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Naval Gazing: A History of Anime's Resurrected Warships

Gunzou and the Mental Models (not a Japanese rock-band (that I know...))
One feature of anime which has attracted academic interest, but which tends to escape some fans – and certainly many casual observers – is its role as a framework to explore some of the preoccupations, some might say quirks, of Japanese society.

Whereas Western animation generally opts for character-led narrative – the default position, one might say, for societies built on the notion of individual liberty – Japanese animation more often subordinates character to theme, so much so that many anime characters can seem one-dimensional, mere ciphers which help to move the fantastical plots along briskly.

At its most extreme, anime simply anthropomorphises the subject; creating a character which embodies a theme or ‘moe’ (a Japanese word roughly translated as devotion or object of fandom; ).

Thus, epic themes are often explored via an anime frame: the threats to humanity posed by technological advance (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Steamboy); the tension between the individual and society (the Appleseed series); Japan’s history of isolation and fear of what lies beyond (Vexille, Attack on Titan); and the adolescent hero/god complex (Death Note, most mecha), to name but a few. Heavy stuff.

World War Two has particularly dark resonances for the country. In addition to over 2m military dead, Japan suffered – uniquely – two nuclear attacks amid a bombing campaign which claimed up to 800,000 civilians. To put it into context, Japan lost 4% of her 1939 population, compared to 0.3% for the United States.

Having suffered such a crushing defeat, it is hardly surprising that the war has generally been featured only obliquely, if at all, in anime – Studio Ghibli’s powerful and affecting Grave of the Fireflies perhaps the most famous exception to date.

But in the last few years, a very curious niche has appeared in anime (and other otaku pursuits), blending some very familiar anime elements with, of all things, WWII Japanese warships. Confused? You might well be!

Submarine Iona, late of the Fog Fleet

With a few exceptions – mostly reserved for the Germans (their 1938-45 aggression notwithstanding, still regarded as People Like Us) – Western entertainment dealing with WWII has tended to portray the Axis powers as cruel, corrupt and degenerate. With the odd exception, the Japanese are usually caricature fanatics, always ready to hop out of a jungle bunker shouting “Banzai!!” until the US Marine Corps intervenes, lethally.  

In fact, on the eve of ‘The Pacific War’ (as the Japanese know it), Japan had one of the best navies in the world, possessed not only of numerous battleships and aircraft carriers, but soon to feature two of the largest and finest battleships ever to sail the seas, Yamato and her sister-ship, Musashi.

The Nihon Kaigun, or Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) – which fought endlessly with the Army for political control of the emerging Fascistic Japan of the 1930s and 40s – was the pride of the nation, a service defined by a deep sense of honour and great technical ability. It had crushed the Russian fleet at Tsushima in 1905, managed to cripple the US fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and by 1942 had expanded Japan’s empire to its historical zenith, covering half the Pacific.

However, by the end of WWII, virtually the entire Japanese fleet lay at the bottom of the sea, its ships lost in ferocious battles, sacrificed in elaborate kamikaze attacks or simply torpedoed or bombed.

It is perhaps not surprising that, at some point, someone would try to refloat the IJN and, in the spirit of a Western-facing, compliant and pacifist Japan.

One of the very first anime ever to hit Western screens was the seminal series Space Battleship Yamato (1974-75, plus numerous sequels), rendered in the US as Star Blazers.

This remarkable series saw the hull of the super-battleship Yamato, sunk in the kamikaze defence of Okinawa in 1945, refloated and converted into a powerful spacecraft (as you do…) then sent into space to fight the technologically-superior alien Gamilons.

In recent times, though, some bright sparks have turned the nerd dial up to ‘10’, combining these dead warships with some kick-ass anime superbabes. 

Just some nerds geeking out, or a brash attempt at revisionism? 

KanColle and Arpeggio go head to head
At the forefront of the modern naval reboot is KantaiCollection – KanColle, to its devotees – originally a multi-award-winning online game, still only available in Japan, which became a massive cult hit, and which then spawned an anime spin-off in 2015 and a PS Vita game in 2016, as well as a whole host of merchandise including collectable figures and a tabletop RPG. Kantai Collection boasts something like 3 million registered players, who can create entire fleets of, well, girls with short skirts and naval gun turrets, essentially.

At the same time as Kantai was bubbling up from the depths, Sangizen Studio’s anime series Arpeggioof Blue Steel -12 episodes – blended together as a movie called Arpeggio of Blue Steel: Ars Nova (who knows why?)and then a further two spin-off movies- arrived.

Kantai, sharing some illustrators and producers with Arpeggio, even hosted a special Arpeggio in-game event at the start of 2014.

The dystopian future world of the mid-21st century is the setting for Arpeggio of Blue Steel. Seemingly in direct response to mankind’s failure to act as responsible caretaker for the planet, a mysterious fleet of super-advanced warships – called the Fleet of Fog – appears out of nowhere, devastates the world’s combined armed forces and imposes a complete naval, aerial and satellite blockade. Every country is isolated.

Forced off the majority of land by environmental disaster and unidentified “other factors”, and thrown from the sea by the Fleet of Fog, the human race clings on in coastal pockets, desperate to find a way to break the Fleet’s stranglehold and avoid extinction.

Our perspective hinges on a Fog Fleet rebel, a submarine – the I-401 – whose avatar Iona pledges herself to a handsome young naval cadet, Gunzou Chihaya, who in turn assembles a motley crew of manga archetypes to go liberate humanity.

Takao, a superbabe packing a hefty punch
The series (subbed only), released in 2014, was available until recently on Netflix [in the UK], but can now be found on Crunchyroll or import DVD, and is well worth tracking down.

