Reviewby Rebecca Bundy, Feb 16th 2010
Sub.DVD - Collection 1
Maya Kitajima isn't particularly good at anything, especially since she's so easily distracted by her love of theatre and television dramas. However, when a mysterious woman named Chigusa Tsukikage discovers her telling stories in the park, she realizes that Maya is “the girl with a thousand masks” and takes Maya under her wing in order to train her as an actor. At the same time, a talented young actress named Ayumi Himekawa is improving her own acting skills and eventually becomes Maya's rival. As both girls grow in skill and experience, Tsukikage singles them out as possible candidates for the coveted lead role in a play she owns the rights to – The Scarlet Angel – but refuses to let any playhouse produce until she finds the perfect actor for the role. How will these two rivals grow, both as actors and as women, as they compete for a role that only one of them can have?
Unless you're a big fan of the shoujo genre, you may not have heard of Glass Mask (Garasu no Kamen), one of the best-selling shoujo manga series ever. Written and illustrated by Suzue Miuchi for over 30 years, Glass Mask has been animated several times now; this release represents the first half of the most recent TV version. It's no secret why the story has remained a staple of the genre for so long; it is, at its core, a classic story about a seemingly average girl who discovers she has a special talent for acting and thus winds up in the maelstrom of hope, angst, romance and melodrama that churns beneath the proscenium arch.
Right upfront, it's clear this new version of Glass Mask is aiming for a retro look; the character designs and animation aim for the feel of the cel-drawn days of yore, and it pulls it off very well, for better or worse. Animation looks a bit ugly during non-key scenes (just as it did back then), but expressions, especially emotions reflected in the eyes, are so real and raw that it's actually startling to see them on an animated face. What also works well is an homage to the transformation sequences that have somewhat gone away along with cel animation (and the slow fade of the magical girl genre). Watching the masks move around while Maya, eyes blank, seeks out the next character she needs to “wear,” never gets old.
Unlike the character designs, the setting is definitely modern day. Even though the original story started in the 70s, there's a timeless feeling to the world they live in; yes, there are modern conveniences like cell phones, but you never feel like you're being beaten over the head by a giant sign that says, “Welcome to the 21st century!” Even the music, both in the background during key scenes as well as during the opening and closings, is toned down and plays into the series without trying to establish itself as trendy or modern. The “when” is now, but it's the actors, not the stage, that make this series work.
Maya, the main heroine, fortunately doesn't fall prey to a lot of the weaknesses that other “average, I'm-not-very-good-at-anything” characters do: she's not overly clumsy – simply absentminded in the way a kitten is when you suddenly dangle a fuzzy object in front of it – and she's very rarely whiny, instead focusing on looking both inside and outside of herself to figure out what she's lacking to rise to the challenge.
At the same time, it's sometimes hard to really connect to Maya on a personal level due to the tunnel vision that she gets when she's focused on acting and the sometimes dangerous lengths she goes to in order to grow as an actor. Thankfully, a rich cast of characters are introduced to give Maya more depth and range, and these characters, at least early on, are the best thing about this series. A bush with a single rose on it might be pretty, but that bush doesn't really start to stand out until the other buds are all in bloom. Likewise, the first episode starts out a bit slow with the introduction of the starry-eyed Maya, but it really starts to pull you in once a few episodes pass, characters like Tsukikage, Ayumi and Masumi Hayami, the (stand-in) president of the Daito Corporation, are introduced, and the rivalry begins between the Ondine and Tsukikage Acting Troupes, fueled by The Scarlet Angel subplot.
The first half of season one finds a healthy balance between Maya's career and her relationships with those around her. Maya's cheerless, small-minded mother, who becomes dangerously obsessive with making sure her daughter never accomplishes anything or chases after her dreams, initially stands in her way, and one almost wishes she kept doing so if only to continue the most meaningful and poignant external threat Maya must face in her career. Tsukikage, whose obsession with Maya goes in the exact opposite direction to the point where she'll even jeopardize her own health to see Maya's acting skills grow, fills the role of surrogate mother perfectly with a mix of tough love and true love that never gets old. In fact, her slightly insane personality makes her one of the most entertaining characters in the series.
