Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 14th 2010
DVD - Season 1 Complete Collection
Kaleido Stage: a place of dreams, where tales of wonder and magic are given life on elaborate stages by brilliantly costumed acrobats. Sora Naegino, a starry-eyed gymnast from Japan, wants nothing more than to be a part of it. With typical klutziness she misses the audition, but has the good luck to catch the discerning eye of Kalos, the Stage's forbidding owner. Unfortunately Kalos expresses his regard by putting Sora through hell, throwing her on stage with no preparation, forcing her to hand out toys at intermission, even giving her the lead in a new production without so much as a word of guidance. With nary a friend in the troupe and steel-hard diva Layla riding her mercilessly, Sora's dream life is anything but dreamlike. Like spunk personified she must win it all—loyal friends, Layla's respect, her place on the stage—with nothing but her determination and not-inconsiderable acrobatic skills. Fool, the voyeuristic spirit who haunts her room, believes she can do it. But does Sora?
If it was possible to live inside the head of an anime director, the prime real estate would be in Junichi Sato's skull. Take Kaleido Star, in which the writer-director imagines the world as a magical place where the innate goodness of even the vilest villains is never in question, where dreams do come true, happy endings are a matter of course, and hard work and determination are always rewarded. Maybe it isn't as heavenly as Aria's world—which doesn't even have villains—but still, who wouldn't want to live in such a place?
The place isn't without its darkness, though. Good youth drama that it is, Kaleido Star is a forcefully argued plea for viewers to grasp their dreams with both hands and hold on through whatever trials life throws their way. That of course requires that Sora suffer through a lot of trials. The combination of Sora's personality—she's the type who takes everything on herself and never, ever blames others, even when they're at fault—and the relentless barrage of physical and psychological torture she must endure can make Kaleido Star feel almost sadistic at times. Rare is the episode that passes without Sato and his writers devising some new and novel way to reduce poor, blameless Sora to tears (of frustration, sorrow, or pure pain). It's a bald ploy—both to garner sympathy and to emphasize her eventual triumph—and is used with frustrating frequency, but there's no denying its effectiveness. When Sora falls we fall with her, and when she gets up, as she always does, it's hard not to be lifted, at least a little, by the series' belief in the power of her dream.
Kaleido Star can get pretty preachy when making its plea. If you had a dime for every pep-talk given to herd Sora back onto the thorny path to her dream, you wouldn't need to pay for the show. And it doesn't just preach to the youth. How can you not hear Sato admonishing his own peers when Kalos thunders at a visiting diabolo prodigy for letting self-gratification get in the way of her audience's enjoyment? He might as well be slapping Hideaki Anno upside the head. Those poke-in-the-eye educational messages might be annoying, if only Sato weren't so good at taking his own advice. No matter how forcefully he tries to get his point across, he never forgets to put his audience before his ambitions.
Which is simply to say, Kaleido Star is unfailingly entertaining. It gets a lot of entertainment mileage out of a plot that is basically an ever-repeating loop of Sora aspiring to some new performance milestone, being slapped down by fate or an enemy or her own limitations, and ultimately rising above it all to wow friend and foe alike with her skill and moxie. It gets that mileage by moving swiftly and never allowing Sora's life to stagnate. The formula may repeat, but the circumstances and stakes are never the same. Initially it's just her job and her pride on the line. Then it's the fate of the Kaleido Stage. And eventually it's everything she has and has gained—comrades, livelihood, self-regard, even her life. In the meantime Sora rises from a nobody to a promising understudy, is reduced to being an unemployed street performer, charms her way up to employed street performer, and eventually makes a desperate bid for genuine Kaleido Stardom. It can be pretty thrilling stuff for a girly show about acrobats.
Whenever it gets too thrilling, or the script's Sora-abuse gets too cruel, Sato's feel-good humor steps in to save the day. Episodes about adorable orphaned seals and would-be boyfriend Ken break up the more intense runs of episodes. Running gags about Sora's obliviousness to Ken's feelings or best-bud Anna's bad stand-up shtick lighten the darker passages. And all else failing, there's always Fool's wonderfully dead-pan perversion—and Sora's equally dead-pan perversion-prevention—to provide a hard laugh during hard times. The scene in which Sora pins him by the hair under her television set, leaving him to struggle futilely to free himself throughout the entirety of one of the series' most deadly serious discussions could be a blueprint for how comic relief should work.
Practiced use of comic reaction shots and an easy mastery of humorous energy provide an essential counterbalance to the welling tears and shojo drama conventions of Sora's hardships. But visually the real effort goes into what you might call Kaleido Star's third pillar: Namely acrobat action. Fluid in that flamboyant way that only Gonzo can manage, swirling with magic and brimming with feats of death-defying derring-do, Kaleido Stage's shows leave no doubt as to why people like Sora and Layla fell in love with them. As colorful and lively as the rest of Kaleido Star's world is, it seems wan next to the glittering, translucent Cirque du Soleil wonders of the stage. The hold it has on Sora is all too easy to understand. Just try to watch the celestial spins of Fool's legendary great maneuver, or Sora and Layla sword-fighting on a rope stretched above a heaving, burning schooner without getting goose bumps. It isn't easy.
Funimation's re-release includes ADV's 2004 English dub. It's a solid adaptation, perhaps a little more liberal with the rewrites than today's more conservative dubs, and a bit too deliberate in its timing and enunciation to be entirely natural, but perfectly serviceable nonetheless. While suitably energetic as Sora, Cynthia Martinez doesn't project the depth and complexity of emotion that Ryou Hirohashi does, but Mina Kubota's versatile fairy-tale score and the carefully considered body language of Hajime Watanabe's character designs make up most of the difference. Plus dampening Sora's emotions brings the angsty peaks down closer to the series' overall cheerful tone, evening it out some. More problematic is John Swasey's slow take on Ken and the questionable accent Luci Christian adopts as Kaleido Stage songstress Sarah.
For all the pains Kaleido Star takes to show the difficulties Sora has in achieving her dream, there is definitely an element of fantasy to her path to stardom. And no, I'm not talking about Fool. If the thought of a girl converting small-minded capitalists, small-hearted co-workers and Machiavellian turncoats with kindness and the shining glory of her perseverance makes your stomach turn, then turn away. Those for whom optimism is not anathema will want to stay, however. Perhaps it's heavy-handed, but few series argue as powerfully for the dogged pursuit of dreams, and fewer still as entertainingly.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ A well-balanced mixture of life-drama, warm humor, and fantastical circus action.
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