I wanted to like this show. Really I did.
The visuals are suitably pretty, well animated, and all in all I thoroughly enjoyed the sountrack. (For an anime where your armor is powered by music, it better be good!)
On the surface the premise is interesting. You have this strange unknown enemy which can only be killed by these people wearing music powered super suits. Okay, neat idea, you've gotten me interested.
And for the first half of the series, it remains generally interesting with several potentially intriguing plot points thrown out there. And then it just...falls apart, with an ending that seems to come from left field.
During my time on Earth, I have seen the evolution of the magical girl genre. It started with Magical Witch Sally, where she was just a normal magic-using girl, using her powers to help everyday people with everyday things. Sailor Moon changed the formula, by adding power-up sequences and flashy attacks. Also action and a storyline that progressed, instead of being stand alone episodes. And then came Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, which upped the bar even further, by showcasing super-massive attacks, flying around in the sky dogfighting, and very shonen-esque battles. Each series has changed the way a magical girl show can work, turning it closer and closer into a shonen affair. I can't say whether this is good or bad (it depends on what you want out of the genre), but overall I like this trend, as I like to see girls kicking as much ass as the boys, and having the powers to back it up.
It was with this mindset that I checked out Symphogear. It was recommended to me by a friend, who told me that the girls are are super-powered and kick a lot of butt. And, on one level, the action and powers are fairly good. The first two episodes really draw you in.. and then it all goes to shit. This is difficult to explain without spoilers, so this review will have some spoilers. Not that there isn't much to spoil here, since it is cliche and trope ridden to an incredible degree.
With that said, let's jump in.
Hibiki is attending a concert of two pop idols, when the "Noise" attack. Essentially, seemingly mindless creatures that kill humans just via touch. The two pop idols promptly sing songs that transform them into the super heroes they are. This initial sequence brings up the first two of what are many plot holes. How long have the Noise been attacking humans? Only two girls have the power to stop them? And no one knows that two pop idols are really super-powered? What does the rest of the world do when the Noise attacks? You'd think a better cover for being a super hero, would NOT be a super popular pop idol.
And one of the girls, Kanade, decides that.. after slaughtering tons of Noise easily and effortlessly (while the noise are busily slaughtering tons of people), decides to sing her ultimate song to kill all the noise... to save just one person, Hibiki. Why? Sure, saving a life is important, but what about everyone else that was slaughtered? Shouldn't you have sung this song before? Or I guess everyone else is out of luck, then? You were killing the Noise easily before; surely you didn't even need to do this song to save Hibiki. Indeed, as the series goes on, you see that Symphogear-users can mow down Noise with barely a sweat, which dramatically cheapens Kanade's sacrifice.
The entire series is like this; introducing plot points and then forgetting them, which ends up causing incongruities, inconsistencies, and plot holes aplenty. It's as if there was no real planning on this, except for people going, "I think it would be cool if we do this..." Like 9-year-old boys writing a story. Even the overall direction and tone vacillates dramatically. It starts out fairly dramatic and impressive (visually), with well-done animation and a dramatic death. But then the series quickly turns into almost a parody of itself, with ridiculous ideas and notions thrown all over the place, as if they were deliberately trying to include every cliche they could. It almost feels like they were going for a Gurren Lagann kind of "ridiculousness leads to POWAH!" but it fails miserably. Gurren Lagann's whole shtick was based around that and tied into the plot; in Symphogear, it just serves to remove any dramatic tension the series has.
The best example to showcase this, is to spoil one of the show's biggest things. In the very first scenes, we see a girl (Miku) go to a graveyard in the rain, to cry over the death of her friend, Hibiki. Then it is revealed that takes place in the future, so we are essentially told that Hibiki is going to die. The whole sequence where Miku gets on a bus and breaks down crying in the grave is very moving. At the end of the series, it appears as if Hibiki is dead, as the organization can't find them... but immediately after that grave scene, Hibiki shows up just fine and it turns out she was just in secret meetings, so couldn't tell anyone. The problem is that Miku knows about the organization, and has already proven that she can sign an NDA and keep her mouth shut about them. So why did she need to be told that Hibiki was dead? What point did it serve? It doesn't serve any point... except to make the viewer think the show was going to be way more dramatic than it ended up being.
As I said, it really feels like the whole show was made by kids going "Wouldn't it be cool if we opened by showing that the main character was going to die?" And then later, "Wouldn't it be cool if the main character actually survived because she's awesome?" They forget what came before, or how anyone else watching it would feel. It only makes sense in their own minds.
