A fairly common theme in science-fiction – both in animé and outside of it – is the reduction, in the future, of war to a game or some kind of challenge of skill with minimal human cost. It is a kind of compromise between anti-war themes and a desire for action – replacing the mass-combat elements of a war story with personal rivalries and hero-centric combat, while also preserving the thematic ideas inherent in a nation-scale conflict. If anything it is a narrative progression of the most desirable and relatable aspects of a war story while also keeping the tone inherently light and innocuous; the idea that with the increased possibilities of future technology, grand-scale crises and problems can be reduced to amiable disagreements resolved between dedicated champions is an interesting one.
It is, if anything, this concept which quite informed Moretsu Space Pirates – it removed the military conflict element completely and used its childish characters with their irrepressible naivete and ignorance to make the grand-scale conflicts of space opera ridiculous. This was not always successful, but for much of the series it was a charming and intruiging experiment. A further refinement of this – changing not only the method of conflict into a childs’ game but also the reasons into childish ones – was the subsequent series Girls Und Panzer, in which groups of schoolchildren carried out mock battles in restored WW2 tanks to compete for a tournament prize. Conceptually, Girls Und Panzer – and indeed Moretsu Space Pirates to an extent – are ridiculous and it is that absurdity – the acceptance that children or teenagers can take on adult roles be it captaining a starship or maintaining a tank – which defines their settings and ultimately defines the points of dramatic conflict. The action is present, and entertaining, but it is rationalised within the setting as something completely normal and ultimately inconsequential in the long run; the drama in Girls Und Panzer is centred on a failing team whose lack of a future in the war-gaming world might lead to their closing down, in order to provide it with a core point of tension beyond simple “will they win?” Similarly, Moretsu Space Pirates fell down as a series when it tried to involve its cast in conflicts wider in scale than the lighthearted setting suggested – the childish problems with childish resolutions were well-defined and entertaining while the larger ones felt overly ambitious.
This all leads, ultimately, to a precursor to both series that thematically resembles each of them. Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko is an entertaining science-fiction comedy centred on a group of school-friends who live a double life as champions of a space empire in an interplanetary military tournament. Their mission is to defeat all comers in fleet battles taking place entirely in a simulation of the battlefield. The conceptual similarities with both subsequent series are immediately evident – there is the juxtaposition of the childish with the tropes of space opera as in Moretsu Space Pirates and the war-gaming focus of Girls Und Panzer. Yet Starship Girl stands out precisely because it provides the narrative support for its concept. I have talked previously about “conflict-focused” design – how some concepts seem preoccupied with emphasising some aspect of the setting (for example Shingeki no Kyojin‘s emphasis on its humanity-under-siege themes and wire-fighting) and Girls Und Panzer provides another good example.
The idea that in some largely undefined world large-scale war-games are a popular kind of entertainment is justified just enough in Girls Und Panzer to establish it as a concept, and then the remainder of the series is about enjoying those battles this engenders. Starship Girl takes its idea of military tournaments almost democratising warfare by allowing anyone skilled enough to be an admiral and builds the plot around the repercussions of that. The space-battles that crown each episode are exciting but they feel a natural part of the story – each episode building to its fight while also providing detail about the world and the opposition – as opposed to steps in a tournament. Girls Und Panzer had one motivation for all its teams to fight, in the end – winning. The framing of the tank-battles as purely a sport – one which is a way of life for those involved but ultimately a form of mass entertainment – limits the motivations for conflict and ultimately limits the potential for the series to develop a world. Starship Girl has a tournament in the same way, and similar narrative arcs about the backgrounds and rivalries of the teams involved, but makes it clear that it is a tournament to a known end – the battles do have a motivation simply beyond entertainment in- and out-of-setting. What is more, it – as Moretsu Space Pirates also does – makes into a plot thread the reasoning for the system of problem resolution it focuses on, and the incongruous nature of the protagonists within it. Starship Girl‘s protagonists are young and inexperienced compared to the other contenders in their battles – much as Oarai School are the underdogs in Girls Und Panzer and Marika is inexperienced in Moretsu Space Pirates. Yet the stakes, in narrative terms, are much higher and so the incongruity is more pronounced. Marika ultimately was an atypical pirate but one in a setting where piracy was meaningless. Oarai are underdogs but for much of the series it seems all that is on the line is their reputation as tank crews. Yohko and her team, on the other hand, are presented as from the start players in a space-opera narrative – simply one framed as a series of game-like challenges rather than battles with a human cost.
What this allows is for an effective compromise between the sense of grand-scale threat and drama which a space-opera story requires to thrive (and which the absence of made Moretsu Space Pirates so divisive) and the personal crises and rivalries that make good narratives. When there is genuine danger in Starship Girl – as in one episode where an obsessed rival removes her ship’s ejection system in order to fight literally to the death it is within a setting which both has real gravity to its conflicts (as the viewer is constantly reminded that the stakes in these “games” are whole worlds) but which also has bloodless, impersonal wars. This is ultimately its defining feature as a series; it most closely cleaves to the science-fiction tradition of the war fought as a tournament and uses that to its full potential to tell a science-fiction story. Even though the visual framing emphasises the gamification inherent to the setting, and the characters are sufficiently setting-aware to understand the “rules” of it, the narrative emphasis – impressed upon the viewer both via exposition and via character behaviour – is on how even though there is minimal risk in the war, it is still a war not a game.
To conclude, Girls Und Panzer reduced war all the way down to sport and so its dramas were appropriately small – yet as a result less convincing. The clear framing of its core drama as a sports-story of the heroic underdog (indeed the plotline of fighting against a team’s closure is a cliché of the sports-story genre as much as the gamification of war is a science-fiction trope). Moretsu Pirates explored, for better or for worse, what the aftermath of war does – if there is no need any more for military conflict in an enlightened age, then there is room for quirkiness. By contrast, Starship Girl is a war story. Its entire setting is predicated both on the idea of the space-opera warfare it features and on the ramifications of it being so gamified.