The Fall 2019 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Azur Lane ?
What is this?
War, no matter the era, is always the same basic thing. That does not mean, however, that it will always be waged in the same way. After the advent of mysterious female aliens known as Sirens, humans were unable to have navies or even sail the seas peacefully. This led to the creation of young women with the powers of warships, aircraft carriers, and other similar vessels, as well as the formation of an alliance known as Azur Lane to fight the Sirens. However not everyone could agree how best to do this, leading to fights between countries' girl-ships as well as against the alien menace. Will there be enough winners to justify this fight?
How was the first episode?
Apparently the demand for WWII battleships as teen (and younger) girls was greater than I ever anticipated, because Azur Lane is the second such series to exist, following Kan Colle. In fact, the mechanics appear similar enough that I would almost accuse this of being a rip-off, if I remembered Kan Colle better. In any event, welcome back to WWII, where once again we are presented with a dizzying succession of battleships of both Allies and the Axis drawn as sexy young ladies.
I suspect that that last sentence made up many people's minds as to whether or not they want to give this show a chance, and if you don't have a specific interest in that very narrow genre, this one may be pretty easy to skip. While it makes nice use of a bright color palette and has some shots of girls gliding over water on their magic shoes, for the most part there isn't a lot to this as far as introductory elements go. There's a very large cast of characters (not, thankfully, all named yet), plenty of scenes of girls with their clothes failing to cover what they ought to, a little lesbian (incest?) fanservice, and a lot of info-dumping, all of which seems to indicate that no one was entirely sure where the focus ought to be to best hook new viewers while appealing to fans of the original game. Oddly enough, there's also no explicit mention of the story taking place during an alternate WWII, so if you're not up on your naval history, that's not immediately clear, making the use of the Iron Cross initially off-putting. Not that it's great to see it anyway, but the use of it in a historical context makes its purpose clear, so not giving us a timeframe beyond “after the Age of Discovery” was not a great choice.
On the plus side, Azur Lane wholeheartedly embraces its own premise. When a clearly American (excuse me, Eagle Alliance) ship-girl proudly exclaims that she and the other have “the power of battleships embedded in our bodies!” as she's transforming into a girl with a large jet-pack that has a few ship bits stuck on. Thought clearly went into each character design and how the pieces of the actual ships would be used, and if the show also falls into the trope of the “Americans” wearing star-spangled socks or bikini tops with cowboy hats, well, we should all be used to that by now. The decision to make the “Japanese” ship-girls nine-tailed foxes is a little more baffling. Also, don't get me started on the actual flying unicorn.
While this may develop more of a nuanced plot going forward, this episode really doesn't do much beyond introduce the premise and throw far too many characters at us without developing any of them even a little. If you just like the look of the transformed girls, it should be fun for that, but otherwise, this is a niche title that doesn't seem ready to expand outward just yet.
The Azur Lane mobile game is a Chinese creation that was, unsurprisingly, inspired at least in part by the success of the Japanese game Kantai Collection. Indeed, after watching the first episode of this anime adaptation, it's hard to perceive it as anything other than a blatant rip-off of Kantai Collection. In fact, I am hard-pressed to think of another case where two unrelated anime series conceptually resemble each other as much as these two do.
The fundamentals of the two series seem to be exactly the same: various characters are Ship Girls, the embodiment of various WW2-era warships. They can manifest miniaturized components which resemble their affiliated ship's design as bulky apparel and weapons and can skate across the seas (if necessary) to do battle. The Ship Girls exist because of an alien force which has ravaged the seas, but in this case the alien force has already been successfully beaten back and the action has moved to the next stage. Hence the one new spin that this series adds is that the warfare is not against an inscrutable enemy this time but instead against a rival faction, creating a rough equivalent of an American/British pairing against a German/Japanese pairing. Hence they're still basically fighting out World War II but just coming at it from a different angle.
The interesting detail here is the shift in focus. So many characters are dumped out in the first episode that determining who the main ones will be is difficult. However, what is clear is that the American and British forces are going to be the good guys here and the Japanese forces are the enemy who's made some kind of pact with the aliens. That's a stark contrast to Kantai Collection, which did the exact reverse. That shift might make the series more palatable to Western viewers who aren't hardcore otaku, as the writing is already showing that esoteric references to the American and British ships are going to be a thing; referring to the Enterprise – the most successful and decorated warship of WW2 on the American side – as the alliance's strongest fighter seems appropriate, and it even uses the Enterprise's nickname of “Grey Ghost” (so earned because the Japanese claimed on multiple occasions to have sunk it but it kept coming back to battle). Details like that were the hidden treat of Kantai Collection, so using them here was a wise decision.
Of course, much of the appeal here is supposed to be the moe draw of watching the girls engaged in combat, and the first episode devotes a considerable chunk of its running time to that. In fact, this is the most action-intensive opening episode that I've seen in a while, with extensive use of CG featured throughout. Even though I'm not crazy about the exact visual style here, the production team went all out to make a fast-moving, splashy visual and auditory impression and succeeds at generating a fair amount of thrill factor. Those productions values also seem to be shading a bit more in a fan service direction than Kantai Collection, for better or worse; it is not blatant yet but is there if you look for it.
