Kageki Shoujo!! – 13 (Fin) – Stage of Dreams

I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar.—Salieri, Amadeus

When it comes time for Sarasa’s turn at Tybalt, Andou-sensei doesn’t hold back his professional acting background. His Romeo is not just loud and forceful, but loud and forceful in all the right ways, drawing the crowd in, accentuating the most important parts of his soliloquy. It throws Juliet and the Nurse completely off…but not Sarasa.

Sarasa once again remembers when she was waiting for Kouzaburou and heard his master practicing in the next room. Sarasa joined in, as the Living Treasure indulged her desire, just for a few moments, to know what is was to be coached in kabuki projection by a master.

Being taught from such a tender age that acting is “no child’s play”, Sarasa is able to shake off Andou-sensei going full out, Sarasa embraces the Kabuki practice of mie, which basically amounts to focusing the audience on them and only them, and exhibiting how cool they are.

Sarasa’s Tybalt immediately captures the audience with her sudden shock, anger, sadness, and ultimately by letting his revealed true feelings for Juliet soften her performance. It’s the complete package, and it shows that she’s learned how to discern between mimicry and genuine individual performance. She tapped into her natural talent and blossomed before all.

After three agonizing days, the girls finally learn who won which role. Ai loses to Aya, and for a good reason, as her uncle explains: Juliet is simply more in Ayaka’s wheelhouse as an avatar of innocence, while Ai’s performance was a bit too mature. Hearing it logically explained doesn’t make the sting of defeat any easier to endure, however. That said, Ai doesn’t head home, but waits for her friend to learn her fate.

In what seems lke nothing more than another petty fuck you to Sarasa borne out of envy for her talent, Hijiri redirects her to hours of floor cleaning in Risa’s stead. Hijiri seems to be the rep for all of those Kouka students who mutter and whisper to each other in their mutual bitterness and inadequacy.

Ayaka hears that mutering when it’s revealed she’ll be Juliet, including false claims that her family got involved in her being chosen. Kaoru, who lose the role of Romeo to some complete rando (and we never even learned why!), stands up for Aya right there and then, telling the sore losers if they lost to her family they “lost to bread”. She then cries, not for Aya, but for herself, and Aya both thanks her and comforts her with her embrace.

It’s nighttime by the time Sarasa learns she’ll be Tybalt. Ai is struck how differently Sarasa reacts to this compared to how she reacted upon first being admitted to Kouka. No jumping or laughing or yelling, just cool reverent focus at the name on the wall. She stepped out of her comfort zone, embodied a dark villain, and won the day. With so much more to learn, possibilities for her seem endless.

Class Rep Sawa, meanwhile, tries her best to be a gracious loser, legitimately praising Sarasa’s Tybalt, but also going tothe faculty lounge to hear why she didn’t get it. The story of the musical and film Amadeus comes up, and Sawa bitterly admits she always identified with Salieri, who toiled in mediocrity while Mozart ran rings around him out of pure god-given genius.

Andou assures her that most actors are more like Salieri than Mozart, not at the top but always looking upward or outward at those better than them in some way. He also hastens to add that Sarasa did not mop the floor with her; the student vote was a tie, as was the faculty vote, until a single teacherr, Ohgi-sensei, voted for Sarasa out of pure “fangirl appeal.”

Having been so deeply cut by a single piece of paper, Sawa accepts the loss and takes it as a learning experience, as young raw students such as herself must. After all, both she and Sarasa still possess a multitude of shortcomings in their skills that will only be resolved in the terms and years to come, with hard work, practice, and rehearsal.

Sawa’s second-year counterpart Takei tells her in the meantime, the two of them will always be class reps, keeping their peers organized and focused; a crucial role not everyone can play. Sawa finally allows herself to cry, and Takei has a comforting hand for her shoulder.

With the first-year roles for the festival set, rehearsals are scheduled for the four winners before the actual performance. However, first comes an event involving the entire 100th Kouka class: a photo shoot to promote the school and recruit members of the 101st class. With Sarasa at the top and Ai at the heart of their symmetrical formation, they ask those future students to join them on the stage of dreams.

