and quite another to develop an anime featuring cute anime girls fighting the Battle of the Somme. Or does it even matter, especially since WWI is so distant from us, because the impact has dulled.

I want to turn the question to you, our readers. What do you think about making cuteness out of WWI? Of moe-fying some tragic event in history? Of the greater questions of art and war?

Let us know in the comment section below!

Featured illustration by NEKO (reprinted w/permission)


16 thoughts on “When Cute Anime Girls Go to War

  1. I´d say yes. I don´t really like moe, but war is a metaphor for the human condition and human struggles of any form from the beggining of storytelling. Romantic, innocent or adventurous depictions of war based in real, crueler war imaginery woud be OK (even healthy) as a portrait of more romantic, innocent or adventurous human struggles. I think it was Chesterton who said that there is a sword which will never be covered in blood; surely something similar can be said about the ace girls of Aerial Squad, who can resonate with Kinoshita´s team spirit or the author´s struggle with pessimism.

    That said, when you actually depict an actual historical conflict in fiction, to oversimplify things or do a Wonder Woman and depict real people with their names doing bizarre and ahistorical things is not acceptable, at least to me. Honor matters, even the honor of the dead. One can use false names instead. It´s a thin line sometimes, and you can interpret the facts and add stuff, or make someone do things similar to those their really did. But it´s a responsibility.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! That Wonder Woman example really rings true for me—it was bizarre and really kind of threw off the whole movie for me. While I appreciated the filmmakers trying to show the heroism of “normal” soldiers, I did think that Diana’s ridiculous strength and accomplishment made light of what those soldiers went through.

  2. I think it is important to allow a range of explorations of ideas, whether that includes moe-ifing. I also think there’s a difference between having a light take on something and taking something lightly. Basically there will be some people who don’t like cute added to their war settings but then the story probably wasn’t aimed at them, and there’s a chance that by engaging in something cute someone who might never have considered history or a particular conflict may become more interested or simply be more open to discussion about it than they might have been.

    1. I love this statement you wrote: “ also think there’s a difference between having a light take on something and taking something lightly. “ Absolutely true. We can honor something in a light way and we can do the opposite by heavy means. Purpose is so important, as is audience, which I’m also glad that you mentioned. Thanks for the great feedback!

  3. I think it’s okay to combine cuteness and war, as long as you’re not supporting the idea of fighting in real life. I think Nintendo’s online game(s), Splatoon (and Splatoon 2), are a good example of that. The inklings (the characters in the game) have turf wars, in which the main objective is to cover the ground with the most ink, not kill (or in this case ‘splat’) anyone.

  4. I was going to comment.

    But then the comment grew to be nearly 2 pages long.

    I’ll be emailing you an article later this evening.

  5. I’d like to comment on Girls und Panzer in particular, and by extension other series that do not try to depict serious war stories but instead have a bit more fun with their war elements.

    One could argue that the concept of Girls und Panzer, of taking these tanks that have been the cause of many deaths and turning them into a fun sport, is “making light of war”. However, I think of it in a different way: Girls und Panzer helps to “redeem” war.

    Some would say that war cannot or even should not be “redeemed”, but as someone who believes in the goodness of God and His creations, and the eventual redemption of all of Creation on a new Earth, I think there is something special about Girls und Panzer. That show pays very close attention to the details of the tanks used, to accurately represent the actual specs and capabilities of their real-life counterparts. They highlight a fascinating example of humanity’s God-given ability to create. Unfortunately, in this world, such creations have only ever been used for destruction… but here, in Girls und Panzer, we have a depiction of these tanks being used for the good of friendly competitive sport. It is actually quite an interesting message, to say that even something like tanks could possibly be used for good.

    Now, it might be hard to imagine Tankery ever becoming real in this world (outside of simulations like video games), but I can definitely imagine that, in the new Heaven and new Earth, we may very well be piloting tanks in non-lethal sport.That is why the moe-fication of tanks in Girls und Panzer is not just okay, but actually Good. I suppose the same could be said for franchises like KanColle and Girls Frontline, though whether New Heaven and New Earth will have shipgirls or gun-girls is much more debatable…

    1. That’s a great point, Frank. I love the idea of how certain media or even concepts and events like war can be redeemed. It’s a great way to approach challenging concepts and when done well, can bring new insight and wonder to difficult topics.

    2. I think an important point about GIrls & Panzer is that is certainly isn’t a war story, but is rather very much a sports story. It has all the tropes associated with it. (I always find comparing it to The Mighty Ducks to be a funny way of identifying just how many sports tropes there are in the story).

  6. I think there is a big difference between moeifying war, and using female characters as a way to say something interesting about war.

    Women, and particularly young girls, are symbols of innocence. It’s one of the reasons magical girl series can be so powerful, is that you have innocent girls fighting evil. I could see a story using war fought by young girls as a way to say something interesting about the effect of war on innocence, or maybe about the strength of innocence even in war.

    There are also some cultural aspects. I never found Kantai Collection to be all that weird – even though I’ve never watched it and it doesn’t interest me. The concept of depicting warships as women just seemed natural to me – because in my culture ships are routinely personified as female. We refer to ships as “she” and older ships with figureheads almost always featured a woman.

    I wonder how it feels to those from other cultures, such as Russians who routinely personify ships as male.

    1. Again, excellent points—both those ideas have to be considered, and add really interesting layers to this question and how we view the interpretation of the subject matter.

      By the way, I should direct you to yesterday’s post—it’s a guest response to this article, and you might find it interesting.

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