Anime is a medium, not a genre. Maybe that sounds like common sense now, as we’ve recently seen anime become more popular with wider demographics of new fans thanks to the ubiquity of streaming libraries. Netflix alone has increased people’s interest in several underappreciated kinds of anime genres like slice-of-life and sports dramas. It’s hard to imagine a teen melodrama like Your Lie in April becoming such a hit in English before streaming, and it took Haikyu! a few years and a similar increase in availability to break past the “sports anime curse” that used to doom home media sales in the genre. However, even just a few years ago, discussing anime with anyone outside the weeb-o-sphere tended to reveal a lot of biases about the medium’s perceived patterns and limitations.
If anime was a dirty word to you, you probably thought that every anime had giant robots, scantily clad magical girls, cheesy music, and convoluted plots to kill god or remake the universe that just didn’t make any sense. Unless it was made by Studio Ghibli, (which meant it didn’t count as anime), that was the cynic’s perception of 99% of the anime “genre”. I’m glad those stereotypes aren’t all-consuming anymore, and people are more open to considering what anime can be. It’s not a genre with all those same ingredients stamped in all the same places.
But then there’s Symphogear.
Senki Zesshō Symphogear, aka Superb Song of the Valkyries: Symphogear, aka that one anime along with Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure whose fan fervor frightens you even if you know absolutely nothing else about the show, might be one of the Most Anime that I’ve ever seen. Conceived and pitched at the turn of the 2010’s by prolific music producer Noriyasu Agematsu and his good friend Akifumi Kaneko, the creator of Media.Vision’s surprise hit RPG Wild Arms, this original series was a shot in the dark from Studio Satelight at generating a multi-media hit, complete with powerhouse soundtrack and toyetic super-suit designs. That description might make Symphogear sound like a deeply calculated product, but there’s a brazen passion to the show’s downright excessive cliché-blending that makes it feel more like a wanton experiment from the minds of two uninhibited otaku instead. Watching the first season escalate, it’s as if Symphogear reaches a point where it bursts past the “too Anime” barrier so hard that the end result feels less commercial, not moreso—like it’s the fake anime that anime characters are watching in a real anime.
Mind you, my appraisal is based purely on Symphogear’s first season, which to my understanding is the least wackadoo in its five-season run, just a faint pastel shadow of the madness that would come to define the franchise to its fans. Symphogear had a gradual rise to success in Japan, and it was even slower to develop any presence in English-speaking fandom, but every new season has performed better than the one before, presumably by going bigger and wilder in the same vein as Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. While I’m sure that I’ve only seen the least of what Symphogear has to offer, this first season was already doing the most.
Symphogear’s overextended ambitions are baked right into the premise. The setting is a futuristic Japan terrorized by advanced bio-weapons called the Noise, but our heroines’ own weapons are ancient Babylonian and Norse relics that can only be activated by the power of song. World-famous idols, traumatized child slaves, and ordinary schoolgirls alike adopt their own unique frequency to unlock the power of a relic that their voice can synthesize into a “Symphogear”—basically, they get a magical girl transformation into a robotic suit that’s powered by literally singing during battle, transforming the traditional anime insert song into a diegetic combat technique. Since Hibiki, Tsubasa, and Chris are so different in personality and motivations, they must spend several episodes dueling and duet-ing each other before they can harmonize with the power of friendship to decide the future of humanity or something.
They are aided in their personal journeys by the requisite gaggle of bridge bunnies in a top-secret underground government research lab—there’s a beefy lion-haired commander with preposterous martial arts prowess, a flirtatious full-figured scientist with dubious allegiances, and there’s even a minor classmate character who occasionally shows up to mention some corny or convenient possibility that won’t happen because “this isn’t an anime”. Little does she know that Symphogear is the Most anime, so something even more corny or convenient tends to follow her lamp-shading remarks.
