The Summer 2018 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Revue Starlight ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
Wow. I am at a loss for words. Revue Starlight was already one of my top picks coming into this season, but I guess it's just lucky for the rest of this season's premieres that Revue Starlight took this long to come out. That episode just set my new standard for the summer season.
It was clear from Revue Starlight's astonishing first promotional video that this would be an impressive production - that PV's gorgeous animation, highly active direction, and intriguing mix of dance and fantasy marked Starlight as a show to watch out for from the start. And on top of its all-star team of animators, Revue Starlight was being directed by Tomohiro Furukawa, a key Kunihiko Ikuhara's collaborator who even served as assistant director on his recent Yuri Kuma Arashi. All the stars were aligned for a terrific production, but even the most promising potential shows can still fall apart.
Well, based on this first episode, it seems like there's little chance of that. Revue Starlight operates on a level of finesse and beauty in terms of its animation and direction that few shows aspire to, much less actually match. As we're introduced to Karen and her classmates at a prestigious theater academy, the substance of their daily lives is made clear through copious and incredibly personality-filled character acting. From the unique and telling clutter of each of their dorms to the ways the show's generous acting and dramatically taut shot transitions align, this episode's first half does a remarkably graceful job of establishing these characters and their world as a living place.
The warmth of this show's understated script and personality-filled animation are also consistently counterbalanced by an overall tone that hovers somewhere between austere, expectant, and brimming with magic. That's no accidental effect; it's the purposefully conjured consequence of the show's evocative lighting, terrific use of pillow shots, and tendency to frame scenes from unexpectedly distant angles, thus creating a sense of the characters being intruders in some sort of sacred space. The overall effect feels like a sort of marriage of Kyoto Animation's eye for environment-humanizing detail and Ikuhara's way of making the familiar seem alien and unwelcoming, all conveyed incidentally as we're introduced to the routine of Karen's life.
That Ikuhara influence becomes most obviously clear in this episode's wild climax, where Karen travels through a mysterious elevator to discover the true nature of her academy. As two of her classmates battle for supremacy beneath the yawning spires of an underground Tokyo Tower, Revue Starlight's stylistic forebears give way to something grand, original, and utterly gorgeous. Even this season's actual action shows haven't pulled off a fight scene as creative, beautifully animated, or ambitious as Starlight's finale; marrying the ambitious storyboarding of its early scenes to an active camera and consistent character movement, Starlight demonstrates a staggering ability to bring complex and evocative visual concepts to life.
I could quibble about some of this episode's somewhat cliche dialogue, but on the whole, Revue Starlight's staggering accomplishments make this an easy five out of five for me. If you're not actively repelled by idol shows or music-focused shows more generally, Revue Starlight is looking to be the event of the season.
We've had a couple of unusual premieres this season, but the “what the heck did I just watch” award officially goes to Revue Starlight. It starts off simple, adding a stage play element to the usual idol show format with an extra helping of friendly competition between the characters. There's a childhood promise and the sudden arrival of a new transfer student, and for a while it all looks like it'll be par for the course. Then the heroine plunges down a secret elevator and into an underground theater and watches two of her classmates fight one another while a talking giraffe explains that they're auditioning for the position of “top star.” This inspires her to put on her own military-style stage costume and charge headlong into the middle of the duel, and somehow it's all supposed to make sense.
Up until that completely bonkers final sequence, Revue Starlight comes across as a mostly competent idol series with just enough variety to carve out its own niche within the genre. Karen fits neatly into the usual main heroine role, a tad scatterbrained but full of passion and ambition. The other major player appears to be transfer student Hikari, who has some long-standing childhood promise going on with Karen and was studying in England for the last few years. There are some intriguing questions to be answered, like what happened between Karen and Hikari and why Hikari has returned to Japan, so we've got some decent dramatic hooks laid down in the early going. The rest of the cast is limited in terms of screen time, in yet another case of too many introductions yielding too little information.
Even the story seems modest in scope at first. The element of competition between the girls is an interesting twist, especially since most idol shows tend to focus exclusively on having the characters work together. The fact that their class is required to put on a new production of the same play they staged last year is also intriguing from a creative standpoint, as it creates an obvious opening for the girls to reflect on their personal growth. Then the final scene happens, and all previous logic goes out the window. It's difficult to tell how much of the duel we're supposed to take at face value, especially since Karen goes through a similarly over-the-top dream sequence earlier in the episode. All I can say for certain is that it comes completely out of nowhere, and that it raises all kinds of questions about what kind of series this is going to be.
