C3-bu is a strange little show, marking the second entry in a little genre I like to call “moe club shows that aren’t pointless and terrible.” The first entry in this hopefully burgeoning genre was Girls und Panzer, and going into this show, my most optimistic assumption was that it would be a less good but at least watchable version of that.
C3-bu is not that. Not in the slightest. Girls und Panzer succeeds by working as a legitimate sports show, and C3-bu doesn’t have the slightest pretension of being a sports show. Sports shows survive by infusing their central game with drama, by laying out specific rules to create believable tension, by pulling off fun pure-plot turns in the winding of combat or sport or cards or whatever their chosen game is. And C3-bu never grounds the airsoft enough to make for actual tension – all the battles are essentially “wacky stuff happening,” and sides win because the show’s actual goals demand it.
What are the show’s actual goals?
Well, the lesser one is “to be regularly aware of how silly all this is, and crack both overt and inherent jokes about it.” The show has fairly regular outright gags, contains just enough of that classic Gainax magic to whip out regularly silly faces, and often will intentionally push its drama just past the point of melodrama and into the winkingly absurd. In many shows, this wouldn’t work, because the genre is itself kind of a joke – poking holes in a moe airsoft show is like making jokes about a clown having silly shoes and a red nose.
Why does this work?
Because the show actually has a real goal, and that’s to slowly, carefully, and empathetically display the trials and breakdown of a girl with tremendous problems regarding both self-worth and social anxiety.
Without a doubt, C3-bu is the Yura show. Even within the first episode, it is clear that her anxiety goes well beyond any usual protagonist shyness, and the show both avoids pulling punches and depicts her very real issues with subtlety and sensitivity. When she is accepted into the C3-bu, this element of the show fades a little bit into the background (which results, somewhat inevitably, in a much weaker set of middle episodes), but that’s by design – she is burying her demons, not addressing and rising above them. Her using airsoft as a replacement for legitimate comfort or self-love becomes more and more apparent as she becomes more and more fixated on winning, eventually driving herself away from the C3-bu through her need for approval through excellence, a very warped perversion of her underlying need for love and acceptance.
This isn’t the most groundbreaking arc in the world, but honestly nothing is, and the worth of a story should generally be assessed through its execution. And C3-bu fucking executes – Yura’s moments of genuine fun are expressed through exuberant fantasy sequences, Yura’s descent into depression and self-loathing is piercing and well-directed, and the inability of her young teenage friends to give her the psychological support she needs rings incredibly true. They’re not psychiatrists, they’re teenagers – they’re just here to have fun, and it’s no surprise when they misread Yura’s cries for help as dictatorial moodiness, snapping at her in her worst moments.
So Yura’s need for approval eventually leaves her stranded, of course, and ultimately it is only through coming to peace with herself that she is able to enjoy life again. Again, pretty standard, executed well. As far as everything else goes, it’s a mixed but generally acceptable bag. The animation is never fantastic, though as mentioned, some of the expressions are great. The visual design is likewise generally serviceable, though the lighting design is quite good (oversaturated for the nostalgic moments, shifting in tone sharply with the show’s emotional tone, etc) and attention should be paid to the great genre-pastiche setpieces that crop up about once an episode in the first half. The sound design is solid, though, making great use of a jazzy soundtrack to add some distinctive flavor to the proceedings.
As far as complaints on the narrative or structure go, it’s definitely an uneven work there, too. Yura’s journey is great, and well-worth following, but it’s attached to a genre shell that is pretty much never spectacular in and of itself. As I said earlier, the fights themselves lack weight, which, while not being the focus of the show, would certainly have helped maintain more interest during the long dry patches of Yura’s shifting psyche. The slice of life elements are occasionally fast-paced and funny, but also quite often routine and mundane. Outside of Yura, the characters are all pretty much static, and basically exist to make jokes, be archetypes, and prod her in different directions at different times. They picked a very strong goal to focus on with this show, and overall it very much works, but that focus is not supplemented by a uniformly solid foundation.
That’s kind of a downer note to end this review on, but this is actually a very solid show. It might work best as a kind of comment on the classic moe club genre – these shows generally tend to revel in idyllic, surface-level friendships, and C3-bu basically sneers at that kind of fulfillment as a band-aid solution to real problems of self-love and happiness. But calling anything a deconstruction is a slur in my book – good things are worthwhile because they’re good, not because they point out how bad other things are. And C3-bu is good – we very rarely get character studies this committed and acute, even if the show may lack in other areas. I’d definitely recommend this one to anyone looking for some unexpected psychological goodness, or even just a moe club show with some real substance beneath it. For elevating its genre with a powerful character study and some very distinctive visual/aural craft, I give C3-bu a 7.5/10, and would readily recommend it.