What's it about?
Setting: Contemporary high school
Sayuki Kuroda has a dream to make a 'bishojo game' (a choose-your-own-adventure style game about interacting with beautiful young women), and enlists classmate Buntaro Hojo to write the script after seeing his work with the drama club. She puts Bunta in charge of finding the rest of their team then sets them an impossible task: to complete a simple game in several months.
How's the fanservice content?
First fanservice: 20 minutes in, in Bunta's first visit to Akihabara as he takes in the sights. These are the moments that raised the pilot's rating from None to Minimal.
I believe this shot was designed to challenge the male gaze rather than appeal to it, so I'm discounting it and keeping the rating at Low. There are moments where one of the major character is seen through the lens of the male gaze, if only temporarily, so this seems fair.
What's good about it?
There are plenty of anime about a school club of misfits working together to achieve something great, but I've not seen as many add a commercial perspective to this. Unlike sports or game club anime, the characters don't have an individual interest in the activity, at least not to start with; they describe their roles in the club as jobs, struggle to meet deadlines on a punishing schedule and treat their tasks like work. This means they encounter clashes, crises and compromises you're more likely to find in a workplace anime.
Unlike in a workplace though, within these first episodes we establish that they are willing to sacrifice harmony for excellence, embracing the idea that a certain amount of conflict could actually contribute to a stronger end result. They push their own limits, pressure each other, act on poor judgement, fall out, make up and continue to work together towards their common goal. Their journey to create a game is far from smooth, and these teenagers are far from professional, and it's more interesting viewing for it.
Almost every character is believably flawed, and the character dynamics are satisfying. The core personal clash is between producer Sayuki, who has a very clear idea of what will make their game most commercially viable with the lowest risk, and programmer Teruha, who has an equally clear idea of what will elevate their game to meet her personal standards for greatness. The group recognises their distinct talents and contributions and works hard to keep them challenging other without pushing so hard they break up.
Bunta in particular takes on the 'glue' role which you would normally expect the producer to have; Sayuki's lack of people skills is her biggest weakness as a producer, while Bunta's lack of a critical eye is his biggest weakness as a writer. However, this show is about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, and they complement each other well. Over time Sayuki will learn from Bunta's easy way with people, and Bunta will learn from Sayuki's experience and discipline. The same is true for other characters: they have clear weaknesses I expect them to overcome or at least soften over the course of the series. You can see the seeds of this even in the first five episodes.
The most problematic character is Bunta's childhood friend whom he brings into the group: assistant director Kai. Kai dated a girl who said she liked how nice he seemed, but then dumped him for being "too nice". As a result he has come to believe that women are the worst (but lesbians are okay) and the 2D world of idealised women is the best. None of the women around him take this personally. Sayuki even sees this strength of feeling as a positive.
It's pretty awkward how this guy is presented as sweet and decent most of the time then occasionally in a murderous rage towards women. And by 'awkward' I mean 'worryingly close to the lived experience of too many women'. I hope he gets called out on that by the end of the series, but it's being played for laughs right now so I don't see much hope of that. For me, he's the big black mark against this series, but thankfully probably the most minor character on the team.
I try not to read other reviews before writing about something, but I came across a couple of disparaging comparisons of Girls Beyond the Wasteland to last year's Saekano. The premise did sound pretty similar, so I watched some Saekano to see what I thought.
From what little I saw, Saekano feels like a harem comedy starring an otaku guy surrounded by beautiful, talented and accomplished women who are keen to work with him on his otaku pursuits. No other male characters were in sight, and the male gaze was front and centre. Let me know if that's unfair and I'll give it another watch, but those were my first impressions.
Contrast with Girls Beyond the Wasteland, where those most passionate about the medium are all women, and all in different ways: the artist most enjoys drawing erotic images of women, the programmer most enjoys consuming gay male erotica and the producer, Sayuki, is most concerned about exploiting the niche in the market. Sayuki is the driving force, a high achieving young woman who is exacting and competitive, inviting Bunta into this world and offering guidance when necessary. While they are all creating a product for the male gaze, the story is not told through a male gaze lens.
This show challenges preconceptions about women who like games, manga and erotica and the men they spend their time with. It's refreshing to see female characters in anime who are sexual and interested in sex without being sexualised, and male characters who treat the women around them with respect despite objectively knowing that they are attractive. I wish more anime would clear that particular low bar.