And that’s all we’ve got for Kageki Shoujo!! Sadly, it may end up being all we get, as no second season was announced and by some accounts may be a long shot due to its very specific (and thus not wide-ranging) appeal. The prospect of there being no more Kageki even as we never got to see Sarasa and Ai walk on that Silver Bridge is a bitter and sobering one, but I will hold out stubborn hope this is not the end of their anime journey.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Kageki Shoujo!! – 12 – Secret Weapons and the Stingray of Kouka

It’s Yamada Ayako’s turn to audition as Juliet, and especially after Naracchi’s performance she’s bereft of confidence. What can she contribute to her performance to stand out? From where can she draw inspiration? Gradually, as we take a trip down memory lane to her first 3D crush Hirayama, and through a sweet and caring pep talk from Sawa, Aya discovers these things.

There was a girl named Yanou Asuka who seemed to dart from boy to boy, even dating all the members of a band, who then broke up. Despite that rep, Aya wanted to know more about Asuka beneath the surface. So too did Hirayama, becoming the first boy Asuka ever turned down after he friendzoned Aya into oblivion.

Aya later learns that Asuka considers her her only girl friend, and could tell Aya had a crush on Hirayama, hence turning him down for her sake. Asuka doesn’t see anything wrong with Aya swooping in to ask out Hiragama after his heartbreak. But in re=examining their talk on that rooftop before Kouka, Aya comes to realize that at the end of the day, perhaps it was Aya whom Asuka truly loved.

In the present, Sawa’s pep talk about Aya having something special to contribute and being a singularly cute and likable young woman, make her a perefect Juliet; she just needs to stop worrying about failure or coming up short of expectations. Sawa certainly doesn’t do that, as her performance of Tybalt is a masterpiece of bitter rage.

Aya intentionally pauses when it’s Juliet’s turn to react to Tybalt’s death, and Aya breaks out the “secret weapon” her supportive teacher knew she had within her: the ability to sway the audience completely with her warm aura and dynamic voice. It’s jut a powerful and unique performance, Naracchi later walks up and declares her a “worthy rival”…and there’s no higher praise from that one!

That brings us to the last of our main circle of friends’ auditions: Sarasa giving Tybalt another shot, having grown and learned a lot since merely copying a Top Star’s performance previously. Sarasa goes off on her own during lunch, but not to sulk; to drawfrom her life experience, the same way as the other performers.

Sarasa remembers the day after her big Kouka acceptance party being invited to the aquarium by Akiya. She’s so excited she tries to meet up with him early, only for him to text her that he needs another hour. Sarasa ends up eavesdropping on at least part of a conversation between Akiya and Kouzaburou (whom she’s probably not aware is her biological dad).

It’s Kouzaburou who suggests that Akiya make the tranition from childhood friends to dating, in order to better weather the distance between Asakusa and Kobe. Of course, Sarasa’s dad just wants someone to keep in touch with Sarasa and make sure she’s doing okay at Kouka, and he isn’t subtle in warning Akiya that refusing to date Sarasa may affect Kouzaburou’s willingness to influence Kaoh-san’s decision to pick his successor.

When Akiya meets Sarasa at the aquarium, the scene, while beautiful, bathed as it is in blue light, is alos a bit gloomy. Sarasa brightens the scene by describing the sea life before them as reminding her of the Kouka Grand Parade, with the fluttering Stingray as the clear Top Star. That’s who Sarasa is going to strive to be. She declines to go see Akiya perform—her gramps said no mor kabuki—but she’s resolved to make a name for herself in that Grand Parade.

