“We’re on another useless joyride at the cost of mere millions to the US taxpayer.” —Stackhouse, Behind Enemy Lines
Produced during the second half of Shirobako, The Third Girls Aerial Squad follows Aria Hitotose in a world where a mysterious entity, known only as the Builders, appeared. They created vast constructs known as pillars and assimilated the world’s technology, before eliminating their originals, limiting resistance groups to only technology dating before the 1970s. The first episode of The Third Girls Aerial Squad follows the 307 Aerial Squad on a rescue operation at Midway base; Aria manages to rescue the sole survivor after a transport aircraft is shot down, but comes under fire from the Builders’ F-22s. The 307th’s leader, Olivia, sacrifices herself to save Aria, and the survivor bonds with Aria, eventually taking on the name Catherine Weller. The episode closes off with the 307th sortieing to take down a squadron of Builder jets carrying a Pillar Seed to prevent them from creating a pillar in Japan. The first episode paints The Third Girls Aerial Squad as an anime that feels and handles like Strike Witches, Kantai Collection and Vividred Operation, but with a more serious, character-driven tone.
While Exodus was modestly entertaining, The Third Girls Aerial Squad is much more focused and engaging: it’s a science-fiction type anime with plenty of opportunity for world-building and character development. Though presented as a stoic character, Aria demonstrates that she is not truly the “Ice Doll” others paint her out to be after rescuing Catherine, dissolving into tears during their conversation. In doing so, Aria shows that there’s much more to her than initially meets the eye; audiences would therefore be compelled to continue watching to see how Aria matures as The Third Girls Aerial Squad progresses. Aria’s wingmates each also have their own defining characteristics that make them memorable and easy to distinguish from one another. In conjunction with an alternate history that seems to have drawn inspiration from Strike Witches and similar, the first episode to The Third Girls Aerial Squad suggests that emphasis will be on characterisation, rather than the implications of warfare on society itself. The Third Girls Aerial Squad‘s premise means that it could either occupy a one or two-cour timeslot, were it to ever become its own anime. The former would focus on merely Aria’s growth and leave the Builders as faceless enemies, doing away with morality to keep the focus on the 307th Squad. On the other hand, the latter necessarily demands an enemy that is much more complex than the Neuroi or Alone: more episodes means more time in which to flesh out their universe, and this would serve as fine opportunity for the writers to convey their thoughts on conflict and warfare.
Screenshots and Commentary
- I’ve dawdled for nearly a month now before sitting down to write this here review, and consequently, cannot lay claim to having the first set of screenshots and discussion for The Third Girls Aerial Squad. With that being said, I’ll nonetheless offer my usual twenty images with a concise talk: it was much easier to write for The Third Girls Aerial Squad than it had been for Exodus and this review was particularly fun to write. With that being said, there’s still much to discuss that I have not covered in the figure captions or main paragraphs; that’s why the comment section is open.
- The Third Girls Aerial Squad immediately captures the audiences’ attention with squadrons of third generation fighters flying towards a massive construct known as a “Pillar”: the name of this game is to rescue survivors left on the airbase just underneath the Pillar. Right from the start, it’s obvious that The Third Girls Aerial Squad would easily be one of Musashino’s best anime for its attention to detail and characterisation.
- Said attention to detail include watching the combatants dropping their fuel tanks, suggesting that they’ve flown in from a considerable distance. The F4 Phantom can indeed carry a maximum of three externally mounted fuel tanks and with them, has a maximum range of around 2600 kilometers. This suggests that the 307th is based in Hawaii, which is 2113 kilometers from Honolulu. Another fine example of detail is watching a F4 Phantom pilot dumps his flares in response to missiles: his initial salvo works, as two missiles are thrown off, but once the flares are exhausted, another missile hits him from behind.
- The 307th are seen serving as an AC-130’s escort: the members of this squadron, known as “Hell Alice”, are renowned in-universe for being exceptional aces able to pull off manoeuvers other pilots deem impossible. Shirobako shows that the aircraft used in The Third Girls Aerial Squad were meticulously researched by Midori Imai, and include accurate engine sounds, combat characteristics and even cockpit designs.
