Well, here we are at last. Again. You may be wondering what in the name of God this winter venture of a deep dive is all about. It is my solemn job as writer to like, tell you. And stuff. I'm belaboring the point, I know, but I have my reasons. I'm getting a buildup of steam here, okay? Plus, I got a lovely compliment from someone I care fondly about regarding my words on this blog. They said my writing style is fantastic; that I made each of my pieces feel like I was sitting in a coffee shop with the reader, talking one on one. Let's take that angle, you and I, okay? It's you and I in the coffee shop, it's a chilly winter day, and we both need a little warming up. Sip your latte or your hot chocolate or what have you, and let's catch up, sweetie.
Two years ago, in a fit of obsessive circle-closing and confused soul-searching, I started watching the original Japanese version of Sailor Moon. Over the next six months I experienced one hell of a ride, a quintessential magical girl experience that moved me on many levels and resonated personally with the confused soul-searching I was going through. It took me another three months to write it all down, and what resulted was a 20,000 word-long exegesis I called Moonlight Shines Eternal. I tell you all of this because in November 2019 I began watching another magical girl anime. It, like Sailor Moon, is a five-season experience. Unlike Sailor Moon, it's much shorter and I have only seen one season at the time of this writing. Immediately upon engaging with its themes and resonances, though, I knew I had to write about the thing. This show, Senki Zesshou Symphogear (lit. "Superb Song Of The Valkyries", if Wikipedia is to be believed, though my subs for the first season translated it as "Swan Song Of The Valkyries", which I kind of like a bit more), hereafter referred to as simply Symphogear for simplicity's sake, is something very special. Explaining why, however, leaves me with a bit of a problem. These deep dives and heartfelt explanations have never been objective; they've always been written in respect to my own interior landscape and personal resonances. On its face, Symphogear is an effective magical girl anime. To properly convey to you what it meant to me, and what parts stood out, I have to go back. Just as I had to go back to my first encounter with Sailor Moon, so too do I have to go back to three works of Japanese anime which absolutely informed how I took in Symphogear and its themes. Actually, more like three characters. I'm dipping my toe into gonzo mysticism blogging a la my output in 2014, but these are the Eternals, and understanding their Elegy is crucial to understanding me and Symphogear. Take another sip of that warm drink, sweetie. Don't be frightened. Just take my hand, and we'll explore this shit together.
Our first Eternal is Usagi Tsukino, Sailor Moon herself, and we're immediately put in an unenviable position wherein I have to somehow take a heartfelt 20,000 word outpouring of critical love and affection and summarize it in a paragraph. If I had that level of brevity, I wouldn't have needed 20,000 words. Still, we have to try. Usagi is, of course, the platonic utopian idealist magical girl whose influence still holds a place in my heart today. She's a flawed individual in many ways. A klutz, a crybaby, a gourmand. She's not that smart and doesn't get good grades, and her first battles as a magical girl are panicked terror until she manages to throw her tiara. Usagi's idealism is codified, eventually. It is unflinching in its optimistic hopes, and so is she. This manifests itself most clearly in the third season of Sailor Moon, where her optimisic hopes are put into conflict with the grim "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" practicality of Sailors Uranus and Neptune. What I see as unflinching optimism, they see as childish sentimental naivity... but the narrative is on the side of our protagonist. Sailor Moon, the show, is pretty much on board with childish sentimental naivity and idealistic "everything will work out if we're kind" thinking. It's beautiful, hopeful, and inspiring to me to see Sailor Moon never yield against the dark, the nihilistic, and the grim. In the fifth and final season of Sailor Moon, two things occur for the sake of this Eternal discussion, and I'm just going to quote myself from my own post on that season:
"With its last breaths of relevance, Sailor Stars has opened Sailor Moon up into infinity. How fitting, then, that Sailor Moon's newest form is called Eternal Sailor Moon. That's exactly what the show does here with this reveal; it makes itself eternal by creating an infinity of Sailor Senshi. This is brilliant."
