As preparations begin for Seisho Music Academy's yearly Seisho Festival, the girls of the 99th class are gearing up to perform their very own rendition of "Starlight," the tragic tale of two goddesses drawn together by the glow of the heavens but destined to be pulled apart, never to meet again. Created to foster the next generation of theatrical talent, this girls’ only school works to improve the singing, acting, and dancing skills of its students.
One student is 16-year-old Karen Aijou, an easygoing girl who has dreamed of performing on stage since she was a child. Her love for theater is further invigorated when her childhood friend Hikari Kagura transfers to Seisho Academy. Through her old friend, Karen stumbles upon a secret elevator leading to a massive theater underneath the school. Hosted by a talking giraffe, this arena serves as a battleground where her classmates participate in duels to determine who among them deserves the title of "Top Star," earning them the right to play one of the lead roles in "Starlight." Emboldened by the promise she made with Hikari to someday be stars together, Karen enters these mysterious battles in the hopes of making their dream a reality.
#01: "Hoshi no Dialogue (星のダイアローグ)" by Starlight Kukugumi (スタァライト九九組) (eps 1, 12) #02: "Fly Me to the Star" by Hikari Kagura (Suzuko Mimori) (ep 3) #03: "Fly Me to the Star" by Karen Aijou, Kagura Hikari (Momoyo Koyama, Suzuko Mimori) (ep 4) #04: "Fly Me to the Star" by Mahiru Tsuyuzaki (Haruki Iwata) (ep 5) #05: "Fly Me to the Star" by Futaba Isurugi, Kaoruko Hanayagi (Teru Ikuta, Ayasa Itou) (ep 6) #06: "Fly Me to the Star (instrumental version)" (ep 7) #07: "Fly Me to the Star" by Karen Aijou (Momoyo Koyama) (ep 8) #08: "Fly Me to the Star" by Junna Hoshimi, Nana Daiba (Hinata Satou, Moeka Koizumi) (ep 9) #09: "Fly Me to the Star" by Maya Tendou, Claudine Saijou (Maho Tomita, Aina Aiba) (ep 10) #10: "Fly Me to the Star" by Maya Tendou, Junna Hoshimi, Mahiru Tsuyuzaki, Nana Daiba, Saijou Claudine, Futaba Isurugi, Kaoruko Hanayagi (Maho Tomita, Hinata Satou, Haruki Iwata, Moeka Koizumi, Aina Aiba, Teru Ikuta, Ayasa Itou) (ep 11)
Damn, does this series truly knows no bounds at knowing how to captivate its audience, by showing the weaknesses that breaks you and cultivating that into the strength that makes you better and more spirit-willed with confidence. That's the vibes I got with watching Shoujo Kageki: Revue Starlight, truly a hidden gem, sleeper hit, AND a seriously underrated masterpiece that can compete with the likes of Your Lie In April, in terms of musical development (more on that later). And before you ask, this isn't an idol musical fan-fest anime (like so many that I come to despise over the years).
Since this is an original
series, I might as well first introduce to you, one of the strongest staff line-ups for this series (because its their efforts that made the show stand out):
Director Tomohiro Furukawa, the protégé of popular director Kunihiko Ikuhara, handling this series. For the many of you whom have watched Revolutionary Girl Utena back in the mid-90s, the similarities will be very striking as many of Ikuhara-sensei's signature directionals is replicated well by Furukawa (his student), such as the Yuri or class settings of works past, with surrealism. With Revue Starlight, the captivating visuals and the show-don't-tell aesthetic all mesh together to form one big picture of storytelling exposition with intelligent creative control, and that's where the series truly executes majestically at its best.
Music composers Yoshiaki Fujisawa (known him for creating A LOT of excellent music repertoire) and Tatsuya Katou, coming from the Love Live! Sunshine series. I was hesitant with Tatsuya Katou because he is a name that I didn't have high expectations with, but knowing his list of works (Fate/kaleid, Free!, Mirai Nikki, Hanebado! to name a few) immediately put me at ease and rest assured, I really thank both composers because EVERY song in here, be it the OST and the Revue songs, were done with much debacle and the subversive aspect means of portraying the feelings and emotions that the main characters struggle with to achieve their very best. With the addition of sound composer Haru Yamada for his marvelous works (Banana Fish, Made In Abyss, and the No. 1 rated anime movie of all time, Kimi no Na wa.), this is an OST that is worth every bit of listening to it as is with watching the show.
