This post analyses the subtext of Arpeggio of Blue Steel: a sci-fi/fantasy manga and anime by Kenji Mitsuyoshi and Koichi Ishikawa‘s studio Ark Performance. It is a story of a global war based at sea in a dystopian future that colourfully blends the mysticism of impossible game breaker concepts and futuristic overlays with a tangible naval narrative and World War II era vessels. The abstract/ impossible and our own reality are both drawn with the same pen. The combination of the two create a believable universe, largely because the subtext expresses both the enormity and nuance of the last hundred-plus years of global society from the perspective of the Japanese and its submarine-crew protagonists.
The war is fought against the ‘Fleet of Fog’, a mysterious inhuman enemy of unknown origin who destroyed communications satellites and dominate the oceans after climate change has brought a rise in sea-levels. Though this is obviously the conflict in the story and so on first glance it is rather straight forward, we can peel back the layers of what is explicitly said and implicitly alluded to uncover a touching subtext and many implicit nuances that relay a rich tapestry of history and culture.
This article explores what makes Arpeggio of Blue Steel so powerful, where the context of its ideas, explicit and implicit, come from but also looks at those shadowy things that storytellers and artists do not always intend on displaying, forming a bigger beautiful zeitgeist moment. It also takes care to avoid spoilers.
On the surface Arpeggio of Blue Steel is a story of facing an unrelenting inhuman enemy. There is a parable within of the need to tackle climate change but this is not (thankfully) that prominent. Arpeggio of Blue Steel is instead mostly an extended metaphor for fear and isolation being something deeply and subconsciously troubling and, depending on one’s perspective, either vital to reinforce, or break down and beat. It is understandable in a variety of ways and is more often than not demonstrative of something far more foundational, something in the genes of this dystopian future’s history – our history.
The Fleet of Fog interacts through mental models – personified incarnations of the AI entities of their vessels, and they are young women because humans (cough, men) tend to refer to ships as ‘she’. Mental models are concepts used in psychology and computer interface design. In psychology this means the understanding one has of how something works. In computing it relates to how one uses a technology. This gives a sensual and provocative/ tactile element to the story since, unsurprisingly, the manifestations of the technology are young and attractive (and did I mention they are women?). As with many anime/manga there is a range of characters with disparate personalities and this allows for a natural exploration of various ideas and subplots.
Emotion and the subtext
What in life is more powerful than love? Hatred? When historic duty is one thing, what is another? Feelings, especially ones that are new, can fuel us and our development. War galvanises. We are all capable of developing a corrective script, patching a schism, more often than not we require someone to come in and show us how things could be different or were different to how we remember them. When the backdrop is one of war this is polarising. Or at least, that’s what films tell us – we learn to trust in comrades or open up to unexpected friends. In the anime Arpeggio of Blue Steel is, at its heart, a very simple story, as Dexomega in Dex’s Review: Arpeggio of Blue Steel suggests (though I don’t agree with them over the fan service – I don’t think it’s that bad). As is often the case, this story of growth, trust, love and disorder in the face of an inhuman enemy features lots of twists but, the first season of the anime at least, leaves us with a refreshingly simple conclusion to the ark. Given how dramatically complicated it could all be, this is welcome.
Connections with history and cultural artefacts
Context of Japanese culture and history
Homogeneity, togetherness and honour unto death
Part of the story of the Fleet of Fog is of togetherness and desertion. As well as an ‘us versus them’ divide and honour unto death. The ‘us versus them’ divide is something that’s been strong in Japanese/global history. It can be seen in the story of Commodore Matthew Perry’s journey to Japan to open the country up to the west in suspicious times. Take it forward one hundred and forty years and the remnants of that can be seen in the xenophobic films of Hollywood trying to explore cultural connections or disconnections like Black Rain (1989) and Rising Sun (1993).
One Arpeggio of Blue Steel character in particular clings to togetherness of the Fleet of Fog and to a united front with paranoid hatred of its enemy and this is really reminiscent of the following: deru kui wa utareru/ the stake that sticks out gets pounded down. Where in the west we almost invert this idea: the squeeky wheel gets the grease – those who make a big enough fuss get the attention. Or approach it from another direction entirely, as Mark Burnett wonderfully describes it: In Europe and Australia, there is something called the Tall Poppy Syndrome: People like to cut the tall poppies. They don’t want you to succeed, and they cut you down – especially people from your own social class. With the tall poppy syndrome, it is not stand up and be hammered down, we all work together for it is your purpose, it is we will never let you stand up because you do not deserve to be better than us. Those themes are woven throughout Arpeggio of Blue Steel – both sides of the divide (within the Fleet of Fog but also the Japanese government and the Blue Steel) and climaxes in the end of the first season.