Sailor Moon, the series, is over, and despite missteps at the eleventh hour it managed to pull through. Usagi Tsukino is Eternal, the universe is open to an infinity of Sailor Senshi, and her unflinching idealism can shine on forever. Whose darkest hour could that blindingly optimistic light shine? Perhaps our next Eternal...
The second figure we need to look at, along with the show she's protagonist of, is Madoka Kaname of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Now, I'm pretty sure you're familiar with Madoka Magica, as we'll call it from now on, but for the sake of getting you up to speed we'll talk about it a little bit. In very very broad strokes, this show feels in many ways to be the dark mirror of Sailor Moon. Again, these are very very broad strokes, but if Sailor Moon is your typical giant robot show, Madoka Magica is its Neon Genesis Evangelion. Dark, depressing, dissonant psychological nihilistic horror. You could write a whole essay on this stuff, but we're only going to stay here and brush out the broad strokes so you can understand my interiority here. (If you'd like a far better deep dive into Madoka Magica, I suggest Jen A. Blue's writings on the series.) Madoka Magica is, as I said, a dark and depressing show. Its take on magical girls is that of fatalistic entropy, of a system designed in the name of saving the world that profits itself off the pain and suffering of these magical girls. Far from being an idealistic superpower, becoming a magical girl in Madoka Magica is a horrific thing, almost Faustian and Monkey's Paw in nature where you not only pay a terrible price for your one wish, but your one wish is likely to be corrupted in ways you could only imagine. You become part of the cycle of suffering and pain, and the very energy created from your suffering is used to fuel a desperate attempt to stave off entropy at any cost by beings more powerful and more sinister than you could possibly imagine. Understanding this depressing dystopia is key to understanding how Symphogear touched me. Sailor Moon and Madoka Magica are my main two tentpoles of magical girl media, and Symphogear's driving force of metanarrative conflict is a battle between which of these styles will win out in the end; grim nihilism, or utopian idealism. We'll see how the battle plays out in Symphogear, but it's worth noting how Madoka Kaname resolves it; by finding the hidden third option. She becomes a magical girl, but her one wish is to literally rewrite the depressing system of pain and suffering, and its power is such that she ascends to godhood to make it true. Madoka Kaname, ever hopeful in the face of such despair, becomes Eternal and does her best to form her own utopia. Ignoring whatever may come after that wish, let's admire that and move to our last Eternal.
Our third and final Eternal is an unexpected one, as she's not actually a magical girl. Still, she's important enough to the interiority of Symphogear and how I took it that she gets a nod. Say hello to Minamoto Sakura of Zombie Land Saga. Yes, okay so she's an Eternal not because of ascending to godhood or spreading her influence upon the world, but because she's an undead corpse, but semantics!! It may seem strange to talk about a Japanese idol zombie girl in a magical girl anime post, but I have my reasons. Mainly that this stuff is utopian resonant, and it was still fresh on my mind as I watched Symphogear. I did a big post on it in October for my Halloween marathon, but let's hit the brief points. Symphogear, as you might have guessed from it being a portmanteau of "Symphony" and "Gear", as well as the whole "Song Of The Valkyries" part, is very much concerned with the element of song. Zombie Land Saga, being a Japanese idol anime, is also very much concerned with the element of song. Bam. Connection made. I am a genius. Oh no. Oh wait. I forgot the even bigger connection! Yamada Tae, undead zombie girl pal of Minamoto Sakura, is "voiced" by the same VA who did Usagi Tsukino! Thank you, past me, for writing about that so I could look it up. Anyway. The power of song and using it to heal will become very important for one of Symphogear's main characters, so that will be something talked about in-depth later. For now, let's appreciate Minamoto Sakura and the other dead girls which make up her band. All disparite misfits who died far too young and are back to some form of life, all of them slowly learning to trust and love each other, to help each other get through their traumas, anxieties, and fears. True friendship through adversity. That'll come up, believe me, but let's leave Sakura and her group for now. I hope I've given you an idea of where my headspace was when I finally sat back to watch Symphogear. Now, get yourself another coffee, won't you? I'm by no means done yet.
It's finally time to talk about Symphogear.
TO BE CONTINUED...