Review

by Caitlin Moore,

Kageki Shoujo!! The Curtain Rises

Synopsis:
Kageki Shoujo!! The Curtain Rises
After being dishonorably discharged from her idol unit JPX, Ai Narata enrolls at the Kouka School of Musical and Dramatic Arts in hopes of joining their all-female theater troupe and living a life without men. Sarasa Watanabe loves anime and manga, and dreams of playing Oscar de Jarjayes in Kouka's famous production of Rose of Versailles. The reserved and stoic Ai and the loudly affable Sarasa couldn't be more different, but the two end up as roommates. To achieve their dreams, the two will have to survive Kouka's notoriously rigorous training, not to mention each other.
Review:

Kageki Shoujo!! The Curtain Rises is something of an odd beast. It originally ran in a Jump magazine, Jump X, that was ostensibly seinen but published a number of manga authors whose previous works were aimed at a female audience. Enough chapters of Kageki Shoujo! ran to fill two manga volumes before the magazine was cancelled, which is what comprises this release. Its continuation, Kageki Shoujo!! is now running in the josei magazine Melody and is apparently still unlicensed in the US.

All this made researching for this review very difficult, because not a lot of search engines distinguish between one and two exclamation points. I worked to glean as much information about the series because while this is a single-volume release, I desperately wanted to read more and was worried that this was the end of the line. This book is good.

The performing arts have been a popular manga subject for decades, from classic titles like Swan and the still-running(!) Glass Mask to modern idol series. Kageki Shoujo! draws heavily from the tradition of shoujo melodrama, using the famous all-female Takarazuka Theater as the basis for its setting, changing the name to avoid attracting the real-life version's ire since they are notoriously protective of their name and image. Ai, Sarasa, and their classmates must train in voice, acting, and a number of dance styles in an intensive program designed to mold them into stars.

Both heroines are somewhat misfits: Ai because of her fame and standoffishness born of trauma, and Sarasa because of her garrulous anime and manga obsession and lack of training compared to most of her classmates. Both are very much nails that stick out, which is even more dangerous in a setting where they're expected to perform in sync with a dozen other girls. Because of this, they each attract a fair amount of negative attention from their classmates, especially Sarasa, who couldn't blend in if she tried.

It would be easy to lean into bullying and melodrama to drive the story, but artist Kumiko Saiki avoids this with the grace of a dancer. Yes, the two have trouble adjusting and their classmates are slow to warm up to them, but few of the girls are cruel for cruelty's sake; it's more that most of them aren't quite sure what to do with those two at first, and the drama lies in the friction of multiple big personalities clashing. As a result, it feels much more warm and human than it would have otherwise as the class starts to mesh, even if a few bullies remain.

Not to give the impression that this is a chill slice-of-life comedy; it is still first and foremost a drama. Ai is troubled, and theater is a harsh mistress. It's more that the way that drama happens here feels more naturalistic and real than in other similar series. The struggles the characters face are struggles that millions of people in the real world face, some of which are exacerbated by the kind of environment an arts school fosters.

As such, this volume carries hefty content warnings for eating disorders and childhood sexual assault. The subjects are overall handled tastefully and sympathetically, but they are still inherently upsetting to see portrayed and outright triggering for many people, so it is best that readers go in ready for them. The eating disorder resolves itself a bit too quickly and easily, but that may be related to Jump X's impending cancellation and the need to wrap up the series without leaving one of the heaviest plot threads hanging.

The main duo of Sarasa and Ai have something of an odd couple dynamic: two extreme personalities that crash together to create the sparks that power the story. It's not the most original tactic, but when it works, it works. Sarasa is adorable in her almost puppyish enthusiasm, and the way she uses anime and manga as cultural touchpoints will no doubt remind a lot of readers of their friends… or themselves. She is so full of love, and wants to be loved back in a way that can be off-putting at first.

That is the root of her conflict with Ai: Ai, due to childhood trauma, is not open to loving or being loved. She specifies living in a world without men, but takes little interest in her peers either. The conflict between the two boils down not to shenanigans, nor to fundamental incompatibility, but a difference in how their lives and upbringings conditioned them to respond to the outside world. It's the kind of thing that can create a lot of issues, but also can be overcome and turn them into friends and allies. There's even room for eager readers to read yuri subtext into.

This is Saiki's English-language premiere, but her shoujo-style art had a familiarity to it I can't quite explain. It draws a lot of influence from the theater melodramas of years past, with a charmingly old-fashioned look while still feeling overall modern. She does a great job expressing Ai and Sarasa's personalities both through their speech and their physicality. The only problem is that with such a large cast of minor female characters, it can be hard to keep track of who is a friend, who is an enemy, and who is a neutral background character.

Kageki Shoujo!! The Curtain Rises is a real treat: a drama that consistently resists the urge to indulge in histrionics, a shoujo-style manga that draws from tradition while remaining fresh and modern, a tale set in a harsh world without reveling in that harshness. I hope this release is successful, and that it may pave the way for the sequel to be released.

Grade:
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+

+ Strong character-driven drama with likeable characters and lovely art
Requires heavy content warnings for eating disorders and CSA; secondary characters can be hard to tell apart; only the start of story

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Production Info:
Story & Art: Kumiko Saiki

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