Monday, May 14, 2007

Simoun - The Primer

Well, we finally finished Simoun. Milady felt the end was a bit of a letdown, as did I initially, until I went back and thought over what had happened and why. And I realized that I had been wrong in my comprehension of what the show was really about.

So what is Simoun about, then? And should you want to watch it? I'm going to address that question here while avoiding spoilers as much as reasonably possible.

One warning: Stay away from the wikipedia article if you are planning on watching the show - it is comprehensively spoiling.

The technical stuff: It's a 26 episode half-hour show. There's a strict chronological plot order. It's not derived from a manga or light novel (although two manga series came out after it premiered). Frankly, I haven't had much luck finding out who actually came up with the idea, who wrote the scripts, etc. The anime production and mecha design stuff is pretty well documented, but I have yet to see lots of discussion about where the complex setting and plot came from.

When Simoun came out in early April 2006, it arrived along with several other anime that quickly developed huge followings in Japan and in the West: Suzumiya Haruhi, Ouran High School Host Club, and Nana. In Japan Simoun did pretty well, and got some buzz from bloggers who were sucked in by the yuri (girl-on-girl romantic/sexual) tones of the show, and others who stuck it out past the first two shows and realized they were looking at something complex, unique and special.

Here in the West, the Naruto and Batman fanboys completely ignored it. Somebody, looking at the pre-release press materials, christened it "Loli-Copters." It might never have been widely seen here, but for a few hardcore viewers watching the raws who talked the show up in their postings. It looks like the early fanbase here might also have been mostly Yuri fanatics (who were also, no doubt, also celebrating Strawberry Panic). The good news is that they had non-yuri-fan friends who liked anime and were curious to find out what the fuss was about.

So what is my take on the whole whole yuri thing? I'm very heterosexual, not a yuri or yaoi fan, don't have issues with what other people choose to do, and so had no problems with it at all. Further, it all makes sense in context - the story doesn't happen on earth, and the people involved aren't actually humans. They just look and act like humans. Simoun obviously falls in the (very popular) convergent evolution school of TV Science Fiction. Yes, I recognize that this is a handwave for dramatic purposes. So is most science fiction and fantasy set on other worlds. Your mileage may vary.

There's another issue for a few - if you're strongly religious, and have problems with willing suspension of disbelief where your faith is concerned, you might not be happy with Simoun. This different world has a different religion, and different results and expectations thereof.

At some point (about two episodes in), a critical mass was reached and people started to talk about fansubs. Doremi dug into an adequate job, then dropped the project about six shows in. The rabid fans got together and formed their own fansub group, logically enough named Simoun-Fans. Enter a great truth: The more the fansubbers love the show, the harder they will try to make the subs perfect. This is the reason why fansubs are always better than commercial subs. Simoun-Fans' subs are excellent - as good as Solar's subs of Honey and Clover, which are my benchmark of subtitle quality.

Their love, whether or not it dares speak its name, is not misplaced. Simoun is as interesting and worthwhile as any 600 minutes worth of TV anywhere. It shares a quality with other worthwhile literature in that it doesn't tell you what to think. It shows you happenings, and leaves it to you to figure out what you think.

So, should you watch Simoun? Maybe. You should not bother with Simoun if:
  • You like clear-cut villains, heroes, and predictable character stereotypes
  • You can't handle seeing girls and (on one occasion) guys kiss each other
  • You can't stand the idea of sexual indeterminacy (and no, I don't mean gender-bending, I mean neither one nor the other, as in LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness)
  • You get bored if people in the show aren't shouting at each other or trying to kill each other
  • You think nonverbal symbolism is for sissies
  • You don't want to pay attention enough to learn to tell eighteen characters apart
You should watch Simoun if:
  • You like seeing characters develop
  • You like seeing people wrestle with problems of duty, identity, and self-determination
  • You enjoy Studio Ghibli-style scenery
  • You appreciate a soundtrack with musical complexity and subtlety
  • You enjoy being surprised by plot developments, and rarely are
Interested? Good. I'll give you a little primer on what's good to know before you start.

