Sep 27, 2018
RiverRode (All reviews)
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.