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January 22, 2015

Kantai Collection: A Miserable Little Pile of Attributes

You know, a lot of times I find myself wishing that I was good at art.  Historically, my skill with arts and crafts is such that it takes me three times longer to do what everyone else already has…only instead of having something of insane quality to show for it, my products look like something made by a curiously-intelligent two-year-old covered in baseball mitts.  It’s a problem for sure, but that hasn’t stopped me from at least trying; what’s in my head will never match what shows up on a page or screen, but I can at least get close.

I pretty much have to, because I’ve been trying to redesign (and have redesigned) a bunch of my characters.  Plenty of them are in a good spot, but there’s one I’ve struggled with for a while -- to the point where she’s both the one who’s been iterated the most and the one who’s in the direst need of it.  So for a while now, I’ve been scouring the internet for images, art, and resources to give me some ideas.  Inspiration -- a sort of loose guideline to help me nail something down before I go insane.  I think I’ve come up with something, actually…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut there’s an issue I’m more aware of than ever.

Which brings us -- however randomly -- to Kantai Collection.

I’ve known about the property for a while thanks to stuff like TV Tropes and a smattering of anime sites.  If you haven’t heard, then here’s a super-basic rundown: Kantai Collection (or KanColle) is a popular browser game in Japan that has you take the role of admiral so you can command girls with the spirits and armaments of WWII naval warships and do battle with enemies from the ocean’s depths.  I don’t know much about the game’s actual quality, but regardless it’s done well enough to earn an anime adaptation.

And actually, I was interested in seeing what came of it.  There are a handful of things I know conclusively about KanColle, even if they are the only things I know.  One: there isn’t really that strong of a plot.  Two: it’s packed to capacity with “cute girls” for every persuasion.  Three: the premise, as I choose to interpret it, is CYBORGS BATTLING ENVOYS OF THE ABYSSAL ELDER GODS ON THE HIGH SEAS.  That’s unbelievably metal…figuratively and literally, considering the comparisons drawn to a certain magical franchise.  As you can guess, I kept watch for the inevitable episode one reviews, waiting with bated breath for good news.

As you can guess, I was disappointed.  Turns out the show is less about being metal and being more about “cute girls doing cute things.” 

I’ve watched the first episode (and read up on the second and third), and I can say this with some confidence: when it’s about naval warfare, it’s actually kind of interesting.  Not perfect, mind -- it’s fairly well-animated, but it kind of goes to waste against enemies who just absorb/shrug off long-distance shots, and there aren’t any perceivable stakes besides “if the girls get hit, their clothes get torn”* -- but it’s serviceable.  When it isn’t about naval warfare, the show is borderline intolerable.  It’s probably unfair to judge it by the first episode, but when I think about shows that have done far more in their first episodes (any number of shows from the Shonen Jump cadre), I get the feeling that the focus is misplaced.

The show could have been more than just squeaky-voiced girls walking around, eating food, overreacting, and having bouts of heavily-implied lesbianism blushing.  To be fair, it could still be more later on, but the first episode was a chance to establish that from the get-go.  Instead, I found myself groaning and massaging my forehead as three squeaky-voiced little girls engaged in platitudes and pleasantries.  And they did that for the majority of the episode (which I tuned out of when able); Fubuki is ostensibly the show’s main character, but she’s unbelievably grating.  She’s nice and earnest and hardworking, but easily-flustered and clumsy!  But she’ll always do her best!  And she’s adorable because of it, because…we say so?

I just love how Fubuki gets sent off to her first mission -- despite being established on-land as a complete klutz, not just by virtue of running into a tree branch -- without anything even remotely close to formal training on the grounds that “she’ll be fine”.  Maybe she should have gotten some practice in instead of sitting around eating parfait.  Nah, who am I kidding?  It’s not like she’s specifically come to this place to fight against an abyssal army from the deep.  Just watch those two girls feed each other, even though it’s said almost flat-out that there’s no reason for us to dwell on their presence or character!  It’s all about lip service for the fans who care about Girl A and Girl B, as opposed to Girl P and Girl µ!   

