Hikari Karibuchi is training very hard to become a Witch, and when the chance for an opening to join a squad in Europe arrives, she literally leaps for it with all her heart. Which is exactly what she has to do, because her magical powers are a bit on the low side. Hikari does get assigned to a fairly low-risk position due to her almost limitless stamina, and goes with her sister Takami on her way to join the 502, aka the Brave Witches.
However, when Takami overloads her personal Witch powers to protect both her & the transport squad and falls into a coma, Hikari chooses to join the 502 in her place - a decision that doesn't sit well with them. Never mind that Hikari has no experience in battle, much less the problem of her somewhat limited magic power. But with the threat of the Neuroi looming, even the 502 can't afford being too picky.
Tim: I had been eyeing Brave Witches since it was announced back in 2015, but after being disappointed by Strike Witches 2, I was a bit less enthusiastic to watch this spin-off, even after watching (and liking) the Strike Witches movie a couple of years back. There’s also the problem with the characters being far inferior to the Strike Witches group, which we’ll get to soon enough in the review.
Stig: It's been some time since Tim watched and reviewed the Strike Witches movie, so I didn't really get the chance to watch OR synchro it with him, and I had to wait for a physical release to be able to watch it at all. (In short, I rather liked it. Ending notwithstanding, it's the best current anime version of anything related to the Witches franchise.)
Going back on the whole Witches franchise, it's safe to say that both of us has grown rather fond of it, despite its flaws. The original series’ first two seasons had a tendency to put weird sexualization into the mix; not so much the nudity during bath scenes as the weirdly invasive camera angles during battle scenes. It also had the staggeringly stupid decision to base a whole episode around the theft of panties, or a very tiny Neuroi flying about the station, causing all kinds of mischief before being crushed by Minna's asscheeks. (And yes, that’s actually how the episode ends. With a literal end.) But we still mostly liked the show, because the characters in it were an endearing, easy to love bunch, even if some (Perrine and Eila) could stand to grow up a bit.
While Strike Witches’s Yoshika was a complete sweetheart, Hikari... well, is quite endearing as well. A bit uncertain at first, because the show does pile on the emotional manipulation at first by having one of her classmates be a jerk to her to offload the show's "you won't know until you try" message. While this is a good message in itself, Brave Witches keeps shooting itself in the foot by showing Hikari continuously fail and make a fool out of herself for almost constantly overestimating her abilities. Even the event that gives her a pass to the front lines - well, a bit behind the front lines - was a position she won partially because the surroundings seemed to conveniently adjust to her sole redeeming trait to save the day.
It's doubly ironic, because when Hikari does eventually make it into the 502 - on probation, granted - the show then forces her to face the fact that her magical abilities just aren't up to the task, and if she wants to stay there, she will have to find a way to circumvent that weakness. Which she of course does, because the show would be a bit of a downer if she hadn't (and we can't have that).
Honestly, that is the main weakness of the whole Witches franchise. While the show has its heart in the right place, sometimes it goes about delivering that message through curiously irresponsible ways. Fans of Strike Witches might remember the episode where the Witches had to ascend to a level of altitude that no regular Strike unit could ever hope to reach, even with the most magically powerful Witch. But more importantly, it called for a Witch with exceptional shielding abilities, Yoshika, to protect fellow Witch Sanya doing the actual attack, which is a pretty sensible plan. And then the episode reneged on that because the Witch with the poorest shield abilities, Eila (due to her natural clairvoyance), became jealous and wanted to help Sanya herself. And the episode indulged her on that jealousy, even after it spent the whole episode showing that she couldn't do what she was asked. But it all worked out anyway, because nobody in the Witches franchise should ever have to feel bad for their limitations.
But before we get to Brave Witches’s poor decision making, let's talk some more about the other characters. In an interesting twist on the Witches formula, the others seem a bit more lukewarm towards Hikari to begin with, whereas Yoshika warmed up to all but two of her own squad members quite fast. The only really likable character other than Hikari off the bat is Nikka (or Nipa-san, if you want to go by her awkward nickname), who’s a friendly but accident prone klutz who’s infamous for breaking her Striker units. The series makes this out to be a joke, but it just comes off as huge kick-the-dog moments for the most part, because 9 times out of 10 these breakdowns come from situations that aren’t her fault or couldn’t predict: a lightning strike, suddenly wearing out by usage despite having seen maintenance somewhat recently, or a swarm of locusts just appearing and clogging up her air intakes. (Seriously, that last one actually happened, although in fairness, she wasn't punished for that.) At least in Strike Witches season one when Yoshika got punished, it was because she made some poor decisions, and both the show and herself acknowledged it. Brave Witches outright admits that Nikka has "the worst luck", but still makes her face punishments for things that are well out of her control.
