With its rapid rise to popularity in Japanese anime and game fandom, it's only natural that it would eventually trickle down to us here in the West, like Touhou Project before it. Whilst a brave few have wrested with VPNs and flash projectors in order to jump through the hoops necessary for a foreigner to play the game, the rest of Western anime fandom has had to make do by perusing the vast amounts of fanart and doujinshi spawned by the game.
Naturally, people have found different things to make of this. Some get invested in the wealth of new art and stories being spawned, others see it as nuisance that swamps the various boorus and pushes artists away from drawing for other series. Others still, however, see what they perceive as a more sinister side to the franchise.
Kantai Collection, essentially, is about collecting the personifications of World War II era warships (primarily from the Imperial Japanese Navy), and using them to fight a menace that emerges from the sea. Immediately, I think you can see the main thrust of the “sinister” argument. Clearly this game is being used primarily to sell the idea of jingoistic nationalism and a revival of the empire to young players, right? The cute girls are a mere front for the hidden, right wing side of the game? In a way, they're not wrong, but a key point is being missed here. Nationalism isn't the secret, under the table subliminal message. It is, in fact, one of the key selling points. And that isn't a bad thing.
Nationalism has long been a key source of inspiration for anime and manga series in Japan, and one could argue media the whole world over. From Space Battleship Yamato in the 70s (which recently received an excellent remake) to Zipang in the 00's, this idea has been around for a long time, and has proved exceptionally popular throughout the decades. It's no real secret why. To make a generalization, the majority of anime viewers, especially in modern Japan (the native land of the Herbivore Male), will feel disenfranchised from society in some way. It's this idea of nationalism, the idea of belonging to something greater than the individual, that could almost be seen as subconsciously inspirational to said viewer. I'd hardly remove myself from this pool of people either, I've found myself somewhat prideful when reading books or watching documentaries about my country's forefathers, even watching sports involving my country evokes the same feeling.
Kantai Collection taps in to this same idea, and it is one of the major contributors to its popularity. Having a colourful cast of girls in a collection scenario is nothing new, and has been done by many far less successful browser games in the past. Through the adaptation of grand naval vessels, an obvious source of nationalistic pride for any island nation, and pairing them with the prerequisite cute girls, there was always a break out hit to be had.
There is also the notion being suggested that by trivializing said weapons of war, that helped aid Japan's brutal conquest of the Pacific 70 years ago, the players of this game will suddenly buy into the idea of the war being no big deal, and the war crimes committed forgotten. This mindset betrays an utter, perhaps arrogant, contempt for the average player on the level of senior citizens decrying modern western games for driving their children towards crime and anti-social behaviour. It could even be described as alarmist, pointing the finger at a political and cultural landscape they don't live with, and making vast assumptions about the player base of a game they've never took the time to understand.
It's telling that I never saw the same accusations floated at Girls und Panzer, which played pomp Nazi era marching tunes as the glorious Panzers rolled across the fields, machines (now trivialized in a sport) which arguably helped aid far more death and destruction than the navy of Imperial Japan ever did. The only people who suddenly got pumped up with Neo-Nazi fervour by this display were people who were already invested in that ideology, and the same applies to Kantai Collection.
If you think the baseline of this argument is “stop over thinking things”, you'd be wrong. It's important to keep history in the back of your head to help you contextualize the series. However, you shouldn't let that history cloud your judgement of the series in terms of what it's meant to be.
Is Kantai Collection is manipulative? Absolutely. But it's not out there to manipulate the political slant of young Japanese men, it's out there to manipulate their wallets.