Monday, March 13, 2017

Discussion Corner: Kaneko and the plot of GX

Today I'm trying something different from the usual news and TL posts. This is more of an opinion piece meant to create some discussion, but it includes quotes from interviews so I think most people will find it interesting to read. There's a lot I want to talk about when it comes to Symphogear but I'm trying to keep this focused on a single topic so it doesn't get too lengthy. I might follow this up with more later on. Feel free to make good use of the comment section, I will reply when I have the chance.

There are a lot of rumors surrounding the development of GX, particularly as it comes to Kaneko's involvement. In many interviews leading up to the series he said he was encouraged by other staff members to do more of what he wanted and some fans consider the result to be a low point for the series. One rumor in particular cites the death of Kaneko's father as the reason GX ended the way it did. Today I'd like to explain and refute that rumor and discuss more about Kaneko's motivations in writing the plot of GX.

The source of the rumor comes from a series of tweets that Kaneko posted on June 30, 2015. On that day there was an advanced screening of episode 1 in Tokyo. I've translated his comments:
What did everyone think of the advanced screening of GX episode 1? I want to give my utmost gratification to the staff and cast, all those who attended, and all those still looking forward to watching it on TV. It's thanks to every one of you that we were able to come this far. Thank you. Without spoiling anything I was going to talk a bit about the production of episode 1, but seeing as how only 500 people have seen it at this point I think I should save it for another time… So I'm going to talk about the behind-the-scenes of the premiere itself. After the premiere was over, a bunch of the staff surrounded me asking “Did you seriously start a twitter account!?” And of course it soon became a discussion about who I needed to follow aside from Mr. Agematsu. I'm really sorry. When I joined I really just felt satisfied following and replying to only 3 or so people. But after the screening finished I went home and immediately browsed through my follower list and refollowed a number of people who I have work connections with or know personally. I had to get through through over 2,000 notification emails so it took longer than I expected. 
I didn't intend to leave anyone out, but it's possible I missed some people whose user names are different from their real ones. What exactly should we do in that situation? As usual, our modern technology is mixed with convenience and inconvenience. I'm inexperienced at this and timid by nature, so I'm fighting the urge to refollow all of the people who follow me. But I was told not too long ago by some veterans “don't panic!” So I'm sorry to say, I'll be keeping my follow count at this low level for now. To be honest, I'm very bad at communication tools like twitter, but I've wanted to leave some text entries of my daily life so that they could be seen by a certain someone who has trouble keeping up with me because I live out in Tokyo. I was ready to make it happen and set up the account, but damn it...I should have started earlier. 
That person has always been watching Symphogear, all the way through seasons 1 and 2. When I met them last month they said to me “I don't really get that stuff you make, but it sure is amazing.” They were happy when I showed them the previews for GX from recent magazines. seems so unfair now that GX has started they've passed away, at least I wish it could have been after they saw all of it. At today's screening, I was very grateful to those of you who gave so much warm applause and cheers. It's thanks to that I was able to to be a devoted son to the very end. I'm very sorry for those of you who expected a more interesting story about the premiere. To be honest, it means that 2 days ago I lost the reason that I started twitter in the first place. But I'd like to think that they might be watching it from beyond, so I will continue to use it. Of course, I have to get more used to it first… (and now I'm done talking about this subject) 

Now as we know, GX focuses heavily on the fractured relationship between Hibiki and her father and at end of the season they come back together as a family. When GX ended, the rumor began circulating heavily that the reason for this was because Kaneko's father died and he wrote the script out of some sort of wish fulfillment. I think that idea presumes too much from what is contained in these tweets, and it seems incredibly unlikely for a number of other reasons.

For one, the timeline doesn't match up. Based on Kaneko's tweets we can surmise that the death occurred around late June 2015. However GX's script had already been completed well before that in September 2014. The Symphogear G Key Animation Note released that month featured a manga-styled interview with Kaneko explaining the main theme of GX (which we now know refers to Hibiki's relationship with her father): “fixing something that is broken.”

Secondly, many aspects of GX are built upon ideas that have been present since season 1. According to the season 1 design works book, Agematsu's original draft of the series had a team of 5 main characters fighting against “four kings and a final boss.” GX introducing the 4 Autoscorers + Carol was Kaneko's way of bringing Agematsu's original plan to fruition. Furthermore, Kaneko also said he had already determined Hibiki and Tsubasa's family backstories when making season 1:
There are many details about the world of Symphogear that did not get explored in the series. Most of those I created out of necessity, to help me handle and develop the characters. For example, in episode 4 when Hibiki's family is briefly mentioned there is a reason why she only brings up her mother and grandmother. There's also a story about Tsubasa's grandfather Kazanari Fudo, whose name is only mentioned on the official site, and how much of a despicable monster he is.
Lastly, the story of a "father and daughter” is not new territory for Kaneko. He has previously explored similar ideas in his other works, particularly Wild Arms 3. I don't think that is indicative of his family life, but rather follows common themes of parental issues found in many anime and manga even when you consider the showa-era series that Kaneko cites as influences (such as Mazinger Z).

