Sunday, December 29, 2013

cowCase Reviews: Arpeggio of Blue Steel

In the year 2039, the combined naval forces of humanity suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of a military force with weapons technology that far surpasses their own. The fearsome assailants? A group of heavy warships, termed “The Fleet of Fog,” who are commanded by “mental models,” robot-like representations of the minds of the battleships that take the physical form of little girls dressed in frilly clothing. Fast-forward seventeen years, and one of these mental models, named Iona, approaches a human naval cadet named Gunzou out of the blue, offering herself (and, by extension, the advanced Fog submarine she represents) to Gunzou to command. Gunzou accepts the offer, and embarks on a mission, piloting the Fog submarine to defend humanity using the very weapons that almost brought about its end. Meanwhile, Iona and several of the other Fog mental models appear to be warming up to Gunzou and developing emotions, which mental models are not supposed to possess. It's almost impossible to not note that this entire premise seems like a very elaborate way of creating a scenario in which scantily-clad girls say things along the lines of “you're my captain, please pilot me.” Judging a book by its cover is, of course, wrong, but having thought about Arpeggio of Blue Steel for longer than I ever really wanted to, I don't feel too bad about saying that that initial impression was ultimately pretty close to the money.

Perhaps fitting for a story that's partially about machines coming to terms with life, the world of Arpeggio seems to be constructed from the ground up using pure CGI. Everything about it, from characters to ships, bears the obvious stamp of computer generation, and this, unfortunately, is CG of a cheap-looking and ugly breed. If there's one thing the show consistently gets right, it's light—explosions, lasers, computer displays and the like look good more often than not, but that's about the only visual aspect that I can genuinely compliment, and I'm reaching pretty far for that one. Backgrounds and other such niceties don't look so nice, with the ocean in particular often being rendered as a noxious purple-black cloud which bears shockingly little resemblance to a body of water. The design and color choices are poor—the characters all have the same pale, waxy complexion and widely spaced eyes. Add some otherworldly hair and wardrobe malfunctions, and everyone starts to look pretty ridiculous. Add some extraordinarily stiff animation (all characters move with an awkward, jerking hobble, all ships move at a stuttering crawl), and, frankly, you'd be hard-pressed to tell who is supposed to be a human and who is supposed to be a member of the more robotic Fog; they all look equally like paste-colored marionettes. This condition is only worsened by the show's repeated attempts to force its decidedly mechanical characters to do something sexy; it's like watching aliens awkwardly attempt to imitate aspects of human sex appeal, and something about it is strangely disquieting. The core of the show's aesthetic is thoroughly repulsive to no real artistic or thematic end.

The music, mostly a mix of cheesy techno and uninspired string/horn compositions that seem tailored to fit the seafaring nature of the series, soars to mediocre heights. Okay, cheesy techno aside, some of it actually isn't too bad, but variety is an issue; this is one of those shows that have two or three songs for battle, two or three songs for dramatic moments, and a few minutes' worth of atmospheric noises that get recycled over and over again. The music direction is sub-par, with tracks often starting too late to have any impact on a given scene, or starting too early and overriding dialogue. Sound certainly isn't the show's worst department—actually, by simple process of elimination, it might be the best—but suffice to say it doesn't excel or help cover the show's weaknesses, as good music sometimes can.
Looking at Arpeggio's story in a “big picture” light reveals interesting results in that, at the end of the day, there's really no detail to it whatsoever. The world-building is virtually nonexistent, to the point where I'd venture to say there's little that you couldn't learn about the world of Arpeggio from reading a three-sentence plot synopsis. The show proffers a fairly elaborate premise, but it stubbornly refuses to answer any questions about its overarching plot or setting—not the ones that will naturally occur to you, and, perhaps worse, not even the ones that it explicitly raises. Among the former will be perfectly logical ponderings, the answers to which would be required to achieve a minimum amount of richness in the setting, like: In a war where both sides have advanced futuristic technology, why aren't there any airplanes? If the Fog mental models are nearly indestructible and visually indistinguishable from human beings, why don't the Fog just send them ashore to covertly destroy vital targets? And so on. Among the latter will be vital, should-really-be-answered queries along the lines of “what are the Fog?”