Visually, Arpeggio is a feast for the eyes, featuring the intensely-detailed (CG-rendered) warships, emblazoned with neon tattoo-camouflage, in some eye-popping battle scenes with Gunzou and his sub, I-401.

The naval battles forming the core of each episode benefit greatly from the crackling tension of submarine warfare familiar to us from The Hunt for Red October and Das Boot – asymmetric combat, incomplete information, the agonising periods of waiting – while the contrast between the archaic dreadnought ironmongery and the ships’ ultra-modern light-show weaponry is very satisfying.

But as if this glorious cocktail were not enough, we soon learn that Arpeggio’s avatars – or  ‘Mental Models’ – suffer from an existential dilemma. Who am I? Why do we exist? Why are we still fighting?

The theme of doubt felt by individual combatants at overall war aims is neither new nor unique to Japan, but in WWII, the Japanese military made full use of the concept of fighting for the God-Emperor in regulating their soldiers and sailors [Super-geek note: there was no Japanese Air Force in WWII. Aviators were either Army or Navy, this separation often very unhelpful during joint (eg amphibious) operations, due to intense inter-service rivalry].

Attacks were savage, defence was to the death, mercy was neither expected nor given. Individuals were expendable, their duty to expend themselves in kamikaze attacks or by committing seppuku (often, incorrectly, called hara-kiri) if they failed to hold the line.

However, the notion of resurrecting this kind of spirit in a country constitutionally-committed to peace since WWII might seem, at first blush, to be a bit odd.

Anime propaganda?
On their face, both Kantai Collection (KanColle) and Arpeggio bring back glorious Japanese naval vessels who now, very much, kick plenty of ass, but do they really represent attempts at historical revisionism? Some people think so.

KanColle, in particular, has come in for criticism, with one South Korean book accusing it of “majestifying” the Imperial Japanese Navy, a result, the book claims, of a political shift in towards conservatism among Japanese youth, born of long-term economic recession and political stagnation.

Jonathan Gad, writing on Vice.com, meanwhile, detects an “impressively revisionist” current in KanColle as part of a neatly thought-out article on the Japanese government’s use of anime to generate enthusiasm for its newly-proactive military stance.

From the perspective of US and British readers – whose navies, while suffering some pretty severe losses in WWII, finished the war victorious and largely intact – it is difficult to imagine what might be the connection with, and attraction for, a navy which was entirely destroyed as a result of its own aggressive actions, but there it is.

Forgive and forget?
Setting aside for a moment the plain fact that Japan’s WWII navy contained some of the most stylish, unusual and generally amazing ships of the time, both Arpeggio and KanColle can, I think, be seen in a different light: one where regret and redemption are the key themes.

In both, the ships have a new role, one which befits their military strength but which is leavened by the addition of a personality, a thinking being which directs their actions. And in both, those ships/girls are cast in the role of saving humanity, albeit in very different ways.

While the setting for Arpeggio is a future world of now, KanColle takes place in a world where WWII never happened. In Arpeggio, the Fog Fleet appears from nowhere to terrorise humanity, and only a rebel from their own ranks can break the tyranny, whereas in KanColle, the Fleet Girls defend humanity from the monster ships of the Abyssal Fleet, who are also trying to lock down the human race for some nefarious reason.

Arpeggio, then, acknowledges the IJN’s role as aggressor, but turns it on its head. The ships’ Mental Models are artefacts which find themselves yoked to an inscrutable authority. They have long-since forgotten why they went to war in the first place and why they are continuing a blockade which seems pointless and boring. In their – very powerful – minds, they are not ‘units’, they are individuals, and many of them have had enough.

In that, they might be seen to be analogues for many of the individual captains or admirals of the IJN during WWII, men of great honour from a distinguished tradition who commanded unwavering personal loyalty from their men. Many are on the record as expressing grave doubts about the role envisioned for the IJN and the aggressive nature of Japanese expansion, but did their duty nonetheless.
Hyuga and Takao fooling around with the Gravity Cannon... (whoops...)
While KanColle’s Fleet Girls go head-to-head with the Abyssals – a plain shift from “baddie” to “goodie” – in Arpeggio, the defeat of the Fog Fleet comes from within its own ranks. It takes the quiet, soulful Iona – tellingly a submarine, a painfully-neglected aspect of the IJN’s naval force – to disrupt the inflexible, honour-bound code of the Mental Models, literally and figuratively. In sinking them, she frees them. But while their defeats are both painful and poignant, they do not become any less powerful as a result, quite the contrary.

Seen through that lens, Arpeggio, in particular, is a pleasingly nuanced way of making sense of Japan’s fate in WWII: honouring the contribution of her individual ships and crews, while rightly lambasting her pompous, inflexible and ultimately self-defeating Admiralty and murderous political leadership. Casting the US in the rescuer role – here, the saviour of Japan, and the world, due to its superior manufacturing capability – seems significant, a quiet recognition that despite its centuries of relative isolation, Japan cannot survive on its own in the modern world.

Crushing defeat in 1945, it can be convincingly argued, freed Japan from fascism and forced the country to confront some of its own demons, installing the notion of individual will, where it had been subordinated to the state before. Arpeggio – for one – neatly squares the circle without damaging Japan’s deep sense of honour in the process, and gives anime fans a real treat in the process.   

[And if anyone can point me in the direction of a more spine-tingling collectable than one of the KanColle Fleet Girls, please feel free! I can only wish the game itself was available in the UK, but then us IJN-geeks are something of a minority – please take note, Kadokawa Games!! ]