It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no work of cinema or literature that cannot be immeasurably improved by replacing the entire cast of characters with little girls. Think about it – take Tom Hanks out of the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan and throw a kawaii imouto into the meatgrinder instead and it doesn’t just become a big action set-piece but an absurdist sendup of overblown militarism or a harrowing depiction of the despoiling of innocence, according to how pretentious you’re feeling at the time. Consider the Dane and his Soliloquy, now up the pitch a few octaves to that of a genki schoolgirl tween and you’re at once shook not only by the existential implications of that affecting meditation on suicide and the mysteries of worlds beyond our span but cooing trills at the ineffably adorable sight of a child handling big-girl words. It adds layers. And if anyone challenges you on how completely inappropriate, unrealistic, or undermining of the central theme to do such a thing is, as with the controversy over the recently-announced all-female production of Lord of the Flies, all you need to do is spout some guff about breaking gender norms and suddenly you’re not a perfunctory hack bolting on a lame gimmick but a profound, provocative, peerless auteur crafting incisive and radical social commentary. Easy as pie!
We have anime to thank for this revelation, and it is anime’s resonance with the axiom of human existence that little girls are cute which led Reiko Yoshida to the artistic insight that that her scripts for K-On! could be easily transposed to Girls Und Panzer and High School Fleet. Softening the hard edges of military hardware with the pliant soft cuddliness of moé and managing to make the grubby middle-aged garden-shed geekery of historical technicalities clean smell perfume-fresh was an instant success that’s even credited with reviving the economy of the tsunami-devastated town of Oorai where Girls Und Panzer was set through the otaku tourism it attracted – anime is art, and anime is salvation.
Replacing everybody with cute girls is thus a tried, true and tested trend but whereas Puella Magi Madoka Magica spawned a clutch of tryhard grimdark edgy me-too also-rans like Day Break Illusion and Magical Girl Raising Project curiously there hasn’t been too much in the way of military-moé (gunjidere?) riding on the coat-tails on Girls Und Panzer’s popularity. Maybe producers simply feel that Reiko Yoshida is simply too tough an act to follow and their projects will only ever achieve a diminutive comparison to those she’s worked on, or maybe specialist accurate industrial detail on tanks and other military hardware is too expensive to draw compared to a ten-a-penny frilly mahou shoujo outfit designs. Even if Reiko Yoshida herself cannot be hired, though, maybe one of her school will inherit her success. The mangaka going by the nom de guerre of Tsukumizu is a relative newcomer to published manga – her only other credit is a sole contribution to a School-Live! anthology, not yet translated into English – but as one of the designers on the Girls Und Panzer staff she's now applying the skills learned there to a new personal project, Girls' Last Tour. Tsukumizu's manga seems to have already proven the truth of the cute girl theorem yet again - Girls' Last Tour has already had success back in Japan and has recently had an anime version commissioned with preview trailers released in just the last few weeks - you can see them on our own Autumn Season Preview article here - but will that success carry over to a new continent and are Western audiences open to understanding it?
The world ended a long time ago, and the vast monumental remains of industry are all that is left of civilisation. Amongst this endless emptiness, not just devoid of any signs of life but even of existence itself (even war at least implies the presence of people, but there's not a whisper of a soul to disturb the clean but cold undriven snow), only two figures can be found - young girls Chito and Yuuri. The pair putter around the wastes, moving from ruin to ruin, scouring them for supplies, eating those supplies, then moving on: a steady and endless routine that has settled into an almost meditative monotony. It may not seem like much of a life, but it's still a life, and the two companions find their own way to live it.
The art of Girls' Last Tour is curious. It's not traditionally moé - the Kyoto Animation big-eye house style definitely isn't replicated here - nor is it typically chibi, but nonetheless giving the girls round, roly-poly, almost doughy faces makes it soft, yielding, and unthreatening (Yuuri's head in particular sometimes resembles one of those babyish "take it easy!" balls from the Touhou Project, and in a few panels I think I can trace the outline of the "soft metal tanks" from Yawakara Sensha - The Fragile Tank, an obscure reference if there ever was one). This means that the girls remain appealingly cute while having a distinctive appearance that separates them from being any one of a hundred kawaii-uguu~ characters that you might pass over on the shelf and means Girls' Last Tour achieves a skilful balance of hitting all those reliably effective cutesy hallmarks while being interesting enough for an established manga reader not to feel over-familiar and tire of them quickly.
I know that Dan Barnett in his season preview article dismissed the art style as though "someone had thrown a bucket of water over Sunshine Sketch fanart" but I think the comparison is unfair. The girls do have more expression to them than Ume Aoki's memetically famous 'wideface' (although as a six-degrees-of-separation from he start of this review Aoki was also the character designer for Puella Magi Madoka Magica - she really did build things to last) and Tsukumizu's pencil-sketch background art not only has a bit more consideration invested in it than Sunshine Sketch's veritable pasted Microsoft Word clipart, it actually works very well for the setting. Sometimes I'm a bit leery about endorsing 'sketchy' art because it seems like the style is being used as a euphemism for laziness and an excuse for lack of detail, but that's not the case here and it honestly contributes to the atmosphere. Scribbly lines are appropriate for tracing the tangled collapsed-in ruin of civilisation - stripped metal scaffolding, an knot of industrial piping, a tumbled jumble of roofs and walls in a megalopolis - while the plain background between them is suggestive of the unlit shadows of the empty unpopulated world. You can also be reassured that Tsukumizu is capable of drawing from her Girls Und Panzer design experience and applying more detail, if she wants to - Chito and Yuuri putter about the wastelands in a German SdKfz 2 "Kettenkrad" military tractor, accurate in its features and proportions although it seems somewhat enlarged from the original. The Second World War-era vehicle may seem anachronistic in the girls' futuristic world, but a mechanical 'analogue' vehicle suits in a post-apocalyptic scenario where the computers have been turned off and reflects the industrial environments that they spend much of the book exploring... and remembering how cute girls improve everything, it is an effective point of convergence between the weeaboos and the wehraboos, who always show a surprising amount of overlap.