Alright, let's get into this series proper, shall we?
Shoujo Kageki: Revue Starlight (doesn't tell much but) shows us about the stories of human ambitions: The cost of fame that comes with wanting to be the very best (like no one ever was), and coming into contact with the setting of harsh competitiveness, comes people's perception of us on the main stage.
From there, the story splits into two:
The Starlight, or which I like to call it "The tip of the iceberg", is about as average as it gets: Practice sessions galore and some character drama about girls arguing and motivating one another as they image themselves on stage, always wanting to be the main character that stands out above the rest.
The Revue auditions, aside from the weird giraffe-host aspect, pits the girls against each other to question whether the feelings from the Starlight festival-cum-play (which seems to always be in repeat, but case-by-case basis with the different characters' perspectives) are truly what they appear to be, and how can they exceed their limits of understanding what they truly want for the best of themselves and the others, at the expense of some sacrificial aspects of their lives.
So basically, a story with lots of plot holes, yet manages to not feel old nor boring, with the endless amount of possibilities that the new future of the girls' wishes could be granted that benefits them to the best of their ability. And yet another series that truly just doesn't give a shit about us trying to predict the plot (which it isn't), and changed gears so fast that we can barely catch up to, and that makes for a fun and fascinating idea that so many anime refused to take the road less travelled, and the risk pays off tenfold here.
The Starlight Kukugumi, which are the main 9 girls of the series, have taken lots of stride to be at where they are, and it's exciting to see every girl gets their own exposition, the perspective they're watching from:
The (main) childhood-friend troupe:
Aijo Karen, the loudspeaker of the group, and one that's not afraid to showcase her talents while being energetic to everything around her, she and Hikari and childhood friends running up the pace on Revue Starlight, and seeing it as a promise to stand together on the fated stage.
Hikari Kagura, the never-giving-up but sore thumb of the group, has a connection with Aijo since being captivated by the Revue Starlight as children, but grows up in failure and had to be content with trying again in Japan, only to see Aijo caught up to her brilliance and her tsundere-side of hoping the same situation as Aijo does.
Mahiru Tsuyuzaki, the stay-by-my-side-always friend to Aijo, is the third wheel in the Karen-Hikari relationship, to stand alongside her on the fated stage. Jealous of how Hikari has stolen her spot, she refuses to call off the relationship by proving that she is the better character aside Aijo, amidst admiring the light that was shone on her, until Karen breaks that mentality and shows Mahiru her own path to greatness without her.
Futaba Isurugi and Kaoruko Hanayagi, these two girls are situations similar but different from how Karen and Hikari were done: both girls supported one another from childhood, and always on the constant look-out of doing things together...until someone breaks that tradition (Futaba) and the score is settled out of the conflict that both friends had for each other.
The master-of-all-trades troupe:
Maya Tendou and Claudine Saijou, both hard workers, impressive at their acting crafts and wanting to be at the very top spot. And since Maya's No.1, and Claudine being the runner-up to her, this reminds me of the situation between All Might and Endeavour (which series I leave that to y'all to figure out). Being a perfectionist isn't easy, and with that comes the level of pride that has been established from the get go, and both characters aren't willing to forgo the spot (which makes for an interesting storyline arc).
The impressionist and repetitive troupe:
Junna Hoshimi and Nana Daiba, both characters who seemingly have their own stories to share as well.
Junna is the example of following your own dreams despite the conformance to the society, and is a little shy, but doesn't beat around the bush to give the clear answer. Nana (or Banana as the girls nicknamed her), her aim to keep the status quo. Both characters are exactly how the world functions and it is very relatable to our own standards.
The more we learn from the characters, the better the storytelling...ain't it so?
Not to mention that Kinema Citrus, the studio that brought you Made In Abyss, showed up with force on this series, and it's a well thought-out production through and through. The striking animation, beautiful artwork all combine forces to create one hell of a bullet show that does just as you would of the music genre: give it a whole lot of justice and experience.
