# Old Flying School
> It's pointless to speak of any "meaning". If we cared to look, we might find a meaning, but even if we did, those girls would not have chosen it for themselves.
Wow. A week after finishing *Simoun*, I'm still at a loss to describe its beauty. I don't think I've seen such an unmistakable work of art since *Puella Magi Madoka Magica*. And this when the only "recommendation" I'd heard for this show was "Haha, it's about aeroplanes powered by teenage lesbianism".
It's an understandable response to the premise: a world where children are born sexless, and a small elite remain that way until adulthood, flying machines driven by lost technology activated only when two of them kiss. The early exposition feels quite clunky (admittedly I was aware of the premise beforehand), and I can understand why a viewer (particularly one new to animé) might see it as just an excuse. But for me it was striking just how much our characters' looks and speech patterns straddle the line between male and female, and I found those kisses more disturbing than anything else. Liberal as I am, many of them seemed outright *wrong*, as alien as a race with extra fingers.
In-universe, it becomes gradually clear that the Simile are a band apart; what starts as admiration and respect from the populace becomes adoration as the war worsens and people cling more closely to their faith. We see a very human mix of responses to this; Neviril, the prima donna, rises to the occasion, her aloofness becoming the nobility the people needed. Conversely, the friendlier Floe's desire to be treated normally gets her nothing but trouble. But as the people's need for the Simile to remain pure and untouched becomes stronger forever, so does the military's need for them to fight.
This is the real conflict driving *Simoun*, and it's surprisingly positive for a show about war: everyone, even enemy soldiers and the hated defense minister, seems to be genuinely trying to do their best for their country. In fact the defense minister reminded me uncomfortably of a former colleague; a hopelessly meddling busybody, who didn't seem to realise that his interventions were causing the very problems he was trying to solve - but still ultimately someone doing the best he could.
I'm told the show had an all-star voice cast; as regular readers will have realised, I can't consciously tell the difference. What I do notice, though, is how tightly all sides of the presentation are integrated - and how beautiful the result. As with last post's *Legend of Korra*, the aesthetic could fairly be called "Steampunk", but it's even lighter on the idealism scale; all soaring beauty, curves and crystal, with the primary set a converted luxury liner. Historically the best fit is probably *Belle Epoque*: an age of graceful art deco airships and equally luxurious trains, and a world that's just starting to come to terms with the mechanization of warfare. Even the music is embedded into the world; the main theme appears as a dance on the ballroom's scratchy gramaphone.
Better still is the integration with the plot. Most shows where I praise this (e.g. *Madoka*) have adopted an aesthetic that fits with their story, but in *Simoun* it's really the other way around: the story twists to match the art. Although not explicitly metafictional, I found myself thinking more and more of *Princess Tutu*, and there's a very explicit dancelike sensibility to the "Ri Majons" (the special attacks performed with the Simoun). Although postdating *Haruhi* by a few years the show hasn't completely transcended episodism, which occasionally cramps some arcs, particularly the simile's joint mission with the regular army. But on the positive side this leads to some very tight plotting; virtually every episode reaches some satisfying emotional climax, and there's no trace of the "weak third quarter" we often see in a series of this length.
More even than the dance, *Simoun* has something of the sonata about it - especially with the soundtrack developing one or two major themes into at least four variations. Each episode is its own movement, but they build on each other, themes and phrases mingling and transforming, combining into a whole that is less a story than an experience.
And therein lies the one flaw in a stunningly brilliant show. Plotwise, everything comes together at about episode 20; in the final quarter we get a show that in musical terms would be called relentlessly introspective (it would fit right in with late Beethoven), curling around itself to provide the emotional arcs necessary without regard to how much sense they make externally. Even given the tension between the two antagonist nations, their treatment of the Simile is nothing short of bizarre, as are the actions of our protagonists' high command. The simile themselves evidently care more about a minor point of principle than... well, anything else, up to and including the slaughter of civilians - possibly a realistic response to the circumstances, but one that was quite uncomfortable as a viewer. Strangely enough I found the time travel to be the most forgivable part of the whole thing; in a more scientifically rigorous show it would be wasteful to use so grand a piece of technology for the relatively minor resolution it gives. But the whole aesthetic of Simoun is built around this godlike, barely-understood technology from the past, and the motors are said to warp time and space, this being why they need to be used in pairs; it's not hard sci-fi, but it's made a lot more effort than most fantasy.
*Simoun*, then, may qualify as soft science fiction, but these last few episodes emphasise that its ambitions extended even further; at its heart, it's a character-driven drama, which at least aspires to - dare I say it - high literature. The resolutions we reach in the final episodes may be contrived from a plot point of view, but emotionally they're perfect. One storyline reminded me of Bolano, with a declaration of true love that seems to come out of nowhere, and yet is so perfectly *right* when one thinks back that we realise the characters' entire histories have been building towards this moment. Likewise the choice of sex, used as a climax for many of the girls' paths, brings several that are initially surprising, but fit perfectly on further consideration. Early in the series this choice was met with tears, and seemed to symbolize all the loss and pain of adolescence - the need to choose a path in life and forever close off the alternatives (played with a little later in the series, where one character remarks how much of a shame it is that two others chose the same sex). Emotions run equally strong at the end, but this time there's a sense of something positive - pride, perhaps, but a pride devoid of arrogance; the simple satisfaction of those who have been given a hard job and done it well.
Even the epilogue keeps it all together remarkably well. All too often these descend into weepy sentimentality, or worse, bringing characters back from the dead - especially when, as here, most of the last episode has been allocated to it. *Simoun* avoids these temptations, but without undermining the rest of the show - here, more than anywhere, comparison to *Madoka* is fair. The characters may not have changed the outcome of the war, and another one seems all but inevitable; nor can they return to flying the way they once loved. But even so, there's an ineffable something, a triumph in what they did; as the closing lines say, perhaps they just wanted to carve their names, to prove that they had really lived.
In that, the characters have succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings. *Simoun* itself probably didn't change the world, or even the anime industry. But its unique theatricality makes it a peerless work of art; on its own terms it's the equal of anything I've ever watched, perhaps even the better. Its animation may have already faded, its plot may have me griding my teeth in frustration - but these characters, and their world, and the music that tied it all together will not be soon forgotten.
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