Good stuff to know:
  • Latin. Latin is hard to work with in Japanese, but they give it a good try. Place names, technical terms, some character names, and other miscellaneous words are often Latinate. This isn't a bad idea if you think of how alien Latin is to the average Japanese TV viewer. The few who recognize the derivation will also get that it's an ancient, dead language, which fits the milieu of the story as well. The fact that the phonetics are awkward makes figuring out what the Latin word actually is something of a challenge. Here (from Hashihime) is a pretty spoiler-free vocabulary list.
  • The shows come in pairs. If you've got time, I recommend watching an an odd number episode and its following even-numbered episode immediately afterward. I think this is because the scripts were written for an hour-long timeslot and then cut in half.
  • There's a big cast of characters. Print this (from Hashihime again) and keep it handy when you watch. It'll save your sanity during the first few shows. Just about everybody on this page advances the plot in some way, so it behooves you to get to know them all. Don't stand on your first impressions of any character - they're all deeper than the initial impression suggests (yes, including Floe).
  • The world's name is Daikuuriku, which translates as something like 'Land of Great Skies.' It is in a binary star system.
  • People on Daikuuriku are all born female. As teenagers they choose (or have chosen) a permanent sex. The process of becoming male, if necessary, takes some years to complete. If this sounds farfetched to you, I'll note that there are a number of vertibrate species on Earth that do exactly this.
  • Our principal characters are all citizens of the nation of Simulacrum, which is a theocracy.
  • Simulacrum is at war with all of its neighbors. We don't know how many neighbor states there are, but the two that matter are:
  • The Argentum Archipelago, (Latin: 'silver') which is in the midst of a coal- and oil- fired industrial revolution (think Edwardian Britain), and appears to be either centralized communist, a monarchy, or a dictatorship with limited personal rights
  • The Plumbum Highlands, (Latin: 'lead') which is an impoverished mountain nation
  • Simulacrum appears to be feudal and agrarian. It has no heavy industry and is not doing well fighting the artillery, tanks and aircraft of Argentum.
  • The Theocracy of Simulacrum worships the deity Tempus Spatium, (Latin: 'time' 'space') which is apparently responsible for setting people's permanent sex, among other things. There is no evidence presented of anybody in Simulacrum not worshiping Tempus Spatium, and no evidence of religious repression, either.
  • Along with services held in temples, in which wings and stained glass figure prominently, Tempus Spatium is worshipped by performing certain ritual aerobatic maneuvers called ri maajon with aircraft called simoun. When the simoun perform a ri maajon, they leave a sparkling silver trail in the sky.
  • different ri maajon have different functions. Some are diplomatic or ritual, some have a destructive effect. A number of ri maajon are documented in ancient writings, but only a few of them are fully understood.
  • Simoun are regarded as holy artifacts. They can only be operated by pairs of girls who have not yet chosen a permanent sex. These operators are addressed as miko-sama (translates as something like 'honored temple maiden') by ordinary citizens of Simulacrum, and as sybillae (singular: sybilla (Greek: 'prophetess')) by themselves and the theocracy.
  • Simoun do not use propellers, airfoils, or jet engines. They fly by virtue of two helical motors and are, apparently, moved by the direct blessing of Tempus Spatium.
  • Simoun are capable of performing maneuvres that would be impossible for any aircraft that can or forseeably could be built on earth. Quite a feat for a pre-industrial agrarian society.
  • There are also trainer aircraft called Simile Simoun (or just Simile) which are powered by one helical motor. They are not regarded as anything special, and can be flown by anyone with sufficient training.
  • There is a cadet system for training young women in the practical and theological ways of being a sybilla. It appears that many are called, but few are chosen. Cadets are easy to spot because they wear a distinctive white-and-blue uniform, are younger, and are often attending sybillae.
  • Because simoun are so maneuverable, and because they can perform destructive ri maajon, the Simulacrum government has been using them to fight the war with Argentum. Since simoun are holy items, and their pilots are preistesses, there are profoundly mixed feelings about this move in many quarters.
  • Sybillae are organized into a chor (latin: 'choir'). A chor at full strength has 12 members and six simoun, and is capable of performing the most complex ri maajon known. They are normally based at the Simulacrum Grand Temple, but have been relocated onto various helical motor powered airships acting as aircraft carriers.
  • The sybillae who are most of the show's characters are all members of Chor Tempest (Latin: Choir of the Storm). Chor Tempest is based with two other chors on the former luxury liner Arcus Prima (Latin: 'first ship') at the start of the show.
One last thing - as I said, I sort of got the show wrong on initial viewing. I won't spoil it with excessive detail, but will point out that you should pay attention to what the populace expects of the sybillae, and what are the effects of having them around. You won't learn much about either of these until about halfway through the series, but they figure prominently in understanding what the show is really about.

That's it. Anything more would spoil the fun. Enjoy.

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