Alternative title(s): League of Nations Airforce Aviation Band Luminous Witches, Renmei Kuugun Koukuu Mahou Ongakutai Luminous Witches
Anime original by Shaft
Streaming on HIDIVE
In a world where World War II is fought against aliens instead of fascists, Major Grace Maitland Steward, who has retired from active duty after losing her magical powers, launches a proposal to motivate troops through the power of music. You probably know what happens next.
Aqua’s verdict: Congratulations to Pants for Winning the War on Pants
Any aspiring writers saddled with anxiety about whether there is an audience for their work can rest assured in the knowledge that once upon a time, someone had an idea that only people existing at the intersection of “people who are just a slight bit more into World War II than others tend to be comfortable with” and “paedophiles” would sign off on, and somehow still managed to turn it into one of the most successful anime franchises of the new millennium.
Before Azur Lane, before — shudder — Kantai Collection, there was Strike Witches, a show about panties and the distressingly prepubescent looking girls who shamelessly flaunt them as they zoom around in the air with parts of fighter jets strapped to their legs. Strike Witches was a pioneering show in many ways, both in its approach to character design influencing just about every gatcha game under the sun and in the sheer outrageous absurdity of its core concept inciting many a baffled question of “wait, they made an anime about what now?” and many a joke about the “War on Pants”. What Strike Witches was not, however, was a show that deserved four more seasons of anime, a handful of OVAs, a movie and now this spin-off where the commandos going commando are also idols. Yet that, of course, is what we’re getting.
This change of tune doesn’t mean the military history nerds this franchise somehow still wants to lure in won’t get anything out of Luminous Witches, however. This first episode opens up with an honest-to-goodness re-enactment of the 1941 Dunkirk evacuation, including visual nods to Christopher Nolan’s 2017 cinematic stunner relating the same operation. Any criticism that film received for using a historic tragedy primarily for visual showmanship applies tenfold here, however. This episode’s prologue serves no narrative purpose whatsoever and comes dangerously close to ridiculing the hundreds of thousands of lives that were at stake by replacing all the fighter jets with, well, tiny anime girls. Borrowing an aesthetic is one thing, but so casually appropriating actual historical realities — intimately tied to a war that scarred the human race and the world it inhabits so intensely — as little more than a vehicle to deliver tepid moe tropes, unapologetic gun fetishism and generic platitudes about determination and the power of friendship, just feels perverse in a way — especially when you consider Japan’s role in the actual World War II.
Luckily, Luminous WItches does retain a moticum of tact, as the nonce segment of the franchise’s fanbase has to make do with the table scraps it deserves. The rest of the episode of outlandishly tame slice-of-life stuff and largely does away with the fanservice the original Strike Witches is known for. One of the main character even wears pants! Congratulations to pants for winning the war on pants, I suppose. Why the franchise suddenly decided to grow a sense of dignity in this, the spin-off where they’re all idols, is a mystery to me, but I’m not gonna pretend I’m not happy that having to watch this show for the blog’s sake is gonna get me put on a government watchlist any more. It’s perverse, but thank God it’s not perverted.
Another thing Luminous Witches isn’t, however, is particularly compelling. Focussing on a ragtag bunch of rejects who have the magical ability required to join the aforementioned girls with parts of fighter jets strapped to their legs, but are otherwise unfit for service is a clever idea on paper, but in practice it mostly invites the kinds of stock interactions, clumsy exposition, and paint-by-numbers hilarity you’ll have come to expect if you’ve ever caught a glimpse of anime before. The airhead can’t remember the serious one’s complicated name! The rough, tomboyish mentor abrasively hides a hidden heart of gold! Amazing fucking Grace! The spotlight may be aimed elsewhere, and the rough edges may have been polished off, but this franchise remains fundamentally uninterested in providing anything but what you’ve come to expect from anime.
This is by design, of course. There is, after all, no angle on any established story more lacking in curiosity and willingness to challenge oneself than “yeah, but what if they were idols?”. Fifteen years ago, Strike Witches was, for better or worse, at the forefront of what seemingly every anime would become. Now, it merely is every anime, a grab bag of aesthetic elements and tropes that are as loathsomely familiar to the initiated as they are utterly incomprehensible to outsiders. There’s nothing for you here unless your definition of entertainment is listening to the same old, slightly disintegrated cassette tape with the same old songs, sounding worse each time it is wound one playthrough closer to its inevitable demise.