The best thing about Symphogear is the animation. The designs look pretty good, and the fights are decent. The biggest drawback, is that everytime someone uses a special attack, the screen freezes to show you the attack name. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. This breaks the pace of a fight and really takes you out of it. Think of it like you are sitting there, watching Bruce Lee fight a bad guy. And your friend keeps pausing the action at the good parts. Gets annoying, eh?
Standard fare, mostly, but what sets this anime apart is that each of the girl's has their own character song... that they sing while fighting. Since this whole anime is song-based, it makes sense in the story at large that they better they sing, the more "in-tune" they are with their Symphogear. And for the most part, the songs are decent, but they repeated over and over and over and over. If they were really good, it might not be too bad, but I didn't like any of them, and I tend to like J-pop. When you realize that this anime was made by a composer, then you understand it was made to sell songs. So they will jam them at you over and over and hope they catch on. If you like them, good. If not, it is another thing that will annoy you during the otherwise decent fights.
The other weak link in this, as they do the stupidiest things. I mentioned Kanade before, who decides to sacrifice herself for no explainable reason, just to save one person. Screw the dozens that were dying around her, or the fact that she's strong enough to kill the Noise without sacrificing herself. Later on, characters like the Commander, showcases just how ridiculous things are, since he is shown to be a master of martial arts power like you'd find in DBZ (breaking large boulders with his hand and cratering the ground with a punch). He is shown to be able to overpower and outfight Symphogear users easily (this leads into a stupid point in the second season, where he bemoans that they don't have anyone else to send into a fight, while he sits in his comfy chair).
The characters also get dramatic for no real reason, which then segues into more ridiculous over-the-top concepts. As I said above, the series tends to try and be dramatic... only to change into silly ridiculous territory a moment later. This robs the characters of any sort of dramatic feeling, especially when they follow all the cliches so closely, you know how things are going to end up.
I suppose that, overall, your enjoyment of this series will depend on what you can tolerate in an anime. If you like fights and accept that the plot and characters are ridiculous and over-the-top, then you might like this. If like all the old cliches wrapped into one, then you might like this. If you like generic j-pop songs repeated over and over, then you might like this.
But, if you like your shows to have a coherent plot with reasonably intelligent characters and as few cliches as possible, then don't watch, because you won't like this. It's passable, it's mediocre, it's probably average for anime, which is why I am giving it a little less than 5. Had they kept up the drama and tone from the first episode, and kept the plot reasonable and real, this series could have been so much more. But in the end, it's bumbling, stumbling nature causes more harm then good.
Symphogear is a show I respect for trying to do something most modern anime don’t anymore: Combining elements from various genres in an attempt to create an uncommon result. This is how genres evolve and eventually split to subcategories after all. Nicely going Symphogear! But respect aside… Um… Well, combining elements is not that easy. In fact, it is hard and takes talent to bridge the aesthetic differences and gap whatever expectations people from different audiences may have if watching them as separate standard genres. I have seen several attempts at this over the decades and the results are usually bad (but ground shaking the few times they are done right). Symphogear belongs to the failed category for not managing to make that nasty bonding plausible. Why? The directing is horrible.
Watching this show is like seeing cheery and scary things happening at the same time, without proper time invested into smoothly moving from one genre to another. It feels like a mismatch of a mahou shoujo for little girls, superpower action for teenage boys, and pop idol moe fluff for late teens/adults, and it all happens in a few minutes of contrived action. To put it in a more straightforward way, it combined a lot of high spirited ideology (which is meant to be cool for being unreal) with cruel down-to-earth reality (which is meant to feel brutal for being unfair). And it did it with a few seconds apart from each other. You just can’t have both; it has to be either too much of one or too much of the other.