So the big question is then: why develop the story this way?

I think there are multiple reasons. For one, GX was intended to be an end to the series altogether. According to Nana, it wasn't until midway through the recording of GX that Kaneko felt inspired to write more which eventually lead to the s4/5 announcement. From this perspective it's easy to understand that one reason Hibiki's father was featured in GX was to fully explore Hibiki's past that had previously been introduced in season 2, and bring a close to that part of the story.
I wanted to resolve a number of the issues that had been presented thus far, and among those I most wanted to do something about Hibiki’s situation in-between all the fighting
In that same vein, GX was intended to be a continuation of the ideas presented in G, mainly the characters facing problems that can't be resolved just by fighting. In that sense Hibiki's father also served as a good “antagonist” for GX. Kaneko explained this is an interview from Newtype:
The main focus of what I refer to as Episode G is the fight against “an enemy you can't take care of through strength alone.” In G they had to deal with Maria's group and their circumstances, and now in GX they face problems such as Hibiki's father and other family issues. Hibiki is a character that has resolved many tough situations with a punch, but how will she face a problem where punching has no effect? That kind of struggle, accentuated by strong emotions and hesitance, is what tied the story of GX together. 
Looking beyond just G and GX, the story of Hibiki and her father can also be tied back to season 1. In fact, I would argue that by telling the story the way he did Kaneko succeeded in bringing everything full circle while remaining true to the themes that have defined the series.

According to Kaneko, the heart of Agematsu's original draft of Symphogear was the idea that "songs are the world's common language." The story Kaneko wrote was constructed around that and ultimately demonstrated by Hibiki's ability to use her song (and the Symphogear) to join hands with the people around her, even those who had been enemies. However it didn't start with Hibiki, the legacy began with Kanade at the Zwei Wing concert. At that time Kanade's song took her life, yet ultimately saved Hibiki's. What she left behind were the fragments of Gungnir and the words "don't give up on living." Despite the fact that the concert changed Hibiki's personal life dramatically, that did not become the focus of the story. Instead, everything was about how Hibiki came to inherit what Kanade left behind. In a season 1 interview, Kaneko had this to say about Hibiki:
When I saw the name “Hibiki” on the notes I received from Mr. Agematsu, I realized that this girl's story would not be about how she grows up on her own, but rather how she resonates with others and grows with them.
Throughout season 1 we see how this comes into play as Hibiki undergoes changes from the influences of multiple characters. Most notably: Miku, Chris, Tsubasa, and Fine. However those characters in turn experience their own change. This is highlighted by one scene in particular in episode 9, when Fine (as Ryoko) almost spills the beans on her love affair with God to the others. When she realizes she almost said too much, she thinks to herself: "Did I change? Or did someone change me?" (A line which Ogawa had also previously said in reference to Tsubasa)

At it's core Symphogear is a character drama. In between the cool fights and crazy plot twists, the focus of the story has been on the character's emotions and how those drive them and affect the people around them. As the antagonist of season 1, Fine pushed the idea that without a unified language "people can only connect through pain." This is one reason why the series often deals with darker issues such as survivor's guilt, abandonment, manipulation, enslavement, persecution, etc. These traumatic experiences defined how the characters connected to the world, and eventually they overcame the resulting weakness through mutual understanding with others. Season 1 shows us that connections are born through more than just pain, but persistence and kindness. On its face Symphogear's story was promoted as humans versus the Noise, but it's actually about humans versus humans (an idea enforced by the reveal that humans created the Noise). These realistic emotional clashes are what makes Symphogear such a strong series, something that Kaneko has mentioned:  
When I say this I'm sure some people will be confused, but I'm not the type of person who wants to bring misfortune to the characters. I want them to be happy, and I actually would prefer not writing scenarios where they have to suffer. But that being said, I feel that conflicts of emotions and the friction that results is an incredibly important part of Symphogear.