Then we have the position of Japan itself in the world, and the cultural identity constructed through hundreds of years of history, things that just implicitly show Japan and its culture as somehow different to the west – why do us Brits drink so much tea? Why are futons so different to western style beds? The answer lies somewhere in time, history and cultural evolution. We see a mix of attitudes in Apreggio of Blue Steel and part of this comes to elements of history like the Kamikazi of World War II. Kamikazi is a word already deep in Japanese history from the thirteenth century. Kublai Khan, who reigned 1260 to 1294 as Khagan (Great Khan) of the Ikh Mongol Uls (Mongol Empire) and founded the Chinese Yuan dynasty tried to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281. With Japan being a group of islands – this was by sea. Japan miraculously survived this by two sets of luck – in 1274 the Mongol invaders did not realise they had won and so retreated, fearing Japanese reinforcements. In 1294 the Mongol invaders were unable to land because of a two metre high wall the Japanese had subsequently built. The Mongol fleet, stuck at sea, became depleted of supplies. This second invasion saw the Mongols with a fleet second in size only to the D-Day landings at Normandy. On both attempts, timely typhoons destroyed the fleets. This became known, at a time of Zen Buddhism amongst samurai, as kamikaze or divine wind. Mythologised as being summoned by the wonderfully named (at least in when said with a knowledge of what the pronunciation sounds like in English) god Raijin, of the Shinto religion. In World War II the Kamikazi is popularly known as the pilots whom attacked American naval ships in an act of honourable pragmatism, and honour unto death – entrenched in military history through the Bushido code (“samurai’s way”).
That honour and all of the other aforementioned elements are implicit throughout Arpeggio of Blue Steel and are quite frankly fascinating and engrossing. The ships which through ‘nanomaterials’ are reanimated with game breaker, larger-than-life, technology and weapons are World War II era, which as mentioned previously give a strange ghostly aura to it all, reinforcing that feeling of the past being alive and with us. Closely related to a dichotomy between cultural ethos.
Fear of the monster
Another typical Japanese cultural artefact is ‘fear of the monster’ – i.e. Godzilla! How does Arpeggio of Blue Steel show its cultural genes a full sixty years after the original Godzilla?
Godzilla has been analysed many times in the past as a metaphor for nuclear-age holocaust and being anti-war, it is not suprising given the story is of nuclear testing resurrecting a prehistoric monster out at sea only for it to ravage boats and Japan itself. Incidentally, the film is actually also scary, one can only imagine what it would have felt like watching it at the time. Really – just the intro credits are enough to set one’s nerves on edge. But it is not just a camp horror romp, as some might see it today, it is quite clearly an outpouring of cultural fear of the atomic bomb – the two dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki after no surrender was declared in Japan despite victory in Europe. Britain and USA have not, in recent history, been invaded (or ‘settled’) and whilst there is a clear honour in both cultures – falling on your sword, or hara-kiri – it is something that of the three cultures only Japan has experienced (again, in recent history). It is so absolute, grand and final that one could argue it would breach even history itself: seeping into and iradiating cultural identity. More subversively perhaps – could you imagine standing tall, proud and honourable only for an invisible enemy to destroy a part of you in such an unnatural way that it still maimed and destroyed after the fires were extinguished? How fucked is that? How much would that change the fibres of your being?
Considering the aforementioned feeling of ‘monster’ – Japanese history showing the country as being something of a target with the first example of Kublai Khan and the second of the atomic bombing. Considering also the reliance on the ocean, one can start to build up a decent understanding on the catharses and neuroses that lie behind the story of Arpeggio of Blue Steel. Why it may at first seem strange to Europeans how an entire manga series can be primarily based at sea but when you explore more deeply it is so understandable.
Similarities with Valkyria Chronicles
As an aside, character art and personality design remind me a lot of Valkyria Chronicles. Obviously one needs to look past the difference in (fantasy) timelines – with Valkyria Chronicles set in the past and Arpeggio of Blue Steel being set in the future there are obvious disparities. The connection they do share could be with the global links of a cultural crossing of continents. Valkyria Chronicles being a product of the all-star Japanese cultural entity Sega but with a focus on (a fantasy version of) European history. Not only that, but the connections of World War II and – almost seventy years later – global identity, seem strong in both, Valkyria with the war on European soil between Allied and Axis forces trampling down historic towns and villages, and Arpeggio of Blue Steel with its focus on sea and ocean engagements. Finally consider that in both there are young male leaders both grounded and chivalrous, young and noble. In Valkyria Chronicles it is Welkin Gunther, son of the country’s hero General Belgen Gunther and in Arpeggio of Blue Steel it is Gunzō Chihaya leader of the Blue Steel, son of war hero Shōzō Chihaya.
Geopolitics, climate change and globalisation
In Zabi’s article for Desu ex Machina there is an exploration of the geopolitical and globalised context and repurcussions for the Arpeggio of Blue Steel future but a word of warning – (apparently) elements of the manga (and not the anime) are covered so there be spoilers, I hope to one day return to it, but shall not read it until then. One does feel a clash of cultures and this reminded me quite strongly of The Massive, the post-apocalyptic comic featuring a team of Greenpeace-like environmental activists aboard the Kapital searching the pirate-ridden seas and lands for the eponymous ship, as well as Das Boot and its danger fraught trip around the seas of Europe during World War II. As you might expect, a lot (but probably not the majority) of Arpeggio of Blue Steel made use of the seas and the oceans to express global dangers but then also to lay out plot on or under the big blue and it does so brilliantly. Our global fear is of terrorism’s polymorphic appearance, as well as states like Russia and North Korea whom are frequently in the global news as acting or speaking rather controversially. If you’re not familiar with geography (or just have not done so before) then just have a look at this map.