Although there have been many mahou shoujo which successful combined the standard formula with other types, such as action (established in all following similar shows by Sailor Moon ), or pop idols ( Looking for the Full Moon did a great job here) this is not a case where you feel the storyboard makes sense when they combined action and pop idols, and tragic elements. Let me give you a few examples from the first episodes just to make all that more clear.
a) The heroines are pop idols and after their concert is over, evil monsters attack. Oh, how convenient for that to happen so they can show off their powers right there. And lazy script-wise too, which gives you bad first impressions. It’s like they said “Hey we don’t have time to waste so let’s just throw in the action right after the song.”
b) So they transform and move to the offence. This is done in quite an unorthodox way, since they retain their power by singing DURING the battle. Their clothes are not cute uniforms with ribbons but high teck battle suits. And their form of attacks is not fluffy pink rays from magic wands but huge swords and axes which cut the monsters to pieces. So imagine a scene where they sing a pop song while butchering to pieces weird looking creatures. Sounds original and cool doesn’t it? Sure, I admit it myself; I haven’t seen something exactly like that anywhere else. I have seen fighting pop idols in Bubblegum Crisis and there was singing during battles, but it was just a recorded song playing in the background purely for aesthetic flavouring. They weren’t singing it at THAT moment nor was it relevant to the way they fight. So in Symphogear singing is essential part of their battles and not just flavouring. This is theoretically making it far more plausible/original/important and should offer the series a boost in interest.
And THIS is the part where it feels stupid instead of cool. The way the heroines talk in battle is completely immature, like this is a show aimed at little girls. The battles are far from childish though because many people are killed by being literally turned to dust by the monsters. It may look cartoony but it is still deaths. And then the monsters are cut to pieces by the heroines, again in a cartoony way but still count as deaths. All this time the girls are singing a pop song, which sounds too off with the whole situation. THEY ARE SINGING A SILLY SONG WHILE PEOPLE ARE BEING KILLED! And how do they even manage to sing so well during battle anyway? All those acrobatics don’t affect their singing performance in the least and it sounds like a well planned studio recording.
c) One of the heroines sacrifices herself in order to save a girl in the crowd. Why did she do that specifically for her and not anyone else? Did she sense anything? We are not told.
d) That girl has a similar power and knows how to sing perfectly even when she suddenly transformed for the first time and was completely shocked with the whole thing. HOW DID SHE KNOW? This is not plausible at all; in fact it feels completely retarded.
e) Lots of other events take place, such as more monster attacks and the new heroine trying to save a kid. It feels like they tried to cram in a single episode a plot worth for 4 episodes, and that resulted to rushing through everything. You are hardly given a minute to see something before something different happens out of nowhere. It would be easy to have all those events happening at the same time during the concert attack. This way it wouldn’t feel like there are three different timeskips taking place IN THE SAME EPISODE! But instead of that you are given the impression you are watching a summary instead of a normal show.
It all comes down to giving each scene enough time to let the viewer savour and be absorbed by it. If I read this correctly, the original script was planned to be much longer in episodes but then because of duration restrictions the animators had to cram as much plot as possible in each episode. As a result the pacing is so fast that you are not allowed to enjoy the show. Things blow up, people die, and you are not made to care because no time was invested in getting to care or know any of all that. So what if a thousand civilians get killed by monsters? Do you know anything about them? What if a heroine dies in the pilot episode? Did you know anything about her? Or are you made to be afraid of those faceless things they are fighting? WE ARE NOT MADE TO FEEL ANYTHING!
Other shows like Clannad or Lucky Star are so lovable for so many people only because a great deal of duration and effort is given on getting to like the characters. They don’t need epic battles or a complicating story; they just manage to be cute and fuzzy with simple everyday actions. No amount of action scenes or funky visuals can replace such simple and fundamental elements. And this is what Symphogear lacks completely; it just runs through the plot without letting you enjoy it.
f) Having to rush thing though does not mean they can’t make a good show out of it. Others did something similar with Vision of Escaflowne but the result was still wonderful. Here, it is one big mess because the director was incapable of adjusting to the crammed plot.
- The scenes change in a chaotic pace and we see lots of battles being shown on the run like a summary.
- We are being fed most of the mysteries with dull forced explanatory monologues and without actually seeing anything to confirm all that. A proper director would have shown all that instead of just having some people standing still and talking about it. Anyone who doesn’t know what they are saying wouldn’t get anything but the imagery alone is enough to cross language barriers.
- The background music is completely random. They just throw some tune to play and don’t care if it fits with whatever happens in the foreground.
- The action scenes look like a videogame (you even see the names of the special attacks), so I am made to think this is all some sort of silly action game and not a living, breathing world I should (that’s right) care about. It’s like “Oh no, they killed a dozen civilians, how many points do I lose for that?”
g) This pacing issue eventually crawls all the way to the characters and trashes them as well, since they are doing lots of things without the viewer understanding the reasons or being made to care about them. So what if the heroine cries for the loss of her comrade and wants to avenge her death by attacking her replacement? It all happens in few minutes around people you hardly know and while an out-of-place song plays in the background. You are left wondering why you should care when a few minutes later something completely different happens and they have completely changed emotions.
