Secret Santa: Simoun

A bit delayed, but as part of Reverse Theives’ Secret Santa project I was given three series recommended by another blogger and chose Simoun from among the three. It ended up being much more than I ever expected it to be and earned a spot in my top five anime series on MAL. Many thanks to Kimaguresan for the recommendation, it was an excellent show. I don’t recall much fuss about the series back when it aired but I can understand why. The description blurb about the series on MAL makes it sound atrocious, like another run-of-the-mill fanservice bishoujo series with a yuri bent. It’s made by Studio DEEN. And the animation serves its purpose but certainly didn’t have the biggest budget. But the show ended up pretty much the opposite of what one would think from the description. It’s a rich series with depth, heart, and beauty to it. It is at times romantic, GRIM DARK, funny, sad, and hopeful. And in this spoiler-free post I will elaborate on what made it one of my favorite series of all time.

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A New World

Simoun is self-contained in its own fantasy world. There’s no connection to ours, or at least none that is ever revealed. This is one of the strengths of the series, the foundation for much of what makes it great, but it’s also a little jarring at first. There’s a lot that different and the viewer just has to accept the rules and facts of the Simoun world to enjoy it. For the longest time during the series I kept waiting for the ‘reveal’ moment when it would link the Simoun world to ours through some kind of ‘THE ANCIENT CIVILIZATION WAS US!!!’ or other usual tropes. But it isn’t. Starting from the bottom level up everything is different. All people in the Simoun world start out as females and then become male or female (permanently) later on. For the people of Simulacrum they choose at a certain age but the priestesses who pilot the Simoun, machines based around ancient helical motors, they can delay this choice while they serve. This is something that the viewer just has to accept as a way the world works in this series. The sibyllae serve an important function to Simulacrum and its governing theocracy. Religion is what binds the society together and the sibyllae are both traditional priestesses and the country’s main defense. The individual pilots work in teams to pray to their god by weaving RiMaajon patterns in the sky. These patterns can be merely ceremonial or very destructive. This latter effect has allowed Simulacrum’s Theocracy to fend off invasions by the less technologically advanced countries for centuries. Those other countries desperately want the helical motors and other technology to improve their living standards and recently the country of Argentum has mobilized to once again attempt an invasion. This is the starting point for the show, historically, socially, and geopolitically.

That’s what’s on the surface. Some of the elements of Simoun are there to serve as devices for talking about some of the main themes or to add flavor to the series. It’s pretty obvious from the start that there’s plenty for yuri fans. But it is and isn’t yuri. Remember what I said about accepting the world by its own standards and not ours. The sibyllae have to kiss and then kiss their Simoun before taking off as part of the ceremony that’s become associated with making the Simoun work. It could be called yuri fanservice in the mildest of ways, sure. But when you’re judging this it has to be seen from the context of the Simoun world. Many of the characters develop feelings for each other but when we see adults there aren’t any lesbian couples seen. Same sex pairings after permanently choosing a sex don’t seem to exist or even be considered by most people in the Simoun world. But what this does is serve as a catalyst for romance, self-discovery, and as one element of many that makes the characters ask who they are. Choice is a great thing, but it can also be a confusing or even torturous thing. This is a theme that runs throughout the series.

War Changes

Just as the characters change, willingly and not, the nature of conflict in the Simoun world is changing. For centuries Simulacrun has enjoyed unparalleled superiority in technology, though not in numbers. This hasn’t matter because the Simoun and their RiMaajon attacks are so powerful that they can wipe out whole formations of enemies if they have the time to write the designs in the skies. But like many religions and theocracies the Theocracy in Simoun has relied on the same methods for centuries. The Simoun are the ‘Chariots of the Gods’, not machines to Simulacrum. But Argentum hasn’t been idle. Their country is a smoky, polluted industrial mess and getting their hands on Simulacrum technology is a matter of life and death for their people. Their aircraft and zeppelins are far inferior to the Simoun and floating carriers of Simulacrum, but they have numbers and their technology is getting better. This is already starting to change the way Simulacrum is looking at this war, and it will change the way the characters experience it.

A nice touch to the world and the conflict is that each side speaks different languages. On rare occasion we’re privy to seeing things through the eyes of the Argentum soldiers, but otherwise they speak another language that the viewer and the sibyllae cannot understand. And while things seem ornate and clean back on the sibyllae’s carrier Arcus Prima war is still war, and a desperate one at that. It’s brutal and bloody and not even the priestess sibyllae are removed from that. Early in the show an Argentum soldier attempts to steal a Simoun and after dying from his wounds inside the cockpit his hands must be cut off to loosen his grip on the technology he so desperately wanted to bring home.