- It would not be unreasonable to imagine that P.A. Works’ staff had a fantastic time in creating this OVA: most of the audio assets they required to depict Musashino’s production of The Third Girls Aerial Squad can easily be reused, and in fact, unverified sources claim that P.A. Works has enough storyboards to produce three additional OVA episodes for The Third Girls Aerial Squad. I would love to see more of this, but it’d be more than acceptable if P.A. Work chooses not to pursue this further and focus on their ongoing projects to ensure their quality.
- The Builders are hitherto an unknown faction with unknown intents, being stated to have arrived on Earth and immediately began assimilating humanity’s technology while suppressing anything post-seventies. Coupled with their the crystalline constructs, one must wonder if The Third Girls Aerial Squad derived inspiration from Gundam 00: A Wakening of the Trailblazer‘s ELS. The ELS (Extraterrestrial Living-metal Shape-shifter) were a sentient lifeform that operated and propagated in a similar manner, although their intentions were seen as hostile in the movie.
- Aria Hitotose is the protagonist of The Third Girls Aerial Squad and is best known for her seemingly emotionless demenour, as well as ice-cold resolve in battle. Aria is said to not so much as flinch when her own wingmates are shot down, bearing a degree of similarity to Halo Legends‘ Ghost, who likewise was viewed as a cold and sadistic figure. Aria’s personality is a consequence of her background, seen briefly in flashback during the episode, and as such, helps to give the notion that there’s a legitimate reason for why Aria is generally emotionless: it’s a coping strategy for a past emotional trauma.
- After the AC-130 lands, an F-35 exits a hanger and decimates it, forcing Aria to go in herself to extract the survivor. Later, Aria engages a Builder version of the Japanese ATD-X. A fair number of the fifth-generation fighters share a similar airframe, and consequently, it can be quite difficult to differentiate them during the frenzy of a battle (especially in anime). The ATD-X and F-22 Raptor are twin-engined, with the F-22 having rectangular exhaust ports compared to the round ones on the ATD-X. By comparison, F-35s have a single engine. Here, an ATD-X destroys an allied fighter before shifting its attention to Aria.
- Aria realises that using a forklift to move the survivor would be much quicker, and also makes it easier to transfer her into the cockpit without climbing a ladder normally used for entering the plane. From a cinematographic perspective, there is no denying the impact and visual oomph that the decision makes, perhaps even underlining a certain boldness in Aria’s character.
- The single survivor comes to just as Aria leaps into the cockpit, surprising her. One of the things I noticed about The Third Girls Aerial Squad was that the cannon fire from the fighters still sound like traditional machine guns, but the M61 Vulcans fire with a distinct buzzing sound. While some fans will invariably claim that the M61 Vulcan can’t be used, the cannon has in fact, been around since 1959: at the time, European designers were experimenting with 30 mm rounds, but US designers felt that accuracy was more important at high speeds, and the M61’s 20 mm rounds’ higher muzzle velocity would theoretically be superior in this regard compared to the 30 mm rounds.
- Lacking a second seat, Aria seats herself on top of the survivor. The second (and last) bit of nitpicking I’ll do pertains to the brevity codes that NATO pilots use to indicate the firing of anti-air munitions: the Hell Alice squadron makes extensive use of missiles, but never signal to their wingmates that they’re about to fire, which could elevate the risk of friendly fire (not amongst Hell Alice on account of their skill, but amongst other blue forces). These are the two main issues in The Third Girls Aerial Squad, and are the only complaints I’ve got.
- Being quite minor in nature, this is to say that on the whole, The Third Girls Aerial Squad is definitely something I would watch. This is an opinion that is nearly universal: because The Third Girls Aerial Squad places additional emphasis on character development over blatant fanservice, viewers surmise that the anime would wind up being a powerhouse performance. Aria’s launch is, for me, reminiscent of the opening scene to Tomorrow Never Dies, during which James Bond commandeers a Czechoslovakian L-39 Albatross armed with nuclear missiles to prevent a cruise missile from detonating them: in both cases, it’s a thrilling few seconds to watch the aircraft get into the air ahead of their threats.
- While the ATD-X is a prototype aircraft, the Builders appear to have assimilated it and got it into a working state. Here, the lead pilot of Hell Alice, Olivia, sacrifices herself to keep Aria safe, and in the chaos, the ATD-X overshoots them, allowing Aria to bring it down and exit the hostile airspace.
