History, the subject students dread more than any other. In a 2018 study, the website Smile Tutor confirmed the reason behind this to be the same from back in my day: “They find it boring.” Sadly, over the twenty-six years I’ve studied history, a huge part of the problem is how it’s taught: in the study’s own words, as “lectures which consist of the teacher rambling” and “reading many chapters of a thick book.” To me, the books themselves are flawed too, since they mostly follow the same pattern: list a few names/places/dates, follow with random numbers/facts, throw in a fun anecdote, then mix, stir, and repeat.

I call it the “skeleton view of history,” meaning there’s only bones and no meat. Worse, lots of people don’t like to read, and some history volumes, particularly at the college-level, are trying even for history buffs like me. It’s a pity, since history can have a really positive impact if taught in a way that’s fun, and draws out the truly interesting parts. In other words, bring history to life rather than let it just be about dead people or memorizing things (two more reasons the study cited for disliking the subject). Otherwise, we do a disservice to the topic.

Ironically, there’s a means of historical knowledge/education right under our noses, one without droning monotones, or volumes heavy enough to press olive oil: anime. Believe it or not, there are many anime series out there which present history the way it should be—in a fun manner, filled with well-researched, intricate details needed to get people interested in the topic, as well as to want to learn more because the facts are essential elements to the plot. Legit facts, wrapped in a package that’s equal parts humorous, enjoyable, and highly educational, but done in a way that won’t put an audience to sleep; in other words, perfection.

Now, admittedly, many series take liberties with facts or spin them for entertainment purposes (ex, Kohime Muso and Kantai Collection), but for the purposes of this writing, I’m going to relay four of the better examples, which don’t play with the info as much. Also, I’ll explain why they do so much better than texts written by bores who think using big words helps the masses or lecturing with those same words is any better.

Upotte!!

A lineup of three characters from UPOTTE!! each holding the gun they personify, with technical facts around them in text boxes

A primary means that anime uses to make history and technical information more engaging is through personification. An example of this can be seen in Upotte!!, a series that combines a classic coming-of-age saga with a wealth of military history. It’s about a very unique high school: the girls who attend are all personifications of different types of automatic weapons! Divided into three sections (elementary school for submachine guns, middle school for assault rifles, and high school for battle/sniper rifles), they go through their various classes while training on the range all day… and relaying tons of incredible data about the history of firearms. 

As a military historian, I could greatly appreciate the many little-known facts they presented, and all because it was essential to the plot. In a nutshell, each girl takes on the characteristics of her namesake, so if they have a problem, the show uses the premise of girls-as-guns to explain the logic behind their issue. For example, Ichiroku—AKA M-16—suddenly can’t fire her weapon in a competition, only to feel her stomach grumble. The reason, she learns, is that the chicken nuggets she ate had chili powder on them, upsetting her sensitive internal mechanism. The series then goes further, explaining the M-16’s bolt-carrier/extractor requires constant cleaning and high-quality rounds; poor propellant and no maintenance cause it to fail rapidly, which is what happened in the early days of Vietnam. 

This, and other wonderful tidbits about the greatest firearms of the 20th century like the FN FAL (an acronym for “Fusil Automatique Legere,” or light automatic rifle), the phenomenally dysfunctional backstory of the British L85 rifle series (America short-circuited their ahead-of-their-time move to smaller calibers and bullpups, and when they finally got a weapon, it was highly defective), or why the 5.56 mm is the standard NATO round (thank Belgium and its FNC) are all wrapped up in the loveable antics of the many cast members, who make learning about their various namesakes not only funny but wonderfully likeable (brainiac Sig, AKA SG550, is a superstar here). I received more of an education on weaponry from this series than through most of the weaponry books I’ve read combined, and I never stopped liking it due to the presentation.

The Magnificent Kotobuki

Promotional shot of the cast of The Magnificent Kotobuki, standing together atop an airplane

The Magnificent Kotobuki is a series that details the missions of a team of female mercenary pilots fighting in an alternate version of Earth… and in vintage WWII/Korean War aircraft. Have you ever wanted to see the inside of a WWII cockpit, know how to start up one of these planes, conduct a pre-flight check, or what controls what (rudders, flaps, guns etc.)? What about their various strengths and weaknesses? For example, the girls fly Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusas, which are revealed to be highly maneuverable and fast, but not well armored. This informs them on what tactics they use in the sky, as their guns can’t pierce thick armor, meaning they have to target heavy bombers’ engines, or where the wings meet the fuselage. The series even answers the age-old question of why shooting bombs in their bays wouldn’t work, explaining that they’re heavily armored and won’t just explode.