No, seriously, they never even attempt to address that. The Fog battleships repeatedly refer to themselves as “just weapons” that are “programmed to obey the Admirality Code” (the Admirality Code being an ill-defined set of rules, first mentioned three-quarters of the way into the show, that governs the actions of the battleships). This leads to the assumption that the Fleet of Fog are just tools, and the true masterminds behind the Fog invasion lie elsewhere; weapons require weapons designers, and programs require programmers. The show hints at human interactions with the Fog—it's suggested that the main character's father defected to the side of the Fog—but the idea lies abandoned and utterly unexplored. The mysteries are never solved. Much of the show is spent fighting a shadow enemy whose nature, origin, and motivations remain completely veiled. Several episodes of the series even have the audacity to end with a taunting overlay of text which reads (presumably referring to the Fog): “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Even after the credits rolled at the end of the final episode, I could still only answer all three with “I don't know,” which spells trouble.
All of that might be forgivable if the setting and war were only a backdrop used to stimulate some excellent characterization—such tactics have been known to work . And, honestly, that might be what the series is going for. Whatever else might be wrong with it, it does expend a fair bit of effort (largely wasted effort, but genuine effort nonetheless) trying to explore its characters. Sometimes it comes within arm's reach of the right notes. Like Haruna, an especially cold and vicious Fog mental model, forming a bond with a perceptive young girl who emotionally disarms her, or Iona's struggle to obey Gunzou's orders while knowing that obeying could potentially cause his death. Those aren't bad ideas at all. The show wants, desperately, to have characters who change, and change they do. It's telegraphed at us, and not very subtle, but it's there.

The problem is that the impetus for change is missing. The series has flawed internal logic—it presents the Fog mental models as thoughtless machines, explicitly stating that they are governed by programs that cannot learn from past mistakes, adapt, or feel. There is never a convincing reason given regarding why they suddenly adopt emotions and human values. And that's kind of a big deal. I don't care how heartwarming the story of a little girl is, or how charismatic a sailor is—if you put robots who have no capacity for emotion next to them, the robots will not suddenly be moved to tears and love. No amount of emotion can overwhelm something that is literally incapable of feeling emotion. Talk to a wall for a little while and you're likely to notice that, no matter how much and how loud you talk, the wall does not respond. This is because your voice's volume does not alter the complete and utter inability of the wall to comprehend and reproduce your language of choice. Same difference here; the presence of emotion in the outside world can't simply inspire emotion in the void of a computer. That's deeply flawed thinking which would require a workaround within the context of the series. If there were some sort of external explanation provided, even a cheap one like “turns out there was a hidden emotion switch in the Fog after all,” some sense might be made of the situation, but, predictably, there's nothing. Which sucks, because that means that half of the equation is missing. If a character changes, I'd like to know why it's happening, or it's just as bad as having a character who is static and unmoving. If you present characters as machines, and then they suddenly sprout the mindset of normal human beings for no real reason, it defeats the entire narrative purpose of presenting them as machines in the first place. It essentially strips the characters of their distinguishing features, and adds a big tint of insincerity to everything that they go through.

The last thing that might have saved Arpeggio would be the battles. It sounds next to impossible to screw up “giant sentient battleships blow each other to hell,” and while good execution of that concept would not necessarily result in a good series, it would at least provide an audience with one reason, lacking any others, to watch it. But even this somehow manages to go awry. Never has large-scale warfare been so boring. The battles, though sometimes as long as ten or fifteen minutes, are dreadfully uneventful, usually consisting of a lot of technobabble about force fields and gravitron cannons and the like. The more strategy-focused crowd will be glad to know that our fearless captain, Gunzou, is the proud creator of such novel naval warfare tactics as “wait for the enemy to fire a bunch of torpedoes at us, then dodge them, then fire back and hope it works.” Battles are regularly concluded with routine and anticlimactic solutions, such as the above, or solutions that appear out of nowhere, such as Gunzou realizing that he can just use some weapon or defensive feature of the submarine that the audience didn't even know existed. Even when things do get dire for all of those aboard, the lack of emotional resonance in the writing assures that the tension level remains at zero.

What I'm getting at is that this show consists of misstep after misstep, and they often work together to form seamless spans of pointlessness which would be a waste of time for anyone to endure of their own free will. The lack of world-building and knowledge about the Fog coincides nicely with the characterization issues to form a gaping hole where the compelling internals should be. The dreadful animation and boring battles sync up all too well, affording the audience a chance to stare at a low-stakes game of chicken that isn't even produced well enough to serve as an eye-candy distraction. When all was said and done, I came away with the impression that I had basically watched a show about things who look like girls that do stuff for some reason. And I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone.

Score: 3/10; exceedingly poor.

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