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.