Monday 5 October 2015

Anime REVIEW: Senki Zesshō Symphogear GX

Senki Zesshō Symphogear GX

Although the Macross franchise is not due to make its return until the beginning of next year, anime studio Satelight found the perfect musical-themed action series to fill the void with. Since debuting back in 2012, Senki Zesshō Symphogear has gone from strength to strength, returning the following year for a sequel in the form of Senki Zesshō Symphogear G. Now two years later, the relic-powered armoured magical girls are back once again for a third sequel – this time under the name Senki Zesshō Symphogear GX. And with a tagline like “Believe in Justice and Hold a Determination to Fist”, it sounds to be just as ridiculously over the top as ever.

The cast of Symphogear GX
And then there were six

Three months after the defeat of Dr Ver and the events of the previous season, the 2nd Division Mobile Disaster Response Corps has been reorganised into S.O.N.G. – a special task force providing disaster relief around the globe. Shirabe and Kirika have joined the others as students at Lydian Academy, while Maria and Tsubasa are away performing a concert in London. However they are soon faced with a brand new threat – the alchemist Carol Malus Dienheim and her four ‘Autoscorer’ Homunculi. Wanting to take revenge on the planet to avenge the death of her father, Carol also commands the Alcanoise – a new breed of Noise capable of breaking down Symphogear armour.

With strengthened Gears and brand new abilities, the six girls must stand against Carol before she can carry out her plan. However at the same time the girls all have their own demons to face – ones that affect them a little closer to home.

Carol Malus Dienheim
Alchemy is back in fashion

With the beginning of each new season, one of Symphogear’s main goals seems to be to outdo itself in terms of scale and spectacle. The opening episode of Symphogear GX certainly lends itself to that theory anyway, as we see the power trio of Hibiki, Tsubasa and Chris ride a crashing space shuttle down to Earth before punching the K2 Mountain clean in half just to make an unobstructed landing path for it. It’s an incredibly over the top moment even for this show’s standards, and sets the tone well for the kind of entertainment that is to follow. Each episode ends in some high-stakes cliffhanger that aims to outdo the last, the girls all gain new beserker-style “Ignite” modes thanks to the Dáinsleif relic and then finally the series ends quite literally with a person-sized fist. Subtlety is not Symphogear’s strong point, nor does the show want it to be.

But the most appealing aspect about Symphogear GX from the get-go is that it feels like the opportunity for something fresh. At the end of the previous season the Noise were seemingly gone for good, prompting the idea that this one would have to come up with some sort of new threat for our heroes to face. And with the immediate introduction of Carol and the Autoscorers, it seemed like GX was doing exactly that. A new key villain that was completely detached from the Fine legacy of the original, flanked by a smaller number of key villains that aren’t Symphogear wielders but are a force to be reckoned with. Granted it only feels like a minor shakeup, but with the addition of Maria, Kirika and Shirabe to team it felt like the perfect opportunity to put a new spin on the franchise.

The Ignite Mode transformation
Unleash the beast

However that hope was rather short-lived, as it doesn’t take too long for the Autoscorers to start summoning hoards of Alcanoise and the series to start slipping back into its typical format. It could be argued that Symphogear is simply living by the mandate of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” (and violently destroying hoards of faceless alien blobs was something it did VERY well) so it’s hard to mark GX down for simply sticking for its guns, but because of this nothing feels particularly revolutionary about it in comparison to its predecessors. Its aim is simply to be bigger and better, and while it does definitely achieve this in some respects it does unfortunately fall short in others.

With the main character count now having bolstered up to a rather impressive six Gear-wielding girls, one might expect that character development would be either thin on the ground or uneven in favour of certain characters. But despite only having 13 episodes to play with each of the girls has their own moment in the spotlight and subplot to tell, meaning no one’s favourite girl is left untouched. Whether it’s Hibiki or Tsubasa’s daddy issues, Maria’s continuing grief over the loss of her sister (and now ‘mother’), Chris’ loner issues conflicting with her desire to be a good mentor or Kirika and Shirabe feeling like a burden, they all have their issues to work through both on and off the battlefield. In the end Hibiki will always eventually take the spotlight by virtue of being the main character, but never once completely steals the show.

The Autoscorer Micha Jawkān
Colour-coded bad guys

The villains, while some of the most interesting ones the franchise has produced yet, sadly aren’t so lucky in the development department. Take Carol for example: her back story and motivations are both simple and cliché, despite her coming from a rather different background to what we’ve seen in the show before. Despite the show establishing its lore regarding relics so heavily it can be difficult to follow even for dedicated viewers, the lore behind Carol’s alchemy feels non-existent. The show tells us that the forces she’s using to keep herself alive is slowing taking away her memories, but doesn’t show it even being a problem until the show is all said and done. On the other-hand, the doll-like Autoscores don’t need such development and really make a great impression as the enemy ‘generals’ in the first half of the season - until they're all sadly disposed of one by one in an orderly fashion. Finally GX also features the rather confusing return of a villain from the previous series, something which by all accounts shouldn't really have happened given the way it ended. While the return does make for a very surprising twist, what it adds doesn't really amount to all that much and it doesn't really feel like GX would have been any different without it.

In previous reviews I’ve remarked that Symphogear’s music is perfectly suited for its fight sequences, but don’t leave much of a lasting impression outside those scenes. Repeated listens of the previous seasons’ soundtracks have made me rethink that somewhat, but the truth remains that each song needs to be heard away from the visuals to be properly appreciate as combined they causes the sort of sensory overload in-keeping with show’s style. With each battle featuring a newly recorded version of the song (sometimes incorporating a duet with another character, or just plain mixing two songs together), you never quite know what you’re going to get. The results vary, but it makes the concept the girls singing as they fight that little bit more believable.

Hibiki's giant fist
How I feel all anime should end

Symphogear is never going to be an award-winning franchise in terms of depth and story. It however continues to be a force of pure entertainment, building upon what it previously established in its first two seasons by continuing to up the ante. By quickly falling back into regular routines Symphogear GX never quite reaches the emotional heights of its immediate predecessor, but it terms of scale continues to push things to the limit. Plot points might often seem silly or not make a whole lot of sense, but if you’re looking for an action series that’s easy enough to just watch and most importantly enjoy you’ll quickly find what’s made this franchise just so endearing to its fanbase.

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