Saturday, October 14, 2006

Simoun - One of the Greatest Anime Ever Made

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.

a simoun craft at rest the preflight kiss that connects the pilot as a team
(mouseover for captions, click to enlarge)

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.

Amuria like a panther Neviril's scream after her partner Amuria dies

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.

(spoilers start >>>)

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.

belly-button-showing flight suit simoun in flight

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.

Aaeru men who used to be girls: Guraghief and Anubituf

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.

(>>> spoilers end)

the Spring, where gender is decided at 17 Onashia, keeper of the Spring

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.

Neviril, the 'Golden Sibylla' Neviril chooses Aaeru as her Pair

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.

Mamiina at the crowning moment of her life Mamiina dead among the flowers

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.

Rimone, the young genius, flying the Emerald Ri Maajon Yun! Oh, priestess Yun!

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

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Fall 2006: the first week of new shows

Somehow I've managed to see the first episodes of almost all the new anime. Here's what I thought of them. As usual, there are far too many watchable shows.

Just for reference, my favorite recent shows are Simoun, Honey & Clover, Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu, NANA, and Bokura ga Ita. But I've also enjoyed Kashimashi, Lemon Angel Project, NHK ni You Koso, Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora, Shinigami no Ballad, Saiunkoku Monogatari, and Noein, among others.

Here is a trip through the week, day by day. Shows I like most get a screencap. Best show so far? For me, it's Asatte no Houkou. For others, it might be Kanon, Death Note, Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto, or Negima. I also have a calendar of the week, showing days and times the shows are on in Japan, and highlights of staff and cast.


Gin-iro no CordGin-iro no Cord ~Primo Passo~ -- Reverse-harem romance in a high school devoted to music. Takagi Reiko does a lovely job communicating the heroine's feelings. The music fairy who is the guardian of the school gives her a magic violin that enables her to compete with the best musicians in the school, most of whom are bishounen. I liked it. So sue me.

Galaxy Angelune -- Crazy comic beautiful girls commit crazy violence in good causes. Despite Hirano Aya and Kobayashi Akiko (PuniPuni Poemi), this didn't do much for me.

Marginal Prince -- An innocent Japanese boy becomes a student at a grand old school on an island in Europe, where the half-dozen students are all princely bishounen. Uh-oh: I enjoyed this simple, old-fashioned, somewhat cheesy and yaoi-ish bishounen show. Your mileage may vary.


Tokimeki Memorial ~Only Love~ -- School comedy. Beautiful girls. Stupid humor. Some people apparently liked this ero-game conversion. Not me.

Rabudoru ~Lovely Idol~Rabudoru ~Lovely Idol~ -- Another simple show I enjoyed a lot. Girls becoming idols. Decent music. A nice look. Great voice-acting: Nogawa Sakura, Sakai Kanako (REC), Nakahara Mai (Mai in Mai-HiME), Chihara Minori (Yuki in Suzumiya Haruhi), Gotou Yuuko (Mikuru in Suzumiya Haruhi), Momoi Haruko (Nurse Witch Komugi). (Second episode was not so enjoyable.)

Pumpkin Scissors -- Well-made show set in a post-war purgatory of famine and disorder. Decent action. Characters with character, although kind of shallow, for me. Itou Shizuka in one of her two good roles this season (the other being in Asatte no Houkou). Ueda Kana as the humble secretary who knows everything.


D. Gray Man -- Monster-of-the-week. Well-made but a bit limp. Set in London circa Jack the Ripper. Kobayashi Sanae (Maya in Glass Mask) is good as the (male) protagonist.

Death NoteDeath Note -- Powerful, excellently animated and well-acted descent into megalomaniac madness. For many, this will be the show of the season. Great performance by Miyano Mamoru (Tamaki in Ouran, in a totally different role) as the top student who gets a shinigami's notebook, enabling him to kill whom he pleases. And Hirano Aya and Kudou Haruka will apparently show up in episode 2.

Ghost HuntGhost Hunt -- Nicely-made female-oriented story of a girl who becomes part of a group of ghost-hunters led by a (sort of) bishounen. Good voice-acting by Nazuka Kaori (Yun in Simoun). Develops slowly.

Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge (Perfect Girl Evolution)Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge (Perfect Girl Evolution) -- Animation that's completely nuts of a manga that's completely nuts by a director who's completely nuts (Nabeshin, who made PuniPuni Poemi). Four bishounen are given free rent in a mansion if they can convert the owner's niece from a hikikomori, self-conscious, negative horror freak into a charming young lady. (Second episode was hilarious.)

Shounen Onmyouji -- Great Heian setting for a monster-of-the-week anime featuring yin-yang magic. Love interest arrives in episode 2. Looks wonderful, has some nice features, including a terrific (and powerful) animal companion, but didn't do much for me. Screenplay by the man who did Wolf's Rain and Turn A Gundam, however, so things may improve. My problem is that monsters bore me.

Black Lagoon ~Second Barrage~ (haven't seen it)

Red GardenRed Garden -- Fascinating supernatural mystery featuring amazing realistic animation and pre-recorded voices that really act. Set in New York, centered on four girls at the same school who discover they have all forgotten the evening when a classmate died, and are told that they are dead, too. (Second episode was outstanding.)


Negima!?Negima!? -- Wonderful comic animation directed by Shinbou Akiyuki (Tsukuyomi ~Moon Phase~, PaniPoni Dash!), with a cast that never stops: Kanda Akemi (Kazuki in Tonagura, etc.), Satou Rina (reprising her role as Negima), Nonaka Ai (Iriya, etc.), Kadowaki Mai, Noto Mamiko, Horie Yui, Inokuchi Yuka (Anju in Karin). (Second episode blew me away.)

Busou Renkin -- Almost bearable monster show. And that's saying something, coming from me. Hirano Aya as a (platonically) loving imouto is worth the price of admission. Yahagi Sayuri (Karin) will show up soon. (Second episode bored me, descending into real monster-of-the-week. But Hirano Aya was still great.)

Super Robot Taisen OG ~Divine Wars~ -- People who like this sort of thing seem to like it. Good mecha. Nice bright look. Takahashi Mikako in a b-role as the brave damsel in distress. For boys.

Galaxy Railways ~The Junction Point to Eternity~ -- I find the whole concept of a train flying through space difficult to swallow, and don't like mecha that look as if they were designed in the 19th century. But even that aside, this first episode of the new series seemed pretty lame to me: logic seemed quite absent. I've never watched Galaxy Railways 999, which people say was a good show.

Yoake Mae yori Ruriiro na Crescent LoveYoake Mae yori Ruriiro na Crescent Love -- Cute game-conversion comedy that I actually found funny. Nabatame Hitomi (Shizuma in Strawberry Panic, Nobue in Ichigo Mashimaro) is wonderful as the regal but romantic moon princess who comes to Earth for a homestay with the hero (his onee-san is chief spokesperson for the president of Earth). (Second episode has me hooked.)

Souten no Ken -- Appears to be a stupid, cheap, ugly, fighting show. I couldn't stand to watch enough to really find out.


Sasami Mahou Shoujo Club 2 -- Kid stuff. The main seiyuu are all under 15 and sound like it. Charming, but of little interest to me.

Pokemon Diamond & Pearl (haven't seen it)

Mamoru-kun ni Megami no Shukufuku wo!Mamoru-kun ni Megami no Shukufuku wo! -- A big surprise. Funny and extreme. The superwoman (and I do mean Superwoman) school idol instantly falls in love with the weak little new boy. Hilarious schtick and well-done fanservice. Takahashi Mikako in a new kind of role.

KanonKanon -- As good as advertised. Fabulous, deeply moving animation. Melancholy supernatural romance featuring sad girls in snow. The largest, most liquid eyes ever. Horie Yui, Tamura Yukari, Sugita Tomokazu, Seki Tomokazu, Kawakami Tomoko, Kawasumi Ayako. Directed by the director of Air, written by the writer of Full Metal Panic, animated by Kyoto Animation. Need I say more?

