Karen Aijo is a student at Seisho Music Academy, a 2nd year who is planning for the annual production of the play, Starlight, and this year is especially important as it’ll be the 100th festival for the Academy. As the class begins to hold auditions for the lead roles, transfer student and Karen’s childhood best friend, Hikari Kagura joins the Academy, seemingly more sombre than Karen remembers her. Later that day, as Karen goes to find Hikari, she discovers a secret part of her school that is holding very different auditions, ones where the girls have weapons and fight in duels. Lead by a giraffe, with the promise that whoever wins these auditions will become the greatest Show Girl there ever was, can Karen pass them all?
If you Google reviews and thoughts about Revue Starlight, you find a lot of people comparing this series to Revolutionary Girl Utena, which is funny considering that I just finished reviewing the magnificent Blu-ray set just before tackling this series. From the very first episode, it’s not hard to see why the comparisons exists; you’ve got the secret duels that happen outside the normal school grounds, recycled footage of our lead being prepped for battle which includes clothes similar to the duelling garbs that Utena wears, then there’s the way to win the duels which is not by drawing blood but instead removing a cloak off your opponent (in Utena it was a rose) and other elements. However, that’s where it all ends; the similarities to Utena are superficial. You won’t get visually grand scenes that serve as metaphors on top of hidden layers that only Kunihiko Ikuhara knows the true meaning of, and you won’t get people suddenly turning into cows. If you are looking for something like Utena, in terms of deconstruction and character development, you will likely be disappointed; Revue Starlight is not aiming to be as deep, but that doesn’t mean that it has nothing to offer.
The anime is actually based on a musical show from 2017, which sadly we do not have a localization of in the West so I can’t compare how well it stands up to its stage version, but as an anime, it works on its own incredibly well and you don’t need the other show to understand what’s going on. Even with the fantastical elements, the series tells a cohesive story and lays out just enough mystery to lure the audience in from the start without overwhelming them or leaving them behind. As the series takes place in a school that’s devoted to stage craft, from performance to prop building to the music, there’s a lot of passion and logic that only exists within performance schools that wouldn’t make sense or work as well outside of it. So the mythical giraffe that promises the girls their own stage may seem silly when typed out but as the series unfolds you see exactly what he stands for, and the stage he promises comes with a cost that the girls are not aware of. Despite its short run, we do get to see the consequences of winning said shows in from two perspectives: the one who wins and the one who loses, and it’s heart-breaking to watch unfold. Although I wished some parts of the gruelling audition were explored more (maybe it will be in the upcoming movie) what we do get is emotionally satisfying and you never can truly be sure who wins at each duel, as losing one doesn’t automatically mean you’re out of the race for the top.
Before that, however, as the show truly kicks into gear from Episode 7, we get a few episodes focusing on the other girls in the class, mostly in pairs, as they share rooms and bond together. These few episodes are sadly the weakest, not because the characters aren’t as interesting, but because overall they don’t really contribute to the main conflict or emotional triumph at the end between our two leads, despite trying to show them in unity emotionally towards the climax. It also doesn’t help that at the very beginning we’re introduced to the multiple classes, outside of the 99th class where the main characters are, which seems to suggest we are going to spend some time with students involved in costumes and stage construction, yet we don’t see any of that. Whether it’s a flaw that exists, or something that had to be cut from the original play, I cannot say. But speaking as someone who used to attend a stage college myself, it’s interesting that they show girls who have different expressions of their commitment to their craft. Not everyone is the bitchy one who wants the lead role, and not everyone shares the same kind of passion for performance as another, and that feels more realistic than other anime that centre on actors.
Returning to the Utena comparison, there are a few small things that Revue Starlight does do better than Utena and that’s the duels and animation. I know it seems unfair to compare 2019 animation and budget to the same in the late 90s, but hear me out. The duels in Revolutionary Girl Utena were not exactly the pinnacle of choreography or swordplay, but overall it didn’t matter because the duels represented more than that and we fell in love with the story and cast anyways, but I can see why some people might hold it against the series because it’s clear that it’s not within the directors skillset. Revue Starlight however does have great choreography, with wonderful animation to boot. Provided by Kinema Citirus, who have been animating since the late 2000s, they do a great job of literally setting the stage for each fight, as the stages they perform/duel on are made up of large backdrops and props you’ll see in a stage show, and the 3D elements – often used for more surreal props – is utilised fantastically. The animation quality outside of the duels is also very good and consistent, and while the character art isn’t wholly unique, the designs of their clothing and the sets are great overall.
Music is provided by Tatsuya Kato and Yoshiaki Fujisawa, who deliver a very classical sounding soundtrack, using many swelling strings, sensitive pianos and melodic tunes that feel like they could be part of a stage musical. There are also a lot of songs in this anime, outside of the opening and ending tracks, that are mostly good but are reserved for the duels (another comparison to Utena if you will). The problem with how the duel songs are implemented is that they’re inconsistent; at the start of each duel they seem to be diegetic, with the show girl in question singing the first few lines, but then the song switches to be non-diegetic as the girls battle and even talk to their opponent as the song continues without them. It’s extra awkward when there are a few instances with the show girl saying a line mirroring the song but speaking it instead. It breaks you out of the moment and doesn’t work in the way they want it to.
The Blu-ray set comes with both the English and Japanese dub; both are very good with positive and negative qualities. In English, the French sentences that Claudine often says across the show sound better than on the Japanese track, however when the duels start you can’t ignore that the Japanese voices are higher pitched than the English voices. The on-disc extras include commentaries from the Japanese cast across 3 different episodes, cleaning opening and closings, Japanese promos, plus three special shorts that seem to take place after the ending so make sure to watch them last. The collector’s edition, with the rather expensive RRP of £79.99, also comes with a 64-page art book and 10 art cards.
Revue Starlight is a spectacle of an anime with lovely animation, great soundtrack and passionate cast to tell its story. Its comparisons to other anime however may mis-sell this series, so I recommend that if you like musicals, anime about performance art or just want something a little bit different, give Revue Starlight a go.