So through all her struggles in season 1 and 2, Hibiki ultimately finds her power to connect with others and also recovers the confidence and happiness that was originally lost as a result of the concert tragedy. However there is still one thing that weighs heavy on her heart, the disappearance of her father:
Desperate to flee from a harsh situation Hibiki’s father left his family behind and disappeared, and that incident has always cast a gloomy shadow over her heart. (Megami Magazine Interview)  
In the series she is known as this cheerful, silly character, but within her heart she keeps hidden a miserable side and I wanted the focus of GX's story to be about how she faced that part of herself and conquered it. (Animedia Interview
Of course, one trait of Hibiki's that is constant throughout the series is how she is always hiding her true emotions. Many scenes show Miku as the only character able to see behind her mask. This character flaw of hers was a direct result of the hardships she faced after the concert, as she became obsessed with hiding her pain from the eyes of her mother and grandmother.

As Hibiki and the other characters grew throughout seasons 1 and 2 they faced many challenges and eventually overcame one of the biggest problems: the Noise. This meant that it was time to face a new enemy, and Kaneko intended for that enemy to be more powerful than anything else. However, that didn't just mean physical strength, it also meant an enemy that would strike at the character's emotional side. So when it came time for GX the next logical step in the progression of the story was for Hibiki's newfound power to come face to face with her "ultimate" enemy: her father.

Up until this point Hibiki faced many different opponents but believed that she could join hands with them and that they could understand each other as long as she did't give up. However, her struggle to connect with her father (and by extension Carol) was difficult for a reason that had been touched upon previously in season 1 when Hibiki and Miku had their falling out. In episode 8, while Hibiki rushes to save Miku she says the following:
I'm not the only one fighting. I thought I could use the Symphogear to be a savior, but that's conceited. Saving someone doesn't mean just putting my best effort forward. The person I save is also doing their utmost. To really save someone is impossible to do all on your own. That's why on that day, at that moment, Kanade told me not to give up on living. 

GX revisits this point by emphasizing the difficulty that comes in saving someone isn't having the strength necessary to do so, but having the empathy needed to inspire them. Just like Kanade's words that rang out on that day, Hibiki's actions in GX ultimately gave her father the necessary courage to stop running from his problems. By joining her family's hands together, Hibiki creates the opportunity for mutual understanding.

The ending of the season brings closure to Hibiki's personal struggles and successfully demonstrates her strength. When you get down to it, it goes back to refute Fine's idea that only pain connects us. Perhaps its more accurate to say that it keeps us apart. Mutual understanding can be achieved when there is effort on both sides, but sometimes we need to borrow the courage to help us face that challenge. The world doesn't need a unified language if we have someone like Hibiki, someone who inspires us with her song to help us to join hands.

In the end, I think Kaneko set out with a clear goal for GX that was built upon the previous seasons and not directly influenced by his personal life. To assume otherwise based on a few tweets seems rude and shortsighted. Of course people are free to interpret his words how they please, but I think he has said a lot of other things that should be considered as well. I've done my best to compile his reasoning from interviews and further connect that to the content in the show itself. Hopefully that creates a clear picture, or at least a frame, with which people can understand GX from his perspective. He told the story he wanted to, and this was the end result. Some people enjoyed it and some people didn't. However, with so many long standing issues now resolved the next question is where the series will go from here. And I, for one, can't wait to find out. 


  1. This is definitely a very interesting article, I have totally overlooked what Hibiki has inherited from Kanade. When Kanade died for her song, passed 'don't give up on life' to Hibiki and now she's connecting more people together through this power.

    Had to rewatch the opening sequence for GX again and sure enought he themes are still there.

    Enjoyed the read, was interesting and makes me think of things I don't really think about beyond the overarching themes and songs in the series.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you took something away from my post. I think there are a lot of consistent themes and ideas in Symphogear, particularly between G and GX that often go unseen because it's not entirely obvious unless you connect certain dialog lines and scenes together.

  2. Very nice article, with lots of info most of us had no idea about. GX is bashed often because of many silly reasons. But, that's what you get when someone puts some info on the table and the rest of the people don't bother to check their facts / are unable because they don't speak Japanese.

    Or maybe people latched to this idea because they hoped it was just a result of Kaneko's temporarily strong emotions that GX plot was worse than 2 previous seasons, and it gave more hope that S4&S5 might be more thought out.

    I myself enjoyed GX, and it's a pity seeing so many people saying it's bad, but its true that it had its problems, like this too predictable "monster of the week", coming back to issues of the girls which felt resolved in S2 and yet they had to do things like "strength is weakness" (while imo it felt that Maria found her resolve in G and instead of furthering her character with more cool stuff she had to take two steps back to go one step forward again), or the Akira's plot which felt perhaps too rushed and not handled adequately at the end. It sure had to conclude in 'happy end', but it still didn't feel right and maybe could be resolved better if given enough time.

    That said, I'm still hoping that S4 will be announced soon, and will release this July, because damn, it's been almost two years and I crave more material with our favourite girls.

