by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Revue Starlight ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Revue Starlight ?
My elevator pitch for Revue Starlight would be “Love Live meets Utena.” If that sounds like your thing, I highly encourage you to experience the first episode for yourself if you haven't already. It's my favorite debut of the season, and the less you know going in, the better. If you are caught up, join me as we dive into the cutthroat world of musical theater!
You'd be forgiven if your initial impression of Revue Starlight's premiere is that it's just another idol show. It ticks off many of the boxes. There's a cast of eight girls, each with their own unique personality quirks and hairstyles. Our heroine Karen is ditzy but plucky, with a strong passion for the performing arts. The anime injects some drama when a mysterious transfer student from England arrives, who also happens to be Karen's estranged best friend from childhood. The tropes continue in that trend because Revue Starlight is still an idol show in many ways. It's one arm of a multimedia franchise that includes music, manga, and live musicals performed by the girls' respective voice actresses. Applying the tried and true familiarity of the idol ensemble structure to the realm of the theatrical is a worthwhile concept for an anime that I'd probably be interested in regardless
But then Karen takes a secret elevator down to the Underground Theater, where her classmates don the mantle of Stage Girls and partake in Auditions by literally fighting for their lives onstage, all for the glory and prestige of becoming a Top Star. Also a talking giraffe is in charge. And now I'm hooked.
Revue Starlight isn't just about theater; it is theater, suffused with the melodrama, musical numbers, heightened acting, careful direction, and penchant for the surreal that define a truly memorable performance. On top of all that, it's an uncommonly synergistic marriage of creative influences. Most obviously, Revue Starlight's concept is borne from the Takarazuka Revue, Japan's famous all-female musical theater troupe. A former Takarazuka director even directs the live musical component of the franchise. On the anime side, however, Revue Starlight's director is Tomohiro Furukawa, who worked closely with Kunihiko Ikuhara on both Penguindrum and Yurikuma Arashi. Ikuhara himself has nothing to do with Revue Starlight, but his influence on Furukawa can be felt throughout the show, especially during the surreal duel sequences set up by an unknown entity for the purposes of choosing a girl to bear an important title. It should also be noted that Ikuhara's own directorial style was heavily influenced by theater, including Takarazuka. Thus, this ouroboros of influences gives Revue Starlight an uncommonly strong confidence of style and aesthetic, elevating it beyond “just another idol show” to this season's must-watch anime.
Even before Karen tumbles down the elevator shaft in episode 1, Furakawa's strong eye for scene composition makes what could otherwise have been a rote introductory scene a delight to watch. Some long distance shots establish Karen in the otherwise empty practice room, where she seizes the opportunity to stand aspirationally at position zero. We follow Mahiru's stretching routine with Karen, both to establish their closeness as roommates and Karen's humorous lack of flexibility. As the other girls drift in, we're treated to some brief snapshots of their personalities and interpersonal relationships. It's a dynamic scene, with everyone moving as they're talking, communicating other traits like Banana's carefree nature and Kaoruko's perpetual drowsiness. It's light and cute, but I love how the scene pauses, the music changes, and the entire mood shifts as Maya walks in and coolly takes her place at position zero. She doesn't say anything aside from her name and number, but the image of her standing confidently in the light while the rest of the class looks on from the shadows says everything. It isn't mind-shattering composition, but it's smart and expressive directing.
However, Revue Starlight truly shines as the top star of the summer season when it sheds the pretenses of reality. Karen's daydream about Tokyo Tower turns into a nightmare as she's pushed off by the person who used to be her closest friend, and the show starts to reveal its hand as more than just a slice of life about a performance art school. Her mysteriously fraught relationship with Hikari leads her down the elevator into the secret and surreal Underground Theater. The animators do some remarkable work imbuing both passion and fury into the girls' movements as Hikari and Junna clash on the stage. The storyboarding also consistently highlights the entire theatrical aesthetic. Curtains drape and billow dramatically, star props rise up and down from the rafters, and spotlights swing dramatically from player to player as swords spark and arrows fly. Beneath all of this, Junna sings melodramatically about pursuing her dreams even through the end of the world. It feels like watching a carefully choreographed production full of the larger-than-life emotions that attract people to the theater in the first place. Karen watches from the audience, because she hasn't been chosen, but she also can't stand idly by while Junna stands poised to defeat Hikari. So in a move mirroring her nightmare, she jumps into the fray. The subsequent 45-second transformation sequence filled with precise mechanical animation is where Ikuhara's influence on Furukawa is at its most blatant, standing alongside the Witches 5 laboratory in Sailor Moon S or the more thematically relevant metamorphosis of Utena into a car in her movie. Karen is reborn as a swashbuckling Stage Girl and swiftly dispatches Junna, which makes Hikari furious. Karen, like any good protagonist, does this without thinking because she loves Hikari and wants to be the lead alongside her, both of them standing tall at position zero. But that isn't how these Auditions work. Karen stands alone.
