Arpeggio of Blue Steel: Ars Nova
With the sea levels rising and humanity facing a mysterious enemy, the Fleet of the Fog, the world has been separated into its respective countries, with no means of contacting each other.
One day, a member of the enemy, personified as a young girl named Iona, approaches a young cadet named Gunzo Chihaya and offers him her services against the Fog. Together, the two -- as well as the crew of the I-401; Iona's real form as a submarine, set out to travel to America, bringing a weapon that might be a turning point in the war against the Fog.
My expectations for Arpeggio of Blue Steel were a bit up in the air at first. The way the show personifies the enemy forces into various attractive girls already limits what you can do with them. Surely, shooting them down outright sounds like a recipe for a bad experience, right? Having the main cast be a ragtag group of talented teenagers might not be anything new, but this actually made me do a double take, and as such, curiosity demanded its due.
And Arpeggio of Blue Steel impresses straight out of the gate, throwing a fleet of ships against each other in a massively bombastic battle, ships against ships, numerous missiles streaking across the sky. At first appearing as seemingly normal battleships, save for ominous light patterns alongside their hulls, the Fog made for a mysterious enemy whose origin and purpose served a nice hook for any further story progress.
It helped that the ships looked great, and the ensuing firefights were both impressive in scope and flair. The backgrounds looked a bit plain, sure, but I wasn't going to hold that against a show that could very well compete with Heroic Age for absorbing battle scenes.
Yet, there was something... odd... about the show's visuals, and it actually took me a while to realize why; all the characters are also rendered with 3D CG, made to look like cel animation. While this certainly worked for vehicles and weaponry, graphics like this still has some way to go to properly emulate living forms, be that human beings or animals, and once you notice this -- sorry for spoiling it for you if you haven't started on this show yet, by the way -- you can never unsee it. A lot of times, it just makes for some awkward character movement -- like they're all just weird dolls instead of humans -- and it also gives the characters themselves an odd smoothness to them that you couldn't really get with more traditional CG. It is possible to eventually get used to it, so maybe it does help if I remind you about this before you start watching it.
The biggest weakness Arpeggio of Blue Steel has is basically how most of the main characters in the show lean towards typical harem anime arcetypes. The main character, Gunzo Chihaya, is actually duller than that. He's the kind of irritating cynic that teenagers tend to be portrayed as in movies intended to stroke their ego, and Iona -- the personification of one of the submarines of the enemy fleet -- is more or less given to him, with the strict order to follow his orders. Iona doesn't really have much of a personality, showcased by her monotonous, straightforward voice, but the ship's future crew immediately take a liking to her. The show never really point out anyone's age, at least not that I can remember, but I estimate that they're all in the 16-18 range; again, fairly typical of anime. His crew, Iona aside, consists of two boys and two girls, all filling out the required crew for submarine bridge and engineering operation. None of them have much in the way of personalities, and we don't really learn anything in particular about any of them. One of the boys wears a full helmet; a device of sorts that actually does get explained. Sort of.
It's actually kind of funny how the Fleet of Fog gets the motherlode of personality portrayals and development, even if that is limited to typical harem revelations. Named as "mental models", they all adapt human forms that can actually appear physically outside of their real bodies -- the aquatic vessels -- and even do things like eat and drink. (Though where the stuff they consume actually end up is anybody's guess.) Aside from Iona's deadpan personality, we first meet Takao, the haughty beauty (who, upon her defeat, takes a predictably shining to Chihaya.)
Actually, maybe calling it a harem is a bit unfair, because while Iona's relationship remains a bit unclear to the end of this series, Takao is possibly the only female character that shows any outward interest -- a romantic one, that is -- towards Chihaya. The next two encounters with the Fog comes in the forms of Kirishima and Haruna, two battle cruisers that, after their inevitable defeat, ends up the warden of another, rather special character.
In a sense, I have to applaud Arpeggio of Blue Steel for keeping me divided on their choice of approach; we don't really know why the Fog is attacking humanity the way it does, but the show points out that the attack was both unprovoked and decidedly one-sided, and it also continues to portray the Fog as solely out to defeat humanity, even after they chose to adapt their mental model program. It brings to mind a certain angle I would have liked seeing in Strike Witches; contact and attempts to understand the enemy, despite them being a clear antagonist. As an added bonus, nobody in the show ever make any stupid decisions just for the sake of the plot moving where it needs to, except maybe the decision to kill a little girl around the middle purely for emotional manipulation, towards both two members of the Fog and the audience itself.
It becomes even more so, once it becomes clear that any direct contact between the Fog and humanity (as represented by Gunzo Chihaya and friends) has a pretty severe effect on the Fog and their programming; almost all the ships who come into contact with them, if not necessarily immediately, eventually has a change of... heart? ...and basically defect the fleet. That message isn't exactly subtle -- the dialogue is more than happy to continuously remind us what's happening on screen -- but still, it brings the motivation and the role of the Fog into the story, which is one of the more interesting parts of the show. Because while each individual Fog mental model character tend to borrow tiresome dating game character arcetypes, it gives the Fleet of Fog itself more of a character that, sadly, could have been explored more in the show itself. Well, what we got still beat what Strike Witches did with their main antagonist, which amounted to a big fat nil.
This TV series is, presumably, not all Arpeggio of Blue Steel has to offer, and to be honest, I wouldn't mind watching more of this despite its hilariously manipulative gaze bait. There is a shadow of Macross/Robotech in here; where an enemy force almost programmed for nothing but fighting and defeating their opponent react with wild, sometimes hilarious, differences to being subjected to human beings. It can get a little insufferably preachy at times, and it ends off on a frankly ridiculous JRPGish confrontation that throws all sense of realism -- even sci-fi realism -- aside, but it was still a pretty fun ride. As you can probably tell from my mostly positive tone despite the average rating, it did exceed some of my expectations.
If you can take the odd character visuals, the sometimes smug tone of cliche'd teenage egotism against adult tyranny and the absurdity of it all, Arpeggio of Blue Steel makes for some nice popcorn entertainment. — Stig Høgset
Recommended Audience: This is a wartime show, so obviously, there are confrontations where people die, but there's nothing particularly graphic about it, so it should be fine for most teenagers. On the fanservice side, it's mostly limited to some body pans of the girls, as well as a beach sequence where you will get to see some of the girls in swimsuits. The sauciest episode is one nearing the mid-point, where Haruna gets involved with a little girl, which leads to some cosplay antics and a pretty non-sexual bathing scene that technically still is nudity. Pretty harmless stuff, really.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital stream from Crunchyroll, Japanese with English subtitles.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Arpeggio of Blue Steel: Ars Nova © 2013 Ark Performance / Shonen Gahosha Arpeggio Partners
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