I'm very impressed of the show overall, the elephant in the room is only with 12 episodes, the well done pacing and whatnot made me crave for more to milk on and it's sad because this series definitely set the gold standard for future musical series to follow. It's not a show where people can understand immediately, but it's definitely one that would be left forgotten. If you manage to pick this up, share this around with people who love musical anime, I can promise that it will impress, and impress it does to the fullest.
Honestly, I went into Revue Starlight expecting it to be another idolesque multimedia project trying to recapture Love Live’s success, and once the series actually began, it was swarmed with comparisons to Revolutionary Girl Utena. Unfortunately, these comparisons have been unavoidable in the discourse surrounding this anime, and few people are trying to appreciate the series for its own appeal. So, before going into what makes this series great, here’s a bit of background.
The idea that Revue Starlight is just another Utena-like is mainly based on the director of the anime being Tomohiro Furukawa, who worked under Ikuhara on Mawaru Penguindrum and Yuri Kuma Arashi.
However, rather than being inspired by works like Utena, it would be more accurate to say that they share the common inspiration of Takarazuka, a form of Japanese theater in which all roles are played by women. These women are sorted into pairs of Otokoyaku (women who play male characters) and Musumeyaku (women who play female characters). In each troupe, one Otokoyaku will hold the position of Top Star, and she and her Musumeyaku will play the leads in all of the troupe’s productions. This system is the foundation of Revue Starlight, but there’s one more thing I need to address before I can get into that.
To credit the direction of the franchise entirely to Tomohiro is to ignore all of the other voices that have had a hand in the formation of the Revue Starlight multimedia project. Though most western fans found out about the franchise through this anime, the stage musical actually preceded it by a year, so it’s worth looking at who was involved, especially since they’ve gone unrecognized by this site. The core trio is made up of Kodama Akiko, Miura Kaori, and Nakamura Kanata, who are the director, screenplay writer, and songwriter for the project, respectively. All three have a background in theater, with Kodama specifically having worked as a writer and director for Takarazuka productions. These women’s love of the stage is the foundation of this franchise, and none of it could have existed without them.
With that addressed, we can finally talk about the Top Star system. There are a lot of things that are unfair about this system, and Revue Starlight is an exploration and critique of its structure. As mentioned above, Takarazuka actresses are sorted into Otokoyaku and Musumeyaku, and only Otokoyaku can become Top Star. However, actresses cannot choose which role to play; it is decided for them based on factors such as their height and voice. Characters like Futaba or Claudine could never become an Otokoyaku, much less the Top Star, and it’s because of factors completely outside of their control. Beyond this, the simple fact that there can only be one Top Star pits the members of the troupe into rivalries with each other, and while this can be good-natured and help both actresses grow (as is the case for Maya and Claudine), it can just as easily be harmful. It is for this reason that the protagonist of the series, Karen, wishes to revolutionize the system, so that she can simply stand beside her friends instead of fighting to stand above them.
Karen is not the only character who challenges the system, but she is the one most suited to changing it, since she is the only one willing to step outside of its bounds. Others try to resist from within, but both the play Starlight and the Revue itself are tragedies, and their actions only serve to perpetuate this cycle. In contrast, Karen does not hold the existing system in the same high regard as her peers, and is willing to break the mold if that’s what’s needed to protect them. This is reflected in her not clearly fitting into either Takarazuka role – she is sometimes framed as Musumeyaku to Hikari’s Otokoyaku, but is also repeatedly shown to be willing to cross the boundaries of that position. She embodies the ideal of the franchise, and while this does unfortunately come at the expense of her own characterization, the message is so earnest and hopeful that I can't bring myself to think too poorly of it.
Considering the amount of this review that I’ve dedicated to discussing Takarazuka, I suppose it’s only right to close on a reflection of whether or not a knowledge of it is necessary to enjoy the series. Starlight is both a love letter and a scathing critique for this form of theater, but in the end, the answer is no – while it’s true that it adds an appreciation for some specific design and directing choices, it’s ultimately interchangeable with any system with a strict hierarchy that forces its participants against each other. With that said, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of this series, and what you get out of it is proportional to what you put into it. Seeing blogposts and video essays on its subject matter was just as much a part of the experience for me as the show itself, and I doubt this series would have resonated with me as strongly as it did if it weren’t for the fantastic creative community that it fostered.