I'm most interested in seeing where Revue Starlight goes with its internal ranking and audition system governed by a magic giraffe. It's an absurd yet apt representation of the fierce competitiveness of the theatrical world. Only one person can be the lead and have the privilege of standing out as the top star (and who better to govern this than an animal preternaturally good at standing out). Only eight girls are apparently needed for Starlight. Karen opposes both of these conditions. She wants both her and Hikari to stand together at position zero. She wants everyone to participate in Starlight together, even though we have nine main characters. Ikuhara's shows share a common theme of their true villains being unfair systems that are perpetuated by society at large. These duel-fueled revues are a manifestation along these same lines, and I wonder if Furukawa and the entire Revue crew have similar aspirations in mind. Karen opposes these duels from the beginning, so maybe she'll be the key to revolutionizing (or revuelutionizing) this girl-eat-girl world.
Wherever Revue Starlight eventually ends up, the second episode at least dispels any fears that the premiere was just a fluke. There's a bizarre tug-of-war between these cute girls continuing to do cute things while Karen also freaks out about the giraffe conspiracy at the foundation of the school, but the episode grounds itself by following Junna this time. In the wake of her defeat, we get a handful of shots emphasizing her isolation and determination. She doesn't let herself wallow in despair, but her inferiority complex is clearly at work as she lashes out at her classmates. She can't afford to just watch from the sidelines; she doesn't have the pedigree or the innate talent to excel, so she has no recourse but to work harder than everyone else in order to stand out. And Karen, unintentionally but cruelly, walks all over her dream by winning a battle she wasn't even chosen for. This theme of raw talent vs. hard work is no stranger to idol shows or their close cousin sports shows, but this conflict helps humanize both Karen and Junna before they suit up for a rematch in the Underground Theater.
As the Revue of Desire begins, the theater becomes a surreal projection of Junna's psychological state, filled with mirrors and mannequins that she uses to confuse Karen. The symbolism is spelled out for the audience—Junna doesn't want to get lost in the crowd, so she does everything she can to stand out, from working herself ragged to asserting her individuality as the only Starlight member with glasses. And yet, she also attacks Karen from the shadows, hidden among the mannequins, paradoxically utilizing the very thing that frustrates her. Junna believes these Auditions are her last shot at being a star, so she doesn't let anything hold her back. Her passion comes through in her duel song, and the direction is sharp and bombastic, exploring the entire stage as arrows whip inches from Karen's face and glass shatters spectacularly from above. Junna's relentless pursuit of Karen eventually leads her to destroy her own stage, which is the same self-destructive tendency that made her work herself sick earlier in the episode. Framed between broken glass, her cape gets cut down by Karen, and again she loses. This time, however, she accepts defeat gracefully. Karen's desire to have everyone collectively shine as stars seems to have rubbed off on her, and Junna's determination is both tempered and renewed. She can take to the stage as many times as she needs. There's no rush. It's a bit too neat of a conclusion for me, but I can forgive some of that given the metaphysical nature of these duels. As long as they remain this thrilling to watch, Revue Starlight will continue to enthrall me.
You've no doubt gathered by now that I'm extremely pleased with Revue Starlight. Though I have limited experience working in it myself, I love the theater, and I love how much this show clearly loves it as well. Like Princess Tutu did with ballet, Starlight enriches the inherent magic and adventure of the stage. Its Takarazuka roots should give us plenty of girls looking handsome and princely, its director Furukawa should give us plenty of dense and striking images to chew on each week, and the good folks at Kinema Citrus (and their collaborators) should (fingers crossed) continue to make the characters and animation look great. From sweeping transitions to little gestures like Junna punctuating her sentences with a dramatic sip from a juice box, nearly every scene oozes style and confidence, enriching both the world and its players. My major apprehension is that I hope it doesn't shy away from being bolder, messier, and weirder for the sake of keeping itself palatable and marketable. Of course, I really don't expect it to go full Ikuhara at any point. It lacks the bite of an Ikuhara show and doesn't possess his fascination with the more experimental theater of Shuji Terayama, but none of this prevents Revue Starlight from carving out its own identity, and I'm excited to see where it goes!
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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