by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 3 of
Revue Starlight ?
There can be only one. It's true of the Highlander, it's true of Revue Starlight, and it's especially true of this third episode, as Karen fences desperately against the current highest-ranking Top Star, Maya Tendo. Karen enters the stage beaming with the confidence of her two wins against Junna, but Maya shines even more brilliantly with the glint of gold and the fury of flame. Maya is the culmination of the mysterious underground Audition process, and victory against her will be no easy feat.
Before the climactic duel, however, there's plenty of behind-the-scenes action happening between the girls at Seisho Academy. Literally so in Banana's case, since she wants to forego acting in favor of writing and doing production work. We aren't given much insight into her reasons for this decision (and even more questions are raised with an end-of-the-episode reveal that she's the third-ranked actress of their group), but we see her friends' shock and disbelief at her decision. Of course they quickly come around and support her, but that initial recoil from everyone is very telling. Even outside of the duel ranking, Seisho has its own implied caste system set up, with the acting students in Class A and the behind-the-scenes students in Class B. As the audience, we hardly know anything about Class B. We don't know any of their names, and all of the main characters are in Class A. This reflects our real-world relationship with theater, film, and the like (including anime), where we're more likely to know the names of actors than writers, directors, stage hands, etc. Actors are the stars, but that doesn't mean they're more important than all of the other people who work in the darkness behind the stage. Their relationship is synergistic, so I'm eager to see if Banana will act as a bridge between the seen and unseen members of the stage, swinging both her friends' and viewers' attentions toward the traditionally ignored contributors. And I'm doubly eager to see how this will clash against an Audition process that only values girls as actresses.
Elsewhere, Revue Starlight continues to fill in its other characters' personalities and ambitions. Maya and Claudine take center stage, but Futaba and Kaoruko get some secondary focus. That's good, because up to this point they've been the least fleshed-out members of the troupe. Futaba's only been defined by her tomboyishness and her narcoleptic roommate, but she takes an interest in Claudine for this episode, specifically Claudine's repressed frustrations. As the number two ranked actress and a former child star, Claudine is practically royalty in the eyes of her classmates, and she plays along with their image of her through every flamboyant and gallant affectation. But these gestures mask her internal struggles, which peek out in her grimaces at Maya, her late-night practices alone, and her uncharacteristic tardiness (likely a result of these practices). She's no longer a child or a star. She's on the same level as everyone else, and she's been bested by one of her friends. Futaba identifies with this frustration. She too wants to be the Top Star, even if it means straining her relationship with Kaoruko. This desire is selfish, but Claudine is sympathetic to it, and the audience may be as well.
Meanwhile, Kaoruko has what can only be described as a seduction scene with Mahiru. Idol shows are no stranger to homoerotic undertones, but I was surprised by how frank and nasty this scene was. Kaoruko's first bit of actual characterization (outside of “sleeps” and “has candy”) presents her as both perceptive and manipulative. When Futaba runs off without her, she knows that it's for the same reason that Mahiru can't find Karen; there's another girl in the picture. Mahiru has a full-blown crush on Karen, which certainly doesn't take a detective to sleuth out, but Kaoruko still takes pleasure in drawing a confession out of her. And of course, she knows that Mahiru is too gentle to name the problem herself, so Kaoruko targets Hikari, purely for sake of stirring the waters beyond their shared bath. Kaoruko isn't evil, and there's a genuine sadness in her eyes when she talks about how Futaba left, but she definitely has some dependency issues that she's taking out on the easiest mark.
In a broader context, I appreciate this bit of messiness, as it adds to Revue's girls-love subtext. One of the things that bothered me about the debut is how neatly it seemed to divide these girls into their preordained ships. It felt too clean and manufactured—a reminder that this is a multimedia franchise selling you the concept of these cute girls doing cute theater things. And there's nothing wrong with enjoying some fluffy yuri content! But given Revue's pedigree and seemingly rebellious ambitions, I was hoping for a little more grit, and I got that in this scene that doesn't treat sexuality like it's a quirky character trait, but rather a complicated thing we all wrestle with. That said, Revue isn't free from disappointing anime tropes, and the camera still lingers on Kaoruko's naked body too much. It's a sexually charged scene, but there are more inventive ways of communicating that (like the hilariously unsubtle squirting rubber duck). It remains to be seen whether Revue Starlight will address its queer subtext beyond the usual idol skinship, but exploring queer relationships between three-dimensional characters would be a great start.