Whenever a multimedia project is involved, there’s always the worry that the anime is made purely as a commercial for the other elements of the project, without any ambitions of its own. This is not the case for Revue Starlight. If anything, this series was too ambitious – there was a looming fear that the production would crumble, and animators were being scouted on Twitter throughout its run. But despite these worries, the team somehow pulled everything off; these characters are believable and relatable, the animation is stunning in both its presentation of the girls’ grand stage duels and their mundane everyday life, and the music is unlike any other anime I’ve seen. It’s a miracle that this series exists, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not at least give it a chance.
There are so many ideas spawning in anime making these days that sometimes, you wonder if there’s enough. Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight originally gave me the impression of an idol series with musical themes with its promotional material. I’m not going to lie, idol series these days have become very redundant in terms of context. With some exceptions such as Love Live, the majority of anime musicals haven’t impressed me in recent years. Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight soon made its presence for Summer 2018. To my pleasant surprise, it became a showstopper that exceeded my expectations and also left me with an appetite of wanting
Right off the bat, I should mention that the series can be deceptive looking at first glance. You wouldn’t be wrong if you’re getting flashbacks from series like Love Live with the all-star female cast and pretty outfits. Still, this show manages to build a story with its cast and being able to hook me from the start. Featuring a group of nine girls, the story tells about these characters competing in stage plays. Not everything gets too far underway though as the first episode had a more lighthearted slice of life mood with character rehearsing for a theatrical play. Soon, the show surprises us with "Revue Starlight", an underground audition program orchestrated by a mysterious talking giraffe. We are also introduced to some of the main characters such as Karen and Hikari. The series makes it clear that they made a promise to each other but fate unites them at the same school. Make no mistake. Seisho Music Academy is more than just about learning the concepts of stage of performance. It’s about making superstars.
There are several selling points in the show that I think are important. The plot itself isn’t too complex but it’s the characters that really create a sensation. Every character establishes themselves throughout the show so it’s not just Karen and Hikari carrying the story. This is important as certain characters aren’t left in the dust and we get to see what others can really do. For instance, there is one episode that focuses on Mahiru, another that showcases what Futaba and Kaoruko’s talents, and even an episode that’s named after the character, Nana. To be clear, Hikari and Karen still get their prominent moments as we see many of their moments together. The most important one revolves around their promise together when they were just kids. By presenting these flashbacks often, it make us want to see how much they can accomplish together. Indeed, the series has the purpose of making this troupe of girls into stage stars. The way characters reaffirms their intention is also noticable through their innate dialogues and narratives.
The more I watched this anime, the more I also felt attached to the character relationships. I’m not just talking about character chemistry but how characters behave on stage and in real life. There’s an abundance of moments between the cast that are worth noting. It sometimes creates a sensation of subtle yuri while other times evoke human feelings and amplifying character personalities. This is mostly characterized by rivalries that are established throughout the show. Maya and Claudine is an example who competes for the #1 spot. Mahiru also has her own personal rivalry with Hikari due to her admiration for Karen. The centerpiece relationship deals with Hikari and Karen at how much they have changed. In some of the climatic episodes, we get to see how much they have improved as kids while revisiting their childhood moments. It’s a principle used for this show that is devastatingly effective. Because let’s face it, the series takes good care of its characters without holding them back. I’ll get to the actual theatric performances later on but some of the characters' inner thoughts speak so much about them.
You’re definitely on the right track if the series gives you an impression of the anime being a bit too gimmicky at times. Combining elements of music, dance, combat, art, theater, and stage performing feels like the show oversells itself at times. However, I want to also mention that it is able to capitalize on its concepts to make it as creative as it can be. It sells its stage performances like a form of art. There’s also psychology with a deep dive into characters’ motivations in the show. We don’t often see musical series like this too often as it’s about a group or individuals just competing against each other. What I think Starlight got right is how much it can make the audience feel attached to its characters. No one is really left in the dust at the end and every character is memorable. The story gets more and more complex but it just made me love it more. If you fancy some slice of life moments outside of the stage, there’s that too.