Now that we are completely connected all of the time, break those bonds and where would South Korea and Japan be? Excuse the sensationalism, but its a long way across the pacific to the USA for Japan’s longstanding ally. In an interconnected world that sees the first generation of adults coming into maturity for the first time being online for their entire lives it would be more than just an adjustment of lifestyles. It would be a complete upheaval. Take away the ability to be globalised and you take away so much of what makes us who we are.
All around our oceans we have fishing, we have oil drilling and exploration, we have tourism but we also have deep beneath the surface – communications hardware – submarine cables across all the gaps between continents. Managed by different corporations. In an age of internet communications, terrorism and propaganda are a common headline, if just on the tech blogs, and as with the naval fleets of the day, Japan is an island making heavy use of those cables and with satellites destroyed (as in the story) those cables are vital. Consider the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, some of the submarine cables were damaged in that event, the costliest natural disaster in history (interestingly the second was also Japanese). Whilst the whole premise of the internet which grew out of ARPANET was that it would survive with packets being rerouted around the myriad of routers across the world and developments are always happening it adds that extra dimension of concern. As another aside, speaking of globalisation and internet technologies, the anonymisation of threat to the internet – a genuinely pervasive side of all of our lives – feels rather insidious. Yet that is exactly what the beautiful chaos of hactivism and online hacker groups creates, either in victims who had it coming or for others who perhaps didn’t. Maladies of the modern world!
Climate change and environmental damage
Then we have the horror on the horizon – climate change, something that with extreme weather patterns etc. would scare the shit out of me if I lived on an island. Oh… yeh. Rising sea levels are a core of Arpeggio of Blue Steel inasmuch as its now probably unavoidable and so any subject matter dealing with a future has to take that into consideration, especially one set at sea, but also because the Fleet of Fog has, at least it seems, appeared in response to the rising sea levels created by climate change. Now this reminds me of one of the staples of my life – Final Fantasy VII, in particular the idea of environmentalism and the healing of a planet scarred by uncaring industrialists/ abstract menace. In Final Fantasy VII there are a number of forces at play trying to heal the problems with the planet (the power company and political and military force, Shinra Inc and separately Jenova and cult antagonist Sephiroth). Those forces are Cloud Strife, environmental activists AVALANCHE, Aeris (the last surviving Ancient/ Cetra) and their crew and Weapon(s) – enormous monsters spawned deep inside the planet in response to the extra-terrestrial life form Jenova the “calamity from the skies”. These Weapon and the Fleet of Fog draw huge similarity – though the story of the Fleet of Fog has not been told in its entirety (in the anime) – they are both abstract concepts manifest, and both seem to have come about because of damage done to the planet, damage to Gaia if you will (the Greek goddess and personification of the Earth).
It’s a strange new phase of history. One particular strength of this side of Japanese culture is the capture of the homogenous cultural zeitgeist/spirit of the age. The ability to take the smell in the air on a cold night when people are simply head-down getting on with things and materialise it before our eyes in artistic mediums like manga and film. This can be seen in works like the aforementioned Godzilla, but also Akira or more recently Attack on Titan. There in that strong, dream-like perception and interpretation of neuroses buried deeply within the individual and collective psyche is an outpouring of creative energy by artists, authors and development teams. This is not a monolith though, it does not stand there in isolation, perhaps more importantly is the outpouring of consumption by the public. Why else has The Walking Dead, the story of people surviving an apocalypse, only to persist through hell on earth with no promise of hope at all, been so popular in this time of global recession? Those cultural artefacts that work and sell are not only constructed deliberately but consumed deliberately too, and this symbiosis is what creates the legacy and therefore determines how strongly the dysfunctional “art imitates life imitates art” process shapes the zeitgeist.
Arpeggio of Blue Steel is great, the anime is succinct; flashy enough to engage and yet introspective or meditative enough to allude to a greater depth in its subject matter. The surface level themes are commendable explorations of family, love, trust, suspicion, climate change and war, but as any great story does Arpeggio of Blue Steel implicitly understands the giants on whose shoulders it stands and the history upon which those giants were forged. It taps into the zeitgeist in a way that classic works of Japanese culture do, but instead of having an identity that is principally Japanese like Godzilla or Akira it stands alongside other contemporary works like Attack on Titan and embraces the globalised world we all live in. As a dystopian sci-fi paranoia is inevitable but it expresses this paranoia in a very human, mainstream way rather than a cagey fanboy way. From a humble beginning available on Crunchy Roll to stream it is now on Netflix and the manga is continually being made available in English. I think it’s going to be a big one (if it isn’t already)!