I've grown complacent in taking many things for granted. But when others look at those very same things, they brood on each one and stumble. Looking at Amakasu agonizing over finding her own answer, I think that there might not be even a single thing in this world that can be taken for granted.
-- Haruto Okonogi, episode 10
I was complacent. But when others look at those very same things ...
-- Haruto Okonogi, episode 12
Repetition is one key to memory. Advertisers use it to make you remember their product. My teachers in school would frequently repeat themselves when saying something important that was likely to appear on the exam. So when a character in a show like this, which smacks of very deliberate construction in every area, repeats himself nearly verbatim in a span of three episodes, it must be important. Surely it must speak to something with thematic weight.
What had I taken for granted as the viewer? Looking back on it now, there were clearly some things. I'd like to think that now I have the benefit of the full picture for context, but I can think of a few things in particular that I actually took for granted. Firstly, Hisone Amakasu is a woman. This is a pretty minor thing to overlook, because it usually isn't very relevant. It does turn out to be so in this case, though.
In fact, all the D-pilots are female. This is something anime has trained us to take for granted. All-female casts are present in hundreds of anime, and usually this doesn't have any meaning in the context of the story. This isn't an all-female cast, though. There are many male supporting characters, and one I'd even consider a lead even though he doesn't appear so at first. In fact, the interactions between man and woman is a major thematic element in this story.
Romance appears in many anime and this is no exception. It's familiar and thus we can take its presence for granted. However, the interplay of the sexes does a lot more here. It wasn't until I was writing this review that I realized the general level of power disparity between the men and the women in the show. Very few of the men are subordinate to any of the women, and this is pretty clear to see because of the military setting and its clear delineation of hierarchy. I don't remember the show doing anything specific to highlight this aspect. It could be this is one thing we are meant to take for granted.
One thing we'll never entirely overlook, hopefully, is sexual harassment. The level of it in this show is pretty tame, relatively. Surely there's nothing here that would be considered a firing offense in the real world, but its presence was strange and slightly off-putting. The scenes with the tailor, if you can call him that, followed the usual beats for this kind of thing in anime. It's played for laughs, and he comes across as pretty harmless in the end. This isn't the only place where this kind of thing appears, though. In another instance, it gets called out as sexual harassment on the spot, and it doesn't come across as funny at all. Given the context in which it occurs, it can simply be read as yet another thing making Hisone uncomfortable about her new position as D-pilot, and that's all it seemed for the moment.
However, these kinds of things continue to pile up to where they can't be ignored anymore. In retrospect, I have to respect Mari Okada for weaving this subject in so well. It's a slippery topic and she slips it in right under our noses. For me, the breaking point was when they explicitly stated that the D-pilots aren't allowed to fall in love. I knew this was wrong. This was not a thing that made sense, however justified the person saying it believed himself to be. In retrospect, I can see that this was done just right. If it had come any later, the Shinto elements would have been known and we could have easily written this off. It's normal in mythology for the gods to make unreasonable demands of men. But since these things hadn't been introduced yet, this comes across as a man making unreasonable demands of a woman. It has just enough time to settle in and make us a little uncomfortable.
Thankfully, this is far from my first anime rodeo, and I have a little outside-context knowledge of the topic being addressed here. Otherwise, I'd be unlikely to know the very specific "thing which was taken for granted" that the plot eventually addresses. (I've reached my threshold for how much of the plot I'm willing to directly reveal.) That is, married women don't work, at least not in Japan. I can remember instances in anime where women explained why they were quitting their job simply as, "I'm getting married." Not, "I'm getting married, my fiance already has a high-paying job, and I want to have children," but merely "I'm getting married." It doesn't require explanation, because it's taken for granted that married women don't have careers. They may have part-time jobs or do volunteer work or what have you, but having a career and supporting a family is for the man.
That's what "Hisone and Maso-tan" is about, to me. It's about the plight of the working woman. (I'm a true believer in the "death of the author" approach to literary interpretation, so if it meant something else to you, then that's fine.) It has elements that speak to Japanese culture specifically, but this isn't an anime made entirely for Japan. Continuing a recent trend of such shows, it will also be airing on Netflix.
Taking the theme of defying what was taken for granted into the metafictional realm, much of this show is designed from first principles, disregarding the anime status quo. The first you'll probably notice is the character design. Stock anime character designs simply don't lend themselves well to animation, so this production team abandoned them. What we get is something memorable and unique, and the animation team takes full advantage of the streamlined designs to make them much more expressive in practice. (See also: every Yuasa anime ever.)
This extends to the background art as well. We get something rather unique here, too. It looks something like watercolor. There's been a trend toward very digital, shiny, saturated backgrounds lately, and some of these are even quite good in their own right. This has something hazier, with more of a hand-drawn look. It fits very well with the character art and it just feels very good. To me, background art is a strong contributor to the feel of an anime. Many of my favorites have particularly good art design and it makes them a joy to watch.
Another element that tends to appeal directly on an emotional level is music. This has what's probably the best soundtrack of the season. Again, there's no regard for what's considered typical of anime. There is no J-Pop to be seen here. Even when they have the cast sing in character for the ED, it's an old French song that they sing. I wasn't expecting it to be relevant, but it is a song about taking a holiday in France. There is a moment where something like that comes up in context, so keep your eyes open for it.
All in all, this really seems like it could be an enduring classic. There have been numerous contenders lately. Megalo Box plays it too safe, never escaping its status as a tribute to a classic when it could have been one in its own right. Devilman: Crybaby had production quality issues which this lacks. (Though the dub hasn't been made yet, so that could still become an issue like it was for Devilman.) Koe no Katachi pulled its punches a little, and waters down its message by dragging on too long and including some unnecessary elements. This may fly a little under the radar, but it delivers its strike with laser-guided precision. I need to seriously reconsider my previous stance on Mari Okada if this is what she's really capable of when she takes the gloves off.
P.S.: When I say this anime made me uncomfortable, know that I don't consider that to be a bad thing. In fact, I consider it to be a rare and valuable thing. Youtuber MrBtongue made a video on this you should see if you haven't already.