In Kageki Shoujo!!, the drama isn't just on the stage. Nick and Nicky look at the series' character arcs, how it handles its sensitive topics, and how it reflects on Takarazuka.
This series is streaming on FUNimation
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
CONTENT WARNING: This column discusses both eating disorders and child sexual assault.
Alright Nicky, hit your mark. Lights are good, sound's ready, and the curtain is about to rise!
Hoo boy, it is! This week, we're looking at some dazzling stars with Kageki Shoujo!!
Try not to go blind.
Yep, we're in for a bright, shining world of theatre, and I'm sure we're in for a totally fun, light, uncomplicated time! Right?
Yeah yeah, I know. We'll get to it. Just putting it out there that if anyone reading this is a dummy like me and figured this was just gonna be some goofy odd-couple acting school shenanigans, they need to brace themselves, okay?
is seemingly an anime about girls having fun times at the prestigious all-girls musical theater school based on the real legacy of the famous Takarazuka Revue theater troupe. But in actuality, it's a complex drama spotlighting the harsh and competitive environment that only those willing to reach the top may endure.
But also, it's about a friendship between a cold dumbass girl and a tall dumbass girl.
Ai is only partially a dumbass, mostly stemming from a very unsocial childhood we'll get into later. Sarasa, on the other hand, might as well have replaced her brain with a cotton candy machine. That would at least explain the hair:
But both of them being dumbasses is what makes them cute. Sarasa is just a particularly a much more noticeable dumbass. She's loud and towers over the other girls. It's hard not to notice how much she sticks out. It's also what makes her a great posterchild.
It's certainly how I've sold multiple people on watching this show.
Her height is a fun gimmick, but it's clear it's not her only advantage. The other girls immediately dislike her for her overall lack of tact but everyone can't help but notice her sheer ambition and her hidden talents that could make her a diamond in the rough.
She's sort of like Na
ruto, really. She's got all the pep and verve of a shōnen protagonist, and that predictably clashes a lot with the tradition-heavy, disciplined world of stage craft. It also clashes with her roommate who'd really like it if she had a mute button.
As fun as Sarasa is, it's hard to know what goes on within that floof-for-brains head of hers. Most of our actual PoV is from her reluctant roommate and soon-to-be best friend, Ai. Even before coming to Kouka, a school with a lower-acceptance rate than Tokyo U, Ai comes from a world with a lot of baggage. Her mom's a famous actress and she has no privacy as everyone recognizes her as a "graduated" idol. Her only ally is her uncle, a ballet teacher at the school. She dreams to live in a world without men.
"Reserved" is the polite way to describe Ai's deal. She basically shrinks away from any contact with anyone besides her uncle, and for several good reasons. For one, it's never not weird to approach celebrities in public like this, my guy. Even the stans in OshiBudo
While some might think Ai's behavior is an extreme overreaction to some sort of deep trauma, her situation frankly seems pretty exhausting. Even once she's inside the school she can't really go anywhere without anyone commenting about her time in JPX, an obvious AKB48
name-replace. It seems like it might be hard for her to start over. But one of the things about Sarasa is how far removed she is from any of that. Ai's newfound annoyance of her is somehow a way of distancing from her other issues.
It's also worth noting that while Sarasa has the typical big dream of becoming a top star, Ai isn't actually all that into Kouka's curriculum in and of itself. She's here because it's the environment where she's least likely to encounter strange men on her own. But fittingly her time as an idol also kind of primed her for the competitive nature and unspoken rules of Kouka's culture. Like how she immediately sees through their nice, smiley senpai
and recognizes all the veiled threats and backhanded compliments she dishes out.
Out of thousands of applicants, the 100th class only has 40 students and among them, only four can ever hope to gain a leading role. So it goes without saying that many of them would do whatever it takes even if it means putting down others or going to extremes. Even the teachers emphasize that real social pressure actors face in light of the audience. This isn't exaggeration on the story's part either, it takes real guts to be part of the real Takazuka Revue.
Personally, I wouldn't survive if my teacher yelled at me for being a little too fat to fit in a sequined costume.
That said, portraying something in a realistic manner isn't quite the same as like, saying it's a good thing, and that's the fine line Kageki Shoujo!!
has to walk as it goes forward. Like yeah, being any sort of celebrity requires having a thick skin, but maybe you, the teacher, don't need to personally degrade your student until she develops an eating disorder, lady.
Like I dunno, maybe you could help the kids plan out healthy meals? Or an exercise regimen? Literally anything besides "tough love" where you psychologically harm a teenager before the rest of the world can?
