Ships just got real moe
You have the right idea when you think Arpeggio of Blue Steel as "ships plus moe." That's what I thought going in, and I think that's generally correct. What that idea did not prepare me for was the whole "ships" part of the equation, or where most of the show spent its time.
Arpeggio of Blue Steel is a story about the future of mankind resting on the shoulders of a renegade, a privateer, or just your average anime protagonist with a chip on his shoulder. It's also a story about naval warfare-- about ships, submarines and sailors. Sure, it's got these girly avatars for weapon platforms of mass destruction, but click on and see why there's a lot more to it than that.
It's probably my natural tendency to be really forgiving when we're talking about moe anime that combines some kind of military concept. I've enjoyed everything from Tactical Roar to Stratos 4 and of course the post-Strike Witches crop of shows like Girls und Panzer, as the newer entries in the genre are further refined and better honed to entertain within the same demographic. It's fair to say that Arpeggio of Blue Steel falls in line with that idea.
But what greets you after starting up the show is its very daring production style. Unlike the usual digitally composed 2-D animation, Arpeggio is entirely done with 3D computer graphics. This creates a weird situation where, while the combat scenes look gorgeous (much like early 2000s OVA quality), in exchange, the character animation often feels jarring. For some, it will land squarely in the uncanny valley.
It is also almost as if Arpeggio's creators anticipated this, so the story opens up with a dark room where you can't quite make out our characters clearly, and follows up with a couple Hollywood-style big action scenes involving countless ships shooting at each other. By the time the narrative slows to tell you the actual story, you're invested enough in the show that you're prepared to deal with how jarring the animation sometimes looks.
Thankfully, a lot of the time what makes the characters appealing is obvious when they really aren't moving much. Arpeggio's main heroine Iona looks the part of a moe mascot when she's just sitting still, poking at a starfish. And Iona doesn't do much; most of the heavy lifting is done by the thing she represents: a WWII-era looking submarine, featuring force fields, SF torpedoes and thrusters. The mechanical design of the sub is eye-catching, to say the least, as it combines futuristic elements with a style out of a WWII film.
The other notable ships in Arpeggio are part of an unknown threat called the Fog--think of them much like the Neuroi from Strike Witches--a mysterious and unstoppable threat that took over the seven seas, and drove mankind out of them. Using jammers, lasers, cannons and missiles on board invincible battleships, the mysterious Fog forces were able to establish naval and air superiority while destroying satellites in space, crippling the global economy and communications between continents and countries.
Arpeggio's protagonist, Gunzo Chihaya, actually captains Iona's U-boat, along with a ragtag crew that are made up of his former classmates, male and female. It's a nice change of pace because it adds an element that's unusual for the genre. What isn't so unusual is that the Fog battleships also have strange moe girl mascots of various types, and so far they're all named after famous battleships in the Japanese Navy. Maybe it's time to note that the eyecatch for episode one features an illustration crossover with Kantai Collection, the popular Japanese online social card/battleship game.
I think there's probably something solid within the strange shell that is Arpeggio of Blue Steel. The story moves along at a brisk pace, helping to take your mind off of the strange setup setting, although it's hard to not dwell on why the Fog ships have human girls as avatars and why they are sentient. Sure, Gunzo's war-hero-went-MIA dad probably had something to do with it down the road, and sure, Iona just pulled an Inori moment during the climax of episode 1. But there's something compelling going on and I kind of want to see what happens next, crossing that uncanny valley one step at a time.
[Arpeggio of Blue Steel is on Crunchyroll!]
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