What is it: “Otaku First, JSDF Soldier Second” Itami Youji is on his way to a doujinshi event when a mysterious gate opens in the Ginza, and an army of warriors and beasts from the fantasy world pour out and start attacking civilians. Itami saves a woman from being killed and further participates in getting everyone to safety before the Police and JSDF eliminate the enemy army.
Itami is promoted to second lieutenant and hailed as a national hero, but is unprepared and undesirous of all the attention that takes time from his precious hobby. But when his unit is chosen to enter the gate to investigate the “special region” beyond, his priorities start to shift as he realizes he may be able to have his cake and eat it too.
Why you should watch: This show is built around a solid, fascinating, and clever idea: What if your real and fantasy worlds literally collided? It’s also built around a similarly solid and intriguing character in Itami, who could be called the ultimate Japanese Everyman, with the most serious of jobs and the most serious of hobbies.
The promo art and OP spoiled the fact that he was a soldier, but I enjoyed how he not only kept his job and his hobby separate, but at least initially, considered the latter far more important. His genuine distress at not making the doujinshi event, and later interest in the loot his comrade scored since he did get to go, all add a welcome levity that sets us at ease.
That ease is welcome, because things could have gotten very dark, very quick with that surprise attack by an army from the other side of the gate. What also struck me was that, as a real-life solider, Itami and his comrades are far closer to the world of war games people play on their phones, just as Tokyo is closer to the cities in those games, since it has an Imperial Palace where the people can—and do—seek refuge.
Itami’s pal’s line while they’re on their way in—”Think there are any catgirls on this side?” followed by Itami’s assertion there damn well should be—is a lovely microcosm of a great premise.
Why you may not want to watch: I know this show probably runs on a family-friendly time slot, but the peril of the sudden attack and its aftermath were somewhat undermined by the almost total lack of overt lack of blood or violence. If a force like that were to burst into the middle of a crowded Ginza crossing, it would be a goddamn bloodbath, not anything that could be honestly portrayed with a PG-equivalent rating. Considering the lighter tones of the episode, I guess such a spectacle had to be sanitized to avoid tonal dissonance.
Perhaps more disconcerting, and possibly not a problem for many if not most, is the same problem Franklin and I debated at length with Kantai Collection, only brought into the present: parts of this episode, particularly the bright, shiny glamour shots of military equipment and personnel on the march to the sound of stirring orchestral music, had the somewhat unseemly whiff of…er…nationalist propaganda. Itami himself felt, at times, like an avatar carefully-crafted by the creators to deliver the message “Join the JSDF: Otakus Welcome!” Not that they shouldn’t be (they should), or that there aren’t otakus in the JSDF (there most certainly are).
While frightening, pale, mute monsters stood in for Americans in KanColle, the fantasy horde stands in for any invading enemy force, be it of state or non-state actors, and the entire episode is a flattering commercial for the JSDF, showing them at their very best. Not that they don’t deserve to be portrayed in this light (I’m, generally, a Might-Makes-Right kinda gal, with veteran relations), it’s just that it was laid on pretty thick, and I’m watching an anime, not a JSDF recruitment video.
At the same time, there’s something to be said for an anime military not being portrayed as dependable, virtuous, and capable, rather than the usual evil, corrupt, and/or incompetent.
The Verdict: As with KanColle, I’ll give the producers the benefit of the doubt and assume this isn’t meant as insidious nationalist propaganda, because at the end of the day there’s still a very neat premise in play. I’m looking forward to seeing where GATE takes us, and how Itami befriends the real-life elf, sorceress, and gothic lolita he once only saw in media, and briefly hallucinated after hitting a subway pillar.
This was a solid first episode with plenty of exciting action and well-placed humor, and is even able to summon some solemnity, pathos, and gravitas, as Itami is well on his way to no longer thinking of being a soldier only to support his otaku life, but to protect, defend, and avenge his countrymen.