Aer loves to fly, and to shoot down the enemy. By flying she staves off a difficult choice: pilot-priestesses like her escape the general societal demand that children—all of them born with female bodies—go to the nation’s sacred Spring at age seventeen and pick a physical sex.
Just a few snags intrude. Much of the rest of Aer’s squadron, Chor Tempest, don’t think they’re military pilots at all, and would prefer to focus on their religious calling. The best available co-pilot, Neviril, seems unaccountably cut-up over losing someone in the most recent battle. And then there’s the small matter of the enemy, who’ve every reason to offer war to the knife: they desperately need access to the Spring for themselves.
Thus opens Simoun, one of the odder anime for which I’ll advocate.
Hitherto this blog’s focused mostly on charismatic, well-regarded titles which contain at least a few bravura animated sequences.
I get the impression that Simoun, by contrast, goes unremarked. Few nod approvingly when I mention it. In animation it often follows the path of the slideshow. Dating to 2006, it looks very much like it sits among the anime doomed to be forever born-digital at standard definition resolutions. Oh, and it uses 3DCG for its planes and ships, something which normally puts my back up.
To an unkind eye the character designs might look like refugees from an unloved 2000s-era visual novel. At least two of the show’s subplots would upset some viewers, and a bare description of one part of the show’s premise would make it sound like someone high up on the production staff was working out a kink.
Yet I like it. I like it enough that I’ve seen it several times, albeit across more than a decade. When I like something which in every respect ought to turn me away… well, that’s when I trust my instincts most.
Simoun hammers out a very solid war story. The show more thoroughly calls up the spirit of early Universal Century Gundam than any actual Gundam from its decade. Or a spirit like the mixture of joy in flight and clipped fearfulness which pulses through V. M. Yeates’s Winged Victory:
If you know for certain I am dead, please send the enclosed letter to my wife, and I should like you to let her know any particulars you can of my death. If I am a flamer, don’t say that, say shot down and killed.
The state Chor Tempest serve, the Simulacrum Theocracy, might not exactly be villainous, but it doesn’t earn praise: after all, it hoards sex or, more specifically, it hoards the freedom to choose a physical sex at the Spring, and what little we see of its upper echelons doesn’t edify. Its elders ask unreasonable things from their pilots, and indulge in power struggles among themselves while the war develops not necessarily to their advantage.
By contrast, the show also places a moving, if perhaps naïve, hope in youth: the young priestess-pilots on each side begin to give each other the respect and generosity they don’t get from their respective superiors, slowly finding ways to step back from fighting altogether. If, early in the show, self-sacrifice kills, it also eventually becomes the force which wrings some good out of Chor Tempest’s situation.
At one point, the government hauls Neviril before an enquiry, where she bravely voices her pilots’ struggles. Trained as priestesses, treated as holy, but sent out to kill and to die, how can they know they are still holy? Cut to the rest of Chor Tempest at a funeral: ‘Are we really qualified to mourn the dead?’, asks one.
Simoun stays guarded about religious truth claims, but also strongly sceptical of those who find belief empty. I don’t think along the same lines, but I can respect this. It explores how a religion might mean things to its adherents with real thoughtfulness.
More: Simoun wonders what it would be like to be a priestess in a faith which regards clergy themselves as in some way holy. What is it to occupy that role and experience doubt? What is it to find yourself in that role simply because you’re a skilled, jockish fighter pilot? This serves up much more than would a simple plot about a deceptive hierarchy and duped believers.
A whole tangle of drama within Chor Tempest runs through all these other matters. A squadron resembles the hothouse environment of a particular kind of school, and this aspect of the show might recall Maria Watches over Us or Dear Brother. Perhaps, specifically, Dear Brother and its lineage: for instance, Simoun indulges in many pointed harmony (or ‘postcard memory’) shots.
(After I first posted this, @adaywithoutme pointed out the likely fingerprints of Shichirou Kobayashi in Simoun. Kobayashi’s crushingly impressive art direction record takes in several relevant anime, but perhaps the most obvious echo is Revolutionary Girl Utena; the architecture of Chor Tempest’s island home base really does resemble Ohtori Academy.)
Transposing the tensions and secrets of a Dear Brother into a military squadron works well. Now, the characters’ varying ties interact with the ebb and flow of battle, the coming and going of squadmates, and the intrigues of the top brass. Now, a breach between co-pilots means a weaker unit and higher risks.
Occasionally the designs loosen up for comedy, usually in a scene involving Floe, Chor Tempest’s most starry-eyed member. The series mostly stays visually staid, however, which’s a bit of a shame. Nevertheless, it ekes out some value from some stylish lineart, strange mechanical designs, and those postcard memories, mustering at least the ghost of a case for its specific existence in animation.
I’ve left the most obvious cluster of topics here, gender, sex, and identity, till last. I write this bit conscious that I’m not well-placed to talk about it, but I’ll do my best. You could take Simoun‘s setting and plot as a commentary on matters of gender in various ways, but I’m not sure the series sets out to cover this as a defined capital-t primary Topic in the first place.
For much of the show these matters take a backseat. Its characters’ very different system for naming and thinking about desire and personhood is, to them, wholly everyday; I suppose this normalcy does, in its own way, count as an adventurous speculation. The members of Chor Tempest don’t regard themselves as gay, non-binary, or any other especially defined identity, including straight. In Simulacrum they, like everyone who’s not yet visited the Spring, are simply young people, treated linguistically as feminine, who might love others—with, of course, all the troubles that love brings anyone.
This is sf, though—more than many anime which merely show off shinier future technology, it is sf—and sf always finally talks to the world from which it comes, not the world it projects.
In our own world, one might raise doubts about, for example, Simoun‘s attitude to surgery, or about whether it displays the queasily voyeuristic quality some people attribute to yuri anime. But, to my inexpert eye, Simoun still seems to do something fruitful in imagining a world with a radically different sexual landscape. Plus its setting eschews prescription, for the show makes it quite clear that Simulacrum’s no utopia, no model: it’s a poorly-run state, hostile to its neighbours and cruelly stratified. (To an Englishman like me, it looks just like home.)
If you want it to, the ending offers the greatest imaginable escape to the lead characters. They fly from choosing between male or female, but—returning me to my point that the show cares for many things—they escape from much more besides.
Simoun‘s a strange beast, part pulpy as they come, part remarkably restrained. I’m glad I spared the time to revisit it.
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I wrote this up after watching the show again recently; you can find my note-taking on it in this thread. Wrong Every Time has been travelling through the show this year, and you can find those posts, with much more detail on each episode, starting here.