    1. Thanks for reading! And thanks for always drawing awesome fan art!

      Rumors like these are actually not limited to the English fanbase, it's difficult for the Japanese fans as well because Kaneko leaves a lot of hints into how to interpret the content in the keywords and his interviews and it's a huge web of content that not every fan wants to go through. In that sense Symphogear can offer pretty varying experiences for people, which is why I try to frame this as "Kaneko's perspective" because at the very least I think people can say "I see what he intended even if I didn't get the same impression."

      In my opinion GX is a solid continuation from G. I think the reason the issues come off as a "monster of the week" type thing is because he was using G as a base so instead of weaving the ideas through GX all over again he kind of just brings them up as they became relevant. But it all feels slightly displaced so its hard to see the connection sometime. For example you bring up Maria and her issue of weakness. Certainly in G I think she found the answer to the struggle she was faced with: how to save the world from the impending moon disaster. And at the end of G she's taken a step away from the weak person she was and has stopped relying so heavily on Nastassja and her memories of Serena. She got an idea of what true strength is, but she didn't really get to explore it. That's where GX comes in and in the first few episodes she's really gungho about being a proactive fighter but she lacks the follow through because she doesn't actually know where her strength lies. I think it's actually best summed up with a piece of fan art that gets passed around a lot of her doing the battle stance from GX episode 1 with an inner dialog that says "Well I took a fighting pose but now what do I do..." It's only funny because it's so true.

      Anyway, I agree that ideas in GX were rushed but I've always felt that about Symphogear because Kaneko and Agematsu are not used to writing anime (Kaneko in particular is used to writing long form video game stories) so they usually get overambitious and although I think the end result is compelling and interesting it's not always the most well executed.

  3. An interesting point of view.

    Though in the end I do think the story was probably the weakest of the three series so far. It got too simplistic in comparison to the first two seasons. I don't think it was the wrong move to focus on fathers or tackle that aspect for Hibiki. It was something left unresolved and open for examination. And really I think the relationship with her father was some of the best parts of GX.

    The problem is that clearly Kaneko had a solid plan for Hibki...there wasn't one for the remainder of the cast. Maria was second to Hibiki in taking something from GX (all her flaws) and making for a good mini arc. But then the rest just felt repetitive. S2 did the best job of juggling all these characters and continuously developing them through the season.

    Chris for example was nicely built up. Her regrets about her past actions, trying to fit into school, and dealing with interpersonal relationships when for the longest time the only person around her was the abusive Finé. GX? They kind of started something interesting with her wanting to be a good senpai. But by the time they got to her Ignite episode it just felt repetitive.

    Having a theme for a season (fathers) can be good. But the Ignite episodes just felt like "oh here's this girl's episode to overcome something and gain new power." While in G everyone had different moments of growth and they didn't have to all happen one after the other because a power-up was waiting. Plus WTF was Tsubasa's backstory? Was that really needed for a character arc?

    I don't know what really went through Kaneko's head. S3 was short-sighted in a lot of ways. It was fine for Hibiki's arc, but everyone else suffered for that. Juggling a large cast is tough, but you have to try.

    I'm more hopeful for S4/S5 because they can use 2 seasons to tackle a stronger conclusion. And hopefully the quiet in terms of progress means more time is being taken to write a better story. Look at the characters, look at what is going to happen and tell a story that makes sense. And please give Miku more to do than be the supportive housewife who waits with dinner for Hibiki to come home.

    I still mostly enjoyed GX. It had some great music, the antagonists were good, and the characters were still likable. But the story and character arcs weren't great. Can that improve for S4/S5? I sure hope so.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      You definitely have a point about the use of Ingnite and how it made the development end up feeling forced. At the same time I think it was an acceptable decision because it was building upon things that already happened in G. For example the entire Chris arc in GX is built upon the idea that Chris is trying to fill the same role that Tsubasa had in G, only with Shirabe and Kirika instead. As for Tsubasa's backstory, like Hibiki's that has been a long time coming as we got brief glimpses of her family situation in season 1 and 2. GX finally helped to shore up where her whole "sword" persona started and why it spun out of control when Kanade died.

      But you're absolutely right when you said that juggling a large cast is tough. That is actually where I think most of the problems with GX comes from is just having to go through too much in so little time. It doesn't help that although Kaneko and the other staff decided not to increase the number of allied characters, the nature of Symphogear's story means that in the end the enemy is going to be an ally so we end up having to make even more room for Carol/Elfnein's story as well.

      I think that because s4/5 are being developed at the same time that it will ultimately be good because with the larger cast now they will have the adequately needed time to flesh things out without having to deal with introducing and ending things within a certain time frame. Of course this all depends on the nature of the story they want to tell, which hopefully doesn't get overambitious like GX did.