Since most of its runtime must be spent getting all this incongruent anime iconography to gel together enough for the story to make sense, Symphogear’s overall narrative is best not scrutinized too closely. Moments like Chris defecting to join the good guys or Tsubasa rekindling her love for music over battle don’t come out of nowhere, but these story checkpoints are so requisite and familiar to anyone who’s watched an anime before that the show doesn’t waste much time justifying them with nuanced setup. Chris reflects on her lost childhood before tearfully collapsing into the arms of a paternal savior figure. Tsubasa is humbled by an outpouring of love from her fans at her last concert before touring overseas. Hibiki goes berserk with an uncharacteristic feral power when she sees her friends get hurt. You could watch these scenes out of context, like they really were snippets of a fictional anime within a real one, and you would instantly recognize them as more over-the-top reflections of anime climaxes you’ve seen before. But because all these peaks and valleys don’t normally belong in neighboring episodes of the same show, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching an uninspired pile of clichés, but rather a pastiche of clichés that’s been reworked into its own thing that should be too silly to be sincere—and yet, Symphogear is extremely, even embarrassingly sincere from start to finish, perhaps especially at the finish.
After ten episodes of comfortably archetypal character development has bonded our initially hostile trio of heroines together to take down the Noise legions across the city, the true villain emerges for a final confrontation. Symphogear once again skirts the tedium of more traditional setup and payoff by just reaching for the obvious Anime conclusion to all this and turning the cliché up to 11, when it’s revealed that the ingenious scientist with the same sultry voice and Amazonian build as the white-haired witch who’s been pulling the strings was indeed the witch in disguise all along! Like most of the show’s reveals, this twist is so obvious that Symphogear doesn’t bother to waste time treating it like a dramatic reveal. Nobody in the show except the pure-hearted Hibiki even seems surprised by her betrayal; the commander actually saw his partner’s double-cross coming and prepared a contingency plan that naturally falls through so the Symphogear-wielders can take center stage. And that’s when the show decides to shoot the moon.
No, literally. The witch Finé’s plan is to shoot the moon. You see, when all the power of the ancient relics is enhanced and condensed in one location, the tower of Kadingir (aka that tower) will rise from the earth as a big-ass cannon that can be used to blow up the moon, which represents disharmony. This will (somehow?) rewrite our world into one where all people speak the same common tongue, eliminating war alongside the Noise, and enabling Finé to express her undying love for the Creator in his own language. But the Symphogear trio knows that the world already shares a common language: music! Even after they’re cut down one by one, their friends’ raised voices will revive them, stronger than ever, to defeat Finé and convince her that the world cannot be united by force, only by love.
Up until this point, I was on the fence about Symphogear’s imitation-game style of storytelling. It was a smart move to hang the plot around familiar beats from the show’s potentially incompatible blend of popular anime genres, instead of burying us all in freshly convoluted lore that would just weigh down a world that was becoming too overstuffed to take seriously. But when I saw the heroine trio revive from the brink of extinction with the power of song—multiple times, because there are several death fake-outs in the finale—I realized that I had to accept Symphogear’s cheesy casserole of anime tropes at face value. For better and worse, the show is a purposeful distillation of images, moments, and plotlines that only exist in anime, presented at the confident zenith of emotion that anime fans would remember from seeing those ideas expressed for the first time at a younger, more impressionable age.
Despite lunging forward like a Frankenstein of mismatched clichés from episode to episode, Symphogear never feels like a parody or a cash-in or even an homage to any specific title. It simply takes all the sleaze, all the cheese, and that distinctly adolescent sense of revolution we associate with anime as a “genre”, and then shoots its enthusiasm for all those things straight through the moon. In a world where anime is only becoming more mainstream, Symphogear is one of the more blatant examples of an anime that only makes sense to people who grew up loving this stuff before it was cool. I didn’t love this first season or resonate with all of its goofy choices, but it’s definitely a song sung by weebs for weebs, unabashedly screaming at a frequency few in the world can hear. For that reason alone, I’ll be excited to see how far this weird show can shoot its shot in the more ambitious seasons to follow.
Thanks to Ethan for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