|Excellent music, enjoyable cast, fun over the top action, a nice twist on normal mahou shoujo or superhero anime||Third season has some repetitive moments in the middle of the story, a bit of a cliffhanger obsession in season 2|
Will state here that this review will cover the three seasons of Symphogear jointly. In a sense this is a Symphogear Franchise Review. There will be some mention of characters that appear in later seasons, but overall it won’t mention unnecessary plot points or give away the story of each season.
There are just some shows that completely exceed expectations and create more than people originally expected. I would say Symphogear was one of those shows. The first season of Symphogear was one of those original anime that sometimes succeed and sometimes just fail. You don’t know what you are getting into with them. They could be something special….or just a disappointment. There isn’t any source material to have any expectations from, just the concept and what you think of the summary. It’d be safe to call Symphogear a financial success. The series spawned 2 sequels and a good amount of character CDs. But when it comes down to it, I think Symphogear is a show that took on a kind of genre that has been done before, but did things a little differently and had an over the top style that made it a show that stuck with you.
I would never say that this franchise is perfect or objectively one of the best anime ever made. There are shows I’d say sit on that top notch level that you could recommend to basically everyone. But for me? This does come down as one of my favorite anime series. The combination just worked for me. The action in each season was great, the attacks were flashy and flowed really well (not just breaking up into stock footage like some shows might), just combining action with characters singing really seemed like a great idea to me, and I did like the cast quite a bit. In a sense it’s like a super hero anime and hey I do like super heroes. The enemies can be a bit static at times (the regular types), the plots won’t make you examine society at a super deep level, and while the animation is good it isn’t on the level of the best looking shows of all time. But, despite all that for me this is still a really great franchise and I wanted to get that across.
You could certainly define Symphogear as a kind of magical girl series. Technically it is closer to science than magic, but there have been shows that blurred that line over the years. In some ways I’d almost call it a super hero show. You have a small group of characters with an unique ability that are the only ones that can fight a threat against humanity. In this case that special quality is the ability to resonate with ancient relics. That ability allows the user to in a sense create special armor that is the only method of damaging and serves as protection from the attacks of the main threat in the series. The Noise for much of the show are a threat of unknown origin, but one that is insanely deadly and immune to the attacks of normal people and weapons. Direct contact with Noise will turn a person into carbon and have them dissolve. Regular weapons will have no effect and just pass through them. A horrifying and seemingly mindless mass of monsters.
Now that setup on its own is pretty standard. What Symphogear did to set itself apart a bit was in the use of music. Through natural or artificial means a person can be compatible with relics. But while using those relics as symphogears the characters have to sing (the lyrics coming to their mind in connection to the gear). While a singing fighter may sound strange, the show really does make it work throughout its three seasons. The songs are not random, but rather arise from the character themselves. The songs reflect their feelings, thoughts, desires, etc. Thus each song is a kind of unique insight into the character.
Those songs change and differ through the seasons themselves and between seasons. This is especially easy to see between seasons. The characters are different people at those points after getting through a major crisis and thus their songs change. You also get quite a bit of variety in the songs as each character has their own style. One character may have a musical style arising from rock, another celtic, JPop, R&B, etc. The songs are one of the strongest elements to the series and are very much connected to the story. The lyrics can tell you quite a bit about the character at that point in their lives. They also are well sung and the anime deserves props for tracking down voice actors who can sing quite well and thus you get that direct feeling of the character singing.
You basically have to cover the music in this show along with the story because it is just that connected to what is going on. I feel the combat songs themselves start off really well in the first season and they just continue to be good if not improve as they go along. Something like music is pretty subjective, but I feel like they did a good job with the quality of the music and also trying to make those songs tie into the characters.
The important thing to take from the general setup of the show is that these characters are fighting, singing, and doing some incredible stuff throughout the series. For me it stands out as a series because it is taking elements that make anime entertaining as a medium (the animation and audio) and making them very well connected to the story. The music isn’t just there to support and accent, but rather a very real part of the story itself.
