Spoiler warning: This post discusses the events of Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio / Arpeggio of Blue Steel in detail and contains significant spoilers.
I was late to pick up Arpeggio of Blue Steel last year, but it immediately shot up in the ranks of my favorite anime works from that period. Arpeggio is great fun as a self-contained sci-fi show, but there is also that religious undercurrent to it that I found fascinating. After all, Arpeggio was leaning very closely to classic Western ideas, despite its Japanese staff. Immediately upon finishing the series, I started looking around for a Christian look at the show, and medievalotaku obliged with a highly-detailed reinterpretation of the show as a parallel of the Bible.
As I read the article, though, I was surprised at how different the things medievalotaku noticed were from my own observations on the show. Turns out there was even more Christian material in Arpeggio than I thought! (But that possibility was one of the reasons why I wanted a more knowledgeable blogger to tackle the issue, of course.)
The following are my own thoughts on the religious themes contained in the show. While not a direct response to medievalotaku’s article, reading both should be interesting as a comparison of two perspectives on the issue.
The Holy Feather
While medievalotaku became sure of the Christian undercurrent to the show in the couple final episodes, I found it impossible to ignore the evidence presented at the midpoint of the series.
Episode six of the show sees battleship Haruna, a competent and powerful member of the Fog, in a pinch in her battle against the human armed forces. The irony of her predicament is that, weakened though she might be at that point, she is not losing because of a lack of power. Rather, she is dead set on shielding the human child Makie, and thus finds herself in a hostage situation. Her best bet would be to kill the foot soldiers first, then go after the people controlling the artillery, but Haruna has just been taught that it is wrong to kill, and she chooses an uphill struggle of disabling her opponents without killing them. The army going after her has no concerns regarding any of the above points, obviously.
What we see, therefore, is Haruna getting punished for doing the right thing, for her love and her mercy. And while her newfound moral principles would not be enough for most people to throw away their lives, it seems increasingly likely with every second of the episode that Haruna will refuse to throw away either her moral integrity or the life of her friend – not even resorting to the lesser evil approach of prioritizing the life of her defenseless companion over the lives of their assassins.
Play nice and you will get punished, the scene says. It shows the thorny path awaiting those who choose to carry the burden of ideals. And in the final moments before receiving that cruel judgment, Haruna does something quite unlike a Fog warship: she closes her eyes and prays.
Somebody. Anyone. Please help us. Please save us. Somebody!
And then, with the wonderful “SAVIOR” soundtrack heralding it, help descends from the sky. With overwhelming, but precisely controlled power, the I-401 submarine Iona takes control of the situation. As user suburbanbanshee helpfully points out in their comment on medievalotaku’s article, Iona’s name can be traced back to the Latin word for dove, which also happens to be the Blue Steel crest. As Gunzou is the Christ-figure of the show, Iona arrives as the Holy Spirit – the messenger of Christ descending to aid the believers in their darkest hour.
– Haruna, what are you doing here?
– I am… We are trying to protect Makie… our friend.
– Is that so? Then I will help you.
Just a moment before, Haruna was still trying to tell herself that she only needs Makie to survive for the Fog’s purpose. Haruna wanted to believe she was acting according to cold reason, confused as she was to the newfound feelings in her heart. But Iona forces her to come clean and face the true motivation behind her actions. And once everything is laid open, Iona offers her unconditional help.
– 401, why did you help me?
– Because I heard your voice.
– ‘Please help,’ you said. And so I came to help.
The events of the scene parallel the promise existing between Christ and His believers. Christians are not promised escape from suffering. Indeed, the holy path is one of thorns. But Christ promises that in our most difficult hour, when a believer closes their eyes, speaks out and reaches out with their hands, Christ and the Holy Spirit will be there, listening and ready to offer help. The help Christ offers is unconditional, and comes with no price attached. The only thing asked in exchange for answering a prayer is a true and open heart.
There are many more Arpeggio scenes that parallel those found in the Bible, and medievalotaku mentions many of them. Perhaps even more important than any single scene, though, is the fact that the setting of Arpeggio adheres to some basic tenets of the Christian worldview, even where this is against Japanese tradition.
One attractive feature of anime and other Japanese works, for me and many others, is that they often show human beings as capable of both good and evil at all times. Remember that psychopathic murderer from Fullmetal Alchemist who ends up saving the main character at the end “just because”? The Japanese proficiency at such portrayals of the gray areas in our morality might stem from the fact Japan lacks the tradition of the good/evil duality supported by the church in the West.
Still, the Japanese attachment to moral ambiguity also means that anime works will rarely take a definite stance on whether humans, by nature, lean more towards good or evil. Christianity has no doubts in this regard: everyone is a sinner, but God intended everybody to be good. Provided that they have the honest will to seek the light, God promises to support everyone in their spiritual growth towards good and, eventually, salvation.