- With the package secured, Hell Alice returns to base. It is here that the survivor begins bonding with Aria, leading the latter to express emotions audiences hadn’t seen before. Right off the bat, audiences understand that the survivor and Aria will be quite closely connected to one another as the series progresses; Aria will likely be a major factor in helping the latter overcome her amnesia, and again, the possibilities for character growth here are nearly limitless.
- As a consequence of having listened to a vast quantity of soundtracks, I’m now able to pick out very distinct patterns in each composer’s style. For Shirobako, the music was composed by Shirō Hamaguch, who had composed the soundtracks to Girls und Panzer, Hanasaku Iroha and Tari Tari. Ordinarily, I do not not usually pay attention to the artist, and as such, when I hear familiar patterns in the music, I look up the soundtracks’ composers for both. Most of the time, my intuition winds up correct: I’d been wondering why some songs in Shirobako sounded so familiar to the incidental pieces in Girls und Panzer.
- While they’ve made appearances alongside Aria, I’ve not included any screenshots of the other 307th members just yet, so for completeness’ sake, here they are. Now identifying herself as Catherine Weller, there is a new member on board with the 307th, adding an additional dynamic to the group that the others would have not seen previously. The page quote comes from Behind Enemy Lines, and I figured that it’d act as an interesting parallel to The Third Girls Aerial Squad, where the pilots’ actions are intended to prevent the Builders from gaining any more ground on Earth.
- In the absence of further context, one would be forgiven that Catherine and Aria are about to engage in activities unfit for this blog, but it turns out that besides being a rather empathetic person when the moment calls for it, Aria is also susceptible to embarrassment after she glimpses the dimensions of Catherine’s assets. The angle of this scene is finely balanced such that nothing more is shown, and while OVAs have been known to be more open about anatomy, this is about the upper limit of what The Third Girls Aerial Squad would show, given that it was intended to be a TV series in Shirobako.
- I’ve found that anime that do much of their fanservice during the first episode subsequently are able to stick to their story more effectively later on; once the fun and games are done, the all-business mood can be conveyed without unnecessary interruptions. While Aria is teased for her emotions here, the sortie alarm goes off, bringing an end to what was a more relaxing moment.
- Contrasting Exodus, where I had a bit of difficulty in coming up with things to say for each figure caption, The Third Girls Aerial Squad is so rich in content that there was no difficulty in drafting something for each of the figure captions. The episode closes off with the 307th sortieing to take out a Builder squadron carrying a pillar seed, used for creating new pillars. Readers who’ve been hearing endless praise in the anime communities about The Third Girls Aerial Squad out there, heed well: said praise is well-deserved, and this OVA definitely merits watching.
- It’s unlikely that we’ll get any sort of continuation, which will be disheartening, but because there are purportedly three more episodes’ worth of usable content, it is conceivable that a movie might just end up happening if reception and demand warrant a continuation. Thus ends my talk on The Third Girls Aerial Squad: of the two anime that Musashino produced, this one is easily the more solid offering.
My response to Exodus was mostly positive: I can see myself watching it and giving it a recommendation (i.e. “comparable to good anime of its genre”), but The Third Girls Aerial Squad looks to be something that would have high expectations, deliver a solid performance and earn a strong recommendation were it an actual anime. The first episode suggests that The Third Girls Aerial Squad looks to be a more serious variant of Strike Witches. Consequently, this is an anime I would easily follow after reading about it in the season preview: it’s right up my alley as far as genres I enjoy watching go, and moreover, appears offers a more unique take on a sub-genre that has not strayed far from the lighthearted mood and minimal antagonist development. Consequently, anime like The Third Girls Aerial Squad would be quite interesting to watch and discuss. Of course, because The Third Girls Aerial Squad is an anime made in the context of Shirobako, it’s unlikely that an author or studio will take up the mantle of bringing it to reality. Nonetheless, The Third Girls Aerial Squad represents (for me, anyways), one of Musashino’s better shows, perhaps reflecting on how Miyamori and her coworkers have found their momentum and are now able to balance their schedules with the author’s requests to create an anime that captures The Third Girls Aerial Squad‘s spirit.