Again, I’m dwelling on the first episode, so there’s always a chance that things will get better.  But here’s the thing: of the three girls that are ostensibly our leading trio, I’ve already forgotten the name of one of them and what separates her from the others (besides the fact that her voice is the shrillest of the lot).  And I don’t even remember what separates the other girl from the others besides adding “poi” to some of her lines.  And it hasn’t even been a month since I saw the first episode.  So my question is this: why are the girls that appear in this episode integral to the story?  Why did they show up out of the hundreds of others?  My answer is that the guys behind the anime drew names out of a hat -- because the way things are looking, outside of their looks and quirks, nearly all of these girls are interchangeable.

I’m not asking for any high-concept pieces of art here.  But when you can’t beat competition like this, it may be time to re-evaluate.

I guess I shouldn’t really be mad.  The KanColle anime in its current state plays out exactly as what I should have expected: a bunch of cute girls -- ones well-noted for their fan-earning traits -- doing what they’re famous for in a full, official 2D production.  (Though to be fair, it transitions to 3D when it’s time for high-seas battles.)  In a sense, neither the anime nor the game was made for me; they were made for people who’ve already been won over by the franchise in its myriad forms.  They were made for people who have had their hearts swayed by Fubuki, or Atago, or Kongou, or…or…a little girl wearing a tiny skirt and a highly-visible thong?

*sigh* Let’s not dwell on that any longer than we have to.

I’m willing to make my peace with the anime…is what I would like to say, but I can’t.  Why couldn’t this anime be made for me?  Cyborgs versus eldritch horrors?  Sign me up for that shit.  And I doubt I’m the only one who feels that way.  Just think about it: the KanColle anime represents a chance to do something with the property that hasn’t been done before, at least not on an official, big-budget level.  It’s a chance to bring in new fans with the promise of something exciting.  And that excitement can come from any number of sources.  From an impactful story.  From a slew of interesting, well-made heroines (which are more important now than ever).  From moments, action-based or otherwise, that’ll stay fresh in any viewer’s memory for a while yet.

This anime doesn’t have that.  It’s just got cute girls -- and they’re not even all that cute.  Unless you like girls who act as if they have the collective brainpower of a single toddler.  Such enthusiasts do exist, I’m sure.

Oh yeah, sure.  Taken individually, these girls are all aesthetically pleasing.  And given just how many “fleet girls” there are in the franchise, it’s safe to say that there’s something for everyone.  Here’s the thing, though: in an effort to be cute -- to have nearly everyone be cute, via a piled-on array of attributes -- no one ends up being cute.  No matter what they look like, what they do, or what their quirks are, the girls aren’t sufficient enough to endear themselves the way they were intended to.  The way they were designed to.

This isn’t a problem unique to KanColle, so long as “moe” is still a phrase with some traction.  But it’s a problem highlighted by KanColle.  Cuteness has become routine; it should be a property that accents the specialness of a character, but instead the mix-and-match attributes of the whole thing have made for an aesthetic -- if not mindset -- that hurts everybody on every level.  The creators, the audience, and especially the story all take a licking because instead of being characters, the fleet girls are just blobs of attributes.  Of things.  And instead of enjoying a character because of what she has to offer -- according to the creator’s smart design -- it’s all a matter of latching onto whoever ticks all the right boxes from person to person.  Finding something like this doesn’t help matters.

I don’t know for sure if all of the characters in that gif are the same or different, but the problem is that I can’t tell that at a glance.  Whereas a show like The Simpsons is damn near built on all of its characters having instantly-recognizable silhouettes, everyone in that gif has almost the exact same face.  In the best-case scenario, that’s just an unfortunate side effect of the artist (hopefully not the official one) only knowing how to draw one face with slight variations.  In the worst-case, the fleet girls are best differentiated by their clothes, hairstyles, and color schemes.  And bust sizes, I guess.  Because as you know, there’s no other determinant of a body type.

I know for a fact that not all the fleet girls are carbon copies.  But even those examples are ostensibly masses of attributes in their own right.  Okay, sure, fleshing out every character in the context of a video game isn’t the easiest thing, nor is adding in a cohesive story.  (It’d probably help if in the game there weren’t nearly seventy girls just in a single class, but that’s neither here nor there.)  It’s just that I have two problems here.  Again, the anime represents a chance for the franchise to do the fleshing-out that the game can’t; even if it has to narrow the focus to a core cast of characters, doing something fresh and satisfying with the canon is better than doing the same old, same old.  But more importantly, this approach of “characters that are only attributes” isn’t helping anyone.

I find it utterly hilarious that cute high school girls in anime/manga are (or are becoming…or have been) to Japan what grizzled, burly white dudes/soldiers/killers in video games are to the States.  Wait, did I say hilarious?  Sorry, I meant utterly depressing.  I mean, how is it that a lot of modern-day anime has a four-to-one ratio of girls to boys, at least, yet it’s a struggle to get even one of them that’s actually good?

I understand the basic mindset.  I mean, back in the day people didn’t choose Street Fighter characters based on gripping backstories or fleshed-out personalities; people went to Guile because he was American or Zangief because he was big and beefy.  Hardware and software limitations alike kept explorations of the characters to a minimum -- the stuff tucked away in manuals and/or rewards doled out after beating cheap bosses.  But times have changed.  The standards are different now.  Street Fighter 4 put up an effort to try and get more out of its world warriors, so -- even if it’s by baby steps -- the characters once differentiated by their looks are becoming something much bigger than their nineties iterations.  Capcom wants to capture the hearts and minds of fans by virtue of its characters.  That’s the way it should be.

Conversely, stuff like KanColle wants to capture the hearts and minds of fans by virtue of attributes.  With pretty pictures.  That’s a well-known and casually-accepted fact by this point, but that doesn’t make it right.  I’ll admit that attribute-based works are a gold mine for fans, in the sense that they get the tools to make interpretations of characters and canon that surpasses the official works.  But why should fans have to do the work?  Why would the creators -- of anime, of manga, of games, of whatever -- be content with just slapping a bunch of clichés on a character and be done with it?  What about artistic integrity?  What about pride?  What about that simple, earnest desire to tell a good story?

I’d assume -- or at least hope -- the drive is still there.  But much like the big-budget games industry, it could be a matter of meddlers making sure that the products they put out make money.  “More twintails!  More tsunderes!  More striped panties!  More cute girls!  More school!  More blushing!  ESPECIALLY more blushing!  Their faces must ALWAYS have blush!  You want to eat, don’t you?  THEN DO NOT QUESTION MY BRILLIANCE!” 

And I guess that ultimately, that ideology -- however unsavory -- does work in the end.  KanColle wouldn’t be a thing if not for its blobs of attributes earning favor.  People found girls they liked, became fans, and gave their support.  And with the sheer number of girls offering a sheer number of attributes, the effect multiplied by a factor of who-knows-how-much.

Here’s the thing, though.  Stuff like KanColle may earn money.  But it may not earn respect.

Say what you will about Naruto (I sure have), but it lasted for nearly two decades for a reason.  It told a story about a boy who wanted to become the king of the ninjas, and the struggles therein.  It showed us a world where ninja magic is practically a part of everyday life, and where people of myriad styles -- and countries, before long -- did battle for the sake of pride, glory, nationalism, or even ideals.  And let’s not forget that even if we didn’t see everything in episode one of season one of the anime, we saw enough.  We learned who Naruto was -- his desires, hardships, and personality -- in the span of some twenty-two minutes.  It was simple and straightforward, but effective.  It’s part of a franchise that, in its own right, has earned fame and fortune alike.  So how it is in the face of something like Naruto, something like KanColle would refuse to even TRY to do the same?

How is it that the canon that once produced this:

Has in recent times given birth to THIS?

I mean…come on, man.  Fuck.

I’ll be fair, though.  Making something like Naruto requires both a huge investment of time and energy, and of course it takes plenty of skill (or failing that, common sense…or failing that, an obsession bordering on madness).  You’re not going to be able to wring a massive story out of every property, mediums aside; realities and resources won’t always allow it.  So in a way, I can’t say I feel any envy for the guys out to adapt KanColle into an anime.

