Reviewby Theron Martin, Jan 8th 2008
Sub.DVD 1 - Choir of Pairs
On the world of Daituuriku, everyone is born female. To maintain a stable population, countries like the highly industrialized Shoukoku medically alter some of their population at birth to become male, while in Kyuukoku each person must decide during a special ceremony at age 17 what gender to assume as an adult. Kyuukoku also holds a technological advantage which makes them the envy of others: they have Simoun, extremely mobile two-person aircraft which can only be piloted by those who have yet to choose a gender but can be used to generate Ri Mājon, patterns made in the sky with light from the wake of the Simoun, which are intended to honor Tempus Spatium but can also generate awesomely powerful energy attacks. The sybillae (i.e. priestesses) who pilot the Simoun operate in Pairs, but Sybilla Aurea Neviril, first among sybillae and leader of the elite Chor Tempest (i.e. flight squadron), gets thrown into a funk when she loses her beloved Pair in combat against invading Shoukoku aircraft. As Chor Tempest crumbles while Neviril is unwilling to fly, it picks up three important new members to fill out the ranks: the brash Aer, the young genius Rimone, and the assertive Dominura.
One point needs to be brought up first: the blurb on the case lists the “peaceful theocracy” with the Simoun as Simulacrum, while throughout the subtitles the name “Kyuukoku” is consistently used instead. Argentum, the name used for the industrialized attacking nation in advertisements, gets replaced by “Shoukoku” in the subtitles. In both cases the subtitle name is the one consistent with the original spoken Japanese, so apparently Media Blasters' advertising and production people are not on the same page on translating (or not) the names. Hopefully this will get straightened out with future volumes.
That aside, there seems to be a rule in anime that sci fi stories with prominent yuri (i.e. lesbian) content have to involve either sex changes or single-gender planets. Simoun has both for good measure. It unabashedly advertises itself as a yuri series, and indeed it does deliver a substantial quota of girl-girl relationships and especially girl-girl kissing, since kisses between Pairs are apparently an activation requirement for the Simoun. The gender-change-by-choice potential does throw a new wrinkle into the scheme, as you now can wind up with literally-meant statements like “I'm going to be a man for her” in a relationship between two teenage girls; the ultimate statement of commitment, perhaps?
As prominent a role as the girl-girl relationships play in the series, though, it does not rely on only that gimmick, nor does the series limit itself to a focus just on that. The religious overtones given to operating the Simoun, where the aircraft are divine constructions, the pilots are priestesses, and flying is referred to as “praying to the sky” offers a fresh twist on the conventional fighter pilot-focused story, and using the Simoun to essentially trace mystical patterns in the sky has a certain kind of elegance to it. The māju sessions in the zero-gravity pool, where the sybillae practice their Ri Mājon patterns, has a similar kind of elegance even though it looks on the surface like an excuse to costume the girls in outfits with very scanty coverage. The second episode also, in a way, confronts the emotional and psychological impact of the gender-choice decision.
For all its special elements, though, the entire first volume is really just one big set-up piece. It introduces and defines basic personality traits for its rather sizable cast, introduces the particulars of the setting in a way that is sometimes too blatant in its info-dumping, and establishes and plays through the big initial crises: the trouble Neviril has in coping with the loss of her Pair and the tensions over who is staying or going and who is ultimately going to be Paired with who amongst the newcomers and currently Pair-free sybillae. Events proceed at a proper pace, but the heart of the story is clearly yet to come.
The artistry for the series provides an odd contrast of exceptionally pretty and extraordinarily plain. Well-established Studio DEEN employed new company StudioField to create sharp and inventive 3D CG designs for the Simoun and their main base ship, quality which rivals the similar efforts seen in the Shagri-La ships and aliens in Noein. Pretty-pretty character designs, which emphasize beauty much more than sexiness, provide the other visual highlight. Background art does not come even remotely close to measuring up in many scenes, however; the contrast is so great that one suspects that the creators hoped everyone would be too distracted by the character designs and CG shots to notice that the regular background art looks cheap. (Hence the grade at the end of the review for Art is more an average of the high and low aspects than a true estimation of what the series can do visually.) The animation looks good in CG scenes, acceptable elsewhere, although the series has a bad habit of having lip flaps starting well before the dialog, in some cases by nearly a full second.
Despite some inconsistency in its effectiveness, the musical score is the other true star of the series, as it is responsible for most of the content's elegance, poignancy, and dramatic tension. The score loads itself up with heavily orchestrated numbers that sometimes sound like chamber music, numbers that sound like they were borrowed from some Italian bistro, and the occasional piano piece or fantasy-themed synthesized number. The soundtrack is invariably at its best when employing variations of its lovely opener, and each episode finishes with a respectable but not especially noteworthy closer.
Like Kashimashi, the other prominent “Yuri Fan” title to date from Media Blasters' Anime Works label, this one gets the subtitled-only treatment. The main disappointment here comes from not getting to hear how an American studio might have handled the male roles in the series, as in Japanese they are all still voiced by female seiyuu trying to speak in their huskiest possible tones. Obviously this was done to imply the originally-female origin of all the male characters, but it still sounds very weird. Some of the Japanese voices also seem like unusual matches for their character designs, as rarely are shorter, slightly-designed female characters in anime given deeper (by Japanese standards) voices.
The only Extras included with the first volume are two Japanese “Monthly ADR Bulletins,” the first one involving seiyuu for Aer and Neviril discussing show-related topics, the second a silly Simoun-themed game show involving all of the seiyuu for the Pairs of Tempest Chor. The volume does have pretty cover art and six episodes packed onto it, however, which even without a dub makes it an excellent value at a retail price of only $19.95. Unfortunately the series also has an abnormally-long 15-week interim in between its first and second volumes.
Simoun has enough other merits to stand as an interesting sci fi series without requiring its yuri content as a draw, and it certainly is a good price value for what you get. It offers some decidedly unusual twists on standard fighter-pilot fare, and if it can develop a substantial plot in future volumes then it has the potential to be very good.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Character designs, CG art, interesting twists on standard elements.
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