The Summer 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kageki Shoujo!! ?
What is this?
Ever since she was a little girl, Sarasa has wanted to play the role of Oscar as part of the Kouka Acting Troupe, an all-female acting troupe similar to the Takarazuka Revue. But before she can do that, she has to attend two years at the Kouka School of Musical and Theatrical Arts. As Sarasa practices singing, dancing, and acting, she grows closer to the other girls in her year, including her roommate, the stoic former J-idol, Ai. Though Sarasa is great at making friends, her outspoken nature and grand ambitions earn her lots of enemies as well.
How was the first episode?
I absolutely loved this episode. However, the reason I love it is the same reason why I fear it may be boring to many anime fans: Kageki Shoujo!! assumes the viewer is well-acquainted with Japanese pop culture beyond anime to tell its story. When it comes down to it, this anime is about a former AKB48 star and a kabuki-trained girl becoming students at the Takarazuka Music School—though, of course, with all the names changed to prevent copyright infringement. You have to have a basic familiarity with all of these things to understand the nuance hiding beyond the ostensibly straightforward plot of “two girls wanting to join an all-female acting troupe.”
Ai is a pop idol who was forced to “graduate” (the euphemism for leaving an idol group) after her androphobia makes her react badly to a fan who got too close. Being forced to graduate is a huge scandal and usually means the end of an idol's career—hence why everyone treats Ai as a pariah despite her talent and experience. Sarasa, on the other hand, is a tall, energetic girl who appears to have training in kabuki, which is more than a little strange due to kabuki being a men-only art form.
Together they enter the Kouka School of Musical and Theatrical Arts to become actors in the Kouka Revue—based on the real world Takarazuka Revue—an all-female musical troupe with an illustrious history and lasting mainstream popularity. That's why when the other girls are discussing becoming “musume-yaku” or “otoko-yaku,” they are really talking about whether they want to specialize in playing female roles or male roles.
Even the episode's cliffhanger requires pop culture context—though at least this time 70s anime fans are likely to get it. Sarasa declares her intention to play Lady Oscar, stunning all those around her. Oscar is the lead in the Rose of Versailles and what one might call the ultimate Takarazuka part as Oscar is a female raised as male in the story. Moreover, Rose of Versailles is one of Takarazuka's longest-running shows with one iteration or another being performed each year for over 40 years. In other words, Sarasa has just declared war not only on her classmates and the rest of the school but every other currently acting professional in the troupe as well. And let me just say, that's one hell of an ending to episode one.
I came to the premiere of Kageki Shoujo!! well-acquainted with the source material; after all, I gave it an effusively glowing review when the first volume came out a few months ago. I celebrated when they announced the anime, not just because a manga I loved was getting an adaptation, but also because anime-based shojo/josei manga have become such a rarity. Yes, technically all the material from the anime so far comes from the original seinen run, but don't take this away from me, okay? Because despite its seinen roots, Kageki Shoujo!! is as josei as they come.
Sarasa and Ai, two girls starting their training at Kouka Academy – an obvious stand-in for Takarazuka Theater – have opposite personalities and totally different motivations. Sarasa is huge and excitable, like a human Great Pyrenees puppy, and dreams only of starring in Rose of Versailles as Oscar de Jarjeyes. Ai, a former idol seeking an escape from men, is quiet and withdrawn. They end up as roommates, to Ai's dismay and Sarasa's joy.
The two are perfect foils, as different as can be without being exaggerated caricatures, and the conflicts between them are understated but clear. Sarasa, who comes from Tokyo's old-fashioned shitamachi neighborhoods, is bad with boundaries and can't read the room to save her life. Ai is a bit too cold and unwilling to communicate or meet Sarasa halfway, even leaving her to oversleep during their first week of classes when she knows it'll hurt her standing with the teachers and other girls.
As a manga reader, I was interested to see what kind of changes director Kazuhiro Yoneda and writer Tadashi Morishita would make, if any, and what that would tell me about what's to come. While it's overall quite faithful, there seems to be a slight shift toward an ensemble cast, as it added scenes of other girls settling into their rooms and talking. (I admit, my lip did curl slightly at the twins talking about how they were going to stay together forever.) There are no major changes or skipped story events, just small touches that make me curious about what's to follow.
