I've ragged on Seven Seas in the past for their focus on subpar harem and moe titles. Every once in a while, though, I'm forced to eat those words when they bring out something surprising. Sometimes it's a series about a little girl investigating with Sherlock Holmes, sometimes it's their continued support of yuri titles, and sometimes it's solid little oddballs like today's selection.
ARPEGGIO OF BLUE STEEL (Aoki Hagane no Arupejio), by Ark Performance. First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2014.
In the near future, many of Earth's major cities have been swallowed by the rising oceans. What's left of humanity has more than just the ocean to fear, though. A mysterious and powerful group of ships known as the Fleet of Fog roam the world's oceans, sinking all ships that they come across. Normal military methods are ineffective against them. There's only one ship that stands a chance against them: the submarine I-404. It's a former Fleet ship that can project a human avatar of itself, a young blonde girl who calls herself Iona. Together she works with Captain Gunzou Chihaya and his crew to take back the oceans from the Fleet, one ship at a time.
Arpeggio of Blue Steel is a solid little seinen action manga. It's not all that deep or meaningful, but put together in a way that works smoothly and entertains.
The setting strikes a nice balance between science fact (like rising ocean levels) and science fiction (like sentient high-tech battleships). The idea that these ships are so advanced and intelligent that they can create near-perfect human avatars is a neat one and a notion that makes something as mundane as interacting with a ship's computer all the more interesting. I do wish it didn't require all the ships to create avatars of cute, fashionably dressed young girls, because it's the sort of naked otaku pandering that a story like this doesn't really need.
Still, the story gets a lot of good mileage between the strange friendship between Iona and the captain. Yeah, sometimes their conversations are there solely for the sake of exposition, but there's a gentle, comfortable vibe between the two that implies a long-standing relationship between the two. It's a shame that outside of those scenes, Iona is portrayed in such a bland, stoic manner. We see with the opposing Fleet ships' avatar that they are capable of developing independent thought and personality, so I don't know what Iona's deal is. At least Gunzou at least has a bit of backstory and character going for him. We get hints of him being a navy brat, which would certainly explain his comfort and capable leadership at sea. While he can be a little flippant at time (especially during the almost Bond-esque escapade at the very beginning), we see that when the situation calls for it he can be a thoughtful and decisive leader. Their relationship is certainly a better developed one that Gunzou's relationship to the rest of his crew. Clearly we're meant to be amused between the visual contrast between the two, as Gunzou wears a sensible suit while his crew dresses like they wandered off the set of Hackers. Still, they are serve their roles on-ship admirably. I only wish I had cause to care for any of them.
There's not much else to talk about outside the crew of the I-404. There are a few scenes with the military brass from both Japan and the US, but these serve mostly as exposition dumps as well as a chance to build up Gunzou as this great naval leader. The ship battles themselves are straightforward if not a bit predictable. Really, that sums up the story as a whole. It's not all that deep or original, and I wish it had done more to develop the world around our two main characters here and now, but it's got a lot of good action and a lot of potential to grow into something better.
Arpeggio's art is just as solid as its storytelling. While the characters tend to be a bit plain looking, the ships are drawn with loving detail. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the artist (artists?) might be a ship otaku. After all, this runs in the same magazine as gun-loving series like Hellsing and Trigun Maximum, so a bit of fascination with another sort of machinery is not all that strange. While the Fleet of Fog ships do get a bit of fantastical in their look, every ship here is clearly drawn from real-world reference. The action scenes are well-assembled, with a grand sense of scale as well as tension. This art won't set the world on fire, but it's clear that the artist(s) has a lot of skill, a lot of interest in the subject matter, and a good eye for action.
This was one of the first of many surprises I enjoyed this season. Those looking for a well-made and unchallenging action series could do a lot worse than read something like Arpeggio of Blue Steel.
This series is published by Seven Seas. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 10 volumes available so far. 2 volumes have been published and both are currently in print.
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