We also learn it’s Sarasa who asks Akiya out, not the other way around, which we should have known considering his tendency to become tentative and get lost in his head, and her forthrightness and ability to break through barriers. Back in the present, she’s where she needs to be emotionally, just in time for Andou-sensei to declare that he will be playing Romeo in her audition as Tybalt. It’s time for the stingray to unfurl its wings.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 11 – Twas Your Face the Light Endow’d

Kouka goes straight from sports festival to cultural festival, and this year the Centennial first-years are once again getting special treatment, as they’ll be taking fifteen minutes of the second-years’ time for the performance of a scene from Romeo & Juliet—the same one Sarasa famously bombed. Andou-sensei says there will be auditions, so the girls will be rivaling one another as they vote for each other.

It’s another one of the unique ways Kouka instructs its young performers-to-be in the theory of their craft as well as encouraging a degree of the toughening needed to survive on the Kouka stage. Everyone up there has to believe they’re the very best. But even though everyone wants to see Sarasa’s Romeo, and Ai points out why she’s perfect for it (while implying she’s “simple”)…Sarasa wants to give Tybalt another try.

Hijiri insists that Ai play the role of Juliet. Even if she rightfully says it’s not a spotlight she’s earned, Hijiri insists that as someone “born pretty” and thus closer to the finish line than others, Ai cannot slack off; she must run as fast as possible to that line, no matter how close it may seem. Her mother also imparted her the wisdom of figuring out how to lose yourself in the role.

One way is by applying some part of your life experience that connects with the role in some way. But Tybalt, whose role comes down to unrequited love of Juliet and jealousy and hatred of Romeo, is proving difficult for Sarasa, who claims (credibly!) to have never hated or held a grudge on anyone, ever. Even so, she starts with the basics of how Tybalt must go through his daily life, and how that life led to his obsession with anger and hatred.

It isn’t working, until that very connection to Sarasa’s life comes into focus and clicks as crisply as a camera shutter. In the common room she and Ai happen to catch a TV interview with Akiya talking about his kabuki and how he was thrust into it by dint of his blood. Seeing Akiya takes Sarasa back to when she was a little kid, and for a moment, she was as jealous of Akiya as Tybalt was jealous of Romeo.

Akiya basically achieved without effort or even passion something she’d always dreamed of achieving. But while Sarasa finally discovers a part of herself she can use to lose herself in the role of Tybalt, it’s Ai’s performance that anchors the final act of the episode.

Everyone thinks she’s being her usual calm, collected, unflappable self when called to be the first Juliet in the auditions (presided upon by the rest of the faculty, not just Andou—a cruel surprise for the girls!) Sarasa, her best friend, knows better, and that Ai’s calm exterior conceals an ever churning storm.

The key is focusing that storm. Fortunately, the Romeo in Ai’s group flubs her lines and has to start from the top, so Ai gets a little extra time in her Space Mind Palace. She’s convinced she’s never known what love is, any more than Sarasa has ever known hatred or jealousy. But we all know one very important exception for Ai, and that’ Sarasa herself.

Romeo was “love at first sight” for Juliet, just as Ai was “friends at first sight” for Sarasa. It took a little longer for AI, but when Sarasa told her about overwriting bad old memories with good new ones, she too knew she had to be friends with this tall girl. Once the joy of becoming friends with her swell up, Ai embodies Juliet herself in the “wherefore” speech, giving her peers, teachers, and me some serious goosebumps.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 10 – Give the People What They Want

Due to various circumstances, a member of one of the four troupe relay race teams cannot run, so the Superiors assign a member of the 100th class as a sub. That class member is Watanabe Sarasa, who at first glance is a ringer due to her impressive height and gait. But as large an honor as the assignment is, Sarasa suddenly becomes a magnet for resentment and envy,

This comes most strongly from Hijiri, from whose 99th class Sarasa leapfrogged over with her ridiculously long legs. Hijiri not only tells Sarasa she’s only special for her height, then insists she “become nothingness itself” to allow the top stars to shine.

Ai, like everyone else, is surprised by how much Hijiri’s ill advice trips up Sarasa, who is downright nervous the night before the festival. Ai tells Sarasa her own lack of nerves in JPX was due to being the center of attention (and particularly male attention) from a young age, and basically developing an A.T. Field to deflect it.