The optimist in me wants to think that Revue Starlight knows exactly what it's doing, and we're in for some kind of weird and wonderful mashup of idols and swordfights. On the other hand, if the series doesn't have a good handle on its contrasting elements, this could all devolve into a colossal mess. Either way, this show at least looks like a departure from an increasingly worn-out genre formula, so I'll stick with it for a few weeks at least.
I'll just get this one thing that's really bugging me about this episode off my chest right now: if Hikari is supposed to be such an amazing performer, why is her grand jêté so ugly? Yes, she gets fabulous air time and height, but her form is awful, something that is all the more noticeable because earlier in the episode we saw Claudine execute a beautiful one. My dancing years may be behind me (stupid injury), but that scene took me right out of the episode.
Now that that's out of the way, this is an interesting combination of Utena-esque dueling and performing arts with a little yuri thrown in for flavor. The story follows a group of girls at an elite theatre school, but the focus looks like it will be on the trio of Karen, Mahiru, and Hikari. As children Karen and Hikari were very close, but when they were five Hikari moved to England. Now they're seventeen and Hikari has just transferred back, much to Karen's new best friend Mahiru's consternation. That Mahiru has a crush on Karen is a given as part of her worries, but it also looks like she simply doesn't want to lose her best friend, a position she guards jealously. For her part, Karen is just generally excited about everything and not the brightest emotionally, so her reaction is just delight at Hikari's return to the point where she wants to move her right into her and Mahiru's double in the dorms, despite the clear fact that neither of the other girls is all that keen on it.
That Hikari has done some serious changing during her time away is obvious, and when Karen discovers the super-secret training theatre underneath the school late at night (think Utena's dueling arena with more giraffe), it seems that she's become super-serious about being a theatrical star. The training theatre is a metaphor for the struggle to climb to the top of the theatrical world made flesh, and Hikari's immediate knowledge of it and participation in it is indicative of the drive she's got now. It's a marked difference from Karen, who consistently refers to herself as a “starlet” – Hikari is not going to settle for that step but instead is going to fight her way over it. Whether or not seeing her sparks a similar drive in Karen doesn't feel clear just yet, because her leap onto the stage could also be her wish to be with her friend again, but it does set up a story that feels equal parts Revolutionary Girl Utena and Glass Mask.
The animation and art has a lot of beautiful moments but doesn't feel entirely consistent. I love that Karen and some of the other girls break into random dance steps or automatically extend their legs backwards when they're bending over to look at something, but when we're not getting a scene of movement, things look decidedly less wonderful. But the songs, which will no doubt be a major feature of the series, are enjoyable and the story has potential. If you like stories about girl performers but are tired of idols, this is worth checking out.
Although some aspects of Revue Starlight give the feel of being yet another idol show, classifying it as a stage performance show would probably be more accurate, as the school is designed more for performing arts in general than specifically for idols. (There is a lot of cross-over, however.) In that vein it's a fairly typical show, right up to the point where Karen takes the elevator and the talking giraffe shows up.
Yeah, I might watch another episode or two of this if for no other reason than to find out what the deal is with the giraffe. That weirdness aside, the audition spectacle that composes the last six or so minutes of the episode is what sets this debut apart from its competitors. It takes the figurative notion that earning roles in the performing world can be a battle and puts that in literal terms by combining what looks like a stage play with very unstaged dagger-vs.-bow combat, with the audition decided by who knocks the cloak off the other girl first. I was particularly impressed by how the story doesn't explain everything with magic but instead has one girl who “flies” actually riding a suspended stage prop, but the action element here in general isn't tame. All the performance aspects blend together pretty well, but then it delivers maybe the most unique transformation sequence I've ever seen as Hikari gets involved.
Spectacle can be overdone, but this debut nails it. The artistic and animation efforts by Kinema Citrus in both the earlier parts and the Revue audition are a grade above normal and the musical accompaniment is also handled very well. The theatrical sense of staging also works, in part because the camera doesn't linger on shots long enough to be obnoxious about it. The action chops are every bit as worthy, too, including one dazzling scene where Hikari is flipping around to avoid a shower of arrows. Character designs across the board are also fresh and appealing, with my one minor complaint being that the episode sticks pretty rigidly to a standard scheme for matching personality types with hair colors and styles. (Okay, a second complaint: two pairs of girls have hair color/style combos that are a little too similar.)
The stuff before the audition is mostly the standard establishment of school setting and potential rivalries and love interests, including the implication that Karen's roommate Mahiru might be interested in her. There's also the standard mystery of why Hikari is so cold. Despite good technical merits early on, the last quarter is what really makes this episode, so if you decide to give the series a try then make sure you watch all of the first episode.
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