Save a penguin, dropkick an orca.
I was actually intending to drop Kantai Collection -KanColle- fairly early on, because it was fairly obvious that I was not in its target audience. I wrote about some of my concerns when I introduced the show at the start of the season. But I thought, hey, this would make for a pretty interesting exercise. Surely it’s possible to be outside the intended audience and still enjoy a show. I mean, Japan still does gender distinctions as parts of its genres, but it’s not like shoujo is secret women’s business taboo to males (I wrote about Akatsuki no Yona just yesterday). So I decided to stick with it. For science. I even did some flimsy research on general mechanics of the original game so that chibi faerie things didn’t look completely stupid. I really wanted to like KanColle, because it has such hype and popularity in Japan, and I wanted to experience their buzz.
I wrote about my reactions to episode 03 here, on that other blog I purport to keep. It’s not exactly the most flattering piece, and it’s mostly downhill from there. There were some blips of promise; I thought episode 05 was going in the right direction, for example, but then episode 06 came around and proved me wrong. And, really, I’m not too sure which parts of my disapproval is due to the show actively alienating non-fans, or due to bad writing. I’ve already talked about the fan-pandering issues before, so I’ll skimp on that discussion this time. In fact, I’m going to start positive.
As far as production goes, KanColle actually looks pretty good. Sure, the CGI was still a bit stilted for me, but I can appreciate what they were doing and it was a good try. Otherwise it was a very shiny series—characters generally stayed on-model, animation never froze too long, there were lots of explosions. All this was accentuated the main point of the show: cute girls doing things, and sometimes those cute things involve firing some guns or something. The designs were mostly pleasing, and I do understand the work put into building those WWII homages, even if they do make characters act and dress arbitrarily dopey. In fact I wanted more of WWII. The start of the first episode, with the recitation of the Gosei, was an excellent opener, and a reminder of Japanese military discipline. Girls lounging around eating ice cream? Less so. I guess that’s why I enjoyed the soundtrack, because a lot the bombastic orchestral score is perfect for sailing off to war to. When KanColle tries hard to build an atmosphere, sometimes I can feel it. Yeah, it’s the sea! They’re sailing! I get it! Because the ship girls can be so metaphorical sometimes, this kind of background work is required to keep it all together.
Alas, while many pieces of KanColle can be considered good, they come together rather messily. When watching it, sometimes it felt like that KanColle wasn’t really sure what to do with itself, tried to do all sort of things at once, and organised those pieces poorly. The mood swung back and forth without proper transition, action and slice-of-life segments were less meshed together and more stitched haphazardly. Story elements are introduced ad hoc and then promptly discarded, then suddenly picked up again when convenient. A character is killed in episode 03. Some people cry about it. Then death becomes an insignificant passing thought again. And then they bring it up again in the final episode! KanColle never manages to really hang onto a central theme because it’s all over the place. It’s a problem that it suffers on a smaller scale too, in the battle scenes. Perhaps I was expecting more along the lines of the careful tactical maneuverings and cautious long range engagements of actual naval battles, but KanColle looked like a mess. A mess, but not an interesting mess. Far too often all our protagonists are arrayed on essentially a flat surface, they take turns either calling attacks or spouting catchphrases, and then fire in some direction. That’s Final Fantasy I, guys. I can’t tell how the actions of each character relate to each other without someone saying it out loud, and have no idea about the greater context of the battle visually. There seems to be an endemic problem with KanColle production: neither the direction nor the scenario seem to be able to maintain coherence for extended periods of time.
There are eight words that no writer ever wants to hear about their work:
‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’
It’s not about making characters likeable. Many of KanColle‘s characters are likeable on a subjective level; that’s the franchise’s main schtick. It’s about making the conflict of each character feel personal to the audience. Whether it’s the villain or the hero, us or them, love them or hate them, I want to feel invested in the outcome—success or failure—of what they’re doing. Only a small portion of KanColle‘s cast is actually afforded significant development; the rest could be scripted automatons and I wouldn’t know the difference. I know that there is a game franchise behind all this, but you can’t rely on that for an adaptation, especially if your original game had little in the way of writing to begin with. In the context of this story we have here there just isn’t enough reason to care about everyone involved. A lot of the heroes just have catchphrases and nothing else. All of the villains are just Things that Shoot. One of the Abyssals finally says something, but all that comes out is generic bad guy garbling. At most it sabotages the air of aloof mystique they had about them, and that was all they had going for them.
The most egregious example of this problem is the so-called ‘Admiral’. He purportedly has a master plan behind what everyone is doing. He is purportedly well loved at the base. He purportedly convinces everyone that Fubuki is important. He purportedly supports Fubuki based on some creepy dream he had. But he doesn’t even exist. He’s not a character. He’s a device that manhandles the plot to the convenience of the writers. He’s at best a painfully awkward in-joke made at the expense of giving him substance. He’s not anyone, he can hardly be me. I don’t care about him. But KanColle keeps trying to make me, shoving their soggy cardboard, bland and ill textured, down my throat. Worse than sour or bitter is the taste of nothing. It’s not even filling.
All of this poor scenario management comes from writers getting too excited and trying to throw on more and more characters and plot elements without properly developing what they already have. Just look at these final few episodes that comprise the final campaign and our ending for this season. A basic rule for endings: don’t introduce new stuff, you need to sort out your old stuff as a priority. Yet here’s this Taihou person. Who in the blazes is she supposed to be? And this ‘fight fate’ thing that crops up. It wasn’t even a theme until your last two episodes; where did that come from? Wait, so the Abyssals are Allies? Are the shipgirls fighting them over a questionable imperialistic agenda? Am I allowed to root for them anymore? Gah! I know a second season has been greenlighted, but when one’s wrapping up the season (and the story arc) one shouldn’t introduce even more characters and more elements and then leave them hanging. That’s not just bad writing, that’s bad manners.
…Have I really been going on for a thousand words? Wow, this thing is long. I should have just added a second picture. Sorry.
Look, I don’t ‘hate’ Kantai Collection -KanColle-. What I actually have is an abiding sense of apathy. I really wanted to like this anime, but now that I’ve come out of the 12 episodes and found that I can’t, it makes me feel bad. I wish I did hate it, then I can go full hyperbolic and lampoon it. Instead, it’s like a perfectly healthy young patient who’s inexplicably dying in ICU. How do you explain it to the family? It’s an unpleasant job.
I’m still acutely aware that the target audience of the KanColle anime are ardent fans of the game, and that I am not its point, but I’ve tried to discuss what is objectively problematic about the show. Yes, there could still be subjective factors clouding my eyes, and if only I were drinking the Flavor Aid I would see the light. There really is no reason, though, why the KanColle anime couldn’t be written tightly, couldn’t be more self-aware, and couldn’t have general appeal. They can do that and still high five the established fans. The pure fanservice anime is a completely unnecessary indulgence. If they had focused on making something good instead of something marketed the fans would still have respected them for it, I’m sure.
With all that in mind, join me in two days when I talk about how THE IDOLM@STER: Cinderella Girls, while not at all doing everything perfectly, at least does it better.
(For even more anime-from-games discussion, I also recently wrote something about the Persona 3 Movie #2: Midsummer Knight’s Dream. Check it out if you want here)