I have just enjoyed a six-month love affair with the anime Simoun. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest anime ever made. It reaches deep into the hearts of its characters. It says interesting things about life. And it makes a strange alternative world vividly real.
The voice-acting cast is wonderful. The music is outstanding and brilliantly used. The character design, backgrounds and animation are entrancing. And the story is structured like a classical drama. The show left me emotionally full but invigorated almost every week, providing the kind of emotional catharsis that was the goal of ancient drama.
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Simoun's themes and revelations are many and large: the loss of childhood, and the progressive narrowing of our lives by the choices we make. The idea that gender identity is not so solidly fixed as we believe. The elusiveness of time and space. The fact that even after the worst has happened, life goes on. The contradiction between religious principles and fighting a war. The possibility of respect and fellow-feeling between enemies. The dreadfulness and inescapability of social class-distinctions. The mystery of love.
The gnawing, self-defeating harm caused by jealousy. The corrosive effects of grief, and of refusal to connect with others in a vain attempt at self-protection. Love and hatred between siblings. Love among a group of friends. The fact that we do not really know even the people we love. Self-sacrifice for the sake of others, and for one's own self-respect. And the fact that suffering can make one regret having made the sacrifice. Simoun brings ideal and real together, and leaves us with a real world that, despite its inescapable sorrows, is transfigured by hope and love.
Simoun is the story of a group of young priestesses ("sibylla") on a world that is not Earth. They fly mysterious ancient craft called "simoun," drawing energy-patterns in the sky as prayers to God. When their country is attacked, they are ordered to fly patterns that destroy enemy troops and planes.
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What really held me to Simoun was the characters and their relations with each other: the "Golden Sibylla" Neviril's glorious parade to her simoun in episode one. Her nonchalant confidence, which is shattered so soon. Her partner Amuria's iconic wish that they become stronger, and her animal strength, glaring around at the enemy from the cockpit of her simoun. The boyish eagerness of Aaeru, and her total ignorance of love. Paraietta's gnawing darkness. Kaimu's anguished refusal to let her sister Alti call her "sister." Furoe's unquenchable desire and her inability to hide what she feels, ever. Mamiina's murderous ambition, her despairing need for respect, and her glorious self-transcendance. The delicate romances between Wapourif and Morinas, and between Guraghief and Anubituf. And the strange romance that develops between Neviril and Aaeru.
The plot structure of Simoun is unusual for anime or television. It is more like classical drama. We actually reach the climax in the middle of the series, when the enemy destroys many of the home country's simoun and obtains some of its own. There is then a long period of falling action during which we gradually realize that the war cannot be won. And finally there is an extended denouement, allowing the characters to work out their fates in relation to the tragic defeat.
Even the beginning of the series is unusual: one of the apparent heroines actually dies in episode one, and the other heroine takes to her room for several episodes, like Achilles sulking in his tent. We come to expect that her return will make all things good again, but when she does return, it is too late.
It is quite moving to go back and watch episode one after seeing the end of the series. So much of what will happen is prefigured in events at the very beginning of the show. I won't say the structure is tight from beginning to end, but it is definitely coherent. It has the inevitability and the ironies of classical tragedy.
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The voice-acting cast is one of the two best ensemble casts I have ever heard (the other being in the comedy Ichigo Mashimaro). It is a mixture of stage actresses, top professional voice actresses, and one young newcomer. The voice of Aaeru (Niino Michi, a stage actress) is particularly striking. But Koshimizu Ami, Toyoguchi Megumi, Kuwashima Houko, Takahashi Mikako, Nazuka Kaori, and Yukana are all at the top of their craft. The voice of Aizawa Michiru, the newbie, is grating but leaves a strong impression of her character's personality. And Takahashi Rieko, who plays the great Neviril, is both a stage actress and an experienced voice actress. All roles, male and female, were played by women. There were no men in the cast at all. And almost all the minor roles were played by members of the main cast. I give sound director Tsujitani Kouji (a former voice actor who did sound direction on Fate/Stay Night) a lot of credit for making these unique arrangements work so well.
The music by Sahashi Toshihiko (Full Metal Panic, Gundam, etc., etc.) is some of the best, and the best used, I have ever heard in an anime. From baroque concerto to romantic waltz to tango to folk melody, the music is often used in ways that play against the action. On the surface this restrains the emotion we feel, but beneath the surface it makes it swell.
The character designs by Nishida Asako (Fate/Stay Night, Infinite Ryvius, etc.) are powerful and pretty at the same time, with soft feminine lines and a remarkable complex eye design that can communicate shades of feeling. The design of the simoun craft, by new Korean designer Jin Seob Song, is the most beautiful mecha design I have ever seen.
But Simoun is far from popular. The show is in my opinion an artistic success, but appears to be a commercial failure. This may be due to the fact that it was not well designed to attract an audience. For any potential audience, there are features that repel. It is a serious anime about ideas and feelings, but it has an exotic, sexualized surface. The sexualized look, on the other hand, is not followed up with much fanservice. It is an anime set during a war, but in which details of battles and weaponry are not completely conceived, and in which the war is fought by provocatively clad females. It is an anime full of romance, but the romance is almost all between women. It is set in a science-fiction world, but it has the emotional intensity of women's TV drama.
Early viewers posting on the AnimeSuki forum were particularly put off by the fact that the male characters are voiced by women. In fact, this connects with the show's ideas about gender, and helps make the unusual world vividly real. In the world of Simoun, everyone is born female, and people only choose a final gender at 17, when they walk through a sacred spring in some ancient ruins. Other people were put off by the special terminology that was casually introduced right from the beginning, in episode one. It did take a couple of episodes for the terms to become familiar. And it's true that some things in the story and in the world of Simoun are left mysterious. But this is a story about feelings rather than facts, and mystery is part of the greatness of Simoun.
I have compared this show to Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. I admit that's going a bit far, but besides having a classical dramatic structure, this show gave me the emotional catharsis aimed at by ancient drama. Important characters die or disappear, creating strong emotional reactions and readjustments in the other characters and in the audience. The show has a real emotional trajectory that takes us to highs and lows and leaves us emotionally invigorated and satisfied.
Another similarity to Shakespeare or classical drama is that this show becomes deeper with every viewing. At first viewing, some events are difficult to understand. We can criticise that aspect of the direction and storyboarding of director Nishimura Junji (Ranma, Soul Hunter, Windy Tales), while we praise him for everything else. But as I go back and look at episodes again, they just become more powerful -- like Hamlet, which is very hard to grasp the first time you read it, but which becomes richer as you reread it over the years.
And after all, in its day, Hamlet was just high-class popular entertainment. Like Simoun.
Anime News Network information page
Simoun English wiki
official site (Japanese)
Simoun Japanese wiki (Japanese)
official staff blog (Japanese)
character designer's home page (Japanese)
minor characters played by main cast