But Ai, already a veteran stage performer, tells Sarasa that what Hijiri proposed isn’t the best method. You can’t be up there pretending to pay attention to the audience, just as you can’t be nothingness itself. Instead, one must always be conscious of what the audience wants, and then find a way to give it to them. That’s what makes top stars. That’s what makes legends.

The day of the festival at Hakusen Grand Hall, the students participate in the opening ceremony, but Hijiri’s shit-stirring campaign has twisted Sarasa up so bad she mimes playing her recorder. Her designated senpai Risa, whom we’ve seen far too little of in recent weeks, knows exactly what that bitch Hijiri is doing and doesn’t like it one bit.

Taking Sarasa aside, Risa spares no measure of cage-rattling, and tells Sarasa to get out of her head and remember the fact that the Superiors picked her. If she can’t understand why, that’s fine, but she at least has to accept that they did it because she was someone worth believing in. Giving up without putting herself out there and doing her absolute best will only make her naysayers angrier…and in any case, fuck the naysayers!

Risa’s own strong big sis pep talk gets an unexpected boost from Winter Top Star Satomi Sei, who gives Sarara a wall slam. Having overheard that Sarasa is most nervous about “being herself”, she invites her to imagine she’s playing the role of herself instead. Sei also delivers a bouquet of roses to the kabuki actor and senpai to Akiya we can be reasonably certain is Sarasa’s biological father.

While the pep talk by Risa and Sei works, Sarasa still overthinks things by getting all caught up in whether playing the role of herself and being herself is different or better. Here Ai comes to the rescue with more sage advice, following up on what she said the night before: be the person you want the audience to think you are: your ideal self.

Hilariously, for Sarasa “ideal” means an E-cup bust so she can properly fit into an Eva-style plug suit (between this and the A.T. Field, KS had some Eva nostalgia this week!). Ai is mortified, but whatever gives Sarasa the confidence to perform—and releases her from Hijiri’s psychological black magic—is just fine!

Unfortunately, in the actual relay race in which Sarasa and Sei are in the same leg, Sei’s teammate loses her grip on the baton and sends it flying. While leaping out to catch it, Sei collides with Sarasa and they both end up on the ground. Suddenly it seems like even if the Superiors didn’t make a mistake by putting a rangy first year on a relay team, the end effect was a fiasco.

Only…that doesn’t happen. In the few seconds she’s on the ground, Sarasa considers the best action to take: get up, run, and win it for her Summer team, or lend a helping hand to Sei. In the end, she gauges what the audience at Hakusen Grand Hall wants, then gives it to them, by staying laid out flat on the floor and letting Winter’s Top Star give her a helping hand up.

The choice proves to be the correct one, as the crowd goes wild watching Sei and Sarasa run their leg while holding hands, and their anchors also finishing the race together. Summer and Winter may have lost the festival, but they won the crowd. That’s the kind of instincts Sarasa naturally possesses; Ai just needed to give her a little push.

While I wish we could have seen a cutaway to Hijiri stewing over Sarasa’s win, it seems her efforts were successfully countered by Risa, Sei, and Ai. I still worry about how Sarasa’s guilelessness will hold up against someone even more obnoxiously evil than Hijiri (if such a human exists), but for now, as long as she has that safety net of people who genuinely love and care for her, Sarasa will be fine. No one needs to fight their fight alone.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Kageki Shoujo!! – 09 – A Beautiful Frame

Even Kouka has a sports festival, and every ten years it’s a grand sports festival; since this will be the centennial festival it’s even more significant. For instance, Kouka’s “Superiors” will be heavily involved in the festivities.

Since Ai, like us, has no idea what that meants, Sawa helpfully explains they’re venerable veteran actresses who don’t belong to any one troupe and enjoy a higher rank than top stars and troupe leads. They are the creme de la creme, and the episode really sells that fact.