In terms of threats it isn’t just the Noise at work in these three seasons. Fighting against the noise would get extremely boring just on their own. At their best they can be a legitimate threat, but often they are more of an enemy type that can allow the main characters to show off their insane attacks. There are more dangerous types of enemies that vary between the series and are key to the plot. Sometimes you will have battles between symphogear users, sometimes you’ll have enemies that are neither noise nor symphogear related and yet are dangerous enough to push the main cast against the ropes if not outright win fights.
The first season sets things up nicely in terms of the world and the danger facing people. Each season has its own main threat and enemy that needs to be dealt with. The show also does a nice job picking up things that could have been more developed or wasn’t considered an issue in the previous season and making that a focus in the next season. In some ways it could be considered the show using some hindsight, but in general I think it’s a good move since it helps certain characters that could use more focus and gives that to them.
The third season is a little distinct since unlike the others it has a more focused theme that a lot of character development is focused around. For some that could be a negative since it lead to the middle portion of that season getting a bit repetitive, but to me it still worked. I can appreciate having a central theme and how each character was connected to that theme was different so I was fine with that. The third season I would say has a clear structure to it. The start, middle, and ending arcs are all pretty clear which isn’t a pro or con, but just the way it worked out.
As one would expect, over the course of 3 seasons the cast grows in terms of main characters. The first season is pretty tightly focused on the trio of Hibiki, Tsubasa, and Chris. This trio of girls forms the core of the second season and are still plenty central to the third season. Hibiki herself can be considered the central main character in this. She serves as the guide to events for the world in general, but especially the symphogear system once she discovers her own ability. Hibiki is that type of character who does want to get along with people even if they are her enemies. A girl who will stick her nose into things and try to help those she sees even if it is to her own detriment. A lot of that comes from her surviving a pretty dramatic experience that left an impact on her mentality. That one incident leaves a mark on her that is key to her character development across all three seasons.
In that sense Hibiki is a very familiar type of hero. The girl who has a special talent (to fight Noise) and has to both learn how to use her power. Sometimes trying to talk things out with her enemies will lead them to get pissed off and thus dangerous times result. Hibiki also has a group of friends which are a core connection to a more normal life. The most important friend being Miku who Hibiki has a pretty darn close friendship with. As sometimes is the case there is some fair argument for them to be closer than friends. Think the Nanoha/Fate relationship, close, but the show isn’t likely to ever confirm anything.
Tsubasa has a pretty strong character arc in the first season of this show especially. She starts out as a pretty extreme personality. A very focused, and somewhat cold person who has dedicated herself to be a weapon to fight Noise. Though her singing talents has her balancing that out with the duties of people a popular and professional singer. She does have her reasons for being pretty hostile early on and grows really nicely through the first season. The second season has her take a bit of a back seat to the other characters in terms of character growth because she really did overcome her major issues already (one downside of a show that was intended to just be one season…a lot of issues get resolved in that season). While Hibiki is all about using her fists, Tsubasa’s symphogear is very defined by swords. One sword, dual wield, using a sword to unleash an energy slash, raining swords down in massive amounts, etc. Tsubasa is the eldest of the original trio and does try to take a leadership role as the series goes on.
Chris may be arguably the most tragic character in the show in terms of backstories. There is just a lot of bad things that happens to this girl. At her core Chris is a girl who has a lot of issues of guilt, anger, and frustrations with the world around her. She has seen the worst of people and that left an impression on her. In some ways she is the tsundere of the group and the dark magical girl of the group that needs to be recruited. Chris can be flustered and it takes time for her to reach out to others on her own. Chris grows a lot over the course of the three seasons. She faces the realities of what she has been doing, deals with her personal demons, and tries to grow as a person throughout the show. Easily one of my personal favorites for how she does have good reasons for her early anger and does try to solve the problems she sees in front of her. Chris is the heavy artillery of the team. Her symphogear is heavily defined by guns and ranged weaponry. In some ways you could see her like a Gundam. Energy crossbows, Gatling guns, missiles upon missiles, pistols, etc. are all her specialty. She has some of the most numerous weapons in the series and makes good use of them.
