Saturday, December 3, 2016

Kancolle and history

I admit it. I am one of those persons who rewatch a movie or tv show and hope something different to happen when the set plot doesn't satisfy me. Mostly it is because it is sad or tragic, but always because it stings and when it is real history, specially so. Apparently I'm not alone experiencing this feeling as some others have taken matters into their hands and re-rewritten events of history to take the edge off of what cannot be changed in reality.

Case in point is that of Kantai Collection, or Kancolle for short. In it the characters, or the players in case of the of the game, relive famous events from the Pacific War from the losing Japanese perspective, and allow them to get the outcomes they want. This franchise consists of the flagship game, manga, an anime series and who knows how much else. I'll center my impressions only on the anime as it is the only one I've tried and because, as in case of Koihime Musou, the game looks like an enormous time-waster, despite, or because of its unalloyed fun.

Not to worry: what I've got from the anime is good stuff and quite good. In it the characters embody the spirits of old time Japanese warships and fight the mysterious Abyssals which have risen from the depths to menace the seas. Taken at it's face value, the premise works. But looking through the thin veil the Abyssals can be equated with the US Navy circa 1942 and the protagonists with the Japanese Navy at the time. These last even share the names of the actual ships and some of their historical quirks (poi). Seen this way the the show lends itself for an even richer immersion to the actual historical theater, which leads me to my next point.


The real historical drama is too good to pass and I decided to supplement the show with some books that placed everything in perspective and which I would like to recommend. The first season time period (there is a promised second season at the time of this post) starts from just after the Pearl Harbor attack and up to the Battle of Midway, but one can stretch the boundaries and get the full picture. To this effect there is no better book than John Toland's The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. I cannot praise this one as highly as it deserves. In my view it covers the Pacific War with all the dexterity that the subject demands without getting bogged down with undue minutiae. Even if it a long read, it is one of those you don't want it to end. The initial chapters might be slow movers, but once the reader reaches to 1939 proper, the book gets enough inertia to carry her to its conclusion on a pleasant ride. Taking it as the guiding thread of my all other support reading, it allowed me to hang and piece the war all together. Now, what Kancolle immediately brings in, other than the undiluted fun of an anime series, is a face to the navy ships. Ask me before of such and such vessel and I couldn't tell them apart. Now, I can tell you about its type, its relationship to others and the important battles in which it fought. On a sidenote this is exactly the type of benefit all the related material brings to Romance of the Three Kingdoms: you have faces to relate to the names.

At this juncture  the Kancolle wiki also lends a huge hand with the Historical Formations page which gives a close to complete roster of the various battle participants.

If you wish to learn more about the Pearl Harbor attack you can peruse Attack on Pearl Harbor : Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions by Zimm. It is very detailed, so I consulted it to supplement some obscure points here and there. On a more agile basis there is Time Life's: The Rising Sun covers the months of Japans  impressively successful run of early 1942, which I'd recommend if you can find it, for a quick read.

Moving on, the anime series also deal with Wake, the Coral Sea and mentions the plans for the Aleutians and Port Moresby (no Java Sea). Info on these, Midway and others is enhanced by Polmar's Aircraft Carriers (1969) which gives some meaty chapters on them along with photos, maps and some few technical data.

Now, after checking the historical storyline it was an absolutely delight to find Refighting the Pacific War : An Alternative History of World War II  by Bresnahan. In it he interviews various experts and examines every juncture of the Pacific War with the ever-so-tasty what-ifs. If Toland's book came in first, this came in second in my appreciation. The sometimes contrasting, sometimes converging viewpoints give more depth to the what-could've-beens and the interviewees help a lot by being concise.


These all leads to Midway. This is where the Kancolle writers have their chance to make peace with the historical defeat of Nagumo's striking force. Here's how they solve it (spolier): once the ships realize that Midway is ready for them, they pull out the secret orders from their Admiral -who has correctly concluded their code is broken- which involves throwing everything they've got at the Midway Princess: the four carriers and escorts, the repaired Shokaku, the Zuikaku, the super battleship Yamato, the Nagato, the Mutsu, the Aleutian striking force, the Taihou (at least one year ahead of schedule) and even the floatplanes. The Midway Princess puts up a formidable resistance, but is eventually vanquished along with the back-from-the-dead Yorktown.

There's great material for this phase too. One can start by watching 70s movie Midway which gives us the American side, and the realistic action and can be readily found on Netflix. There's a bit of criticism for the acting for the Japanese side, but I felt it gave a good indication of Nagumo's quandary at the Akagi's bridge. Bresnahan's book gives us two sections on the battle. There's also Pivotal Moments in American History: The Battle of Midway by Symonds which gives a more leisurely account of the fight and is a good alternative to Toland/Polmar if that's what is at hand. However, the prize for this phase goes to Midway Inquest : Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway by Isom. Here the author examines with utmost detail all the circumstances by shining new lights to the historically obscure parts of the battle. I wish I could have gotten more time with it.

What about historicity?

I would say that what one sees on the screen is about 20% fact, 80% fiction. Still the parallels are central and the details that are dropped here and there are a nice touch:  the harder to detect CO2 torpedoes, the damaged Yorktown, the Tone catapult problem, the request for a second attack against Midway. Complete fidelity to history would've been tragic: someone at the Crunchyroll forums pointed out that if the series stuck to it, we wouldn't have much of a cast left by the end of the show.

Does the Kancolle solution to Midway holds? From what I read and if one eliminates the impossible, namely the Taihou, sure the Japanese could have won at Midway. Not only that, but they could've prolonged their streak still further out in time and scope as well.  However, here's the key conclusion from all my reads (specially Midway Inquest and Refighting):

No combination of circumstances (except by a German win in Europe) would've allowed the Japanese to beat America in the war. The only other possible outcome would've been its prolongation.

Bresnahan's interviewees allow various instance where the Japanese could've done better. Notwithstanding, America's industrial might and resources would've told in the end; and that even without the A-bombs. Isom concurs by providing a whole chapter on what would've happened in the case of an American defeat at Midway based on data and war games. The Japanese might have gotten all their strategic objectives (I found the Panama Canal the most intriguing), but only a shift of a year or so on the actual route to would have resulted.

Now the collapse of England or the fall of Moscow along with Japanese success at Midway (+ other easier objectives) could've led the way for advantageous peace negotiations for the Japanese. The key factor in this case would've been the public opinion in America. Would it have hold? I'm ambivalent on it: on one hand let's remember that despite the outrage from Pearl Harbor, the American media viewed with undue respect the Japanese war machine as pointed out in War Without Mercy, and a string of allied defeats would have only strengthen this viewpoint. On the other, it appears that the Roosevelt administration would've continued with the war effort despite vocal opposition as it knew American strength and potential full well. Some investigation on this matter is needed.

China for its part could've been a close to deciding factor had the Japanese come to terms with Chiang. Any of these factors were unlikely to happen in any case.

In the Kancolle universe some of the girls have inklings that something of their situation has already happened, but none as much as Akagi who even has nightmares about their impending doom. Throughout the season she vacillates between hope and despair as fate seems to guide everyone and herself despite her choices. As leader of the striking force, she can be regarded as the protagonist in a sense. With victory, she, and the others, AND the intended public, finally get a different result from the same wartime situation derailing fate from its set path. I must say it is satisfying even if one knows better.

For my part, I'm glad that history turned out as it did and we must be thankful for Nimitz's decision to send his three carriers to Midway and for Spruance's lucky break. I'm also glad that the other side can have their day too in the safe realm of fiction.


Having the series creators get their way in fiction is a long way from Kancolle being revisionist. Revisionism is what Winston Smith did on the Ministry of Truth. Revisionism is what the editors of the Soviet Encyclopedia did. Anime in general, for all its popularity, has a modest impact in world affairs. One series rewriting history books? Really? No overt or covert victory claim on the the real Midway is ever attempted. Not even the real events are explicitly referred to. I seriously doubt anyone would begin thinking other than what history tells by just watching this anime.  What's wrong in having cute fleet girls in miniskirts having their way for once?


One aspect I couldn't fathom is why admiral Yamamoto would take the trouble of sailing with so many ships, only to leave the bulk, including the Yamato, 300 miles back. Symonds explains: "If he [Yamamoto] put all six carriers of the Kidō Butai and the battle fleet into one mighty armada, it would unquestionably dominate the Pacific, but it might also intimidate the Americans to the point that they would refuse to come out to contest it, and the opportunity to sink the American carriers would be lost." Isom for his part mentions that Yamamoto wanted that force for interception purposes.  So that mystery is solved.

One that I haven't been able to clear is the situation on the Soryu's main deck when the bombs struck at 10:24. Was it also covered with planes ready to take off?

Had the four carrier's decks been armored, as that of the later Shinano, would they have fared better? Was this upgrade even possible?

How come the Japanese subs were so ineffective?

Ditto for the anti-aircraft. They had the guns, but as the war progressed more and more US planes seemed to pass through.

Polmar tells us that some engineers managed to escape the Hiryu, but were later picked up by the US Navy. What was their fate?

Odds and ends

Checking the stats on the Kancolle wiki I found that, as it befits her, Zuikaku has one of the highest luck numbers. Not for nothing did the carrier outsurvive  the others of her class and serve in so many missions. Curiously, The Midway Princess, has an even higher stat.

The Abyssal girls are unusually taciturn and stoical. The only one that speaks is the Midway Princess, but I would have wished they had given her a sweeter voice. Their aims and origin are never revealed, but there's a big hint at the end of ep 12. The unnamed Yorktown in her damaged state is very cool looking.

I took a look at model kits for the ships on Ebay, but decided that they were beyond my skill (and I don't have the space for display the completed models anyway).

I count 6 air attack waves which the Akagi and Kaga survived before their luck finally gave way (three from Midway and three from the US carriers).

Informally, I tried to come up with some sort of rotating scheme between planes & carriers for the latter to be always guarded.  Technical know-how would be a requisite here, but I see no way out with this kind of solution: It would very likely be confusing for the crews and pilots and would lessen the punch of each Japanese strike. Maybe someone?

Toland mentions that there was talk after the sinking of the four carries at Midway of blasting it to oblivion anyway by the remaining ships. The idea was rejected for fear of US subs.

You can tour around Midway using Google Maps' street view.

I think that my favorite ship both in real life and in the series was the Zuikaku. If one believes the recreations from the World of Warships forums, its green deck is the best looking. Polmar's book however shows a photo of her painted to resemble a battleship from above. Add to that its aforementioned luck. In Kancolle, she has pretty green eyes.

Most of the rest of the girls are also very pretty and their uniforms is what attracted me to the show at first.

Loved the ending theme.

Wished to provide you with some image at the top, but, you know, copyrights. Zerochan has loads.

You can watch the series legally for free at Crunchyroll.  Fleet Girls is another show (this time entirely fictional) in the same category.


Post a Comment