This way of thinking obviously requires that we assume the existence of a universal morality, a concept avoided in most Japanese works, but present in Arpeggio, and how so! Universal morality not only exists, it seems to be infectious and jumping from one victim to another faster than the virus in the latest zombie flick!
Arpeggio can embrace the concept full on because of its unique cast of characters. The fleet warships are fully developed mentally, in the intellectual sense, but they are blank slates in the moral sense. Each of the mental models is therefore a small social experiment: will the pure mind sway towards love or hatred?
If you bet on love, you won big time. Haruna needs some three days to turn from a heartless weapon to the selfless pacifist described in the first part of the article. Hyuuga does not mind getting dismantled for the greater good. Takao likewise sacrifices herself to save the other members of her fleet. Kirishima… Kirishima likes playing the tough girl, but she is all plushy on the inside. (Hah!)
Those people all met while blasting supercavitation torpedoes at each other, and they were not throwing any punches! But the smallest bit of kindness is enough to attract them to the path of light. For the Fog warships, the concepts of good and evil are something completely new, and so, they are not immediately able to properly discern between the two. But this does not matter in the least, because good seems to be like a powerful magnet, pulling them towards the right path at every opportunity. By the point Haruna starts wondering how she came to possess moral principles in the first place, she is already an example to follow in terms of moral integrity.
But while the outstanding moral qualities are still understandable, storytelling-wise, among those warships which join the protagonists, it is the antagonist side that proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the power of good is universal, and not to be trifled with!
Iona’s sister ships, I-400 and I-402, are very careful not to get within range of the good-magnet. This does not seem to help them any, though. Within minutes of moral small talk with Iona, I-402 can no longer remain professionally indifferent. Shaken, she demands that Iona explain her incomprehensible principles. There is outrage there, on the surface, but beneath it lies a desperate need to understand that great secret which Iona got hold of. The spiritual distance between the two is growing shorter than I-402 might realize, and this is reflected in her cutting down the physical distance between their avatars and reaching out her hand to touch, and try to understand, Iona. If God’s morality is indeed universal, it must be natural even to those who have never heard of God, even to those who have been taught a different brand of good and evil. This is the kind of good Arpeggio portrays – an irresistible force that attracts all without exception.
I-400 steps in to stop the talk between the two, but it is already too late. Mere moments later, I-402 will be making her first moral choice, and one which consists of throwing away her life to protect her sister. I-400 is outraged at seeing that act of sacrifice, accuses I-402 of being no different from Iona, and rushes at the Blue Steel submarine in a blind rage. She does not notice, of course, that she is getting entangled in the web of good. It is not rage that is the opposite of love, but indifference. I-400 can feel rage because she can feel hurt. And she can feel hurt at seeing her sister sunk by a torpedo because she can feel love.
The battle between the submarines soon ends with Iona’s victory. When I-402 apologizes to her sister for being unable to protect her, I-400 asks her why she would apologize. Then she reaches out her hand in a gesture of… Forgiveness? Acceptance? Or is it the same desire for understanding as was the case between I-402 and Iona before? Death claims I-400 before we can make sure of the answer.
The real heart-breaker, though, comes immediately after. As Iona cries for the loss of her two sisters, I-402 asks her why she would cry. Then she tells Iona that all Iona did was fight her enemies and sink them. When Iona tries to protest, I-402 cuts in: That and nothing else.
This might seem like I-402 berating her sister for her lack of logic, a stubborn rejection of emotion until the very end. But because this is the same I-402 that shielded her sister with her own body and still felt guilty for not being able to protect her, a different interpretation comes to mind.
From a logical perspective, there is no point in conversing with Iona at that point. But I-402 uses her last moments to absolve Iona of her guilt. Her insistence that Iona is not to blame is the only gift she can leave behind, the only way she can lessen the burden Iona will have to bear. I-402 shields Iona‘s heart no differently then she shielded the body of her other sister minutes before.
It might seem surprising that while the Fog warships prove capable of extraordinary moral feats and astounding moral progress within moments from being exposed to the power of good, there are plenty of human characters in the series who are evidently short-sighted and concerned only with their personal interests. The key difference, I think, lies in the fact that the Fog warships are all like children. This is why their emotional reactions are all so intense, why they learn so fast, why Kongou’s seemingly deep-rooted hatred disappears like mist after a simple hug. It is no coincidence that Haruna’s thoughts and moral development are shown at one point to perfectly mirror that of Makie.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to children, and it is a great challenge to retain childlike faith even as we grow up, and encounter the temptations and gray areas of adult life. Many of the grown ups of the Arpeggio world apparently lost their way. And the road ahead of our Blue Steel fleet will not be easy either. As the world balance switches from one where the Fog was firmly in control to a more even distribution of forces, there will come times when they will have to choose sides and make difficult choices.
But well, if they cannot pull through, who possibly could?