That said, they sure didn’t set the bar high.  And by “they”, you could arguably extend that to the makers of the game; actually doing something with characters and concepts may not be easy, but it’s not 100% impossible.  I’m pretty sure there are indie devs out there right now who are making or HAVE made games with stories as sprawling or as minimalist as their minds and bodies will allow.  So why bank on a bunch of cute girls to win favor?  Why pander when you can aim high?

Why resort to cheap tricks when you can earn true loyalty -- true respect -- with a single good idea?

I don’t know.  I don’t have a really good answer; all I can do right now is shake my fist angrily at those who’ve slighted me.  There’s no good call to action that’ll immediately inspire a change in those who have, at a bare minimum, an ocean separating us.  At most, all I can do is aspire to take my words to heart.  And I hope you do, too.  Characters are the life blood of a story, and doing them justice means more than slapping attributes on them and calling it a day.  I understand that, because I’ve seen those who have done justice put their works boldly on display.  And I want to follow their example.  The right example.

So.  You can count me out of watching the KanColle anime; I’ll keep up with what other bloggers are saying about it, but I don’t anticipate jumping back in unless there’s a massive shake-up.  That in mind, I don’t want to play the grumpy old man card and say “ANIME WAS BETTER BACK IN MY DAY!  EVERYTHING NEW NOWADAYS IS JUNK!”  That’s simply not true.  I’ve heard good things about Assassination Classroom, and I’ll try to check it out someday soon.  Last season’s Ore, Twintail ni Narimasu had its issues -- a paper-thin budget well among them -- but despite its absurdity managed to do something fairly clever because it explored those attributes.

And then there’s Gundam Build Fighters.

I…I think I love this show.

*For the record, I’ve read up on the fact that one of the fleet girls ends up getting sunk in episode 3, but given the sheer quantity of girls that could take her place (as established in the first episode) and the fact that it’s less of an impactful moment and more of a cheap way to show “it just got real”, I’m not about to sing praises anytime soon.  That’s especially true when the 2nd episode more or less gave in-universe justification for 15-hour baths…and the potential fanservice therein.  Riveting.

1 comment:

  1. I was never a big fan of Barbie, mostly because I had a variety of toys I played with. If anything, I was more into Disney since I had more interactive computer games and toys than Barbie stuff. My parents had no issues with me dressing up Barbie and Bratz dolls one moment then playing with Hot Wheels race tracks another moment. I played with whatever I thought was cool, girly or boyish.

    Looking back on the girly things I had while growing up, none of the toys, games, or movies (or the companies that made such products) "indoctrinated" me into being what society expects a woman to be. Because of this, it's hard for me to comment about the negative or positive shifts in making toys for children due to my supposedly "liberal" standards. I don't care if a boy likes playing with dolls; he might actually have an eye for dressing up nicely and properly, which is far from a terrible skill! If a girl wants to play with race cars because she likes machines or action, she should go for it too.

    What I have noticed in recent years is how extreme the toy sections are in stores. As a kid, I remember seeing one pink aisle, one blue aisle, and a variety in-between color-wise and toy-wise. Nowadays? I see nothing but extreme pink and extreme blue aisles with no middle ground. I don't know what's going on for sure with American culture, but the mixed signals are confusing me. My guess is that people want to think that girls can do whatever they want, but the so-called "boy" things need to be colored pink for a girl to be interested. Meanwhile, boys need to stay in their blue section with no hope of having anything "girly" (but still practical) to dare sneak a peak in their aisle. It's like we are trying to move forward with one gender while simultaneously missing the big picture: stop indoctrinating us into assigning colors to a gender or sex.

    But I have nothing against the Barbie brand. I believe that the problems like the engineer book controversy are only small pieces of a bigger societal ideology and standard that needs to be scrutinized. Looking at the source of the disease is more potent than attacking the symptoms, but unfortunately that takes a very, very, very long time to accomplish.