Saturday 28 March 2015

Anime REVIEW: Kantai Collection

Kantai Collection

Unless you've spent the last year or so living under a rock when it comes to otaku culture, chances are you'll have heard of or at least seen something do with Kantai Collection. What started out in 2013 as a free-to-play web browser game where you control moe girl anthropomorphisms of famous Japanese World War II battleships has now turned into a fully recognised franchise - storming Japan with figures, manga, light novels and of course more games. However 2015 marks the year KanColle (as it is often abbreviated to) takes the leap into animation, with a full 12-episode series from studio Diomedéa. With the game still currently only properly available to play in Japan, the show's simulcast streaming on Crunchyroll marks a big step in Kantai Collection's bid for a global takeover.

Captain boring of the good ship dull

Kantai Collection takes place in a world where mankind has lost most of its control over the seas to the Abyssal - an alien and monstrous race of nautical creatures. Fighting to take back the waters are the Fleet Girls (or 'Kanmusu'), who possess the spirits of historical naval vessels and are able to done weaponised battle suits in their image. The story mainly follows the life of the Destroyer Class fleet girl Fubuki, a new arrival at the naval base. After quickly being recommended to the Third Torpedo Squad, Fubuki must learn what it takes to become a true fleet girl - training hard to battle alongside her new friends and allies.

As Fubuki gains more confidence, she hopes to one day be the escort of her idol Akagi - an ace aircraft carrier fleet girl of the First Carrier Task Force. Not just that, but as the battles progress it seems that the Admiral may have bigger plans for Fubuki than anyone originally thought.

The Fleet Girls
And this is only a handful of them

When it comes to creating a Kantai Collection anime the first thing that's going to need to be established is parameters, because it's cast is ridiculously huge. Currently the game has around 150 different fleet girls, excluding the various upgrade forms that exist (but a little more on that later). Naturally there's no way they'll all fit into a 12-episode show, so picking out the best ones and weeding it down to a more manageable cast is a necessary evil. The problem is that with all the wild and wonderful characters there are, Fubuki does not make for a good main character. The wilder ones probably wouldn't make for great central ones, but Fubuki is just so unspeakably plain that all the interest comes from those around her. However other than a handful of characters who get their own focus episodes, they all battle for the spotlight in such a way that none of them get a good showing. Fan favourites like Shimakaze (at least I assume she's a fan favourite given how much merchandise she has) are cameo roles at best, as the story mainly hones in on Fubuki and her incredibly cliché training to be the best storyline. The various fleets and team formations are poorly executed, which is rather disappointing for something which actually has put a lot of military and naval logic into its absurd concept.

Seriously, the only one with robots and she's barely in it

But even though the writers clearly didn't have a good idea how to handle so many characters without choosing obvious favourites, one thing they did clearly have an excellent grasp on is the game's mechanics. As expected the whole concept of the girls getting their clothes ripped when damaged makes an appearance (though not as fanservice orientated as I would have expected), so do many other ideas that work surprisingly well outside of the game. When damaged the girls need time to recharge (complete with an "-- hrs -- mins" timer that'll be familiar to anyone who's ever played a freemium game), the admiral is a faceless entity (as in the game you yourself are admiral) and basic mechanics such as material gathering is also mentioned. Towards the end the show also brings in the concept on "upgrading" the ships, which in the game usually results in creating an all new-look or persona for said character. Though it doesn't provide a whole lot of context for why this happens, the show plays with the concept brilliantly - making a few jokes at its expense as well as setting things up nicely for the big finale.

An Abyssal

Then you have the Abyssals, the big bad of Kantai Collection and arguably the reason for there being any fleet girls in the first place. First off they look absolutely incredible. Compared to the rather standard style of the fleet girls, the Abyssals look like they walked straight out of a Huke (the original Black Rock Shooter artist) production. The whole flaming eyes thing makes the comparison a little too obvious, but it sets a brilliant contrast to the heroes of the story and paints them as a force to be reckoned with before they even actually do anything. Which is just as well because that's all there is to them. There's no context to their "invasion" of the seas whatsoever, or even a reason of how or why they appeared in the first place - they are a completely faceless enemy that simply serve as a reason for there to be conflict. In such a short series one shouldn't expect much in the way of development when it comes to villains (especially in a show with a cast as big as this one), but even a sentence or two would have gone a long, long way. If the fleet girls possess the spirits of old vessels, why can't the Abyssals have something to do with the conflicts of old?

Which brings things on neatly to the final issue for consideration - the battles themselves. With so many episodes dedicated mostly to training, talking tactics or simply moe-fueled side stories the actual battles are often fleeting - either talking up the tail end of an episode or simply not showing up at all. In concept a lot of them are actually pretty good. Sure the bigger battleships just stand around blasting things but the smaller, faster ones skim the waters effortlessly like gun-toting ballerinas. The attacks are equally well-conceived, with bursts of arrows transforming in air strike forces complete with chibi pilots. The execution though isn't so hot, and sad reminder of the direction many shows are turning to for their action sequences. It wouldn't be fair to ignore the fact that 2D animation is a complete budget eater, but 3D models just don't have the same flare when they're rendered to look like bad game models. It cheapens both the look and experience of the whole product, and while I fully acknowledge that Diomedéa aren't the biggest studio around Kantai Collection as a franchise isn't exactly short of cash.

A fight sequence still
Looks alright static but not so great in motion

Kantai Collection had the potential to be a really good series, but unfortunately fails to do anything notable at all with that potential. Despite the writers having an excellent grasp of the game's mechanics and how to use them, the series' biggest faults lie in specifically focusing on some of the least interesting characters when including such a huge and diverse class. The actual war with the Abyssal feels like an afterthought, a means to tie the light relief segments together rather than the main focus of the story. Existing fans of the franchise will probably get a kick out of this by seeing the characters fully animated at long last (and then cry if their favourite doesn't get any focus), but for anyone else there simply isn't enough substance here to win you over outside of maybe wanting a figure or two. But I guess if it manages that then it's probably done it's job.

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