009-1009-1 -- Could become a camp classic. Voluptuous, invincible, cool female James Bond and voluptuous colleagues in a 1960s East Block-West Block cold war setting. Great character design. Well directed, if simple and old-fashioned. Enjoyable fighting and bionic weaponry. Based on a classic late-1960s manga by Shotaro Ishinomori. A sleeper. Feminist bishoujo?

CODE GEASS - Lelouch of the Rebellion -- Entertaining enough, but not as gripping as I'd hoped. Area 11 (i.e., Japan) rebels against rule by the Britannia Empire. America/England bad, Japan good. The first of two anti-foreign shows from Sunrise. I want to see and hear more of the intriguing alien (?) played by Yukana.

Gin-iro no Olynssis -- A misfire from Artland. Fairly silly, with some nice shots and the potential for a good silent beautiful alien. Second-rate monsters are even worse than first-rate monsters. So far this is a waste of the talents of Nazuka Kaori, Hisakawa Aya and Akemi Kanda.

Asatte no HoukouAsatte no Houkou -- The best first episode of the week. Beautifully directed and acted, with an intriguing premise involving a little girl who wants to grow up fast, and a young woman who wants to go back to being a child. We'll see where it goes. Ito Shizuka is marvellous.

HappinessHappiness -- Made me happy. Appears to involve tension-free romance at a school for magicians. Lamune vibes.

Sumomomo MomonoSumomomo Momono -- Hilarious and outrageous. Unique character design. The daughter of one martial arts master is betrothed to the somewhat older son of another so that they can produce a worthy heir. She wants to be his bride (does she ever) and he just wants to become a lawyer. But be warned: the greatest amount of loli fanservice I have ever seen in one episode. Hirano Aya enters the fray starting with episode 2.

Gift ~Eternal Rainbow~ -- People love the game, but the first episode didn't do much for me. I didn't like the protagonist, and the "plot" was pretty limp. But the VA cast is nice: Shimizu Ai, Miyazaki Ui, Shintani Ryouko, Koshimizu Ami, Tai Yuuki(Chevalier/D'Eon).


Bakumatsu Kikansetsu IrohanihohetoBakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto -- Animation at least as good as Kanon, if you can imagine it. So beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. Complex end-of-Edo-period plot involving swordsmanship and magic. Anti-foreign and maybe anti-Chinese vibes, but the animation is so good it doesn't matter.

Kujibiki Unbalance -- It's going to take a while to get over the complete dissimilarity from the OVA eps in Genshiken, but I enjoyed it, up to a point. Moe voice-acting and reworked cliches to the max. Nonaka Ai was just fabulous as Tokino, and lots of others were good, too, including Koshimizu Ami as The Chairman and Gotou Yuuko at her most extreme kiddy-moe. The semi-unknown new recruits to the voice-acting cast stepped right up.


Katekyoshi Hitman Reborn! (haven't seen it)

Ayakashi Ayashi -- Another Edo swordsmanship and magic story, like Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto, with simpler (but still very nice) animation and a simpler (but to me more moving) plot. Fujiwara Keiji (Shuuji in Honey & Clover) and Niino Michi (Aaeru in Simoun).

Jigoku Shoujo Futakomori -- Great new opening, at least for the first episode. If anything even more beautiful and tormenting that the first series, if this episode is any example. But still repetitive and unsatisfying.

Otome wa Boku ni Koi ShiteruOtome wa Boku ni Koi Shiteru -- Kashimashi reborn. Following his grandfather's will, a very pretty boy dresses as a girl and goes to a girls' school, where everyone falls in love with him (I mean her). Lots of Strawberry Panic, too. Horie Yui, Matsuki Miyu (Simoun/Anguras, Strawberry Panic/Hikari), Kanda Akemi (Negima /Asuna, Tonagura /Kazuki), Asano Masumi, Gotou Yuuko, Nogawa Sakura. Plenty of yuri-esque fanservice.

History's Strongest Disciple Ken'ichi (haven't seen it)