Considerably harder to like is Kanno Naoe, who proceeds to show her displeasure over Takami's state of coma by laying it into Hikari every chance she gets. Perrine comes across as a veritable Belldandy compared to Kanno, particularly since Takami's situation isn't really Hikari's fault anyway. In fact, if Hikari hadn't been there to be the distraction after Takami fell, her and the ship she was on might very well have been destroyed before the others would have time to arrive. It also doesn’t help that Kanno damn near shouts every single one of her lines, preferably in someone's face, as if Rie Murakawa’s copy of her script had all her dialogue in bold font on it, making her a pain to deal with writing-wise and audio-wise. The series takes FAR too long for her to “accept” Hikari -- even in the face of scenes where she's clearly offering support disguised as putdowns -- and even then she stays full-on tsundere about it, almost to the very end.
We wish we could say more about the remainder of the 502, but aside from the super domestic Lemare Georgette, who longtime Strike Witches fans might remember as the Perrine fangirl, the rest of the girls are kind of just there. I'm sure they have more developed personalities in supplemental material, but if Brave Witches is your first introduction to any of these characters, they merely serve as foils for Hikari and nothing more. Rossman Edytha is the more deadpan superior officer who keeps analyzing Hikari's weaknesses and pointing out how terrible she is at being a Witch, while also secretly setting her up for success anyway. Krupinski Waltrud, meanwhile, is an almost stereotypical "female version of an old man pervert" who is also an ace when you put her in battle. There is one episode dedicated to Aleksandra Ivanovna (not Ivanova?) Pokryshkin and her old hometown that does lend a tiny bit of perspective on her childhood, but that doesn't really count as anything more than an appetizer, although she also seems to be one of Nikka's closer friends. (Which, given the rocky relationship between Finland and Russia throughout history, particularly during WW2, is almost kind of sweet.) If you’re looking for great, iconic anime characters, you won’t find them here. Well... you won't find them in Strike Witches either, but at least you'll remember their names.
And that includes the Neuroi, whom the original Strike Witches series made out to be more than just mindless attack drones when one of them sought out Yoshika with the intent of bringing her a message of sorts. Given that the Neuroi was an enemy that more or less just popped out from nowhere and started attacking cities and the surrounding areas in Europe and Russia, the first season did a surprisingly good job at showing how Yoshika -- who had never really lost her home country, nor really seen much of the worst the Neuroi had done -- wouldn't be entirely against finding out what they wanted, while some of the others who had lost homes and loved ones to the attack would be... less amiable about that plan. The Neuroi themselves clearly wanted something from the 501, and the beginning of Strike Witches 2 even had them approach the Neuroi for purposes of contact and communication, only for a bigger branch of the Neuroi hierarchy to suddenly appear and put that matter to a complete rest. (With a giant neuroi beam, in case you wondered.) Since then, they've basically been the faceless enemy forces, there to be destroyed without question, and we'd always wonder who they were and what they wanted. The franchise seem to be uninterested in bringing the topic any further, however, but if that's the way they were planning it in the first place, it would have been better if they hadn't ignited our curiosity to begin with. Now they merely serve as a weekly obstacle quota to defeat.
The story has its ups and downs. too. The plot of Brave Witches centers around a new Neuroi nest called "Grigori", which is attempting to take over Eastern Europe. This aspect of the storyline is shared somewhat equally with the story about Hikari's attempts at becoming a proper Witch. From a timeline perspective, Brave Witches gives quite a lot of hints about it taking place at around the same time as the first season of Strike Witches and stretching out to cover at least the beginning of season two, but doesn't go into specifics aside from putting out various time dates. (Which Strike Witches didn't really do.) But while the Neuroi from the first Strike Witches had fairly easily defeat-able Neuroi, here they up the ante considerably by having them apply abilities to the cores that the original show didn't have (at least not until the second season), or even have Neuroi who do more things than just flying around and firing off laser beams. In this case, though, it seems more like a shoe-in to make Hikari's special ability useful, which raises her value as a team member in a disappointingly artificial way. And even then, a good chunk of the time she’s not even allowed to use her one useful ability for plot-related reasons.
On the upside, the more prominent members of the 502 still detain much of the charm that made Strike Witches such an endearing treat, despite the notoriety it earned from the way it promoted its pantlessness. Hikari is a very sweet girl, who, despite having such an amazing sister - never mind the fact that people bullying her also use her sister's name to do so - looks up to her because of that. It does get a bit tiresome to hear her constantly saying "we don't know that until we try" or some variation thereof, though. Nikka, despite her almost unfairly unlucky streak, is also easily the most friendly member of the 502, and is the one most often seen defending Hikari. And Rossmann, for all her strictness, really does everything in her power to help Hikari overcome her weaknesses, which makes her a somewhat less obnoxiously loud Sakamoto. Kanno is the only one who really remains ambiguous as a character, mostly because she is so rude throughout almost the entire series, even after she has clearly warmed up to the idea of Hikari being a part of the 502.
Unfortunately, the story is unfocused overall. The main focus is supposed to be on Grigori, the new Neuroi nest, but the show spends an almost exorbitant amount of time focusing on Hikari's entry into the 502 in comparison to it. Predictably, she does become a member by episode 5, but said position is again threatened when her sister wakes up from her coma in the last few episodes.
