Hm. This is an anime blog, maybe I should write about anime once in a while, right? Well I’m enjoying Arpeggio of Blue Steel. I didn’t think I’d care for anthropomorphic moe WWII IJN ships, but it’s actually intriguing how they’ve handled it. There’s a lot of handwaving, but some genuinely interesting parts. It’s not Strike Witches at sea. The ships aren’t actually, well, ships, exactly. Nor is it WWII, redeux. It’s the 21st century, but after we screwed up the climate and the icecaps melted. (Either there was considerably more than 200′ of water trapped in ice, or Japan subsided. That looks like about 500′ over Yokohama.) So there’s worldwide famines and conflicts, and then the Fleet of Fog shows up. They’re automated alien weapons that land in the water and copy existing ships from our history, but with insanely higher weapons technology. For whatever reason, they copy only obsolete ships from a century before and only subs and surface combatants — no carriers. Stats are given in the OP. Yes, we’re looking at one of the mecha tropes, but sometimes the gear can be an important character — anyone remember Gargantia?.
I usually don’t do this, but I’m going to give the central concept the show is built around out first. Without doing so, it’s impossible to differentiate Arpeggio based on the setup — it sounds like Strike Witches. So, final warning, massive spoilers below the fold.
Between the two shows, however, the only thing that is common is that there are young girls, as characters, and they’re military. In SW, the girls are the human defenders and the enemy Neuroi are just a cipher — no one knows what they’re after; it would be right to term them a one-dimensional macguffin. (Witness the radical changes in their attacks made between the anime and light novels, and how little difference it made.) But in Arpeggio, the girls are (mostly) the enemy, definitely alien AI’s, and it develops they don’t even know why they’re doing what they’re doing. There’s also a guy at the center and a quasi-harem forming (heavy on the quasai-, light on the harem). The development of the show has little to do with him; nor even with the “harem.” It’s all about the girls/women.
Some of the ships among the fleet are self-aware. While they’re militarily dominant, the Fleet just doesn’t understand humans, their tactics, or why they just keep trying. (I suspect the main character’s father has something to do with it too…) They’ve developed “mental models” which are a combination of AI, holographic/solid bodies made of “nanomaterials.” Not every ship has one, just the capital ships, some heavy cruisers, and a few scouting submarines. At the start, they all obey something called “the Admiralty Code” which isn’t a central controller or leader or supercomputer. If anything, it’s almost a religion. It tells them that they are weapons, they function according to its rules, and conquest is their duty. They don’t know who built them, why they were built, or what for. And as the show makes clear, that starts becoming important to them, because once they developed mental models, they started asking these questions. (As for why they’re all female, I’ll leave that gem in the show. It cracked me up.)It’s about 17 years after the Fleet of Fog landed and took over the oceans. The world’s militaries were defeated in a mass battle off the Japanese coast, and the Fleet of Fog has cut off all communications between land masses; cables, satellites, etc. Even radio is jammed, so there’s no commerce and very little communication. Japan has been split into three parts, each with it’s own Prime Minister and Diet, in order to keep things orderly. In the Southern District of Japan, there’s a naval school with a young, somewhat ostracized student, Chihaya Gunzo. He’s got a small circle of friends (including the only female cadet in the LN; one of many in the anime), is quiet, studious, but he’s shunned because fifteen years ago, his father actually defected to the Fleet of Fog, though no one is sure of the details.
The human fleets are so outclassed that they can’t even sink a single Ship of the Fog (called such because they generated a huge fog bank covering their fleet during the grand battle, I think, but they refer to themselves as such too.). Yet the Japanese have one submarine from the enemy, I-401, which sailed into port about two years after that battle, powered down, and just sat there. Several years pass; before the show starts, I-401 is in a secure facility being studied, and shown to young naval cadets occasionally, for propaganda purposes.
Human efforts haven’t done much by the time; the ship just sits there passively rejecting any attempts to communicate or penetrate its hull. Until, of course, Gunzo touches it during his tour. One thing leads to another, and two years later he’s Captain of the I-401, his friends are the crew, and they’re all outlaws/valued mercenaries that help defend the Japanese islands. Iona, the pettanko model of the I-401, knows only two things — She’s Iona, and she has one order, and one order only in her memory: Find Chihaya Gunzo and obey him. This is the situation as of the show’s beginning, but it appears that a LOT of backstory got cut out (some viewers say everything about his crew was ditched).
Things have reached a head; with information provided by Gunzou, the Japanese have designed a weapon that can take out Fog ships… but they can’t produce many beyond the prototype. It needs to be mass produced, so one of the three governments hires Gunzo to take the warhead to the U.S., which they have intermittent contact with, so Uncle Sam can mass produce it. And the more Mental Models/AI’s that come into contact with Chihaya Gunzou and Iona, the more they start questioning the Code, and what their purpose is. They start developing independence. As this gets worse, the fleet flagship’s Model, Kongou, herself starts becoming more obsessed with destroying Gunzou and Iona. Where and how it’s going to end…. I don’t know. (Haven’t read the books.)
The battles are usually quite well done, and tense. There’s a few tropes: missile/beam spam, etc., but mostly the battles are won and lost by tactics and trickery — as befitting those sneaky humans and their incomprehensible thinking. The tactics actually make sense, even (or perhaps especially) since they’re all based on goosed-up human weapons (although, WWII IJN ships never had missile batteries like those, nor turrets that fired beam cannons.)
Gunzou himself is almost a Marty Stu; always calm, in control, with the sangfroid of a seasoned admiral, whether under fire or at dinner with the Prime Minister. His lack of personality was actually a bit of a detraction, until I realized the show wasn’t about him, it was about the “girls.” He’s the tent-pole around which the story is hung, but it’s not about him. As such, too much personality, or harem hijinks would distract from the battles and existential crises of the Fog ships. I can’t give it a final score until the season’s done, but I’m regretting that it’s only a one-cour series. I think it might have been a better story if more time had been taken with the backstory — but then again, that might have obscured the main plot too. Still, it’s never a bad thing when a story makes you want to spend more time in its world.
Update: I really confused the timeline, and it will take me too long to sort it out, so here’s a summary:
- AD 2039: the icecaps have melted. The Fleet of Fog shows up. They won’t attack land, but assert control over all the seas, starting from several points. The world’s fleets (or what’s left of them) meet off the Japanese coast and are soundly defeated. Somehow, Gunzou’s father defects.
- AD 2041 (I think): The I-401 shows up in (New) Yokahama
- AD 2054: Chihaya Gunzou makes contact with “Iona” the mental model of I-401. Together, they escape from Yokohama
- AD 2056: Start of the series.
- I could be off on the exact years, but that’s the rough chronology.
, powers down, and is “captured.”