Revue Starlight
Episode 12

by Steve Jones,

How would you rate episode 12 of
Revue Starlight ?

This was the ending I expected and wanted out of Revue Starlight. In the most visually arresting episode since the premiere, Karen enters the underworld like a schoolgirl Orpheus in order to rescue her beloved. Hikari, meanwhile, continues her Sisyphean reproduction of Starlight's story, repeating the tragedy over and over again while playing the parts of both the prisoner in the tower and the heroine doomed to fall from it. Karen's heartfelt plea about their promise interrupts the performance, collapses the stage, and drags them further down into the underworld where they duel for the last time. Hikari at first wins her last-ditch gambit to protect Karen, but Karen will be reborn as many times as it takes to get her point across. She crosses the bridge to Hikari's heart, she win the duel, and the two share Position Zero. It's a happy ending for both Starlight and all of the Stage Girls.

And yet, as the episode ended, I couldn't help but feel a bit hollow. I wasn't able to pinpoint why at first, but I think the culprit unfortunately is the show's central romance. Karen and Hikari never fully blossomed into complete and compelling characters for me, despite their prominence in the narrative. Karen especially is every bit the plucky, clumsy, and stalwart heroine you'd expect from a series like this, but I don't think she was ever given enough of a foundation to become more than just the outline of a likable protagonist. She got some emotional depth to work through last week, which was appreciated, but that alone wasn't enough—we needed fewer platitudes about promises and more down-to-earth messiness. Another contributing factor to this problem is that Karen and Hikari find themselves surrounded by other more colorful characters and relationships.

This is extremely anecdotal, so take it as such, but most of the Revue Starlight fanart I've seen circulated on Twitter has been fanart of the side characters. Claudine and Maya, for instance, are embodiments of the traditional kinds of leading ladies that Karen and Hikari are bucking against, yet ironically their playful antagonism makes their relationship more interesting to explore. Speaking personally, Banana became my runaway favorite with her messy yet relatable motivations, and her reconciliation scene with Junna in episode 10 was short but resonant in a way that I didn't feel with Karen and Hikari. Honestly, the scene that tugged my heart the most was seeing the rest of the girls set aside some of their crab hotpot for both of their absent friends. Amidst the surreal spectacle, it was this small human moment of kindness that felt most powerful. Obviously, different people are going to have different connections to different characters, and I'm not saying Karen and Hikari are bad characters. They just feel underwritten, and this is the best explanation I have for a gut feeling about a show I otherwise enjoyed a whole heck of a lot.

That aside, there's plenty about this episode (and the show in its entirety) to praise. The strongest thread followed to its conclusion is Revue Starlight's rejection of, ironically enough, Starlight. I think every episode has included at least one snippet of Starlight in some fashion, and it's been driven into the audience time and time again that this is both a tragedy between two star-crossed lovers and the original connective tissue linking Karen and Hikari. The finale upends both of these ideas, and it's smart to do so. There's nothing inherently wrong with writing or enjoying tragedies, but Starlight in context has become inextricable from the toxic Top Star system itself, and in Hikari's metaphysical prison she acts out both of these narratives simultaneously in blunt, brutal visual metaphor. Rewriting its ending into a happy one therefore becomes an act of defiance, as shown by Karen and Hikari sharing Position Zero at the conclusion of their duel—an act that would never have been tolerated by the Top Star system.

In the broader context of queer literature, Starlight could also be read as part of a pattern of lesbian romances that end in tragedy, and Karen and Hikari rewriting their story to end happily is similarly radical. Furthermore, both of these readings work as an example of taking a critical eye to nostalgia. I think we all have examples of stories that meant a lot to us when we were younger, yet become plagued with problematic elements when we reexamine them with older and worldlier eyes. Karen and Hikari achieve their happy ending by realizing that however much Starlight meant to both of them, it's not as important as each other. People are always more important than media.