Love and Identity

While I just spoke above on why this show shouldn’t be judged just on its yuri element, it is certainly something that flavors the world. The Arcus Prima is a converted luxury liner complete with all the trappings of yuri romance series: elegant tea cups, a ballroom, fencing, and gilded windows. For those viewers who enjoy that style of romance you won’t be disappointed. Personally I greatly enjoyed it. Yuri series tend to emphasize subtlety in their romance and interpersonal drama and I couldn’t get enough in Simoun. The little details, the short glances or minor signals could mean everything between the characters. There was a lot of romance going on in the series, both successful and failed. And along with this comes angst, doubt, goals, choices, and conflict. All of these in a good way, even the angst. A few of the characters have some baggage they’ve brought with them, some don’t but nonetheless things happen that can lead to internal or interpersonal effects. Even with a fairly large cast Simoun is a show with the writing and pacing to really show these characters develop over time. From Paraietta and her responsibilities to Limone’s child genius to Mamiina’s social class issues and all the others, it was a wonderfully rich experience.

Identity and one’s place in life is usually a feature of shows with a coming-of-age theme, but Simoun complicates that further with religion and people’s choice of gender. The new war is pushing some in the theocracy to think of the Simoun and sibyllae differently. Dominura and Wapurif begin to work on the Simoun as machines built for a purpose and not as ‘chariots of the gods’ as they’re supposed to. The prayer-based nature of the RiMaajon and the central place of religion in society is also something on the minds of all, but especially Yun and Morinas. These characters are supposed to be the priestesses of their god but at the same time war is forcing them to reconcile the way their prayers are used as weapons. More directly weighing on identity is the looming thought of one day having to choose a gender. When all this ends, when the war is over all the characters will have to go to the Spring, the location where they stand before the oracle Onashia and have their decision enacted. The society seems patriarchal since it’s mentioned that men serve in the military and inherit property but women do not, but choosing to be male would mean a physical change and uncertainty in choosing to be something else than the default (non-permanent) female gender. And each character also has to find their way among their own circumstances within the theocracy, their families, and with those they love.

Why You Should Watch It

Simoun will appeal to you if you like at least two of the following: mecha, fantasy, yuri, and intrigue. The Simoun are unconventional for mecha but they do have their appeal after a while and the air-to-air and air-to-ground combat scenes can get really good, especially from the mid-point of the show onwards. For fantasy fans the show has one of the most interestingly constructed worlds I’ve seen in some time. A fantasy world that operates by its own rules and has advanced technology without it being linked in a sci-fi way to our own world. There is much yuri romance for fans of that, and a large cast for lots of drama. And the series has a lot of intrigue as to the way the world works, the way the war will go, and in interpersonal relationships for those who love to keep peeling back layers of plot.

However much I enjoyed the series overall, I do have a few cautions. The series starts out a bit slow in the first 4 to 6 episodes or so. Simoun is like that rolling ball in Indiana Jones: it’s massive and starts moving slowly but just keeps gaining momentum once it starts and just gets stronger and stronger. Another point would be that if you’re one of those shallow, ‘oooh shiny pretty animation’ people then it may not be for you. The animation is fine but it’s far from stunning. It’s good enough but isn’t high budget and uses some basic watercolor shots for backgrounds at times and pencil-sketch stillshots for a few important moments (which I rather liked in a ‘throwback to old super robot shows’ kind of way.) This also may not be the show for you if you’re looking for Macross-level dogfights. Simoun certainly has some good aerial combat, but not on the level of Macross, nor with the same frequency. There are shots and scenes that really do show a love for flying in a way that draws you into the pilot’s head but this isn’t an action series exactly.

The bottom line: I absolutely LOVED Simoun and am really glad that it was recommended to me. 10/10 on my MAL, #3 favorite series of mine after Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Honey and Clover. It’s that good. Love, war, intrigue, drama, it really couldn’t have been a better recommendation.  Additional thanks to Shinmaru and Hellomotto for recommending it when I was mulling over my three Secret Santa choices on Twitter.

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22 Comments

  1. Posted January 1, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    Simoun will appeal to you if you like at least two of the following: mecha, fantasy, yuri, and intrigue.

    Fantastic. In other news, Simoun will appeal to you if you like at least two of the following: money, chocolate, birthdays, and compliments.