There’s also one other main selling point of the show and that’s the visuals. To me, it’s like a work of art. The stage performances and theatric character moves is incredibly dynamic even from the very first episode. Director Tomohiro Furukawa should be given praise given the amount of creativity he poured into this work. It reminded me a bit of Mawaru Pengindrum (I mean, that talking giraffe is about as surreal as it can get) at times while also making sure the show didn’t lose its focus. On stage, the characters draw their emotions from their colorful dialogues, theatrical dancing, and human expressions. The unique design of the character costumes are also distinctive with the red fiery capes and uniforms. Every girl in the show also wields a unique weapon as part of their stage combat that includes rapier, cutlass, sword, scepter, bow and arrow, twin katanas, scythe, naginata, and daggers. It brings variety to their stage performances and sets the bar for entertainment.
And stage performances can’t be complete with the music. Everything feels so smooth and synchronized as I watched and more of those performances. The music plays in union with the performances that never loses its momentum. The emotional quality of the soundtrack is definitely outstanding with its style. I should also mention that there is a variety of theme song performances from talented artists and all of them left me in awe.
Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight sets the gold standard for a show being able to make an identity of itself. From the stage performances to its valuable character cast, every episode made me carve for more. It has a pacing that perfectly worked well for this anime while also having moments of lighthearted slice of life and comedy. It’s a show that may not be able to attract a general audience so it's not easily recommendable for anyone. It's an underrated gem that may have slipped under the radar but definitely one worth talking about.
Anime gets often called 'art' instead of simply 'entertainment' for the simple reason that its audiovisual achievements are more noteworthy than the characters and story that can never really reach the same level as books or manga. But like with everything in life, the polar opposite view point exist. To some viewers there seem to be nothing that kills the industry harder than 'style over substance', and those who despise this way of being should now take notes and never watch this anime.
But I can like both. Especially in today's industry where substance is often lacking, new series are copy-paste of everything else that has
already been made, and in generally the industry has reached a point where quantity of anime series is high yet the outcome is starting to look like serial production where quality is secondary. Few times a year, a series that manages to offer something different than any other series, appears, and if we are lucky, they turn out to be as beautiful as Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight.
The setup is very simple, but still unique for the reason that this show falls between the modern music idol genre and the older female character driven narratives focusing on personal career/show business (Prince Tutu = ballet dancer, Glass Mask = actress, Kaleido Star = acrobat). Revue's focus being on revue artists and the main difference between the older way is the amount of girls as this series has a wide cast with more than handful of main characters.
The entire story is almost solely build around friendship drama where the series' abstract audiovisual execution and creative usage of different elements exist to symbolize the character development and our characters inner feelings. This all is very light mannered and self-explanatory to the viewer. The most simple way how this is executed is our characters' feelings being presented in actions and "fights" on the stage. Some more obscure analysis could be given as well, such as elevator connecting our characters' personal life to their stage life and the alternative staircase paths showing that there is no shortcut to success. Other interesting elements exist as well such as Tokyo Tower referring to the black swan (the theory and the play itself -- or at least that's how I comprehended it), but in generally, these are only very small details that can add to the viewing experience and ultimately, exist in the series to serve its creativity and overall style.
The series is directed by an assistant of Ikuhara Kunihiko who is most famous for directing Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum. His style is in generally considered to be among the most abstract and original the anime industry has to offer. To say that his old assistant has adopted his style is an understatement to a certain extent. For example, some of the more in-the-distance fight scenes especially regarding their background art directing resemble Utena, as well as the elevator, of course which was used in Utena as well. Same thing could be said of the "sewing in progress" scene which is repeated in the same manner as "survival strategy" in Mawaru Penguindrum.
I would also like to list several other scenes that were visually just perfect, but I will refrain from spoiling anything. Let me just state that some of the scenes have lot to offer when the revue scenes play with objects that are from another dimensions much like in video games that swap between 2D and 3D. There is also a talking giraffe in the series and one of the characters is called Banana, so I am not sure what else one could wish for. There is also decent amount of music in the series and it's been used in a respectable manner - or at least I respect it when music plays loud and aims to make the series better than it would otherwise be, and that's how it works here.
This is not an obligatory watch that every single person should witness, but as far as modern anime goes, a fine piece.