Yuuri's droopy eyelids also convey much of the atmosphere of Girls' Last Tour in its sense of langour. There are no timetables to manage, and the girls aren't even heading to a specific destination, just nuzzling around following the trail of food and supplies in an almost bovine wandering. Our modern life is fast-paced - mobile phones and WiFi mean that we're constantly plugged in, a rural life is still not an isolated one with cars to carry you into the smallest corners, and even the most indolently relaxed vacation must by needs be constantly overshadowed by the schedule for the flight home - so you oddly enough find yourself envying these two girls and their switched-off world. You may very much feel like the world has ended and the apocalypse has come yourself when your phone is out of 4G signal range, but if Chiito and Yuri can get by then so can you. Girls' Last Tour is not only played by cute girls but shows that cute girls thrive in their natural habitat - the slice-of-life. It just so happens that instead of having slices of cake in afterschool club meetings we're seeing slices of ration-packs in wastelands survivalism.
Slices show a different facet with each incident, though - even though slice-of-life seems inconsequential by design, a bigger idea slowly evolves over each iteration. The slow pace makes for a quiet, serene gentleness to the desolation of Chiito and Yuuri's travels, a silence of the world around you that means there's nothing to drown out the aches within yourself. A chapter where the pair are trudging through a seemingly endless blank Purgatory of snowfields, gradually having the snowfall pile heavier and heavier up on them as the fatigue of exposure insidiously creeps up within them was no less harrowing for it lacking gore and weeping, as it preys on the breathless silence between your heartbeats. I thought to originally compare Girls' Last Tour to post-apocalyptic webcomic Gone With The Blastwave but it's not so direct a comparison because Gone With the Blastwave is a black comedy while Girls' Last Tour isn't particularly humorous, but in scenes like these I had the surprising realisation you could almost present the manga as a Super-Deformed version of BLAME!
Unhurried reflection means you also have time to turn over thoughts onto their good sides as well as their bad sides, and Girls' Last Tour has time to show you the small joys that you can find in even the bleakest situations. Shooting holes in a power-station turbine pipe to create a pool in which to take a bath might raise an eyebrow for those hankering after realism (have you ever drained a radiator? This sort of water is nothing that a hygiene-conscious Japanese society would enjoy!) it still makes for a pragmatic and practical positive approach to small pleasures abounding if you're willing to look for them. There's a scene where the two girls find a dead fish being washed away in a drain - they cook and eat it, and then send its bare skeleton back off on its way down the water-flow so the creature can continue its adventure after helping its new friends out. It was a moment which was so wide-eyed and childlike in its beautiful innocence that I had to stop reading for a while just to absorb how adorable it was.
I did however significantly dislike the last chapter of this book, which introduces some new elements that only hollow-out the atmosphere that the earlier chapters built up. Our heroines encounter another survivor - an older man, an amateur cartographer who's wandering the city in order to map it - who hitches a lift with them up to the next stratum. He really is an unwelcome presence. His role is redundant anyway (he carries a bomb which he uses to knock over a building to form a bridge over a chasm so they can progress, but the girls picked up their own stock of explosives for clearing barriers back in chapter two, so why not employ some continuity and use them instead?) and while the arrival of another character may be meant to lighten the tone and reassure readers that Girls' Last Tour is not a hopeless world of empty desolation and that life does persist, I much preferred the quiet, private, gently dolorous atmosphere of the earlier chapters which the blaring noise of the new arrival shatters and drowns out. The last chapter also uses the mapmaker character to attempt a visual metaphor of the need to always look forward to the future (they're taking a lift up to the next stratum: his bag of maps gets dropped off the side, and the girls stop him from jumping off after them) but the allegory fails because he hasn't actually lost anything - they're maps, they're paper sheets - they're not going to break on landing and with no wind they're not going to flutter far, he could simply take the lift back down to the bottom and go and pick them up again. This means that Girls' Last Tour fails its argument so completely that it not only fails to convince but actually outright persuades you of the exact opposite to the conclusion that it pushes - far from the importance of progressive thought, as trio meditate on at the top of the lift, the mapmaker's short-sighted discarding of precious items that were not actually lost to him after all indicates how an insistence "looking forward" only blinkers you and denies you the ability to reflect and build on what went before. The allegory Girls' Last Tour wanted to make might have been more secure if they were using Chito's books, which could conceivably twist, split and break apart in the fall, or even just a practical item like a jerry-can of the essential spare fuel that they were collecting earlier in the chapter: so we see that they intrusion of the mapmaker isn't just redundant but actively counter-productive to the manga's themes.
Still, while the manga misstepped here, the characters separate again at the end of the book allowing us to enjoy Chito and Yurris as a double-act again as we move into the next volume. Girls' Last Tour will then continue to be a reflective fugue, and a soulful one as well.