While that particular teacher was in the wrong, it's clear that the show doesn't condone her behavior. I don't think any of the issues encountered are supposed to be "good," it's just that these are issues that come with the territory. It also doesn't lessen the show's love for its subject matter. Just like how we can still love a piece of art when we acknowledge its flaws. That passion is always the force that triumphs over all that negativity.
Sure, but I do think KS could stand to be a little firmer on actually combating this stuff. It's not condoning the teacher, but it ultimately resolves this particular storyline entirely through Yamada regaining self-confidence without ever really addressing the very concrete actions that led to it. That could be a sober, bittersweet conclusion to the episode but instead it goes for pure catharsis.
That's also true, even though many other authority figures support Ayako in what would be a very special episode in any other series, the teacher that acted poorly doesn't really face any repercussions other than a bit of reprimanding. Even when the other students do things like post incriminating pictures on Social Media, they don't really get much backlash. And some of the other issues, the solutions are much less-neat than portrayed in the story. But I still appreciate it for dealing with them at all.
So while we're on the topic of messy and neat, let's talk about Ai and the NEET.
Hahaaaaaaa. Okay. So. I'm sure our lovely editor already put a disclaimer up top but just in case you missed it, massive god damn content warning for this next part. We're dealing with a very grounded, very unsettling depiction of child sexual abuse, the resulting trauma, and every bit of messy emotion surrounding it all. Reader discretion is thoroughly encouraged.
The eating disorder plot actually comes up later than the order of discussion but that's because the third episode of KS
is just such a doozy. It didn't feel right to talk about it first. I mentioned that Ai's got baggage but like, I'm not talking about a backpack or something you can shove in the overhang. This girl needs her own wagon to carry all the heavy shit following her around.
And I do want to emphasize this is all handled with as much empathy and compassion as possible. There's a million ways this episode could feel like a trashy, ill-chosen attempt at adding depth or shocking the audience. But like, this feels real. Right down to Ai's mutilation of her stuffy. That's a lot of what makes it so hard to sit through. If you've ever been close to something like this, it sticks like a knife in the gut.
Ai is only a child and even though that creep didn't do anything worse than kissing her, thank goodness, her trauma still speaks to the feelings and fears of a more widespread phenomena of those victimized by sexual assault. This includes how incredibly isolating it is and how hard it is to move on even years later. She joins JPX as a means of escape of a culture that feels inescapable.
It's the kind of thing where it hits so close to home I feel out of my depth talking about it. Suffice to say it's an extremely effective episode, and for that exact reason I don't blame a soul for not watching more of it. But if they do, what follows is thankfully lighter while still being emotionally nuanced and understanding.
It's also a lot more humorous even though it's a bit uncomfortable to see Sarasa and Ai's uncle hanging out with Ai's stalker, dancing and doing Matrix
poses. Sarasa almost always alleviates the situation with her big goodhearted goofball energy.
It's a funny scene to everyone who isn't Ai! But that's kind of the point of this whole story. Ai's trauma responses have her constantly on edge around men, and this guy sets off a whole Minesweeper
board of red flags.
"Hey there, I'm just an adult man who you were mean to when you were an idol and have tracked you down to your new school in a different city. Definitely nothing suspicious about that."
The reason Ai graduated from her idol group early was because of this man. Guy spent a little too long at a handshake event and ended up unintentionally setting her off, and she called him a creep. This is considered pretty out of line for an idol personality and caused a big stir among fans on 2ch. We have every reason to believe that this guy is a vengeful weirdo stalking pervert, but it's pretty delightful that he isn't. What's more delightful is that he actually feels remorse for all the trouble he caused for his favorite idol.
That said, all the good intentions in the world aren't enough to suddenly overwrite a lifetime of trauma responses, so Ai immediately flees from the mere sight of him. And thankfully the show doesn't ever say she's wrong for doing so - that's how you stay alive in real life.
It's also good that Sarasa was there if things did go wrong. But Ai ends up being upset to find everything alright after she worked up the courage to come back to check, despite having fled earlier. She skips school the next day and everyone has to go look for her. Despite feeling alone, Ai really is starting to build her own trust and support network. Also creeps don't fuck with Sarasa.
Honestly, that moment is maybe my favorite of this whole show. Ai was afraid that this guy was out to harm her and the people around her. She was terrified, and still found the courage to arm herself with pepper spray and a personal alarm to try and extract Sarasa after initially running away. Only to find them goofing off in the park because Sarasa heard out his sympathetic backstory and he assures her that he's not actually a bad guy. And to Ai it feels like both a betrayal and like they're mocking her for being afraid. Again, incredibly real in ways I have rarely seen in fiction.