It’s questions like these that The Magnificent Kotobuki cheerfully answers, through the eyes of loveable characters like pancake-obsessed Kylie or brainy tsundere Kate, be it on the ground, or through their intense dogfights.  As the characters learn, so does the viewer, since learning these answers is the only way to know why certain actions work/don’t work! By the time it was done, I found that I learned more about these aircraft, their capabilities, and how to achieve their maximum potential than most of the documentaries and books on WWII air combat that I’ve studied on WWII over the years… and I wanted to go out and learn more!

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere

Closeup of Elizabeth I as she appears in Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere is a more complicated work, though it’s brilliantly intelligent, and provides ample material for aspiring history buffs. The premise for the series says it all: a futuristic society trying to stave off the apocalypse by recreating historical events! Admittedly, the series takes a lot of liberties with the cast (werewolves, tech witches, and fairies exist in it), but the sheer volume of info more than overcomes that awkwardness. The cast is composed of numerous recreations of legendary historical icons, from Japanese samurai Tadakatsu Honda to Sir Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth I, and references many historical events that most students may not be familiar with. For example, Lepanto, the last great naval battle fought by galleys.

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere  also expounds on other topics, such as the Spanish Armada of 1588, a story I’d read literally dozens of times, but had never seen broken down into the names of individual battles or the timeline they were fought in with such a simple, easy-to-follow manner. The plot even used the tragic circumstances of Mary Tudor (AKA Bloody Mary) and Mary Stuart (AKA Mary, Queen of Scots)—albeit foisted on the same woman, known as Double Bloody Mary, and in great detail to boot—and the Peace of Westphalia as bargaining chips at different points! The series did all this and more, teaching me more about these subjects than I learned in most of my school experience, and all via romance, fan service, epic battles where troops fight with fiery exploding baseballs, and dramatic negotiations—what more could a student ask for?

Girls und Panzer

A military tank carrying four girls

I’ve saved the best for last, the most brilliant series for packing meat on that skeleton of history: Girls Und Panzer. The series focuses on the girls of Oorai High School, who take part in a blistering tank competition known as “Sensha-do” to save their school from being shut down. Not only are the characters fun, but the series does a bang-up job of teaching viewers everything they never really knew about tanks.

Just like the other series, learning about the tanks themselves quickly becomes a major component of the plot, since knowing their strengths and weaknesses is the only way for the protagonists to win. Watching this rookie team learn about ranging a target via stritch (a series of triangles in the gunner’s reticle, combined with this formula: width of target divided by stritch x 1000= distance in meters), different tank crew tasks (driver, gunner, loader etc.), or even how commanders give orders, the series teaches viewers in a way that is never boring

The show gets ever more enjoyable as its story progresses, making each learning experience that much more fascinating, as it teaches everything from the basics to obscure facts. For example, why a Russian tank can drive with its treads blown off in a crisis (its Christie suspension), or the Porsche Tiger and why they’re rare (it breaks down and catches fire a lot). The latter is particularly interesting, because it’s how Oorai are able to take on bigger tanks in the finale.

Girls und Panzer main character Miho Nishizumi with her tank

By the time it’s done, the audience has witnessed a who’s who of the best tanks from all the big countries of WWII, their capabilities, how they fight, and even how they’re named… all relayed by colorful castmates like the genius-with-low-blood-pressure Mako and flower-arranger-turned-gunner Hana. I literally learned more about tanks in this series, movie, and OVAs than I did in Middle School, High School, and college combined—and I still rewatch this series again and again.

So many kids think of school and learning almost as a form of punishment, but it doesn’t have to be. With so many new shows coming out, there’s no reason why anime can’t be used to help teach kids about practically any topic. While Girls Und Panzer may not be able to replace a history class any time soon, these energetic, engaging series and their adoring attention to detail should not be overlooked as potential jumping-off points into a lifelong passion for learning. It’s a potential which must not only be embraced, but celebrated with everything we have, since this kind of opportunity is extremely rare—and that’s twenty-six years of history studies talking.

Young minds await, and if helping them learn history through tanks driven by volleyball players and automobile clubs members, mythology through watching the antics of Familia fooling around in a dungeon, or detective work through watching a boy sleuth, is the answer to the problems kids face with education, we should stop hesitating and start streaming.