Last year, I marathoned six episodes of 16 different anime. Going in, Arpeggio of Blue Steel wasn't even on that list; but as I watched a 14th series and then a 15th, I decided to give one last anime a watch — this one — and I am so glad I did.
Good — An Imaginative World
The world of Arpeggio is unique to say the least. In the near future a mysterious fleet of ships — which look like World War II vessels on the outside — appear on the seas. However, far from what they appear to be, the AI-controlled ships contain no crew and have an arsenal of technologically superior weapons which they use to drive mankind from the sea. After then shooting down our satellites, mankind is left isolated and broken — until a young man inexplicably becomes the captain of one of these AI-controlled ships and sets out to take back the seas from the mysterious menace.
This setting is rife with possibilities for epic seafaring adventure. It's got AI and alien ships — though not necessarily of the extra-terrestrial variety. And for World War II buffs, more than a little ship porn to go along with it. Moreover, Iona (the ship) and Captain Gunzo's straightforward quest to deliver a new superweapon to the Americans for mass production gives the series a set end point that it's constantly working toward — even if it's clear the greater narrative is far from over.
Good — AI Characters That Steal the Show
But as imaginative as the world of Arpeggio is, it's the characters who steal the show — namely the sentient ships. It's stated that many of the ships have no humanoid body; instead, the humanoid AIs were brought online on certain ships so that the Fleet of Fog could better deal with human ingenuity and tactical imagination. Of course, being made to think like humans has a whole slew of extra baggage that comes with it. Watching the AI girls learn to deal with their new emotions is always interesting because while all encounter the same stimulus — i.e., Gunzo and Iona — they all develop in their own unique ways and become far different characters than they were at the start because of this encounter.
Good — Naval Warfare
The massive naval battles in Arpeggio are a real treat. They are flashy, detailed, intense, and show us really exciting naval combat. They also do a great job of mixing the sci-fi technology of the ships with crazy underwater tactics that make you feel that Gunzo really is the master strategist everyone believes him to be. Yet, even his prowess is balanced by the fact that Iona is just a single submarine constantly facing off against far more powerful battleships that often have numerical superiority as well. So while you feel the heroes have a fighting chance, there is always a sense of real danger when they head into battle.
Mixed — 3D Model Animation
Arpeggio is a quite beautiful-looking anime. But while many anime these days use 3D models for fast-paced actions scenes or non-human objects — i.e., mecha, planes, animals — Arpeggio is done using nothing but 3D models, even for the characters. This is not to say the character models look cheap — far from it — but the difference in animation style is noticeable in that the characters rarely manage to blend with the background like they would in a more traditionally-animated anime. So if you are a 2D anime purist and hate 3D models in your anime, this may be a sticking point for you.
Bad — Not Enough Time
In general, Arpeggio focuses on Gunzo, Iona, and — to a lesser extent — the other AI ships. For the most part, this is a good choice as it provides an exciting, easy-to-follow narrative. However, this also means many of the other characters and much of the setting is underdeveloped.
Frankly, there is next to no character development for the non-AI supporting cast. The rest of Gunzo's crew are left as little more than blank slates — we know their respective roles on the ship but know little more about them than that. In fact, while we do see Gunzo and Iona's first meeting, we never see (or even hear the stories of) how each of the other crew members joined nor do we learn their individual reasons for joining — they are just kind of "there."
The scope of the anime is another point limited by its focus. While we know about the state of the world in general terms, we never see what life is like for the average person. Thus it's hard to grasp the greater stakes the plot implies.
Random Thoughts — A Harem This is Not
It's important to note, while the AI ships are all portrayed as female, this is not a "harem anime" despite the large female cast.
[Skip to the next section to avoid spoilers] Aside from Takao, none of the AI switch sides because of romantic infatuation with Gunzo — in fact, several of them don't particularly like or trust him. Rather, each AI that switches sides does so for her own unique reason that is based on a facet of humanity she has experienced and now refuses to give up. Iona joins Gunzo because of loyalty to her orders — even though they are contrary to her reason for existence. Hyuga joins the group for her worshipful love of Iona. Haruna joins because of her friendship with Makie — and Kirishima joins because of her friendship with Haruna. All in all, it's excellent character development all around.
Despite its minor flaws, Arpeggio of Blue Steel was easily one of my favourites for last season. It is an excellent mix of sci-fi and naval combat backed up with an exploration of human emotions through an entertaining cast of sentient battleships. If you like films like The Hunt for Red October or TV series like Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, you should definitely give this series a watch.
Arpeggio of Blue Steel aired on Tokyo MX in Japan. It can be watched for free with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.