#1 Humanity is thoroughly fucked
When I heard the premise for Arpeggio of Blue Steel, I expected a show that was lighthearted and more than a little silly. How serious of a plot can you really tell with a concept like: “boats are cute anime girls” after all? So imagine my surprise when episode 1 starts off and I am immediately reminded of Neon Genesis Evangelion instead of Girls und Panzer.
Global warming has already consumed large portions of the planet, washing away entire nations and devastating both the planet and its inhabitants. Life carries on for a while, but it’s in 2039 that disaster truly strikes. A new enemy, known only as The Fog, emerges from the now-expanded seas. These are battleships equipped with unimaginable weapons and technology, which are also entirely sentient and unmanned. War breaks out, but the United Nations fleet is effortlessly wiped away by this highly-superior foe. Years go by, communication networks are destroyed, underwater cables cut, and satellites shot down. What remains of humanity live in isolated pockets with almost no ways to contact one another.
Arpeggio does not fuck around. The world is in ruins and humanity on the brink of extinction. It’s intense stuff and I was curious to see what the anime would make of a setting like this.
#2 A cool team of unlikely heroes
The story is set several years after the initial outbreak of the war and centers around a group of former students. Gunzou Chihaya is a talented man who is one day invited by the military to inspect a captured Fog ship. Panic breaks out when the ship jumps alive upon Gunzou’s touch, and the following day a young girl wanders into his classroom, demanding he follow her to the docks.
This girl is Iona, a physical embodiment of the Fog submarine I-401. She has somehow become duty-bound to serve Gunzou, who gathers his classmates and stages an escape. They form a mercenary force stationed in Iwo Jima which helps Japan fight back against The Fog.
The crew of the I-401 are cool characters, both in design and personality. I took a liking to Sou, who is a dude with his head encased in a metal mask that looks more than a little unsettling, but who is very mild-mannered and organized. Kashihara similarly had a cool hip-hop look going on and has a very youthful personality. The crew is then further balanced out by two girls, the highly-dependable operator Shizuka and the legendary mechanic Iori.
Gunzou himself is a brilliant, selfless captain. He carries a great responsibility both to his team and humanity as a whole, yet approaches every battle with stoic confidence. He can appear stiff at times, but he soon reveals himself to be a caring and selfless leader who always puts others first, and who always looks for the best way to save as many lives as possible. Iona is a perfect partner for him. Her motivations are wrapped in mystery and she’s quite strange, but she has the strength and determination to execute Gunzou’s ambitious plans, and supports his ideas even when everybody else rightfully believes he may have gone mad.
#3 CGI put to good use
First impressions of Arpeggio could not have been lower. The CGI imagery and horrible-looking background characters had me concerned that I was setting myself up for another Kotobuki. Fortunately, the CGI began to rapidly improve as the show carried on, and I ended up being glad that I had decided to stick around.
Yes, shots with extras in it or just crowds of people are going to look mediocre, but Arpeggio doesn’t do those often. It prefers to focus on the recurring cast and big battles, during which the CGI is pretty good to downright impressive. The ships especially are cool to see in action. Regular battleships that fire rockets and torpedoes are already plenty cool, but the Fog ships with their strange lights and absurd technologies are a delight to see in action. Battles between them and the I-401 are always amazing, relying on a mixture of brilliant tactics and overwhelming force. Laser beams, magical shields, enormous rockets, it’s got it all.
Even later episodes that have the characters on land and feature some ground battles end up looking much better than the first 2 episodes implied. Arpeggio is no Land of the Lustrous, but it’s certainly closer to that anime than it is to Berserk.
Iona is not the only one of her kind. Several of the Fog ships have developed similar personas, all of which are colorful villains who have nothing but contempt for humanity. Their designs and personalities are really cool, and I enjoy how they all have interesting friendships & rivalries among each other, even though they are senselessly cruel towards Humans.
Without wishing to spoil, these characters also go through fun character arcs as a result of their encounters with Iona and her crew. Characters who I thought would just be villains-of-the-week ended up sticking around throughout the majority of the show and enjoyed development on par with some of the main cast members.
The battleship persona Haruna was especially entertaining and a good example of a character who had enough room to develop and a personality that was entertaining enough to warrant her promotion to permanent cast member. Season 1’s villainess Kongou is another great example, and the tie-in movie introduces a whole new cast of Fog ships of its own.