“We’re all children. That’s why, when we try to heal each other’s wounds, we just end up inflicting more.”
For my inaugural year of Secret Santa participation, I had the pleasure of watching Simoun. I went in expecting girls kissing girls, and girls piloting awkwardly-computer-generated flying machines with other girls. And I got that. But I also got a lot more.
Simoun is a deceptively complex narrative wrapping love, religion, war, arrested childhood, the transition into adulthood, and gender identity into the personal dramas of a group of priestesses forced into the role of soldiers. Anime has its fair share of war stories, but Simoun‘s approach is more reserved than most, reveling more so in the behind-the-scenes machinations and aftermath than in the battles themselves (although the show isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty–and by that I mean the main character cuts off a dude’s hands in the fourth episode). The priestesses (called sibyllae) pilot Simoun, the flying “chariots of the gods,” which facilitate their prayers by drawing patterns in the sky. The offensive capabilities of some of these patterns, called Ri-Maajon (which range from the harmless dandelion pattern to the destructive shark pattern), and the unparalleled maneuverability of the Simoun turn the sibyllae into fighter pilots when war breaks out between their holy land of Simulacrum and their poorer neighboring countries. Simoun, however, forgoes edge-of-your-seat pacing for more deliberate, contemplative moments. The specter of death and destruction is rarely pushed in front of the audience, yet it’s always there, and as the stakes of the war grow more dire, the girls confront uncomfortable truths about their country, their religion, their relationships, and themselves.
Probably the biggest hurdle a viewer in 2014 (soon 2015) will have to clear when watching Simoun is the CGI, which is dated, sticks out like a sore thumb, and can be found everywhere. Every single machine which utilizes the helical Simoun engines is 3D-modeled, which includes small flying machines, larger aircraft carriers, trains, and boats. In fairness, it has somewhat of a justification in the context of the show, where the Simoun engines are mysterious relics of an ancient civilization. So their otherworldly nature separates them from the rest of the hand-animated world, which is in principle a neat effect, and eventually you do get used to it.
What helps Simoun in the visual department is its stellar art direction. Scroll through the above screenshots, and you would be forgiven for drawing comparisons to Revolutionary Girl Utena. That’s because both share the same art director, Shichiro Kobayashi! With lots of pink cloth, gold trimming, and white walls, he channels a lot of his set design for Utena, melding Art Deco and Neoclassical styles. Joining him on conceptual design is Hiroshi Nagahama (director of Mushishi, Flowers of Evil) also reprising his role from Utena. I imagine he contributed heavily to the design of the Simoun and the like, which, in spite of their CGI trappings, are good-looking vehicles. The Simoun, for instance, really do look like they were intended to be ceremonial–ornately decorated, with lots of soft curves and no armor to speak of. They’re just a pair of cockpits and some flashy rudders attached to the two helical engines. Contrast this with the considerably more utilitarian enemy ships, which are small, black, and spindly, buzzing like flies spitting plumes of black smoke.
The warring nations are also steampunks, which is all the more reason to shoot them down.
Simoun‘s narrative and thematic thread that most surprised me in its execution was its examination of the relationship between war and religion. These two concepts have been intertwined for millennia, one being used to justify the other over and over again. Simoun takes this relationship to its most literal conclusion, as it turns out that Simulacrum’s most effective weapons against its enemies are sacred craft which can only be piloted by its maiden priestesses. Messengers of the gods’ love become instruments of death, and each sibylla deals with this reality in her own way. Some begrudgingly accept their mission. Some continue to fly in willful ignorance of their status as a solider. Some enjoy the fighting. But all of them have their own reasons for continuing to be sibyllae, and none of those have anything to do with war or religion. They fly not for revenge, not for recognition, but for themselves and for each other. Even when they commit atrocities, witness horrors, lose friends, and lose faith, it’s their friendship that keeps them moving forward. This sounds trite in summary, but each of the 12+ sibyllae of Chor Tempest walk down a different path, powering through their own internal and external struggles, sometimes hand in hand, and sometimes by themselves. Simoun, in fact, is adamant on insisting that strength comes from both within and without, on knowing when to reach out and knowing when to let go. This development might be too taciturn to be engaging at times, but it’s one of show’s core strengths. And even then, Mari Okada graciously walks in to write most of the show’s latter half, which includes screaming fights about lesbian incest and ballroom dancing assault. So it’s never too boring.
Perhaps the best example of Simoun‘s nuance is its attitude towards gender. In its universe, everyone, invariably, is born female. When girls reach a certain age, they make a pilgrimage to the Spring, where they bathe in its waters and choose their gender–either to remain female or become male (all characters in the show have female voice actresses, reflecting their biological origins). This choice is difficult for many children, and the second episode shows one girl breaking down and sobbing after her trip to the Spring. The exceptions to this rule are the sibyllae, who do not have to go to the Spring so long as they are Simoun pilots. This further complicates their motivations come wartime, as many, including the main character Aaeru, are content to keep fighting so long as it means they can avoid this imposed adolescence. It’s a neat dig at war being childish, but this arrested development is destructive (and very literally so in this universe), so each sibylla eventually has to come to terms with growing up and what that means for them.
But, as with many things, Simoun ultimately comes down to a story about love. First love, unrequited love, lost love, familial love, forbidden love. The Simoun can only be activated by a pair of sibyllae, and they can only activate it by kissing each other. Their mutual affection fuels the mysterious engine, and their discord jams it. Pairs find strength in each other. Some will part ways. Some will stay together forever. But for a moment in time and space, however long and however vast, they have their hearts, and they have their love.
“None of us really know anything about one another. But in order to understand, we must fall. We must fall while we scream. Even while we are so afraid that our hearts leap from our mouths, we hold ourselves together and fall…endlessly. Endlessly.”
“And sometimes we get so afraid of the fall that we cling to something along the way. But we have to let go, don’t we?”
“I’ll still be there waiting, somewhere in that abyss.”