Opening up can be its own journey. While initially closed off and constantly given the cold shoulder, Sarasa never gives up or takes offense to Ai's words or actions. She continues to be charitable to her until these events solidify into a real friendship where Ai can feel safe.
Though it does take a while. So long in fact that Ai has time to grow her hair out to signify she's started to make progress in reclaiming her sense of autonomy and can start creating meaningful relationships. Y'know, because this is still anime.
Honestly, that would be a good enough arc for most shows to stop, but Kageki
continues to widen its focus and cast of girls. We also get to learn a bit more about Sarasa herself once Ai has taken a few steps forward and strengthened her resolve in a way she hadn't before.
We also learn that Ai can't read.
Yet somehow she's still like 24th in their class. Prestigious acting school my ass.
And that's before she started trying!
But enough about Ai, I mentioned before that Sarasa has a particular set of skills that make her stand out besides her height, and as a result of that, she's like, kind of a freak?! She's not graceful but she has great core strength, insane memorization skills, and the ability to mimic mannerisms perfectly.
That's a surprisingly common Acting Superpower in these kinds of series, but it's still impressive. She just needs to see a person performing once to memorize the script, their body language, and even their inflections.
It's implied early that Sarasa has some of weird theater background, despite having basically no idea about anything that goes on at Kouka other than she wants to play Oscar from Rose of Versailles
. She was raised by her grandfather who runs a tatami shop so it's hard to imagine she could afford to have some of the training the other girls had to have in order to even get in. So it's even more interesting to see how a different traditional art, kabuki, can inform musical theater.
It doesn't always help either, as Sarasa can only mimic. She can't stand out on her own as much as she's just really good at impressions, and she's correctly told that won't help her reach the top as dedicated fans will want to see what she can offer as an individual compared to what they've already seen before.
This revelation hits her so hard she sends the worst pun imaginable to her boyfriend on Twitter.
The face of a man who knows he has to break up with her for that joke.
Oh yeah, she has a boyfriend! Though it's a long-distance relationship. He's also a kabuki actor.
Also like, are they dating? They're definitely friends, and Sarasa's estranged dad gives him guff about keeping their relationship "wholesome" but also I've seen adjacent rock formations with more romantic chemistry than these two.
I'm really glad that the Koyasu character turned out to be her dad btw. He's trying so hard to wingman her bf in romancing his daughter while also using him as an excuse to keep contact with her.
Just saying, I know an editorial mandated Beard when I see one. And so does Ai.
Note: she gets Sarasa a figure from her favorite anime, which is certainly the way to my heart.
It's a solid bit of depth for her without feeling like the total system overload of Ai's story. Though even here we're not free of some Bad Parenting.
"Dangit Bobby, you save those tears for the stage, I tell ya what."
Maybe I'm just desensitized after watching several seasons of Fruits Basket
that I don't even shirk at bad anime parents anymore, especially when dealing with the political environment of a traditional arts world. (I miss Those Snow White Notes
, already) That's also why I was shocked one of my favorite episodes ended up being a nice break with one of the girl's classmates, Kaoru.
It's definitely refreshing to take a break and get a backstory that doesn't involve any abuse or weird gender politics, yeah. Just a classic young romance.
It's still quite dramatic, but it's overall very breezy. I really didn't expect that from a character who is always touted as a third-generation alumni. Appearances are important in theater, but what lays beneath them even more so. So while I expected Kaoru to be rather stuck-up due to her heritage, her aspirations to move away from the legacy of her mom and her grandma into forging her own name as an otoko-yaku (male role) actor feels very grounded. She forms a bond with a boy whose older brother is a popular baseball player.
Yeah, it's a genuinely heartbreaking little story. It feels like one of the best directed episodes, imo. Kageki's
production isn't as dazzling all the time, but I really felt like I was watching a different anime with this one.
Also I really gotta feel for the guy. He fucked up a golden opportunity without even trying. You're gonna carry that weight, Baseball Boy.
Points for him not being a coward and still thinking she'd be hot with a fake mustache. That's dedication.
At least he bows out with style.
And that's where the show's at right now. It's definitely a rollercoaster ride, and honestly does feel a little lopsided at this point in the season, but I can't deny Kageki Shoujo!!
has been good at just about everything it's tried so far.
I keep mentioning that this hasn't been a fruitful season for anime compared to the rest of this year, but I think even in a more competitive one, Kageki Shoujo!!
still shines. It's clearly not afraid to challenge itself and it does so quite gracefully despite some of its more modest aspects.
Overall, despite the heavy drama Kageki overflows with as much optimism and good humor as its protagonist, and it makes me look forward for each new performance.
Here's hoping it keeps on shining til the end!