Saturday, January 21, 2017



Warning: Symphogear spoilers. Not that it really matters, because this show transcends mere plot.

The very first thing Symphogear does is lie to its audience.

Symphogear, or to give the show its ridiculous full title Senki Zesshou Symphogear - Meteoroid-falling, burning, and disappear, then..., is best described as Macross meets magical girls; a number of young women are given ancient magical relics which enable them to use songs as armour and weapons to fight the alien threat Noise.

The show appears thematically dense on a surface level. All the terminology is music- or sound-related, and there's some strong imagery in the idea of humanity's heroic melodies defeating the monstrous Noise. But, like KILL la KILL, none of these apparently important references actually mean anything to the... well, calling it a story might be overly charitable.

The biggest problem Symphogear has is trying to decide what it wants to be. None of the masks it tries to wear really fit convincingly, but it's so earnest that I couldn't help but love it for trying so hard.

It has one of the most obvious yet most understated gay relationships in anime. It has characters who sing their feelings while battling each other. It has full-screen, comic book-style freeze-frames for special attacks. It has a story about the genetic reincarnation of an ancient priestess trying to rebuild the tower of Babel so she can destroy the God who lives in the moon. It's a mess of ideas that never quite work the way you feel the writers and animators intended (hoped?), but still somehow I can't help but cheer for it.

Symphogear's whole first series is building towards an ending that's promised by the opening scene of the first episode - a lie that I bought into. Having that scene constantly in mind, particularly as the finale approached, gave much of the story more dramatic heft than it might have otherwise had. It's constantly pulling off a balancing act between the ludicrous spectacle of the Symphogear battles and the difficulties Hibiki has keeping this new superhero work secret from her girlfriend Miku. And with the implication that Hibiki wasn't going to survive the series, I was more worried about whether they'd part on good terms than if they'd defeat Finé.

The second and third seasons have altogether different problems.

Season two, Senki Zesshou Symphogear G: In the Distance, That Day, When the Star Became Music..., decides to jettison all the character stuff that made the first interesting and just turn the Symphogear to eleven. It's total nonsense, spectacle for its own sake, with a terrorism subplot that follows three new Symphogear users who all but have "eventual hero" tattooed on their foreheads. Hibiki and Miku's relationship, the beating heart of the first series' plot, is all but ignored for two thirds of the running time. The transformation sequences from the first season - quick, incredibly cool and highly stylized - are replaced with more... traditional fanservice-based sequences.

The third (and so far final) season - Senki Zesshou Symphogear GX: Believe in Justice and Hold a Determination to Fist. - swings almost too far the other way, with a plot that's somehow both complicated and dumb at the same time, and much lower-key battles. The fanservice is turned up uncomfortably higher. The primary emotional storyline involves Hibiki trying to figure out what to do about her deadbeat father.

To call Symphogear a disaster would not be inaccurate, though I do think it would be unfair. The first season, inconsistent as it is, still has a strong core and some great ideas that a more polished show might not take risks with.

I couldn't recommend watching the whole saga (though with a fourth season constantly rumoured, you might do well to catch up!), but the first 13-episode series is definitely worth your time.

Unfortunate Events

I wonder if I'd like Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events more if it didn't remind me quite so much of Pushing Daisies.

They have more than a few things in common; from an omnipresent narrator to a visual style right on the border of the uncanny-valley, to gleeful descriptions of the weird and macabre events that occur and a peroccupation with alliteration and repetition. Daisies jacked the saturation up where Unfortunate Events turns it down, but the art design and camerawork in one will be familiar to fans of the other.

But it's not quite right.

Daisies' nameless narrator was off-screen, always ready to offer a brief comment or witty rebuttal; while Patrick Warburton's Lemony Snicket exists in much the same role, it takes time for him to move on or off screen, which almost kills the pacing. (His leisurely delivery doesn't help matters.)

Unfortunate Events also seems to struggle with tone - Neil Patrick Harris is unreservedly great as Count Olaf, but the constant switching between careful enunciation and off-the-cuff banter feels less like a deliberate directorial choice than a mistake. That no other character does this only highlights the disconnect.

I also find myself wondering how many of the distracting touches are references for book fans; Mr. Poe's cough adds little to the character, and most of the stuff with the theatre troupe feels like padding.

I'm willing to see how Unfortunate Events finds its feet - only two episodes in, there's a lot to like and the little I know about the series' structure has me intrigued. But the promise (warning?) of no happy ending is a bit offputting. It's hard to see how it could reach a satisfying conclusion with the Baudelaires failing to ever find happiness.

Of course, Pushing Daisies never had a classically romantic ending on the cards for Ned and Chuck. Then again, as TV executives are wont to do with Bryan Fuller shows, an ending was never really on the cards for them at all.