That said, the four top otoko-yaku in one room is a pretty awe-inspiring sight too. These ladies are very, very good at portraying men and boys, and the first years are understandably starstruck; Sawa even bleeds from the nose at the sight of them.

The four are not just there to look handsome and get fawned upon. Just as their individual troupes compete for the most and most passionate fanbases, they’re equally passionate rivals in the sports festival. Each of them intends to win and beat the others.

At one point Sawa needs some scissors, so Sarasa voluntters to grab some from the faculty lounge. There, she encounters Andou-sensei for the first time since he basically told her to forget everything she knew about acting to that point and start over.

I love how Sarasa shows Andou what he was hoping for: that she wasn’t going to let harsh but true criticism keep her down in the dumps forever. After summer break that fleeting disappointment is in her rearview mirror. She’s back and ready to put in the work.

Back in episode 6 I mentioned my wish to learn more about the Sawada Twins, Chika and Chiaki. The remainder of this episode grants my wish and then some, delivering what I believe to be one of the most beautiful and realistic depictions of the unique issues that befall twins; namely the realization they’re not the same.

Chika, the “darker” twin, resents when Chiaki easily befriends one of the Superiors, Mirai—whom we later learn was the top star that inspired them as children to become Kouka actresses. When Mirai mistakes Chika for Chiaki and calls her “Juliet”, Chika ignores her and walks away.

It’s Chiaki who later gets in trouble with Mirai when she next sees her, ruining the good vibes of the rehearsals….but Chika, the real culprit, keeps quiet. Ultimately it’s Sarasa and her good hearing who clears up the mix-up.

That night, the twin sisters have a fight that quickly grows in nastiness, with Chika spewing most of the venom. Later we’ll learn it’s the first time they’ve fought. Now Chiaki moves out of the dorm room they share, switching places with Sarasa.

As we’d expect, Ai neither knows how nor tries to get Chiaki to open up, but Sarasa and Chika are a different story. We learn that the two did everything together and even walked in lockstep, but when they both applied for Kouka and only Chika got in, that suddenly ended their run of identicalness.

Rather than attend as was her right, Chika felt bad for Chiaki, who wasn’t eating or sleeping and didn’t leave their room, and as her twin knew the only way to console her was to turn down her acceptance and try again with her sister next year.

That pulled Chiaki out of her emotional nosedive, but it came as a cost: the twins were always going to be out of balance due to Chika’s sacrifice, which is both something she decided on her own to do and something she felt she was obligated to do, out of loyalty to her twin. She chose blood over fame.

But that resentment lingered, and festered, and caused Chika to become someone who’d pass up opportunities again and again for Chiaki’s sake. She felt she couldn’t do things for her sake and eventually came to hate Chiaki for it.

When Chika gets the opportunity to apologize to Mirai for her rudeness, she explains the dark thoughts that had overcome her, and Mirai understands. Jealous befalls us all, but the key is to turn it into ambition, and not let it twist us into self-destructive choices.

Rather than be a haughty Superior, Mirai comforts her junior like a mother would comfort a daughter, assuring her that her desire to apologize and make up with Chika means she’s a good person, and this bad experience will ultimately make her stronger person.

I’m not an identical twin, so I can’t imagine how scary and lonely it feels to them when they come upon a “fork in the road” past which they won’t be the same in everything. That fork came earlier than they expected; the mere fact they had to expect it would happen really speaks to that unique turmoil.

Part of Chika was just as apprehensive about taking off ahead of Chiaki on her side that fork in the road as Chiaki was about getting left behind. The two have accepted that they can’t be the same anymore, but they’re not ready to drift apart forever, either.

There’s potential in the Kouka Revue for twin roles, and Mirai, now friends with both twins, tells them they can realize that potential if they become popular enough. Nothing in Kouka comes easily; it takes blood, sweat, and tears. But the Superiors, and the Top Stars below them, embody what you get for all that hard work: a kind of apotheosis and immortality. Chika and Chiaki could be Kouka’s Apollo and Artemis…or twin Juliets.

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