Revue Starlight's arguably primary reading, however, is a scathing critique of Takarazuka practices, and particularly that of the Top Star system. Hikari states this thesis with almost laughable bluntness as she descends into the final dueling grounds, but the show to its credit has been sure to lay none of the blame on the girls who participate in it (the “sinners”) and all of the blame on the system itself. For the general Western audience, this is probably too inside-baseball for most people to pick up on or care about, but thankfully the Top Star critique also works more broadly as condemnation of any similarly exploitative system. Viewers with a connection to the theater should also find plenty to latch onto, even if they're not intimately familiar with Takarazuka.

One of the finale's meatiest moments, and one I'm still rolling around in my head, comes when the giraffe sticks his neck through the fourth wall and addresses the audience. The giraffe is the audience, and is therefore the ultimate reaper of whatever the Top Star system sows. His desire for fresh and novel drama both fuels and benefits from this system, but it's the Stage Girls who pay the price. By addressing the audience as the audience, he implicates the viewer, and it's on us to reckon with those ramifications. There are several angles to tackle this from. The delineation between spectators and performers is an important and particularly intimate relationship in theater, where there's almost no physical separation between the two parties. Theater needs an audience, but catering too strongly to what an audience wants (or what artists think an audience wants) can hurt theater. In the giraffe's mind, the Top Star system was the only way to see the kind of performance he wanted, but in the end it's Karen's dismantling of its basic tenets that delights him the most.

Bucking against tradition isn't easy, but it's often required for any kind of artistic and/or societal progress to be made. It's also interesting that the giraffe is the only male-coded presence in the entire show. For men who watch and enjoy anime that predominantly feature women in their cast, this is a good opportunity to reflect on expectations you carry and project onto these stories and characters, and how these follow through into the real world. Of course, this is good advice for everybody regardless of gender, and beyond fiction, it behooves all of us to be cognizant of the way our patriarchal society conditions our expectations of women in the public sphere. We're all giraffes, but we can learn to be thoughtful giraffes who don't pit women against each other for our amusement.

In a fashion consistent with Ikuhara's narratives, the Top Star system doesn't truly go away. The giraffe isn't defeated. He's still in the audience. Nevertheless, our heroines do find some happiness outside of the system's clutches. Karen's rejection of both the stage and its prestige culminates powerfully as she slams all of Tokyo Tower through the stage itself. The tower itself, previously a symbol of the tiered Auditions, is felled and repurposed into its original meaning as a bridge that connects Karen and Hikari through their memory from years ago. Later, as the two close in for the final blow of the final duel, Hikari's clasp flies into the air, but we don't hear any clash of metal against metal. It's a stretch, but I like to think that she tore it off and threw it away herself as a final act of defiance. These are really cool and cathartic moments, and it goes to show how strong Revue Starlight's theatrical sense of music and images can be, even when the emotional underpinnings feel underwritten. It feels a little too convenient that these two can accomplish all of this and get the lead roles in Starlight. However, there's something to be said for the narrative's commitment to an unequivocally happy ending, strengthened by visual callbacks to the first episode and an emphasis that Starlight is now a story of nine girls, not eight. And the star they grasp at the end is not the one twinkling in the background, but each other.

It's a shame that Revue Starlight's finale should bring into sharp relief one of its core weaknesses, but it's still a great ending for an uncommonly great show. Its surreal underworld and impressively directed and animated fight scenes go a long way towards making it stand out from similar idol-based fare. While it never quite stacks up to my love for the sheer weirdness, messiness, and rawness that I get out of Ikuhara's shows—Starlight is far too clean with its resolutions—it takes its influences from anime, Takarazuka, and beyond, and mixes them into a one-of-a-kind spectacle. And I hope, in turn, this inspires other anime to experiment with their own narratives and presentation. I've had a lot of fun thinking and writing about Revue Starlight every week, and I can't wait to see what this creative team does next. For now, I bid you farewell, and may we meet again at position zero. Keep it Bananice.

Rating: A-

Revue Starlight is currently streaming on HIDIVE.

Steve is a longtime anime fan who can be found making bad posts about anime on his Twitter.

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