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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2 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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