    • Posted January 1, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      :P Tried not to be too general with that but I think two of the four would yield a fairly high percent chance of someone liking it. Provided they don’t object to the slow starting pace, animation, or lack of spectacle I mentioned after that. I can see your point, but I’m not really sure I could have focused it more narrowly without making it seem like it would only appeal to a very small niche audience. I think there’s a lot in it for a decent amount of viewers if they give it a try. I certainly wouldn’t have watched it given its MAL description so I’m hoping this review might better represent the show.

      • Posted January 1, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

        Well, the only point I was really making is that Simoun is awesome and everyone should like it. I watched it back when it was first coming out, and back then the opinions were really mixed. In fact, when I first discussed it after the first few episodes aired, I noted it was on Anime News Network’s Most Diverging Opinions list between Princess 69 and Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo (a spot currently held by Seikon no Qwaser). Thankfully, opinions since the show finished airing have been resoundingly positive, and it’s no longer anywhere on that list.

        • Posted January 1, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

          Haha, I thought you were saying that I was selling it too broadly, definitely something I tried to remain conscious of since I’m flush with enthusiasm for it. Glad that it’s getting such praise since it aired. It aired before I ever read my first anime blog post but it sounds like it would have been interesting to see how and why people’s opinions formed then.

  2. Marigold Ran
    Posted January 1, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    So, I guess, uh, it’s appealing? I like chocolate and compliments!

  3. Hellomotto
    Posted January 1, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Simoun…I love this show. I basically had the same exact reaction to the plot summary and almost dropped it near episode 7 (though psgels’ reviews kept me going). After that, the plot and character interaction started escalating, and by episode 14 or so, I was hooked. There was no going back; it just got so good that I couldn’t stop watching.

    Like you said, the three biggest ideas the show explored were identity, religion, and war (and how closely interrelated the ideas are). That truly enhanced the enjoyment for me: it wasn’t just separate, random ideas; if one was affected, so was the other.

    For me, though, the characters truly made me love the show–that is, how each character is carefully and slowly developed. I really didn’t think this show would have ANY time to develop its characters–and indeed, it only seemed to focus on Aearu or Neviril at first. By the end, though, you truly feel for each character. There wasn’t one character (well, maybe Floe) for whom I felt only a slight affection for; the whole cast was just excellent. I can’t really remember every detail well, but I think it was the character interactions that really made the development effective. For me, the development of Mamiina and Rodoreamon was especially emotional for me. I hated Mamiina at first, but by the end of the series, she easily became my favorite character. Rodoreamon was completely changed by their friendship and her realization of class. I also remember Yun was a cute character.

    I think, if there was anything I didn’t like, it was the slowness in the beginning and the confusion. It took me a while to understand the conflicts (as well as the whole purpose of the Emerald Rii Maajon), but that only took away from the experience a bit.

    Overall, great series. I’m pretty sure it’ll remain one of the best. (Oh, and NEVER judge a book by its cover. ;D)

    (Lastly: Oh wow, you mentioned my name? I feel proud. :D)

    • Posted January 1, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

      Accepting the world that it was set in and that world’s norms and rules did take me a while at first, which meant a slow start for me due to the slower pace in the beginning. But things started to change around the time the Argetum solider had his hands cut off.

      Characters were a huge part of it and I definitely cared for all of them greatly by the end. But the reason I chose not to talk about the characters as much in this post is a fear of spoilers. But I’ll be writing another post on it tomorrow that does include spoilers. A big part of that post is going to be on some specific characters whose stories I really enjoyed. Figured I’d keep it spoiler-free for this post since I want this to be a post that will encourage people to watch it. The next post will be for people who have already watched the show.

      • Hellomotto
        Posted January 1, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t really “accept” the setting either–mostly because I failed to understand it until the show neared its end. There were too many questions going through my head, and my poor little head could only intensely focus on one thing at once. XD

        And I kinda noticed that too…maybe you should put spoiler tags on my comment? XD I’ll be looking forward to that post…it’s discussions like these that kind of make me miss aniblogging, even though I have no time.

  4. Seconal
    Posted January 2, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    I got through about half this series when it was airing and found it quite unique. Then the subs became sporadic….and dried up. Your review has encouraged me to go back and give this another look. Thanks for reminding me of this little known show.

    • Posted January 6, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Glad you’ll be going back to try it again. I heard about the problem with subs back when it aired. That sucks but hopefully more people can get a hold of it now.

  5. fathomlessblue
    Posted January 2, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    A beautiful, beautiful anime, thanks for the article!