As a production it's sufficient. The animation isn't especially fluid or stiff; no close-ups highlighting lavishly-animated body language or anything like that. The colors are soft rather than vivid. I did enjoy Sarasa's physics-defying hair, which I can confirm is accurate to the experience of having ridiculously thick, semi-curly/semi-wavy hair (mine is pink, so I wake up every morning looking like a 90's anime character).
Kageki Shoujo!! probably won't be the most attention-grabbing premiere of the season, but it's still one of my picks. I'm glad such a wonderful series is getting an adaptation, allowing more people to experience it.
Kageki Shojo!!'s traditional shojo manga trappings were very apparent from the moment I started watching its premiere, but it took me a while to get what kind of anime this is. There's the prestigious Kouka School of Musical and Theatrical Arts that is tough as nails to get into, and it is holding its big centennial admissions run; alright, so far, so good. We open with Ai Narata, an anti-social ex-idol who is gunning for one of the school's coveted open slots, which makes sense enough. It wasn't until all of the lucky new Kouka pupils arrived for the entrance ceremony that the show's whole deal clicked into place, though. You see, Ai is the kind of wistful, introverted girl who will walk up to a cherry blossom tree and think to herself, “Are you alone too? How is it that you have such beauty that no one wants to bask in it?”, which…sure, okay. She ends up being paired with the class' most standout addition, the bubbly and friendly Sarasa Watanabe, whose only other defining characteristic as of yet is that she's really quite tall. At least, for a Japanese teen. The internet tells me that the average height for a 17-year-old Japanese girl is roughly 5'1”, which tracks with the handful of Japanese young adults I've hung out with. Ai seems to be a bit on the shorter side, but we'll go ahead and stick with 5'1”, and since Sarasa is a full head and some change taller than Ai, that would put her at, oh, let's say 5'10”-ish? That would be considered “tall” here in the US by most standards, but not “freakishly” so, which I suppose makes the whole school's impressed/intimidated reactions pretty amusing. Sarasa seems nice, too, so I'm sure she'll manage to break down Ai's gruff exterior over the course of the show. And, um…
Look, there's a reason why I spent so much time just now breaking down the logistics of Sarasa's height, and it's because I honestly don't have a whole lot else to say about Kageki Shojo!! after just this one episode. The colors are nice, and the character designs stand out, I guess…it's fine? It's perfectly fine. There's not a lot in the script that I would consider to be terribly funny, and all of the characters are barely past the “rough outline” stage of their development, so I can't say I'm all that invested in their competition to be the No. 1 Actress at Kouka. I really love theater as a general concept, so I'd love to see more of the stage-craft and artistry that the girls will be honing during their time at the school; it's a shame we don't see too much of that outside of the extended bit with the lineup near the end of the episode.
Maybe Kageki Shojo!! is working within a genre tradition that is simply outside of my wheelhouse, or maybe it just needs a couple more episodes for me to warm up to it. It certainly didn't offend me, or irritate me, and it moved by quick enough to keep me from being bored. It didn't leave me feeling much else either, though, so unless I hear that it really picks up from here, I might be fine to skip Kageki Shojo!! this season.
Sometimes during preview guide, I wonder whether it's more important for a series to have a novel premise, or solid execution. Obviously the ideal is to have both, but I've watched the first episodes of enough anime to know that's a hard ask sometimes. I think in the long run I prioritize the latter of the former – a familiar story idea told well can be a lot more satisfying than an ambitious one told poorly. And thankfully, Kageki Shojo!! is managing to tell its familiar odd-couple buddy comedy very, very well so far.
Okay, the premise is at least a little novel, following a pair of aspiring stage actresses as they attend an all-girls stagecraft school. While all-female acts like the Takarazuka Revue have long histories in Japan, they don't often get featured in anime, so seeing the ins-and-outs of the school itself might be pretty interesting. The familiar part comes from our main leads, Ai and Sarasa, whose dynamic could so far have been plucked from just about any manzai duo from the last 20 years of anime comedies. Sarasa is tall, loud, and has so many fluffy clouds and unicorns in her head there's no room for a brain. Ai is withdrawn and cynical, carrying baggage from her past as an idol that follows her no matter how much she tries to stoically ignore it. Together they make for a classic sitcom odd couple, complete with a border dividing their dorm that Sarasa constantly crosses anyway.
