Thursday, January 17, 2019

Revue Starlight has moments but doesn't completely deliver on its promise (Anime Review)

Sentai Filmworks

I had heard so many raving reviews of Revue Starlight (Sentai Filmworks) that I finally got around to watching it. It had so much promise and so many strong elements and yet, for me, didn't quite achieve all that I believe it could have. I liked it, but I didn't love it.

This 12-episode anime centers around a performing arts high school for girls. One class in each year are made of performers, training in acting, dancing, and singing. The second class are those students who work backstage, write, and direct the performances. The show's lead is Karen Aijo, a talented performer to be sure, but not currently the top in her grade.

The anime clearly borrows (in both its themes and in its central performances) from the Takarazuka Revue as well as magical girl anime, and of course also clear references and deference to Utena.

Karen is currently rooming with Mahiru who adores her, and perhaps more. However, a girl transfers in, Hikari Kagura, who grew up with Karen. It is revealed that those two made a promise to each other to become stars together after watching a performance of a live show titled "Revue Starlight" in their youth. However, Hikari went off to London to study while Karen when to Seisho Music Academy in Japan.

The arrival of Hikari sets up somewhat of a love triangle, although those elements are perhaps only in viewers' minds as there is no explicit romantic content. However, it would be hard to interpret their emotions otherwise, at least for this yuri fan.

Each grade performs a theatrical event that they work the entire year to create. But instead of changing the performance piece each year, they are required to redo it, but making it better each time, honing their skills. In their first year, they too performed the very same "Revue Starlight," a performance about two priestess, longing to be together, but who only see each other once a year at a special festival. Unfortunately, one year, they are permanently separated ending in tragedy. We meet Karen and company in year two, for their first revival of the show.

However, we are soon introduced to something bigger going on behind the scenes. The girls in the performance class are competing in a special set of metaphysical underground auditions, lead by a talking giraffe and pitting them against each other in combat. The purpose is to find the top star who will outshine all other performers and grant that person their theatrical wish. Karen is not initially invited, but crashes her way in, and with the addition of Hikari, their desire to be top stars together may not come true as only one can win in these "auditions."

For the good parts of the series, there were some really evocative visual elements to the show with overall well done animation. I LOVED Karen's transformation and how "princely" her outfit is. The pose she strikes just before being clothed in her new costume is sublime but epic (but really, ribbons covering teen nakedness - why do magical girl transformations have to involve being naked?).

Before talking about the lead characters, there are a couple of great side characters. Daiba Nana, referred to by the nickname "Banana" is by far the best. She was interesting to begin with, but what seemed like cute quirks come out as being much more complex. She has two stunning episodes mostly to herself, one of her backstory, and one focusing on her current mental state. She has really stuck with me and is an excellent part of the show.

The other side characters that stood out where Maya and Claudine, the two rivals fighting for the top spot each year. I mostly didn't care about them until the end of the series where their arc comes to a conclusion and I am so glad I stuck it out. It's a very cool pairing, the closest we get to some actual potential romantic coupling.

Now for the parts of this series that didn't quite get there. A show with all girls, with implied yuri, in the theater world, with great visuals, and heart wrenching emotions should be exactly what I love. However, it never mustered the consistent emotional intensity it could have, leaving me content to move on instead of immediately rewatching it again and again.

The show paid homage to Utena with its fight scenes but didn't have any of the romance or gender fluidity that added a depth to that show. Revue Starlight is simply a much lighter tone even though it wanted to be a serious drama. It never found the balance between its comedy and cuteness and its attempts at pathos. It was neither serious enough nor cute and funny enough, but found a somewhat bland middle ground.

There are also structural problems with the way Hikari's character is introduced. We spend so much time in the first episode seeing Karen and Mahiru's relationship as friends and roommates that I assumed they were the two leads. Hikari's introduction into the show comes with no foreshadowing.

Then when Hikari is introduced, the show spends so much time with so many side characters that it starts to feel like an ensemble show rather than about the relationship and promise between Karen and Hikari. We also don't really get enough time or depth of understanding with the two leads to genuinely care about them as people. Think of how we come to fall in love with the initially whinny and helpless Usagi in Sailor Moon. We get none of that here. We are supposed to care about Karen and Hikari, but we don't really.

The episodes also start to follow a boring pattern of spending some time in class and the dorm and practice and then the big fighting underground audition scene. Thankfully a few later episodes break this pattern up, particularly Banana's two episodes. But it is the fighting auditions I have the most problem with, and yet they are the bulk of, and kind of the point of, this show.

So these are performing artists who instead of performing in auditions of dance, drama, and voice, engage in fights with each other with weapons. Ostensibly they are singing while doing this but not really. And what does the fighting prove anyway?

There's a "male-ness" in presenting this as a show for young girls about empowerment but that bases that empowerment on physical fighting. Of course women can and do fight, compete in sports, go off to war, etc... but I just don't see the connection here between the weapon's based fighting and being the top theatrical star.