At position zero of this episode stands Maya. Like any good actor, she says a lot by saying little, and most of what we glean about her character comes from framing and symbolism. (There might also be some info in her Revue Song, but gotta wait a week for those lyrics.) Throughout the episode, our attention is repeatedly drawn to a replica of Venus de Milo overlooking a small pool. When Maya first approaches Karen and the other girls, she's framed with this statue so that they're both facing the same direction in a similar fashion. She's also the only class member standing outside of the pagoda, visually separated from the rest of them. Maya plays a goddess in Starlight, but she's also Seisho's goddess—beautiful, talented, untouchable, and alone. Her bedroom isn't full of color and clutter like the other students'. It's clean, bare, sterile, and she has no roommates. Everyone reveres her, but nobody is close to her.
Maya's dueling arena is dominated by birds (especially swans), stairs, and fire. She descends onto the stage riding a giant swan, resembling some classic Greek portrayals of the goddess Aphrodite and reinforcing her link to the statue of Venus. The swan also can't help but bring to mind the famous ballet Swan Lake and its tragic ending. Stairs feature prominently in what appears to be Starlight's final scene, where they serve a hierarchical function with the lesser characters lying at the bottom and Maya occupying the top. In her arena, these stairs are exaggerated more dramatically. Maya asserts her dominance as the current Top Star by leering down at Karen from up high and using all of the advantages the high ground has to offer. Karen doesn't stand a chance, because these are all motions Maya has gone through before. At one point, the stairs form out of tiny birds, and Maya steps onto them just like all of the other rival actresses she's had to surpass. Maya is alone at the top, and the stairs shift and reassemble in Escherian ways to assure that nobody will reach her. Her bird is a golden giant, burning with her passion. Karen can't even climb the stairs, let alone fight a goddess. She's a paper plane, an imitation bird, trying to topple a marble statue. So she falls and loses.
Karen's been claiming all this time that her dream is to share the top with Hikari, but she hasn't been sharing that dream with Hikari herself. So far, Karen has been fighting on her own, leaping headfirst into situations she doesn't understand. Of course she loses, and naturally Hikari is upset with her. Karen's been as selfish as all of the other Top Star contenders, thinking only of her own desires, but Hikari can't do much on her own either. She's willing to take a literal crowbar to the Underground Theater, but her descent into darkness only leaves her confused and alone. The two of them need each other, or else they'll end up like Maya and Claudine.
I'm extrapolating a bit from context clues, but my guess is that Maya and Claudine were good friends in their first year. After Maya earned top billing, she still extended her hand and her smile to Claudine, as if this was the ideal outcome for the two of them, since they were both the top actresses in their class. However, Claudine may have refused to take her hand and instead declared their ongoing war. Maya, like Karen, thought two people could share the spotlight. Claudine, like Hikari, realized that there can only be one Top Star. In this system, you can only win or lose. Maya is a victim of her own pride, thinking that she could define the best outcome for everyone, and Karen's been following that same path.
But maybe there's another way. While Karen and Maya are fighting, Claudine and Futaba have their own battle. There are no elaborate stage props, no Revue Song, and no position zero. Futaba loses, but the two clasp hands with smiles on their faces. It's an audition not for a creepy giraffe, but for themselves. Perhaps Karen and Hikari can also figure out a way to circumvent the inherent unfairness of the Top Star ranking system. They just have to do it together, after a long-overdue heart-to-heart.
This is another fantastic episode of Revue Starlight. It's the first one not storyboarded by lead director Furukawa, so it doesn't quite have the depth and density of his eye for scene composition, but it's still plenty engaging. I'm a fan of adding more moody girlfriend drama to the otherwise breezy school life segments, and the humor is still on point. There's some particularly clever editing and comedic timing when Hikari holds Karen captive in the equipment shed. The highlight of the episode remains the duel scene, which is masterfully choreographed and impressively animated. Even before the ridiculous moving staircase showcase, their swords flitting in and out through the chandelier's arms makes for a thrilling and beautiful image. There's also some legit ridiculous camera work in this fight, and I don't know how the animators are keeping up (probably barely), but I'm rooting for them all the way.
On the music front, Maya's song is my favorite duel track yet, deep and operatic in a way that fits how she's embraced her role as villain. The new ED is lovely too, a deliberate pastiche of “Fly Me to the Moon.” Overall, Revue Starlight remains full of spectacle and heart. I'm excited to see how Karen will grow from this defeat, and how she and her friends will truly band together as girls united, not pitted against each other.
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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