While I'm not sure about the series as a whole, it delivers enough on the action component for me to give it at least a middle-of-the-road grade. Whether or not it's worth attention for the long haul will depend on how its character development shakes out.
Azur Lane stands as the newest entry in a now-familiar trend, of mecha musume-derivative mobile games getting adapted into traditional anime. Like Kan Colle, Touken Ranbu, and various other recent entries, Azur Lane reimagines famous weapons of war (World War II battleships, in this case) as cute anime characters, who all split their time between hanging out like a school club and battling for the fate of humanity. And also like its recent genre compatriots, Azur Lane's first episode must contend with a serious dramatic obstacle: converting a largely narrative-free collection of over-designed characters into some kind of coherent dramatic structure.
Azur Lane starts off much like Kan Colle's adaptation did, by offering a quasi-slice of life introduction to a wide variety of ship girls, as new base arrival (and aircraft carrier) Unicorn searches for her pet unicorn. As usual, it's hard to imagine someone new to this franchise getting much enjoyment out of this sequence. Engaging narratives generally demand focusing in on a few key characters, but the appeal of a game like Azur Lane is “pick your own favorites,” and thus adaptations of these works are generally obligated to introduce far too many characters. On top of that, all the characters we meet fall into simplistic anime archetypes, and their absurd designs, while fun in the context of a mobile game, make it impossible to take any of their conflicts seriously. Additionally, the actual conflict being focused on here just isn't interesting at all; it's transparently an excuse to introduce more and more characters, who each do their little character gimmick before promptly exiting stage left.
Things pick up significantly in the second half, as an attack on the base sends all our shipgirls into action. First off, likely because the Azur Lane game is developed by a Chinese company, the battles here aren't underwritten by uncomfortable historical revisionism; in fact, the Japanese fleet are actually the attackers. While most properties like this deliberately try to set themselves outside of human conflict, allowing their characters to indulge in the “fun” of war without any self-reflection, Azur Lane emphasizes how even after an existential threat, human misunderstanding and war will remain.
But far more importantly, Azur Lane's big battle is just really, really silly. When Unicorn is called into battle, her pet unicorn actually grows large enough for her to ride, and she takes the skies while firing lasers that transform into fighter jets. In response, a Japanese aircraft carrier transforms into a giant wolf, and begins roaring missiles in her direction. Azur Lane seems to embrace the fact that its premise is ridiculous, and leans into the absurdity of its battles with glee. On top of that, while certain elements like Unicorn's flight look wonky, the animation on the whole is actually solidly above average, and there's even some energetic fight choreography.
I don't think I could in good conscious describe Azur Lane's premiere as “good,” given its boring first half, threadbare storytelling, and garish designs, but I certainly wasn't bored. If this show continues to find equally absurd ways to realize its inherently preposterous battles, it could make for a pretty entertaining ride.
During the onslaught of premieres that arrive every season, I do try hard to keep an open mind about every new show I watch, but there are some personal red flags that have begun impossible to ignore for me over the years. I must admit up front that I have precisely zero vested interest in shows that exist to fetishize warships, warplanes, or vehicles of any kind, really. That goes doubly so when those vehicles are inexplicably anthropomorphized into overly cutesy anime girls. When it comes to anime based on mobile games, I can count the number of decent ones I've seen on a single hand – so already, I'm the furthest thing from what must be Azur Lane's target demographic. Shows like this are, more than anything else, a corporate product made mostly to appeal to folks who have already bought into the brand, which makes them that much harder to digest and evaluate for a genre outsider like myself. It's like asking a vegan to evaluate the newest ad campaign for McDonald's Chicken McNuggets, except in this case the McNuggets are dressed up in skimpy outfits and strapped with heavy artillery.
So to that end, is Azur Lane any good? No, not at all, unless your qualifications for good rest solely in whether a show has a modicum of visual flair, and a divergent enough array of outfits for its cast of anthropomorphic boat girls to wear. In that regard, sure, Azur Lane checks all of the boxes. None of the boat-girls here are real characters, mind you, but they're given just enough expositional slurry to spout in between action scenes to qualify as vaguely distinct individuals. Plus, the Japanese boat-girls are also kitsune, for some reason, so you'll never have a problem distinguishing them from the American boat-girls. The over-reliance on chintzy CGI doesn't do the fight scenes any favors, but their flashiness offers a fair amount of spectacle that manages to entertain in spite of how aggressively calculated its attempts to appeal to its niche audience are.
If you don't belong to that niche audience from the get go, though, I struggle to imagine what kind of appeal Azur Lane might have. Its story and world seem to exist only to supply more scenes of half-dressed boat-girls fighting and flirting with each other, and even then, I have to believe such material is a lot more fun in interactive video-game form. There is a scene where a distressingly young-looking boat girl rides a literal flying unicorn into battle, though, and I doubt there is any other show you'll be getting to see that from this fall.
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