Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 3rd 2011
Kaleido Star: Season 2 + OVAs
True to Fool's promise, the legendary great maneuver has made Sora a star. Now a draw in her own right, the Kaleido Stage builds its shows around her. Being a star is no cakewalk however. Her new partner, Leon, is an icy perfectionist with nothing but disdain for Sora's freewheeling performance style, she's adrift without a goal after Layla's career-wrecking injury, and just to complicate things, brash newcomer May Wong is gunning for her position. As Sora sets out to get Leon to accept her and May to stop hating her, she must re-form her dreams in a poisonous atmosphere of envy and strife. It's a brutal task for one as sensitive and idealistic as Sora, and one that threatens, along with the pressures brought to bear by Leon and May, to crush her. But another legendary act, the Angel's Maneuver, may provide a solution, and one that leaves everyone happy...just the way Sora likes it.
A good deal of what made Kaleido Star's first season such fun was the way it upset Sora's life and shunted off in new directions every couple of episodes. Season two has little of that restlessness. The change is not felicitous; at least not at first.
Rather than Sora overcoming a wild procession of escalating trials, season two begins with Sora festering slowly in place as uncertainty and doubt eat their way into her and she bows beneath the abuse heaped on her by May and Leon. It's unpleasant stuff, and not necessarily in a good way. May and Leon have their reasons for behaving as they do, but they don't really come into play until the second half, leaving the first half one big slice of sadism during which they inexplicably dump on Sora while she and the series steadfastly refuse to take them to task for it—a fact that rankles far more than any of their selfish, insensitive or cruel acts. As Sora, and by extension the series, drifts aimlessly in a morass of angst, the episodes begin to blend one into the other and Sora's losing acrobat battles, along with the sadly outgunned comic interludes, grow increasingly interchangeable. It's a dark, muddy and frustrating stretch of episodes, as much for the way it paints Sora as a passive victim as for its angsty tone and torpid plotting.
But it also serves a definite purpose. Kaleido Star's second season is basically a 25-episode version of one of the first season's brisk three-episode arcs. Their customary ploy was to establish an obstacle and have Sora agonize about it and then overcome it with raw spunk, and that's exactly what this season does, only in extended form. That makes the opening half the "agonize" portion of the plot, and a necessary evil in laying the groundwork for the spunky portion. That doesn't entirely excuse it. Whatever its reasons, the fact still remains that it reduced Sora to a weak-willed loser for ten-plus episodes. And dragging out the dark portion of the plot over an entire half-season exposes a lot of shortcomings that would have been better off smothered under sheets of feel-good fun. Things like the formulaic cycling of heavy and comic scenes, or the series' habit of hammering its points home with unnecessary force, or May and Sora's embarrassingly overplayed rivalry. Later, even after the series enters the spunk phase, you still notice them, which dampens a good many fine scenes.
Dampens—not ruins. When Sora regains her bearings (when and how would be unfair to give away), it's as if the series has regained them with her. There were signs of life before—Sora venting at Leon in a rare display of ire; the return of Yuri, vastly altered by Sora's influence—but the series really takes off only when its lead does. With Sora smashing through barriers and straightening out twisted personalities in that indomitably kindhearted way of hers, it's just like being back in season one. Which is to say: lots of fun. The goofy humor is funny again. The acrobat showdowns are exciting, and the character growth explosive and hugely satisfying. There's really no describing how fulfilling it is to see an increasingly desperate May laid low by Sora's newfound determination, and subsequently elevated by her example. Or what a relief it is when the first cracks show in Leon's implacable facade and Sora unconsciously worms her way into them. That the changes are psychologically sound is just gravy.
Reinvigorated, the series fills its last leg with marvelous scenes. The first half is certainly technically accomplished, particularly in its attention to details of physique and human movement (essential in a show about acrobats), but aside from the mid-season climax (highlighted by the sight of Sora in mid-flight amid a comet's tail of tears) nothing particularly sticks in the mind. In no small part because it's hard to enjoy the visuals when you are overcome with a desire to slap the heroine. The second half, on the other hand, is an embarrassment of memorable moments.
Some are modest. May's first conflict with the real Sora takes place almost exclusively in their eyes. But most are downright opulent. From an impromptu acrobatics show in the midst of a bank robbery to Sora communing with seagulls as she soars behind a speeding boat, the final episodes are crammed with ambitious, extravagant set-pieces. And none are more ambitious, or more extravagant than its finale. There's a good deal of corn in the final scenes, but they are so wondrously, mind-blowingly beautiful that you hardly notice. Like the legendary great maneuver, the Angel's Maneuver lives up to its name: it's heavenly. Even now, with nearly a decade of animation advances under our belts, the sequence awes.
Kaleido Star's English dub has been around for most of that decade as well. Fans have had that long to familiarize themselves with its slight over-enunciation, with the weak links in its cast (mostly the accents adopted for characters like Sarah, Leon, and to a lesser extent Yuri, though Ken remains problematic as well), and with its overall serviceability and general inferiority to the original (the gap in dubbing experience really shows). Likewise the extras, including the two stolid commentary tracks, during which Illich Guardiola (Yuri) and Mike MacRae (Leon) discuss their respective accents, are relics from the original ADV releases. The only thing, really, for Kaleido veterans to get excited about are the OVAs.
Not the episode 52 OVA, which merely makes you wish that the series had ended at fifty-one, but the Legend of the Phoenix OVA, a little fifty-minute wonder, making its stateside debut on this set. It's not just new; it neatly encapsulates everything that makes (or made) Kaleido Star good: great comic timing, solid, ever-evolving characters, subtle yet superb fan-service, inspirational messages that actually inspire. It even does the series one better on visuals, giving them a gentle budgetary boost, all while demonstrating the underutilized gentleness of Mina Kubota's oft rousing score and the equally underutilized comic potential of May Wong. Extras don't get any better. It unfortunately (but not unexpectedly) has no dub.
It's rare to find a series as neatly bifurcated as Kaleido Star's second season is. It's as if it took Sora's two emotional extremes (despairing confusion and indomitable optimism) and isolated them in opposing halves. Not necessarily the wisest strategy. While true that the delightful second half couldn't have existed without the infuriating first, it's still a chore to get through the one to get at the other, which makes this set rather difficult to wholeheartedly enjoy.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Great fun in its final half; jaw-dropping finale; Legend of the Phoenix OVA.
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