Reviewby Theron Martin,
KanColle: Kantai Collection
BD+DVD - Season 1
Abyssals are a fleet of ships which mysteriously appeared from the depths of the sea to terrorize shipping lanes, pushing humanity out of the sea in the process. To fight back, humanity assembled Fleet Girls, young women born with the ability to embody the spirit of WWII-era warships, and equipped them with Outfits so that they can skate out across the water to engage Abyssals. Fubuki, the name ship of the Special Destroyer class, is a new arrival to the Naval District and will join Torpedo Squadron Three in its effort to fight the Abyssals. The problem is that she has no prior battle experience, so she faces a steep learning curve just to even do basic things like consistently balance on water. For unknown reasons, though, the Admiral in charge of the Fleet Girls sees special promise in Fubuki, so to live up to that she strives to prove her usefulness both to herself and her fellow Fleet Girls.
The Strike Witches franchise features teenage witches who essentially become anthropomorphized WWII-era fighter planes in an effort to fight off alien invaders. Arpeggio of Blue Steel features young women who are avatars of revamped WWII-era naval vessels in a war for control of the seas involving a fleet of mysterious origin. This Winter 2015 TV series, which is based on a highly successful Japanese Web browser game, combines elements of both. Traces of its game origin linger in various aspects of the series, such as the instant-repair mechanism, the way that remodels work, and the conceit that the Admiral who directs all of the girls (and who is the player in the source game) is never actually seen or heard directly, even when he is in the scene. Thankfully, though, the series as a whole doesn't remain a slave to the game mechanics, thus allowing the story and characterizations to stand on their own merits. You need not be at all familiar with the source game to understand and enjoy what is going on here.
You do, however, have to have an appreciation for at least one of two things: moe antics and/or historical military allusions. Most of the couple dozen or so recurring Fleet Girls are standard moe archetypes in personality, quirks, and appearance; you'll see characters similar to them in just about any other series involving cute girls in the military or military-like situations, whether it be High School Fleet or Girls und Panzer. (Fubuki, for instance, is practically interchangeable with Hikari from Brave Witches or Yoshika from Strike Witches.) The Fleet Girls spend the bulk of the first half of the series going through normal moe-in-the-military routines, too – and yes, that includes distinct yuri antics involving one couple, though you could hardly expect anything less in a setting where men don't seem to exist at all beyond the Admiral. These antics can actually be pretty funny in places, though on the whole humor is more a sidelight than a focal point. The content does have its serious moments, too, as one character sinks/dies relatively early on and that has some definite consequences both immediately and later in the series.
I generally found the military allusions to be the more compelling draw, though, as they represent a fresher angle. Each of the Fleet Girls is named after a particular Japanese warship, and considerable effort has gone into patterning the appearance and behavioral quirks of the characters on the ships they represent. For instance, there is a distinct correlation between how tall and busty one of the Fleet Girls is and how big her namesake ship is, with Yamato being the biggest on both fronts and the regular destroyers often looking barely-pubescent. Fubuki initially has trouble balancing on water because Special Destroyers were prone to being top-heavy, a ship having notoriously-heavy fuel consumption is depicted here as the corresponding Fleet Girl having an enormous appetite, and a ship known for being the fastest in the war is depicted as the corresponding Fleet Girl always looking to race. The Outfits that each Fleet Girl wears when on a mission are meant to at least partly mimic the designs of their source ships, with aircraft carriers using a bow and special arrows to launch their planes. (And the planes, incidentally, are piloted by chibi female pilots.) The series also comes up with creative ways to represent actual battle damage, such as by having a carrier whose elevator got destroyed in an analogous historical battle have her bowstring shot through here.