By the final episode, to resolve the whole thing, the fighting just gets ridiculous and then they add all sorts of nonsensical discussion, revelations, explanations, etc... trying to be profound. Yet, the quality of this writing is really lacking and seems more like the sort of story an 8-year-old would write (both the anime's final resolution and the Revue Starlight show-within-the-show's plot). The adult in me just couldn't tolerate the garbage nonsense coming out of their mouths in the final episode.

But these weren't the only problems I had with the show. When they were showing the girls practicing ballet, I'm not sure that the form they were exhibiting with their movements was actually very good or accurate (my sister is a professional dancer and ballet instructor). There was also some unnecessary fan service, culminating in group shower scenes which serve no purpose other than lasciviousness.

Before you disagree, I get that there is a parallel between Revue Starlight (the show within the show - about the priestesses torn apart) and Karen and Hikari's story. But that doesn't mean that either story is very good or emotionally resonant.  And the talking giraffe leading the secret underground auditions is just unnecessarily random. Why couldn't it have been an ambiguous person, maybe even one of the characters from the future, or a former performer, or the spirit of theater, or something?

And yet...Revue Starlight had many many great moments as well. It was also fairly ambitious, if not quite ambitious enough. I would love to have seen what a tortured soul of a writer could have brought to the concept. Imagine if Hideaki Anno wrote and directed it?! More than anything, it was Banana's arc that has stuck with me. There was some profound sadness there and some heartbreak but also growth. She was a complex character even in the limited screen-time she had throughout the series.

So I certainly liked this show, despite my many criticism, but I just didn't love it. It was well worth watching and I almost wonder what a second watch might add to it. It tried some things, it was certainly different than most of the stuff out there this past year, and I'm glad for that. Visually it was well done and the voice acting was top notch. All considered, despite it's many flaws, it still gets a 7/10.

UPDATE: Here's a great alternative look at the series from Anime Feminist and an important message it sends counter to common narrative tropes in queer media: on Anime Feminist

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7 comments:

  1. I pretty much agree. For a show that suggested things were going to get weird and symbolic with a talking giraffe and a secret fight club, the deepest things seemed to get were to imply "the Takarazuka Revue can get pretty competitive." If there was more to it that I missed then I'll admit to being wrong, but 'middle ground' described it all quite well. I enjoyed watching it a lot, don't get me wrong - but I feel like it was just on the verge of being something much greater.

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    1. I think you summed it up much better than I did! I liked it too, but it COULD have been soooooo much more! In fact, it felt similar to my feelings about Flip Flappers. So much promise, some cool visuals, but didn't quite find its heart.

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  2. this is a very bold and long way of saying you lack the ability to analyse a piece of media. literally i cannot for the life of me find one piece of good thing in this entire excuse of an analysis. i tried reading it and i felt my braincells dying. i dont know what kind of media you are used to but clearly its some that have the entire plot explained to you like a step by step video which clearly is why you lack any understanding basic skills. either way please keep revue starlight out of your mouth. by the way just saw you read citrus on gods 2022 and i dont know why im even writing this because just by knowing that i can tell you are the stupidest piece of person who reads pseudo incest with minors that has a shitty plot.

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    1. Hello, I appreciate that you had a very different view of this anime than I did. I wish there was less ad hominem attacks on my intelligence, character, and abilities in your response, but what can I do? I chose to post this anyway (despite the inherent rudeness in the approach you took to expressing your views) because I value alternative points of view and I do learn things from them. That being said, we all are humans with our own prior experiences, view points, and emotions and no piece of art will resonate the same to each viewer. I welcome and thrive on discussion and discourse. And with the limited time we each have on this earth there are some pieces of media I chose to spend a great deal of time and thought on (as you have with this show) and pieces of media that just didn't do it for me. But I am thankful, as I am sure the creators of the series are, that there are people who are so moved as to take a deeper dive into their series (as you have). We'll have to talk Citrus later, because I am well aware of what trash it is and how it is absolutely breaking critically important taboos and could easily be seen as promoting unhealthy and damaging things. I couldn't possibly agree with you more on that. However, what I am taking away from it may be very different than what you think I am. In no way would I ever attempt to justify it's seemly aspects. It's also waaaaaaaaay down on my list of manga/anime that people should experience and I would never recommend it to anyone. And as a final thought, in no way do I intend these blog posts to be criticisms of the people who have put their hard work and time into creating the manga and anime I am speaking about. I have struggled with this when I did college journalism, and struggle with it now in posting a blog, I mean to share only my personal reactions and what it meant to me - in no way shape or form do I mean to suggest that there isn't more to what's in there than what I am discussing or in any way belittle the effort that goes into their creation, much less criticize anyone who has a different opinion of me or prefers something I do not. I am no authority (on these topics) and have never claimed to be. Judging by the three additional comments you left below, I wonder if you thought I was, of if perhaps by simple fact of hosting a blog, you imagined I thought I was. That I assure you couldn't be further from the truth. I know I know nothing, other than my feelings and which shows create positive feelings in me and which simply don't do it for me. My goal is to provide a set of thoughts that may help others decide where to spend their limited time. If people tend to have a similar set of feelings to mine, then my posts might be useful. If people find they have very different views then I suppose my posts are useful in a different way (or maybe my blog is simply not worth them spending time on). Either way, there are things in life I do well, things I do have expertise on (none manga/anime related), and hope that the work I do on a daily basis and the way I treat people on a daily basis makes this a better world for some. I'm sorry my thoughts on this anime provoked such a strong response in you, but I hope you find other sources of internet reading that are more to your taste.