Thankfully that dynamic – along with the emotional beats of this whole episode – is delivered with pitch-perfect presentation. The thin and lanky character designs take a bit to get used to, but absolutely pop once we see the girls in their element. The soft lines and pale colors match the energy of each scene to a T. The comedy is delivered with snappy timing that never leaves a punchline lingering, making even the more familiar gags feel fresh. Hands down my favorite scene is Ai and Sarasa's fateful meeting under the cherry blossoms, delivered with the sublime serenity of a Makoto Shinkai film before effortlessly transitioning to goofy comedy without missing a beat. While The Case Study of Vanitas might still win for the best-looking premiere so far, Kageki Shojo!! is a darn close second right now.
Plus, the odd-couple dynamic is ubiquitous for a reason: it's a solid foundation to build a central pair of characters on. So long as the series can properly develop these basic personality types it could make for a great cast, and there's already plenty of solid foundations for just that in this premiere. Ai is trying to outlive a recent and public embarrassment that ended her idol career and left her avoiding every man she's not related to like the plague. Sarasa is simple, but also has a background in kabuki that could add some interesting flavor to her acting style. There are also hints at greater complications looming for both, and that could be really entertaining. Kageki Shojo!! isn't reinventing the wheel, but it has a high ceiling and a damn strong adaptation team taking care of it, and seems like an easy pick for one to keep an eye on this season.
Whatever I was expecting from Kageki Shoujo!!, I certainly did not think I'd find elements of Not Your Idol in it. One of the protagonists, Ai, was previously an idol who was canceled for telling off a creepy fan, and after the way we meet her here, I have zero doubts that he was, in fact, creepy, because Ai's entire reason for applying to a famous school for a Takarazuka-style theater troupe is that there are no men. Or at least, no male students; that's another interesting aspect of the episode that I wasn't anticipating. Years of yuri manga had me expecting that all of the teachers would also be women, so it was something of a pleasant surprise that the academy functions like most all-girls or all-women educational establishments, i. e. has some male teachers. This is just a well-put-together episode overall.
Ai's characterization is one of the strongest elements of it. We first meet Ai on a train, where she's desperately trying to ignore a man who has recognized her from her idol days. He won't take no for an answer, so she sprints off the train…and is instantly accosted by another male fan. It's a statement about how she's been made into a commodity by the idol industry, and with each incursion into her personal space, she gets a little more panicky. It's clear that she also doesn't care for the female attention, but she doesn't have a traumatic reaction to it. Obviously, something happened to her offscreen, and it wasn't good.
All of that makes Sarasa incredibly distasteful to her. Sarasa's another aspirant to the school, and she's got the social skills of a very large puppy. She knows she's tall, but she doesn't really understand what that means when it comes to other people's personal hula-hoops of space, and that and her apparent inability to control her volume make her weird and alarming to most of her new classmates. There's a real sense of “What is SHE doing HERE?” from most of them, indicative of the snooty attitude a lot of the girls have. For some it's because they're legacies, for others troupe superfans. For Ai, it's just that Sarasa is simply too much, and she can't quite cope with her – especially after they're made roommates. Even the fact that Sarasa doesn't recognize her can't salvage this relationship, and since the other girls are aghast that Sarasa is getting positive attention from the teachers, she's going to have a tougher time than she realizes.
Even without the character dynamics, this is a very well-thought-out episode. We can see background characters reacting to things rather than just sitting there, which makes every scene more real; the woman beside Ai on the train glares at the fan, the girl in front of Sarasa at the assembly winces when she talks – things like that. There's a bit too much narration from the teachers, so hopefully that will peter out as the story gets going and there's less need for it. On the whole, though, I'm excited to see more of this – even if the end of the episode gives us reason to worry for Ai next week.
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