Those historical references implicit in the series' storyline can also be a draw even if nothing else is. Though a lot of the early events seem like just ordinary battles, much of the series actually closely replicates the circumstances in the western Pacific during December 1941 and the first half of 1942, with the Abyssals playing the part of the U.S. Navy and Marines and the Fleet Girls naturally representing the Japanese Imperial Navy. An early attack on “W Island” is a clear reference to the Battle of Wake Island, which is where Japan suffered its first naval losses; you'll know in advance who's going to die if you look up the account of that battle before watching episode 3. A later attack on “Coral Island” is based on the Battle of Coral Sea, even down to being referred to as a tactical victory but a strategic loss, and a still-later surprise Abyssal attack on the Naval District might be intended as a reference to the Doolittle Raid.
The centerpiece of the series, though, is the lead-up to and follow-through on the pivotal Battle of Midway, which dominates the latter half of the series. This version duplicates many of the actual historical circumstances, including the same use of code names, that the enemy had broken Japanese naval codes, and that one enemy carrier which had been badly damaged but not sunk at the Battle of Coral Sea (the Yorktown) came back to haunt the Japanese at Midway. However, since the Fleet Girls are the heroines here, the final battle is only going to be historically accurate up to a certain point. That turns the final episode into an exercise in breaking the cycle of fate by changing up some of the circumstances which contributed to the historical defeat of the Japanese Imperial Navy. As a result, the final episode may be an uncomfortable viewing experience for some American viewers, and all of the cute girls in the world don't offset that. Whether this is just an innocent “what if” scenario or some message is actually intended here can also be called into question.
The visual effort by diomedia is one of the studio's sharpest headlining efforts to date. Crisp, attractive character designs showcase the girls either in a wide variety of school uniforms or traditional Japanese dress (the carriers generally dress as Japanese women do for archery, for instance) and considerable detail effort goes into the equipment designs. The animation effort mixes some CG into the battle scenes in a manner somewhat similar to how Brave Witches handles it, but it's unobtrusive enough that it might pass notice if you're not specifically looking for it. Whether apparent or not, it contributes to remarkably dynamic action scenes and an overall very high level of quality control. Despite one character dying and others getting roughed up, graphic content is almost nonexistent, as battle damage for the Fleet Girls shows as Outfit and clothing damage rather than actual grievous bodily injury. The clothing damage mostly isn't salacious, though, and despite some characters frequently spending lengthy periods in baths (which apparently double for repair facilities) the actual prurient fan service is minimal.
The musical score for the series uses a full symphonic orchestra throughout, which produces a suitably dramatic sound in action pieces and graceful but fittingly lighter numbers in less intense scenes. A melancholy insert song is also used in the episode in which a character dies. Opener “Miiro” combines orchestration with a rock beat but doesn't actually stand out much, while closer “Fubuki” does likewise but with much stronger results.
Funimation is releasing the series in a standard Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, with the case coming in a slipcover. Somewhat surprisingly, this is a lower-key release for them, as there is no Limited Edition version or audio commentaries. In fact, beyond clean opener and close the only Extras are a commercial collection and a collection of in-character warning notices from the original Japanese releases. The release doesn't subtitle the opening and closing song lyrics, either, and includes translated and English credits only as an attachment at the end of each episode. (In other words, the way Sentai Filmworks has commonly been doing it.) It does also include the English dub for the series, which required Funimation to dip pretty deep into its talent pool to avoid using the same voice actress for different roles. The result is still fully satisfactory, with a significant effort made to reproduce certain speech quirks; one character regularly tags her statements with “poi” for no particular reason, for instance, while a character who was supposed to use a lot of British slang is given word choices in places that are definitely not commonly-used modern slang.
KanColle is among the most popular franchises originating in the current decade when it comes to doujinshi creations, and this anime version should give you good insight into why. It doesn't offer much for depth in plot or character development but it plays to its strengths – cute girls, naval battle scenes, and military references – quite well and looks very good in the process. Those who enjoy the series should also keep an eye out for the non-recap movie, which was released in Japan late in 2016 but has yet to be licensed as of the time of this writing.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Strong visuals, battle scenes, creative use of historical references.
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