    I only actually watched the show a month back but I’d definitely it consider in my top 5 all time series, in the same way Eva or Haibane Renmei became instant favorites upon viewing. I’m trying to get through Air currently, but every time I pick the show up, I just can’t forget how little I’m enjoying it compared to Simoun.

    The weird thing is that most of the elements the show’s made up of (war, yuri, mecha etc) don’t really appeal to me on their own, but I guess the series is far greater than the sum of it’s parts. Calling it yuri in the traditional sense would be like calling Eva a bog standard mecha show; however, I’m at a loss for words trying to describe the show in a way that does it justice.

    Minor gripes are that I would have liked a stronger beginning (ep 1 particularly isn’t the best introduction to the series) and a better grasp of Simoun’s world beyond the somewhat narrow viewpoints of the girls. Saying that, I think backing way from the fantasy elements or a detailed picture of the war itself, in favor of deep characterization is what ultimately caused the show to stand out. Simply a fantastic cast (although I do share Hellomotto’s lesser affections towards floe), with Paraietta, Mamiina, Dominura, Limone and Aaeru being particular highlights. I do have to agree with comments I read elsewhere that the attempts to make Nevirill’s beauty stand out, sort of backfired, causing her to look a bit like a blow-up doll; but hey, nothings perfect! :P

    The other highlight of the Simoun was how unpredictable it was, especially the final arc which totally didn’t go the way I was expecting. But again, slower, well though out (not to mention bittersweet) endings get my vote over silly ott action packed finales.

    I hadbetter stop now as I could seriously rave about Simoun all day. It’s kinda sad how underrated it seems to be, but I have noticed an increase in talk about it in the last six months (Shinmaru’s recent article for example) so perhaps it’ll develop into one of those word-of-mouth hits in some quarters. I can think of few more deserving.

    • Posted January 6, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      A suitable description of the series is difficult, especially so for a short description. All the elements of it together take some explaining to show how they fit.

      As for pacing, I do have to mention that I loved how there were a full four or so episodes at the end dedicated just to denouement. So many series end in a rushed manner with barely any time to show how things end up, much less have time to ponder and reflect upon what it all means. But Simoun paced itself so well that it could have a full, rich story with lots of character development AND a complete and detailed ending. And all this even when the show started off pretty slow.

  6. Posted January 2, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m so very happy to get exposure for this great series. I’m never super confident in recommending things, but I kinda took a long shot in making this one of them. The more exposure this gets, the more tickled I am. It now also reminds me that it’s time for me to re-watch and bring my wife into this too, she is also kinda turned off by the description.

    Thanks for watching and enjoying.

    And, I agree, those first few episodes are kinda hard to get through, but so worth it when you do.

    • Posted January 6, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for the recommendation. Part of why I picked it, in addition to the recommendations of others, was that it sounded pretty different from anything else I’ve watched. And it sure was. Just superb and greatly enjoyable.

  7. Kah
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Simoun has remained among the top favourites of anime I have seen for years now.
    Strangely though, I was hooked from episode 1.

    • Posted January 6, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      The first episode got me interested, but I wasn’t feeling strongly invested until the episode where Aaeru had to land and fight with the Argentum soldier. That was when I was sold on it completely.

  8. Posted January 4, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    It really seems that the MAL description doesn’t make it any justice.
    I’m entering on dangerous ground here since I’m not good with series that start off slowly but now I’m warned so I should be ok.
    I reserve the rest of my opinions once I’m done watching it.

    • Posted January 6, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Happy to see you giving it a try. Go into it knowing that the beginning is kinda slow, but the payoff is well, well worth it.

  9. Posted January 5, 2011 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    When I watched it I honestly expected the worst because I find the yuri category to be lacking in so many ways but how it tied that along with war and an amazing fantasy world it just grabbed me after I sank my teeth into it after about 8 episodes. that’s where is really got amazing for me and I’m glad you enjoyed it too.

    More and more people need to watch this wonderful show!

    • Posted January 6, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Despite having Yuri Goggles many times I’ve only actually watched one truly yuri series before. But from what I hear of MariMite (which I intend to start soon) yuri does seem to do a great job of romance-politics. By that I mean how subtle gestures and moments are super significant in the characters’ relationships. It’s definitely something I like in Simoun, Aoi Hana, and the bits of other yuri or yuri-centric shows I’ve seen.

      I guess I’ll find out what may be lacking in the genre as I watch more of it. What do you often find lacking in it?

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