Not Quite an Ars Nova

The title logo for Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova-.

The title logo for Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova-.

Thankfully no character in Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova- said, “What is your porpoise?” I’m equally glad no character responded with, “Bottle nose and fresh water.”

With the introduction of the mobile game Kantai Collection in late 2013, there has been a rise in the popularity of military naval ships in Japan. I have never had an interest in naval ships, but the anime industry, quick to adapt as it is, found a niche audience for the series Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova- (蒼き鋼のアルペジオ -アルス•ノヴァ-). During its first airing in late 2013, scheduling issues made it difficult for me to watch the series, so I was only able to view a handful of the episodes in full. But due to its popularity, I was able to enjoy the reruns in Spring 2014. In some regards, I actually found the second airing much more appealing than the initial—the additions of the shorts Kiri Kuma’s added a great amount of humor to the series—but it also allowed me to have a better look at the characters and the themes of the series. While the human characters were to a degree bland, the Mental Models, as the artificial intelligence is called in the series, are very lively. The series also touched upon the philosophical idea of who we are and where we are going, which was the catch copy for the series, and though it’s not answered, I found it thematically appropriate. The CGI animation is also some of the best I’ve seen in the industry, and while I hope studios don’t go the route of using more CGI, it definitely showed the potential for this animation style.

I am by far much more a fan of traditional animation, be it using cells or modern techniques. Though I don’t hold any ire towards CGI animation, I’ve found that as graphical fidelity increases, the more noticeable the defects in motion, facial features, and other aspects of the animation become. This issue is less visible when CGI animation is used for caricatures, but when mimicking traditional styles of animation, it’s hit or miss. At times it looks beautiful, as was the case with 009 Re:cyborg, but with works such as SD Gundam Force, CGI animation fails to impress. The technology has most definitely improved over the years, but I still find traditional animation to be much more appealing.

Yet with Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova-, I was stunned by how smooth the animation was for being CGI. At first I thought it was traditionally animated, but as I paid closer attention to the characters’ movements, especially the facial movements, I realized it wasn’t. I noticed this partially because there are times the animation is odd, but only because I was focusing on it. Of course, during the action scenes it becomes much more obvious, but considering the limitations as to how much CGI can mimic traditional animation, I never felt this was an issue. It also needs to be born in mind that the series is heavily situated in the science-fiction genre, so one has to suspend one’s belief in reality, anyway. Thus, those individuals who passively observe the series probably will not take much notice of the animation style, which, I feel, demonstrates the potential for CGI animation.

To the credit of Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova-, it’s not just the animation that made the series appealing. The series took an interesting approach to one of the fundamental questions we all ask ourselves: what is the purpose of our existence? Of course, there’s no real answer to the question, but in the context of the series, it’s fascinating. When the series opens we are introduced to a fleet of ships whose sole purpose is to destroy humanity. We also learn that a small percentage of the ships possess artificial intelligence, the Mental Models, to better accomplish their mission. But, as they acquire more knowledge and, as was the case with the Mental Models of Iona, Haruna, Kirishima, Takao, and Hyuga, interact with their human crews, they begin to question what their purpose is. One would expect the answer is simple: because they are military-grade vessels, it’s to fight wars—in this case against humanity.

The mental models as they appeared in the Kiri Kuma's shorts.

The mental models as they appeared in the Kiri Kuma’s shorts.

Yet it’s much more complex than that. Iona is the first to begin her path towards understanding human emotions and idiosyncrasies, and throughout the series she can never quite explain her change to the other Mental Models. There’s a sense she understands it at a subconscious level, but as with many of the mannerisms we, as humans, try to explain, it’s difficult for her. This same change can be seen with the above-mentioned Mental Models to varying degrees as well, and they each find their own unique answer to the question.

Surprisingly, this actually made the Mental Models far more interesting characters than the human characters of Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova-. That’s not to say all the human characters were bland, but the crew of the I-401 Iona were lacking in characterization. I understand the crew has been together for quite some time and it shows in how comfortable they are with each other. But, adding just a bit more to their personalities would have been nice. However, it should be noted adding to their personalities does not mean the background details of the crew needed to be provided since their current situation in the overarching narrative of the thirteen episodes allows viewers to see their respective personalities surface under different circumstances, especially stressful ones. But, even with that, it was odd how rarely their personalities came through. For example, at a certain point when we do see one of the character’s personality come through because he is acting in an erratic fashion under a stressful condition, the other human characters don’t express their personalities as well but instead keep very calm, including the captain, Gunzo Chihaya, although, it is his job is to keep a level head in every situation, anyway.

While the lack of characterization of the human characters is disappointing, it is ultimately forgivable. The series is more about the Mental Models than anything else, so focusing on them was definitely more important. And, there’s a good variety in their personalities to make up for the bland nature of the human characters. For example, the Mental Model for Haruna has an air of confidence about her, but when she is stripped of her large jacket, she’s reduced to being nothing more than a meek girl. It’s an interesting character flaw and used to comedic effect very well, but importantly it adds something to her personality other than just being part of the artificial intelligence for a battle cruiser. It’s very much the same with the other Mental Models as well and because of this, the series becomes more than just humans fighting lifeless navel ships.

While the themes and Mental Models of Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova- are charming, what enthralled me were the Kiri Kuma’s shorts during the rerun of the series in Spring 2014. They’re all quite entertaining and play with the personalities of the Mental Models quite well. However, the joke of all the Mental Models being stuffed bears rather than human girls was the most appealing aspect of the shorts. Not only did they play off the joke in the main series of the Mental Model of Kirishima taking over a stuffed bear, it was jut plain entertaining seeing them all move around as stuffed animals. I also can’t deny it’s very cute to look at, but that just added to the comedic effect of the shorts. It’s a shame the Kiri Kuma’s shorts weren’t included during the first airing of the series, but nonetheless it was a good addition to the rerun.

Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova- does try some interesting things with the characters, themes, and animation, and while I would like to say because of this the series is memorable, it unfortunately isn’t. This may in part be because the manga series is still in syndication, or because the anime studio Sanzigen was trying to capitalize on the rising popularity of military-grade navel ships. Ultimately, though, I feel it had to do with the series focusing on a single story arc rather than expanding on the content that already existed. Perhaps there will be more Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova- series—three of the voice actresses are still working as the idol unite “Trident” to promote the series—but only time will tell. I, personally, would like to see more of these characters and where their respective answers to the question, “what is my purpose” takes them.

Work Info
Title:
Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio -Ars Nova- (蒼き鋼のアルペジオ -アルス•ノヴァ-)
Under: Sanzigen
Official Site: http://aokihagane.com/
More Info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arpeggio_of_Blue_Steel

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