Tamaki’s return also results in some rather odd decisions plotwise. Since she was originally assigned to the 502, it makes sense that now that she is awake, she would take Hikari’s spot. Sounds fair, except Tamaki also makes some decisions and arrangements upon her return that are downright patronizing not only to Hikari herself, but also to the commanding officer of the 502, Gundula Rall. And yet everyone just goes along with it anyway, because we gotta have our last minute drama somehow. But here’s the thing; Hikari had not only proven her worth as a Witch, but to the 502 as a whole, only to just lose all of this to what is basically the aerial dogfight equivalent of a pissing contest, with the episode lovingly ending on a several second long shot of Hikari crying on-screen. Lovely. And when the next episode rolls around, Tamaki doesn’t even see her own sister off. (The series tries to make the claim that it would be too hard to protect her or something, but no. The two were way too close for either of us to buy this crap.) And we all know at the end Hikari is going to re-join the 502, so it all comes across as filler. Even more patronizing is that Tamaki’s return also shows some of the very few times in Brave Witches of the entire 502 squad working all together, and it’s when Hikari isn’t there. It’s enough to make a viewer of the show give a Charlie Brown-esque “AAAAAAAUUUUGH!”.
If there’s any happy notes to be had, it’s that the fanservice has been toned down a lot in Brave Witches. While it does still have some invasive camera angles during battle, it’s significantly less so compared to the Strike Witches seasons before it. Brave Witches also doesn't waste an entire episode on subplots centered around panties or nudity, which we appreciated. But for those of you who enjoyed the original series because of these aspects, well, prepared to be disappointed. Although, again, we might be a bit hard on that fanservice too, because despite the tendency of the girls to feel each other up -- something even perennial sweetheart Yoshika got in on -- Strike Witches felt like a remarkably clean show.
On a sadder note, it's also clear that the quality of animation has gone down compared to Strike Witches too, especially in the air battles. Battles are mostly CG now, and yes this includes the Brave Witches themselves, whose CG ranges from passable to barely PlayStation 3 CG quality. The battles in Strike Witches showed off loops, long panning flying scenes, and impressive camera angles, but in Brave Witches most of them are chaotic, unfocused affairs with confusing directing and overcompensating levels of shakycam; very disappointing for a series revolved around dogfights. In a weird way, that lessens the crotch-shot fanservice aspect of it, since even when the camera zooms in on the parts in question, the shakycam lessens the intrusive effect of it.
Stig: Brave Witches is honestly making me wonder if we might've been a bit too hard on the original Strike Witches, since even the second season was more of a "generally good show being brought down by some exceedingly dumb episodes", while in Brave Witches's case, it’s more of a "general overhanging stupidity" thing that colored an otherwise fine show. The way Hikari was shoehorned into the 502 honestly makes me wonder if the show wouldn't have been better if she had been sent where she was supposed to go to begin with, and then we'd get to see where the show would go, dramatically, from there. The Witches franchise has always been light entertainment, and I certainly don't want to have that changed. But I'm just saying some more thought put into the actions of a lot of the characters in this show could have made for a more enjoyable experience without changing the story or the characters in any significant way, just for the sake of manufacturing the kind of lesson you want to make. That, and Kanno was allowed to hang on to her "cranky tsundere" personality for far too long. But most of the cast were decent enough, and Hikari definitely made the show easier to watch... for both of us, I'd wager.
Tim: Yeah, I’m with Stig in that I think we were far too hard on the original Strike Witches series. It had a mostly likable cast, good animation, great aerial fights, and even some occasionally fun episodes and stories. Brave Witches just feels like an empty shell (pun not intended) in comparison. With the exception of one neat battle almost entirely on the ground and an occasionally cute Hikari/Nikka scene, I can’t really remember anything aside from the insulting last few episodes. The characters are less enjoyable, the animation and art are a massive downgrade, the humor is weaker, the music is blander, and the overall series is nowhere as fun or enjoyable, even for mocking. Whereas Strike Witches was a guilty pleasure for me, Brave Witches is flat-out mediocre at best, and downright dross at worst.
And yeah - Kanno is the worst girl in the franchise, at least in the anime part of it. Period.
Recommended Audience: Violence levels are more or less the same as earlier entries; the girls take damage in battle, but nothing too severe, while Neuroi explode into lots of pretty shards that fall like snow when they're defeated. On the fanservice front, there is the occasional crotch or butt cam during battle (and sometimes out of), and one example of relatively non-explicit nudity. This occurs in the first episode when the two Karibuchi sisters take a bath together, with Tamaki showing Hikari a scar on her side by basically lifting one of her breasts out of the way, which is less sexual than it sounds because Hikari doesn't share Yoshika's mildly perverted streak.
Version(s) Viewed: Crunchyroll.com stream, Japanese with English subtitles.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Brave Witches © 2016 Humane Shimada / KADOKAWA / 502 Tougou Sentou Koukuu-dan
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