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  3. As an LGBTQ individual myself, I understand the want and desire to consume media that centers around issues pertaining to those topics.
    All of the pairings here are canonical, even if they're not like your typical yuri content where they kiss and say I love you.
    For starters, you say that Hikari's introduction into the show comes with no foreshadowing. What about the part in episode one where Karen runs back to her room to get her hairclip – one that clearly has an incredible amount of worth to her to risk being late to, as we later find out, a very prestigious school – and the camera then goes to the framed photograph of Karen and Hikari as children? Is that not foreshadowing?
    I must admit that you are correct in one aspect. This show does focus on the other characters as well as Karen and Hikari. It's almost as though they're all friends and have special bonds with each other that they have forged during their time at this school. It is almost as though they all support each other and challenge each other to reach new heights. It's almost as though they all have a significance on the plot and that they have a reasonable expansion upon their characters within the in-world play of "Starlight."
    Karen and Hikari might not be your cup of tea, but they are built upon as characters as the series progresses. Saying that there's no reason to care is undermining the writing when you cannot analyze the content. 1/3

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  4. Since you clearly need this spelled out for you, the beginning half of the episodes – the boring bit, as you feel – that take place in the real world set up the dynamic and driving force behind the conflict of the revue in the latter half. Every part of this show is meticulous and planned. Nothing is without consequence or reason of some sort.
    Again, since you need the explanation on a silver platter, allow me. The auditions are a chance for the selected stage girls to battle for their own "fated stage" and this "fated stage" can be whatever the girl wishes. It's almost as though this was explained as well, as shown, not only once, but twice in the show. Hikari and Nana show the audience what happens to a stage girl when she wins the auditions. I don't even know what to say to you about that part.
    As mentioned above, every part of this show has a purpose. I've watched my fair share of shojos and magical girl shows and can say that the closest this show comes to fan-service is the dance bit between Claudine and Maya all the way in episode one. The shower scene doesn't show them naked. It only shows their chests, even if I am personally not a fan of that scene. And it does, mind-bogglingly enough, serve a purpose. Karen's constant musing about Hikari sets up Mahiru's jealousy of Hikari. In her centric episode, Mahiru outright tells Karen that she's in love with her. Mahiru's entire arc focuses on how she doesn't need to cling to Karen for her self-worth. Futaba and Kaoruko are written to be a married couple. Yet this is clearly not "canon enough" to you.
    I'm so flabbergasted by the apparent "male-ness" and subsequent paragraph that I cannot even come up with a response to this. Did you watch the show while conscious or unconscious?
    The segments during the ballet section might not have been entirely accurate... as though they were embellished upon for the sake of the narrative, perhaps? 2/3

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  5. The giraffe is not random and is an entity that embodies the audience. This show is rooted in subtext and symbolism. The story may not be emotionally resonant for you, but it is a story about coming of age, of doing the thing you spent most of your life (17-5=12) yearning and aiming for. The story is about someone who you desperately miss thrusting the desire to see something through with them onto you and awakening passion and drive inside you, something that you lack because you were unknowingly lost and aimless without them. Then, suddenly, they betray you and leave you again, just when you thought you were going to finally be able to stand on that stage together. Everything is meaningless now. For the 7 months that person is gone, you fall into depression. No matter what your closest friends – remember the 7 other characters you didn't like and thought they had little relevance while taking up too much screentime – did their best to help and support you, that depression never lifted... until you realize what happened after having a breakdown and are able to save her. You stand on that stage together, both as leads, with no constraints of musumeyaku or otokoyaku or anything else holding you back. It might not resonate for you and the ending might feel a little contrived, but it was all alluded to in one way or another. It was all foreshadowed in the plot, no matter how much you didn't like Karen's friends encouraging her and telling her that they would wait for her. But actually, no, I don't think that there is a parallel between "Starlight" and Karen and Hikari. Since you clearly know better than I, why don't you tell me more?
    I cannot even justify your comment about Hideaki Anno with a laugh. You only look surface level and desire for no "meat," so to say, of the content you consume. You do not wish to use your brain and critically think about the media or even, at times, actually read the narration and watch the scenes that explain what is going on for you. This entire post about this show is unfortunate.
    But you read Citrus, a series that presents incest in a positive and morally okay light, so I really didn't need to write any of this out for anything other than my own peace of mind, now did I? 3/3

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