Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Anime REVIEW: Senki Zesshō Symphogear AXZ

Senki Zesshō Symphogear AXZ

I say this every time I write about it, but it’s still hard to believe that Senki Zesshō Symphogear hasn’t just stuck around for four seasons, but a fifth one is pretty much a certainty. But here we are, and everyone’s favourite song-powered armoured girls are back and have added another letter to the title with Senki Zesshō Symphogear AXZ. Expect more explosive battles, more music, more shipping and more girls kicking all kinds of ass. The tagline for this season is “By shedding many tears, the reality you face is…”, which just as gloriously ridiculous as ever.

The Symphogear castThe Pavarian Illuminati

This season the S.O.N.G. Task Force come head to head with the Pavarian Illuminati, an underground organisation that had secretly been pulling the strings behind the girls’ previous battles. Clashing against the Symphogear users are Saint-Germain, Cagliostro and Prelati, three alchemists fighting for their own noble cause – freeing humanity from the “curse of Balal” through an ancient ritual. However the Illuminati’s leader, Lodgemaster Adam Weishaupt, also has his own plans for the powers that the alchemists’ alter ritual will summon.

As the girls’ learn even greater teamwork to battle against alchemists with powers that seemingly surpass their own, Maria, Kiriko and Shirabe must also come to terms with their dependency on the dwindling supply of LiNKER they have left whilst Chris continues to struggle with her past demons.

Tsubasa and Shirabe try a new combinationAdam Weishaupt

Given that Symphogear GX kicked off with the girls’ slicing a mountain in half while surfacing down to Earth on a crashing space shuttle, AXZ had a lot of work cut out for it if it was ever going to beat its predecessor when it came to spectacle. And while this season may not have delivered on a moment that’s quite so ridiculously bombastic as that, it did surpass all three previous Symphogear seasons in several other ways – the first and foremost being story. It’s amazing how much AXZ manages to fit into a mere 13 episodes and still somehow manage to not feel crammed. Elements like Maria, Kirika and Shirabe struggling with the loss of their powers or Chris’ past traumas are the kind of thing that could take up whole season arcs, yet here they’re told in just a few episodes without ever feeling underdeveloped. Additionally, all of this is happening tangentially to the main storyline which in turn is one of the deepest the franchise has pulled off thus far. It certainly helps that AXZ also eschews the more obvious Symphogear tropes – forsaking a Tsubasa concert sequence and predictable superpowered climax fight in favour of surprise alternatives.

AZX’s success also lies in its pretty fantastic villains, which only get more interesting (as well as inclusive) the more you read about them. While Symphogear having noble antagonists is nothing new, the three Pavarian alchemists are notable for being ones that don’t wind up on the team by the end of the series. Their motivations come from good intent, but it’s the methods they use to carry out that are questionable – something that even Saint-Germain bares in mind quite significantly throughout the show. It isn’t just a clash between the Symphogears and the alchemists’ powers, it’s also a clash of ideals. It’s a pity that Saint-Germain is the only one that has her backstory truly explored, but as mentioned earlier there is a lot of interesting stuff about Cagliostro and Prelati in the show’s supplementary material. Since said information isn’t essential to the main story it’s understandable why it’s sidelined, but their status as trans characters that aren’t outright villainous or treated as a joke is pretty significant representation. In addition to these deeper “villains” you also have Adam, who in contrast is thoroughly irredeemable and nicely fills the quota for a bad guy you just want to see defeated. So whether you prefer evil or misunderstood villains, AXZ has something to cater to everyone’s tastes.

The Alchemists transformedChris Yukine

With the show moving into its fourth season it was also important to mix things about in other ways. Symphogear has always had its obvious pairings (Hibiki/Miku, Kirika/Shirabe and even the occasional Tsubasa/Maria), but it’s when the show steps outside of these that things start to get really interesting. The story actively calls for the characters to work in different combinations from the norm, resulting in some more interesting duets as well as more memorable fight sequences. Long time fans need not worry though, as there are still plenty of character-building moments that shippers can run wild with.

With the music, animation and action sequences as good as ever, there’s not many other places to find flaw with Symphogear AXZ. One could perhaps argue that in the absence of the usual kind of finale it delves into becoming the Hibiki show (in a similar way to Super Sentai leaning heavily on its red ranger for example), but there’s just so much else going on with the other characters outside of this that it really doesn’t feel like that bigger deal. Hibiki may arguably be the face of the franchise, but AXZ pushes unity and teamwork harder than ever so no character feels underused. Even supporting characters like Miku, Elfnein (who is an excellent new addition to the cast) and the other S.O.N.G. members constantly prove their worth here.

Kirika and ShirabeMaria and Elfnein

Symphogear is a franchise that’s consistently tried to better itself and upped the ante with every passing season, and with AXZ breaking template it was beginning to create for itself it's edged itself out as the best season yet. There’s no denying that at this point the show is unlikely to change the minds of anyone not fond of the past three seasons, but those who’ve stuck with it all the way from episode one can expect the show to pull off what it does best better than ever. And judging by the end credits sting in the final episode, the fifth season may be even better again.

No comments: