Puella Magi Madoka Magica is shaping into a story about young women who embark on a magical career only to find that things can go terribly wrong. Magical girl costumes are no armor against violence and death.
These themes are shared by Simoun, which examined them in surprising depth for what, at first, looks like a series full of the worst sort of pandering exploitation.
Simoun is about young priestesses who spend a few years associated with a temple, where they learn to dance in the sky, in mother-of-pearl craft called “Simoun” before they graduate into adulthood. But their aerial ballet — a form of prayer — can also be used as a weapon that can call great power down from the heavens.
So the priestesses must go to war, using their art to bring destruction to the enemy.
The show focuses on the members of the premier aerial ballet chorus as they confront that necessity, and confront what it means for them, for their art, and for the people on the ground when the wrath of the gods descends.
When I first encountered Simoun I think I lasted all of a minute. The show is set in a world where people do not have a sex until they choose one on their seventeenth birthday. Before that time they look like fanservice-endowed young women. The priestesses dress in skin-tight flight-suits, pilot their Simouns in pairs, and the Simoun is “energized” when the priestesses share a kiss, then share the kiss with a large jewel embedded in the Simoun. All of this is thrust in your face in the first few moments of the show, and if you have a low tolerance for fanservice you’ll want to turn it off. I didn’t even make it through the opening credits.
But I was lucky enough to have friends who stuck with the series, then started telling me how good it was. Even without them, if I’d managed to get through the opening credits, the first episode might have intrigued me. The first episode is narrated by a pilot for the industrialized state Argentium as he participates in an aerial attack full of steam-punk and airships against the nation of the Simoun priestesses.
And it is very good. It has a large cast with over a dozen main characters, each of whom you come to know and understand as an individual. Each of these young women react differently to their changed circumstances: they change from pampered daughters of the upper-class, attending what amounts to a prestigious finishing school, to people at the control of weapons of mass destruction. Some relish their new-found freedom. Some are horrified by the perversion of their art into a destructive force. Some are caught between both feelings exhilarated by one and ashamed of the other.
They are surrounded by older characters — captains and crew of the various seashell-like aircraft carriers — who also have individual personalities.
Also the series is borne along by the mysteries of its very odd world.
In addition, the series has a stunning soundtrack, with varying themes and instrumental styles.
I think my only complaint against the series is that one of its central characters — the china-doll Neverille — doesn’t carry her role very well, seeming angsty (though with good cause — she loses her long-time lover fifteen minutes into the first episode, and spends several episodes withdrawn as she recovers from that fact. But the weakness of Neverille’s personality is offset by the bull-in-a-china-doll-shop who arrives early in the series: Aeru.
Aeru and Neverille are probably the main characters, but the series is full of memorable characters — the ambitious Mamiina (above), the flirtatious Floe, the scheming Dominura, the solemn Yun, the mensch Wauf, the prodigy Rimone.
It will tide you over until the next episode of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.