Maya also gets direct support from friends, like Rei Aoki, passive support from soon-to-be-rival Ayumi, romantic support from Ondine actor Sakurakouji, and mysterious support from “Mr. Purple Roses.” In contrast, other jealous actors, Director Onodera and Hayami (at least publicly) all work towards bringing Maya and the Tsukikage Acting Troupe down. While both the positive and negative influences on Maya make for interesting story and character development, it also shines a big spotlight on the second half of the season's main flaw: the inability to bring a satisfying or timely end to any relationship.
Maya and Sakurakouji's budding relationship gets a lot of time to grow, and it's interesting how, unlike with most girls who obsess over their crushes, he plays second fiddle to her acting career. But as the series continues, it feels like it doesn't really know what to do with Sakurakouji anymore: he ends up getting ignored, tapers off into the background, and then is handed a very unsatisfying break-up scene that feels more forced than emotional. Maya's mother gets the same “wait, what happened to her?” treatment, even though her story is technically still going on, and lesser characters like Onodera and the gang from Ikkakujuu Troupe are so suddenly dropped and discarded that it hardly seems like it was really necessary to give them names and personalities.
The two characters who do manage to stick around for the second half of this play – Ayumi and Hayami – aren't exactly main character material. While a lot of emphasis is put on Hayami's feelings for Maya, there really isn't any reason to get attached to him outside of the fact that he's supportive of Maya's career. As for Ayumi, she goes out of her way to drive away everyone in her life in order to strike out on her own, and because of this turns into a giant, cold-hearted fake of an actress whose sole purpose in the show is to contrast Maya's lovable, heart-felt style of acting. There are other characters and relationships established – two new boys enter her life, who might as well be called “Love Interest 2” and 'Love Interest 3,” and jealous actors continue to do things to hinder Maya's progress – but all of these fail to bring fresh tension to the story.
While most series might suffer when the best part of a show falls limp, Maya and Ayumi's roles and the lengths they go to learn them definitely come through and manage to save the day. Maya playing a doll brings her closer to understanding what it will take to play the non-human lead in The Scarlet Angel, and the journey both girls go through to discover their own way to play Helen keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even the shift to TV brings new ways for both girls to grow, and the more time the series spends focused on their acting roles over the characters around them, the better.
Divided into four DVDs, the collection itself is a little underwhelming. The quality of the box and DVDs are nice, but there are almost no extras to speak of, and some might be thrown by the numerous spelling and consistency errors. The description on the back of the box calls the play “The Crimson Goddess” (whereas the translation used in the show is “The Scarlet Angel”) and claims that Ayumi's mother currently holds the lead role in the play (her mother has always wanted the role, but no one aside from Tsukikage has ever performed it). The opening translations for the DVDs aren't consistent, calling the show “Mask of Glass,” and there are a surprisingly large number of spelling errors in the subtitles (as an example, Tsukikage's name is spelled as Tsukikaze several times). All of these things put together make the overall package feel very rushed – if a little bit more time and care had been put towards this collection, it could have been a perfect package.
Even though there are definitely some failings in what should be key factors of any shoujo series, and Sentai should have spent more time making sure that the box description and subtitles are accurate, the awkward relationships, hit-or-miss characters and numerous spelling errors don't detract from this coming-of-age story to the point of making it no longer entertaining. These 26 episodes maintain a breezy pace that never feels too fast or slow and, aside from a few “wait, what happened to this character” moments, this show hooks you in early and never lets you go. Maybe Maya isn't the easiest character to relate to, but it's hard not to root for her, and her journey as she grows as an actress as well as an adult is full of tense, exciting moments and heartfelt scenes.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : A
Music : A
+ Some very interesting characters, intense scenes and beautiful settings will definitely keep shoujo fans entertained.
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