If you told me before ‘Girls und Panzer’ came out that one of the most popular anime of 2012-2013 would be about girls practising a made-up martial art involving tanks I would have totally agreed with you because that sounds like a match made in marketing heaven. ‘Girls Und Panzer’ aimed squarely at two groups famous for spending huge amounts of money on their hobbies: beautiful girl (bishoujo) enthusiasts and model tank lovers with its fictional sport of tankery (sheasha-do in Japanese, literally ‘way of tank’). Not only that, but the anime was shown earlier in the evening on Japanese television allowing more people to watch it. Also, it was just a good sports anime with speedy pacing and an amazing ability to build incredible tension. When it came to making sports anime this bizarre I truly thought nothing could top Girls und Panzer.
But then, in September of 2014, ‘Girls und Panzer: Ribbon no Musha’ (known in English for the moment as Girls und Panzer: Ribbon Warrior) was released, written by Takaaki Suzuki and drawn by Takeshi Nogami. Our heroes this time are Shizuka Tsuruki and Rin Matsukaze. Shizuka has very little experience with tankery but starts learning fast when Rin brings it up and adds her own flavour to the mix as she is a big fan of warring states era Japan and begins to see her Type 97 Te-Ke as her own cavalry horse. Rin, on the other hand, is the driver and quickly gets to learning all about the Te-Ke to the point where she knows where to find the incredibly rare upgrades for it.
Those who are up on their tanks will wonder why our main characters are not driving a tank at all but a tankette. This is a smaller armoured fighting vehicle with treads that are about the size of a car. While such a small vehicle would be useless in the kinds of matches that fill the original generation ‘Girls und Panzer’, what our two heroines instead play is a version where all vehicles are under a strict weight limit of ten tonnes. This results in speed and agility being necessary to compensate for the tankette’s thin armour and, by volume two and three, one of the best manga chase sequences I have seen in a while.
‘Tankathlon’ as it is called in ‘Ribbon Warrior’ feels more like enthusiasts gathering for a survival game or historical re-enactment than the school-on-school matches of the ‘Girls und Panzer’ anime. The people in these Tankathon matches have to organise their own matches, they have to find safe places to play as they will not get covered for any collateral damage and they have to go to much more difficult lengths to find parts for their tankettes. All this combines to make the protagonists of Ribbon Warrior seem like underdogs even when compared to the main characters of the ‘Girls und Panzer’ anime who are now amazingly famous as this is set after their winning the nationals at the end of the series.
The two new heroes Shizuka and Rin form an emotional core to ‘Ribbon Warrior’ that was sorely missing in the original work. Shizuka is a brash, antiquated and overconfident while Rin is more measured, modern and pessimistic. Yet this does not lead to disrespect or one outshining the other; much of the early chapters show them finding their dynamic as a team with Shizuka learning to command while Rin learns to drive. Shizuka interprets their roles on the tank as those of a mounted archer and their horse that is played for both laughs and fan service to the point that Rin has a dream about literally being Shizuka’s horse on a warring states battlefield.
However, while some other manga might just let that joke lie, reusing it until we became sick of it, Ribbon Warrior works it into character development. By their third match, Rin really can ‘feel’ not just where Shizuka wants to go but how she is feeling in that moment. What was probably an excuse for fan service then transforms into a unique way of showing these two characters slowly becoming closer as teammates… and fan service.
But while these new characters are a fresh and interesting addition to the world of ‘Girls und Panzer’, ‘Ribbon Warrior’ drops the ball when it comes to the depiction of characters from the original generation. Not in the form of characterisation but character design. Takeshi Nogami’s art for usually has the feel of early Kouta Hirano work only with even more detailed mechanical designs. But for some reason when it comes do drawing characters from the original anime Nogami draws them with a shaky flatness that leaves them bizarre-looking the newer characters who are drawn with more confidence. This would be ignorable if these characters were limited to simple cameos, but by volume three Shizuka and Rin have faced four opponents and three are shakily drawn characters from the anime. At these times the art occasionally deteriorates into something that two ‘Hellsing’ fans threw together on a dare rather than anything to do with ‘Girls und Panzer’.
But even the occasionally poor art sometimes adds to the scruffy, pulpy feel of ‘Ribbon Warrior’. It has a kind of raw, unvarnished energy that sports manga in general lack. Shizuka and Rin’s disregard for the regular conventions and procedures for the genre has made the first three volumes a powerful and often hilarious adventure to read. Sadly it is not available in English but I cannot think of a better sports manga to import.
Girls und Panzer: Ribbon Warrior gleefully breaks sports manga conventions and forges its own path to an enjoyable and fun story within the Girls and Panzer universe.