Hey, want to see a group of soldiers fight a dragon? Of course you do.
GATE is an anime about a mysterious gate that appears in Tokyo, allowing in legions of medieval soldiers who then start massacring the helpless civilian population. Amidst the chaos, Itami, an off-duty member of the Japanese Self-Defence Force (Japan's not-quite army), manages to save a large number of people by hiding them behind the walls of the Japanese Imperial Palace. After the JSDF arrives in force and easily dispatches the invaders, it is decided that the only way to be truly safe is to take and hold the far side of the gate.
Now seen as Japan's greatest modern war hero, Itami finds himself in command of his own unit that is sent through the gate to explore a world of elves, magic, and dragons — though he'd rather just stay in our world and watch anime.
Much of the comedy in GATE is built around Itami's status as a reluctant hero. Itami does the bare minimum as a soldier. To him, it really is just a job to fund his hobbies. As he and his squad explore the fantasy world, he pontificates on — among other otaku questions — whether cat girls exist in this new world.
That doesn't mean he is untalented, however. While often silly when not in a crisis situation, he proves to be not only a good soldier but a strong leader as well. He just prefers to do the bare minimum he can.
But what makes Itami most interesting as a character is his main skill: He knows when to fight and when to run away. Throughout the series we only see him fight battles he thinks he and his squad can win. There is no cowardice nor bravado in his actions — he knows what has to be done and if it can't be done, no use dying for it. This makes him easy to root for.
The first few episodes of GATE center on the idea of Itami and his squad as strangers in a strange land. They know nothing of the lifestyle or politics in this world — as the only contact so far has been in battle. Of course, Itami is the perfect person for a scouting mission into this new world as there is nothing he would rather not do than fight. He basically uses his squad to lend humanitarian aid to those they come across — which in turn is great PR for the army.
It's interesting to see how Itami's actions change the world by the end of this season. What was once only the JDSF military base becomes first a refugee camp and soon thereafter a major trading hub. From there it becomes a city all its own, catering to the tastes of both worlds and becoming a symbol of cooperation between them.
On the other side of the equation is the empire that sent its army to invade Japan in the first place. Its medieval soldiers still believe they can defeat the Japanese. It isn't until the imperial princesses, Piña Co Lada (yes, that's really her name), sees the JDSF fight up close that she realises the truth: Her people have already lost, they just don't know it. Thus her story is one of politics as she goes from a princess with no place of any real power in the empire to one of the most influential people in it — trying to save her entire civilisation from its suicidal belief in its own superiority through conquest.
Piña is not the only denizen of the fantasy world that makes Itami's acquaintance however. Over the course of the story he finds himself bound to three women from beyond the gate: Rory Mercury, a demi-god and high priestess to the god of war and death; Tuca, an elf and the sole survivor of a dragon attack; and Lelei, a genius apprentice mage who is the first to realise that our world's knowledge of science can take magic to a whole new level.
Each has a different kind of relationship with Itami. Rory sees him as a companion warrior — and potential lover. To Tuca he is a surrogate for her dead father — even as she refuses to accept that her father is truly gone. And in Lelei's eyes, he is a good man and friend who is her gateway to knowledge from another world.
After spending time seeing how Itami acts in the fantasy world, the series reverses the situation as Piña, Rory, Tuca, and Lelei travel to our world. While this portion of the story is filled with both great comedy and dramatic, character-defining moments, it also exposes the series' most unintentionally hilarious flaw: it's hyper-patriotic propaganda.
The Japanese government in GATE, though having finger pointing issues of its own, has good and righteous people at the top, ready to fall on their swords to do the right thing. The Japanese army in turn is not only expertly trained but can easily dispatch the best that the US, China, and Russia have to offer — at the same time, even.
In fact, the US and China (and to a lesser extent Russia) act as one-note villains in this segment of GATE. America is shown as pretending to be Japan's friend while blackmailing its leaders and planning to drain the fantasy world of natural resources. China, on the other hand, wants to move a large chunk of its population through the gate to counter overpopulation. All three countries even send armed soldiers to abduct the women from beyond the gate during their visit to Japan. Between the one-note stereotypes and the lack of any kind of consequences for literally invading Japan, it all comes off feeling more than a little silly.
All in all, the first season of GATE is relatively strong. It has a good mix of action, politics, and fantasy with characters who are genuinely enjoyable to get to know. And while it does have some issues with patriotic propaganda, it's still a fun ride — especially if you want to see a group of soldiers fight a fire-breathing dragon.
GATE aired on Tokyo MX in Japan and can be watched for free and with English subtitles on Crunchyroll. The second season of GATE will begin airing in January 2016.