The second season adds another trio of Symphogear users to the mix. Maria, Kirika, and Shirabe add some new personalities to the mix along with some new songs and symphogear. Maria is an interesting character who has some ups and downs more than anyone else in the cast. Second season Maria….honestly isn’t a great character for me. She starts off really well and seems to be a strong antagonist…but it doesn’t go well from that point on. Maria is a fellow idol like Tsubasa, but she also has a very fragile personality. She can act tough, but often she is panicking behind the facade and makes very bad decisions because of that facade. However, season 3 Maria is a major step up and actually grows in a way that makes a lot of sense when you look at the second season. They managed to salvage her in a good way and turn her into a good character. It just took time. Maria uses a couple different gears. Wouldn’t want to go too far into spoilers with her, but will say that she definitely has a focus on blades weapons just not to the degree that Tsubasa does.
In some ways it is hard to talk about Kirika and Shirabe separately. The second season showed how close they were and the third just took that closeness to another level. They at the very least have the Hibiki and Miku level of closeness, and are about as close to a couple as this show will openly admit. Similar to Maria, they both grew up together and while not family they are about as close as one. Shirabe opens up a great deal in the third season after being a pretty quiet, but direct individual. If she feels something has to be done, she will just go and do it. She tries to protect those around her even if it means putting herself at risk in the process. Her symphogear is pretty balanced between attacking and defending. In a different style her gear is primarily defined by saw blades. Firing smaller blades, wielding larger ones, she will literally cut up her foes and do a nice job of it.
Kirika is a much more energetic character than Shirabe and tends to see it her mission to look out for her especially. That energy though can lead her to taking fairly drastic actions. Kirika has an interesting arc in the second season and while she makes some poor decisions, they are ones you can actually understand. The third season focuses more on learning from past mistakes and growing into a better person. She’s a fairly fun character and her partnership with Shirabe makes for some good moments in both seasons. Her gear is very much in a kind of classic Death Reaper mode. Her major weapon is a scythe and using that in various ways to slice up her enemies. Some pretty brutal attacks that would not be fun to be on the other side of.
The side characters aren’t the most important part of the show, though there are a few standouts. While the show focuses on the pretty impressive leading ladies, what guys that are in the show are pretty darn impressive. Genjuro is a middle aged guy who is basically as OP as a normal person can be, he’ll impress with the kinds of awesome feats he can accomplish. He serves as the overall leader of the organization that Tsubasa and the rest work for. If the enemies didn’t turn people to carbon on contact…he could probably deal with a lot of the threats out there by himself. Ogawa who serves in the same organization and part time as Tsubasa’s manager is pretty darn impressive as well. The guys is basically a modern day ninja with the kind of surprising stuff he can do.
Each season has a main villain that the group has to deal with. They have their differences from the calculative manipulator to outright lunatic. Depending on how much you enjoy the different types of characters different seasons will probably stand out for you. I’ll say that overall I enjoyed all the villains, but the first and third season had more interesting ones to me. At the very least these individuals bring up the level of danger and cause nothing but trouble for the main cast.
One positive thing about having a cast that can basically all sing is that you don’t have to look far for the source of your OP and ED. Thus they had Tsubasa’s VA (Mizuki Nana) handling the OP and Chris’s VA (Takagaki Ayahi) handling the ED. It worked pretty well for the three seasons. In a sense all the OPs are pretty good and I think give you a good idea of what to expect in the show. They are solid and active sounding songs so you won’t usually get bored with them. The EDs are an interesting story. The first season has a pretty dark visual for the ED which fits with the tone of the first season which was pretty dark at times especially with the foreshadowing. The second and third season did still have more positive EDs though you could still say they were more abstract using silhouettes or just more creative imagery. They aren’t bad EDs though. The songs are good and certainly they have some fun with the visuals.
In the end the songs really are a key aspect of this show as I talked about earlier. A good part of any given episode is going to be one character singing during their fights. I’d say the songs improved over the course of the show, but to be fair all three seasons had good songs. The second and third season had more songs and more characters singing so there was a better chance to find songs one would enjoy. I will say that I think the songs in the second and third season are a bit better, but even still it’s easy to get into the series and enjoy the songs in the first season on their own. The key for someone trying to watch the show is whether or not they’ll be able to enjoy singing during the action, but personally I thought it was a great move that really added some enjoyment to the series.
I’d say the animation quality as a whole improved through the 3 seasons, though could say it improved to the second season and stabilized there. The first season didn’t look bad, but it was noticeably rougher than the second season which probably relates to the fact that it was likely intended to be a one-time series and didn’t have as big a budget. The third season has had some pretty nice visuals at times and definitely the show knows how to turn up the quality at the start and end of the series. The middle portions can be a bit of a dip, but never to the point where I would say the show looks bad. They can just sometimes save a bit on the animation and not have the enemies moving as much while getting mowed down. But when an actual fight is going on the show does make them look good.
Cliffhangers and Pacing
This wasn’t as much a case in the first season though it did have a fair share of cliffhangers. But the second and third season really took the idea of ending episodes on a cliffhanger to another level. I mean almost every episode of the second and third season had some level of cliffhanger to it. Now some of them actually were pretty great ways to end an episode. Both the second and third seasons had endings that made you want to watch the next episode immediately. Some of them…well they weren’t that necessary. I’d say it’s somewhat a negative, but when it works it does work well. It just would have been nice for the show to hold up on them a little bit.
I think one note that people could have issues with is pacing. The third season does have a portion in the middle where things get a bit repetitive. Because of the main theme for that season when they decide to focus on the characters and give them some arcs they do end up being resolved fairly similarly. But to be fair this is just the middle portion of the season and doesn’t actually last that long. And while they are touching on a similar theme they are different issues for each character and there is a reason why they would resolve in the same way. I’d say the other seasons are just fine on the pacing side. Some might say the second season takes a while to get going, but I think the direction they took made sense. The first season didn’t really have pacing issues to me.
One strength I’d give this show is that they know how to end the series on a high note. The endings do have similarities, but I think a reason for that is because it works. The setup is pretty similar, but they do make each enemy stand on their own. Each of the final enemies have their own goals and reasons for why they are taking the action they are. Very few of them are just outright insane. They key thing is that they do make for good threats to the main cast forcing them into difficult situations and fights. Some of the villains are more intimidating than others, but as a whole they create enough of a threat. I’d say the third and first seasons had the most outright dangerous final enemies, but the second season still had a good final arc. Just not quite as interesting of an enemy.
I think the key for an anime is making sure you have a good ending that makes your show memorable and that you start it off well. If you don’t get out the door quickly then you really risk losing people immediately. Not everyone is going to give you 2-3 episodes. On that note I think all the seasons of Symphogear did a good job getting people on board. The first season has a pretty traumatic first episode with foreshadowing, and some serious consequences for what happens. The second and third seasons did a good job getting you back into the show and setting up a threat that made you want to see what would happen next. On that front I might give the third season the edge in terms of the best openings because…well it was just over the top and amazing. This is a show where you have girls firing missiles, kicking massive swords towards enemies and they took full advantage of that fact in the third season’s first episode. That episode is worth watching if nothing else. Within the first couple minutes, I was hyped for the rest of the season.
Symphogear may not challenge our views on reality, but I think it is a good series at the end of the day. The first season does have a dark tone and some unsettling foreshadowing that should keep people interested through the first season. I wouldn’t say the later seasons were as dark, but they were still really good seasons. This isn’t a mindless show, there is some interesting stories to be told and following Hibiki’s kind of hero journey is fun on its own right.
This show is at its best when bringing over the top action scenes, some purely fun moments, and raising the stakes to pretty high levels. The whole main cast has personal traumas and difficult backstories that make them more than just happy go lucky characters. They all have to go through difficult experiences in order to reach a situation where they can be happy. The fact that after 3 seasons I can say that all the cast is likable is a great thing. There isn’t a symphogear user that I don’t like to some degree and the side characters have their share of interesting individuals.
Good action, good characters, and good music. The show really does have a strength centered on these things and that has let it carry forward through 3 pretty successful seasons. I wouldn’t be shocked if this does get a fourth season at some point just because it is looking to be one of the financial successes of the summer season. If people are looking for a show that is a bit of a mix of super heroes, mahou shoujo, idol anime levels of singing, and over the top action then this is a series to give a look. I sincerely recommend it.
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