Casual online games based on military themes and with a kawaii (cute) twist are currently a surprise hit in Japan. Is this related to the recent rightward tilt in national politics, or just part of Japan’s creative desire to “cutify” everything.

It’s no secret that Japan loves cartoon characters, attaching them to any and every brand. And more often than not, those characters take the form of young girls. In the case of “Kantai Collection,” game designers at Kadokawa Games have mined warship designs from World War II, with over 100 battleships, cruisers, submarines and aircraft carriers anthropomorphized as teenage girls decked out in naval uniforms and accessories.

In this browser game, published by DMM and also known as “KanColle,” you play as an admiral and form fleets of these girls, called Kanmusu (kan musume, or “ship girls”), each of whom has her own personality, anecdotes (based on historical incidents) and speech dubbed by anime voice actresses.

The player must build, repair, troop and sortie these fleets to repel enemies. Since its release last April, “KanColle” has gained over 1.5 million users.

If the game is based on WWII, who is the enemy? It is not Battleship USS Iowa nor the HMS Prince of Wales, but an alien fleet.

This game has several characteristics that run counter to the current mainstream in social games. It is less reliant on social interactions; it runs on Flash, which means it won’t work on a portable device; and its payment model is less demanding.

Most smash-hit social games, such as “Kaito Royale,” “Puzzle & Dragons” and “Mahotsukai to Kuroneko no Wiz” (“The Magician and Wiz the Black Cat”), rely heavily on social features, which encourage users to invite their friends in exchange for rewards, and let users collaborate and compete. However, compared with these, “KanColle” is more solitary. There are high-score rankings, but players mostly play alone.

Most big social games are designed to run on iOS and Android, which means they have dedicated apps, since Adobe’s Flash format does not work on these devices. The fact that “KanColle” runs only on Flash means that most people play it on PC platforms at home, rather than during their commute. That said, some fans have reportedly purchased tablets that run Microsoft’s relatively unpopular Windows OS, which does support Flash, just so they can play “KanColle” on the go.

Of course, the number of players of social games who have not yet migrated to an iOS or Android device is dwindling, meaning a shrinking potential market for “KanColle.” But despite that trend, the game’s user base is actually growing, and 1.5 million users is a figure not to be sneezed at.

The “freemium” model of monetization, where a game is free to play but offers paid upgrades that give serious users some advantage, is common among social games. However, in “KanColle,” such paid items are not mandatory for progression in the game, which means it can be played for free by a wider number of people. In fact, during the game’s early days, many users complained on Twitter that the relative dearth of paid items made it difficult for them to show their appreciation to the developer.

Whether intentionally or not, these points have brought “KanColle” a loyal fan base. In Japan, the popularity of a character can be simply gauged by looking at the volume of fan-made tributes. Video site Niconico bustles with “KanColle”-themed fan clips, while cartoon-sharing site Pixiv is awash with amateur illustrations. December’s Comic Market (Comiket), the world’s largest coterie comic convention, hosted over 1,000 “KanColle” “fan circles,” making it the third-largest interest group at the festival; this summer’s Comiket will feature a dedicated category — further evidence of the popularity of this gaming phenomenon.

Rekihiko Kadokawa of the Kadokawa group, has said that the game’s success took the company by surprise, but now it is exploiting the franchise with spin-off magazines, manga and novels featuring “KanColle” characters. There are already more than 10 comic series and several novelizations, while an anime and a game for PlayStation Vita are in the works.

Kadokawa’s so-called media-mix strategy in the 1970 and ’80s turned the company into the media conglomerate we know today by connecting books and music with its movie properties. This was one of the first such cross-media promotions in Japan.

In the case of “KanColle,” this approach actually benefits players. Freemium is often accused of influencing game design, so that gameplay mechanics or progression are withheld from users who do not choose to pay for virtual items. By monetizing “KanColle” through related products instead, the publisher and developer can make a game that is fun to play and does not feel like a cynical grab for your money. This approach breeds loyalty among fans.

So what about that military theme? Some critics say that the game glorifies war, and South Korean newspaper Hankook Ilbo featured an editorial that reasoned to this effect. But I do not believe that “KanColle” was deliberately designed to support Japan’s recent reactionary tilt. The story of the popular ’70s anime “Space Battleship Yamato” featured a similar theme of battleships vs. aliens and attracted similar criticisms, but its effect on real-world politics was negligible. “KanColle” simply looks like an incidental hit.

One amusing side-effect of the game’s popularity is that when you search online in Japanese for the name of a WWII battleship, the top results are images of Kanmusu girls. Real rightwingers who want to rewind history may not be so pleased about this.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on Japan’s Web scene. His Twitter account @akky is followed by 121,000 users.

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