Under Your Radar: Symphogear

“A little cuckoo chirps 8008 times and coughs up blood.”
It’s said that even while the little bird is coughing up blood, it continues to sing.
My precious best friend kept singing, too. She kept singing, even as her blood spilled.
My precious best friend… kept singing on the battlefield.

After the success of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the magical girl genre of anime got a sudden spike of attention, yet no one dared follow it up, since Madoka was way too unique and well-written to simply try to simply cash in by flooding the market with magical girl shows.

So when Symphogear showed up, exactly a year after its run, it obviously had a few eyes on it, to say the least. That said, it was more close to the roots, and rather generic in comparison, so it lost those eyes just as quickly. To be perfectly honest, this made Symphogear quite underrated due to the large amount of comparisons that were inevitably drawn, and the situation behind the scenes didn’t help.

The show was supposed to run for 26 episodes. Then, about three episodes in, for no apparent reason, the episode count was halved. This created many pacing issues and made a few things receive no clear explanation. The main villain’s motivations, for example, as well as the chaotic, beast-like evil side that Hibiki received at the same time as her armor. EDIT: The allegations that the show was supposed to be 26 episodes have been proven false, but it’s still a fact that there were major production issues.

But at the end of the day, it is what it is. This is Symphogear (full title in Japan is “Senki Zehhou Symphogear“, which got fan translated as “Swansong of the Valkyries: Symphogear“), a magical girl show about singing to turn shards of relics you’re carrying into special type of armour/weapon to protect yourself from a race of monsters known as Noise, who are known to appear out of nowhere and attack, turning any humans they touch into ash. Normal weaponry just goes through Noise as if they’re ghosts.

We open with the narration I quoted at the beginning of this post. We are told, in no uncertain terms, that Hibiki Tachibana is dead. Then, the clock rolls back two years. The Noise attack during a concert. People flee, of course, but most of them are caught by the Noise. Hibiki, however, tries to run but is unable to escape, at which point two magical girls come to her rescue (the ones in the image above, they were the singers at the concert). They tell her to run while they take out the noise, but eventually the one holding the spear, Kanade, has to rotate her spear extremely as the noise fly at her, eventually wearing down the spear, which shards flying behind her, precisely where Hibiki is, and…

Well, f***.

And then Kanade dies protecting everyone and we skip forward two years, but not yet to the point that the series opened at, so Hibiki’s still alive – she was just barely saved and the shards from the spear were unable to be removed due to being too close to her heart. By the next episode, we find out that, luckily, she can activate the armor the spear came from, the Gungnir, herself by singing he right song and using the shards near her heart.

What follows is a pretty much by-the-book magical girl series, with a few differences. First off, they decided to go a rather realistic route with the fight scenes, in that every character’s fighting is fairly indicative of their experience. Tsubasa has been trained to use her armour and katanas since she was a kid, so she gets the more badass and well-coordinated scenes. Hibiki has no idea how to fight, so she gets no special moves and is just fighting wildly until she bothers to learn, and has to use her fists instead of the spear. Chris is pretty good with her machine guns, which makes sense for someone who knows how tofight but hasn’t been trained as long as Tsubasa.

Of course, you have transformation sequences and the like, just as any magical girl series would. The girls are all singing throughout their fights, as well, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they recorded each bit of singing for each individual episode. For example, Hibiki’s singing stops as she screams in surprise when she trips over some pipes, with the instrumental track leaving her behind so she can pick the song back up when she gets the chance. Luckily, all of the songs have enough time at the beginning with no lyrics to not get in the way of the transformation sequences, like so:

There’s some nice variety in the songs, too. The Ultimate Song that ends your life once you sing it in exchange for taking out all of your foes sounds like a dirge. In comparison, we have one character who sings hard rock, and another that sings a song about the warmth that humans make.

The lyrics are meaningful, too, fitting in with how the songs are important. One example is the opening theme, which is absent from more serious episodes:

Listen to my song…

Can you hear my voice? Please tell me…
Aiming for the fabricated sky that has no answer, fly far away…

Because just words alone aren’t enough, accept all of me
I can’t control myself… Nor do I want to
It’s the first time I’ve known this sensation
I’ll sing of the start of eternity to you

“So please smile…”
I’ll hug you more passionately and tightly than anyone
You should shake up your trembling heart; something will begin to move
Surely we’d been searching for the day when we can meet ever since the day when we were born
On the night when the wind howls, I’ll remember it
and the tracks we composed together will dance in the heavens

The song basically reads as Tsubasa singing to Kanade. Fitting, since Tsubasa’s voice actor is the one singing.

That aside, a lot of the character interactions seem to come off as yuri pandering. especially this particular death flag Hibiki pulls up on herself, twice:

Miku Kohinata is my sunflower!
It’s warmest when I’m beside you, and it’s the place I’ll always come back to.
It’s always been that way, and it always will.

I mean, geez, what else do you have to say, Hibiki? May as well have just screamed that you love her at the top of your lungs – would have certainly been shorter.

For all its faults, Symphogear is solid and lest a lot of people wanting more. One thing it nearly did do as well as Madoka is making people really impatient for the next episode. Most likely the most underrated show of the Winter 2011 season.

Don’t give up on life!