And skip that, without time invested on the characters, they are just stereotypes you will forget fast. Instead of trying to flavour them, the directors simply chose to over-sexualize them to the point you care only for their bodies and not their personalities. I mean seriously, there is a lot of sexual foreplay in this show which is almost worrisome if you think how young the girls are. This takes away all respect from them and again, this wouldn’t happen if the directors had invested more time on them.
Aside from the characters, I don’t care about their antagonists either, those weird monsters. They don’t have a personality or a clear ulterior motive and are drawn goddamn ugly. Plus, in just a few episodes they are already defeated by the hundreds and pass as nothing more than brainless bullies chasing around defenceless people for fun, instead of having a masterplan or something to consider them anything more than mooks.
And even the monsters are just peons of other evil magical girls, who appear to be fond of sadism and love to torture others for really childish reasons. Even those don’t give any more colours to the show because their motives are again thin, the pacing is horrible, and they are presented as nothing more than horny sluts.
And even after that, there are actually tanks firing at the monsters and black ops assassinating high officials. It feels completely off-topic to see that military/conspiracy element in the context of this show. Can you imagine a Man In Black next to a magical girl? I can’t.
h) So technically, this mess is the result of bad aesthetics, something which most people don’t notice and can easily pass as great. And why wouldn’t it, the actual production values are not bad. The songs are dynamic, the battles are spectacular, the setting is a blend of our present with partially futuristic weaponry and epic fantasy elements. This is of course not a first in anime; just in recent history to this show we had lots of other famous anime doing something similar, such as Madoka Magica and Toaru Majutsu no Index. Those shows are again famous thanks to their AESTHETICS AND CHARACTERS and not because they look cool or plausible. So again, the show is not inflicting you with enough emotions to love it despite looking cool. You can still of course feel like hating it or loathing it exactly because it didn’t manage to win you over.
It’s not the main idea that it’s at fault here. I really liked the premise despite sounding weird. Other shows managed to present weirdness in a far more likable way and gained great respect thanks to it. Some examples include:
- Macross by fighting an interstellar armada of war-like aliens with a pop song
- Princess Tutu by fighting monsters through ballet dance
- Lyrical Nanoha by making all the magical weapons to work like computerized military weaponry
- Rahxephon by having huge robots which work and attack with monotonous sounds/wave frequencies
- Hell, I will even include a live action series called Kamen Rider Hibiki. The hero was fighting monsters with musical instruments.
I really loved the weird way the characters were fighting in the above examples, even though they sound equally stupid as this one. The difference is, they presented it NICELY and invested time into making it look plausible and entertaining. So no, it is a very bad show for failing to achieve even the most fundamental element of any good show: Making you care.
p.s. Honourable mentioning of other music-battle-themed titles I failed to throw in somewhere in this text: Panty & Stocking, Black Heaven, Detroit Metal City, Ar Tonelico, The World Ends With You.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 8/10
General Artwork 2/2 (looks nice)
Character Figures 1/2 (generic)
Backgrounds 2/2 (nice sci-fi overtones)
Animation 1/2 (basic)
Visual Effects 2/2 (lots of pretty colours)
SOUND SECTION: 5/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (silly but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 2/4 (the songs aren’t bad but they are throwing them randomly at a scene)
Sound Effects 1/3 (they sing very fake while fighting)
STORY SECTION: 4/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 0/2 (very messy)
Complexity 1/2 (not much)
Plausibility 0/2 (none)
Conclusion 1/2 (cheesy)
CHARACTER SECTION: 4/10
Presence 1/2 (generic)
Personality 1/2 (cheesy)
Backdrop 1/2 (generic and simplistic but it’s there)
Development 0/2 (messy because of the directing)
Catharsis 1/2 (overblown but there)
VALUE SECTION: 2/10
Historical Value 0/3 (none)
Rewatchability 0/3 (I will never rewatch it)
Memorability 2/4 (it had nice ideas but that’s it)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 1/10
I wasn’t made to care about it right from the start.
It is actual now one of my most favorite anime. It combines scify, futureistic, psudo magical girl(using tech rather than magic), and the most different and hardest to add to many things Music. It is all around a great anime to watch.