Kageki Shoujo!! – 07 – The Curse of “Never”

Summer Break is upon Kouka’s hundredth class, but Ai’s version of giddiness over getting to spend it at Sarasa’s is somewhat tempered by how the semester ended: with Sarasa taking a major hit from Andou-sensei. As I suspected, perfect replication of other actors isn’t going to cut it if you’re going to be a Top Star in the Kouka Revue. This doesn’t mesh with what Sarasa learned about kabuki growing up, where succeeding generations of actors do their best to embody their predecessors as closely as possible.

But that’s Kabuki; and this is Kouka. Sarasa and Ai also get a little education on Andou-sensei and why he’s nicknamed “Phantom”, courtesy of the two top Kouka stars who happened to be seated in the row ahead of them! Apparently Andou was an esteemed actor with a musical troupe, most famous for his Phantom of the Opera, but due to a stage accident he had to retire, and decided to teach instead.

I’m glad he did, because as I said, as painful as it was to see Sarasa’s reaction and ensuing gloom, she was straying from the path to Lady Oscar, and needed a course correction. Fortunately, there’s plenty of family and friends waiting for Sarasa to take her mind off being “Sara-sad”, if only temporarily.

Ai insists on sitting formally for the duration of the gathering downstairs, even though she’s mostly ignored and suffering the agony needlessly (gramps told her to sit however she likes). Then Sarasa then goes to see her grandma at her grave, suggesting Ai can hang with the cat while she’s gone.

Of course, we know even when Sarasa and Ai don’t that it’s not just the cat waiting in her room, but Akiya. Ai, who is not good with people, comes off as curt with Akiya, who misinterprets it as intentional rudeness, but when Ai profusely apologizes and hides behind a wall, Akiya’s stance softens.

When asked about his “girlfriend” Sarasa, all he’ll tell Ai is that they were childhood friends since forever, and they took traditional dance classes together. Fortunately, we get to learn a lot more about both Sarasa and Akiya’s past, and Sarasa comes out even more amazing for having enduring what she had to endure.

Basically, the famous kabuki actor Kouzaburou was always very close to Sarasa, so much so that rumors floated around of her being his illegitimate daughter. Illegitimate or not, had she been a boy, she would have been the heir apparent to the venerable Shirakawa Kaou name…which Akiya is expected to assume instead. He’s far more loosely related, but he’s a boy.

It didn’t help matters for Akiya that while he liked Sarasa a lot for her strength and cheerfulness, she also happened to be a better natural talent than him when it came to Kabuki. Unfortunately, Sarasa was never sat down and told that grown women aren’t allowed to perform Kabuki.

That said, when another actor is ill, Sarasa is chosen to fill in during a performance of Sukeroku, since she memorized all the lines and movements (even back then, she was amazing). Young girls are allowed to perform, so there was no problem.

But while performing beside her, Akiya could tell how goddamn good Sarasa was, and how goddamn unfair it was that Sarasa’s Kabuki career would reach a harsh dead end due to tradition. After the performance, he first hears the rumor that Sarasa is related to Kouzaburou, which he shares with his mom/grandma/aunt/guardian (I forget her exact relation to him).

Tossing that pebble in the pond causes all kinds of drama, including his mom* chewing out poor Sarasa at the front door, telling her for the first time she’ll “never” be able to be something—in this case, Sukeroku. As soon as Sarasa runs off crying she’s immediately ashamed and regretful, but the damage is done.

Sarasa’s gramps comes to Kouzaburou’s house and chews him out for traumatizing Sarasa, and declares that she’ll have nothing to do with him or Kabuki ever again. That said, gramps softens considerably upon seeing a scared Akiya in the hall, and asks him if he’ll continue being Sarasa’s friend. He’s only cutting her off from Kabuki, he says.

Shortly after Sarasa stopped coming to dance classes, her grandma died, and Akiya and Kaou pay their respects from a distance. When Akiya sees Sarasa’s raw eyes, he starts to cry too…and Kaou tells him to hold on to the pain…it will make him a better actor.

Fast-forward to the present, and Akiya and Sarasa remain friends despite having been kinda-sorta rivals in the past. The rivalry never happened because the institution of Kabuki never let it. I’d say it’s for the best, since I have every confidence Sarasa will be okay in Kouka, but if ever there was going to be a first woman kabuki actor, it would be her!

After giving Sarasa her present of another bizarre figurine she’s super excited about (which is also see-through, for reasons), he also invites both Sarasa and Ai to a performance of Sukeroku he’ll be in. He already got clearance from her gramps.

That night, Ai learns about Sarasa’s performance in Sukeroku when she was only six. The two girls are transported into space as Sarasa beautifully, poetically describes what it was like being on that stage, feeling the audience like heat on her skin, feeling like the stage was a different world; feeling she had transformed into someone else.

It was clearly one of the most amazing moments of her life, making it doubly tragic that she was later deprived of pursuing a future there despite how much she loved it and how good she was. Even so, hearing Sarasa’s words makes Ai want to go see Sukeroku with Sarasa all the more, if only to catch a glimpse of the stage Sarasa once stood upon.

During the performance, Ai notices Sarasa crying, and isn’t sure whether it’s due to fond memories or “something else entirely.” Uh, why not both? From there, the episode abruptly cuts to the train platform where Sarasa and Ai are heading home. Akiya gives Sarasa some words of support and assurance from his heart.

He reminds her they’ve only just started down their paths; it’s okay to lose sight of what they want sometimes; and all they can do is keep moving forward. Sarasa still wants to play Lady Oscar, and she’s going to make it happen—”nevers” be damned!

She also wants Akiya to play Sukeroku. After a firm handshake (throwing Ai off a bit, as she assumed they’d at least hug), the two part ways, both feeling better than before they’d seen each other. They may not be a lovey-dovey couple, but they’re a couple where it matters.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 02 – Sink or Swim

The morning before their first day of actual classes, Ai deigns to attempt to wake Sarasa up…in the gentlest and most ineffectual way possible. But their class rep Sawa personally wakes Sarasa the hell up, because the people they’re facing this morning are far more fearsome than the JSDF: their second-year advisors, AKA “Big Sisters”.

The students of the centennial class have already demonstrated their capacity for ill-natured backbiting, but it’s the same way in the classes above them. We learn that Risa and Hijiri, Sarasa and Ai’s Big Sisters, are bitter rivals who usually hide their contempt for each other behind smiles and niceties.

When Risa flat-out tells Sarasa she’ll never be Lady Oscar, she makes the poor tall girl sob into the floorboards. When she asks why not through the tears, Risa mentions the curse of the tree, and in doing so gives Sarasa all the ammo she needs. If everyone believes the tree is cursed, she’ll just have to prove the curse is fake!

While Risa admires Sarasa’s innocence and drive (as does Sarasa’s childhood friend and kabuki actor-in-training, Akiya), Hijiri reports that “Naracchi” has “zero motivation” for Kouka. But just as Hijiri’s barbs about Risa only being suited for villainess roles have led her to strive towards greatness, she tells Hijiri they can’t know what future winds may lift Ai’s sails.

I can take a stab at the identity of that wind: she’s somewhere around 5’10” with green-tipped twin tails! But it won’t just be Sarasa’s bottomless confidence and enthusiasm gradually wearing down Ai’s apathy: she also isn’t just gong to sit back and take abuse, passive-aggressive or otherwise, from her classmates.

During class introductions (which are wonderful shorthand for the various girls’ personalities) Ai at first gives a curt description of herself, but Kaoru, the big shot legacy musume-yaku-in-waiting says everyone knows “that’s not all”. So Ai stands back up and says she’s there because she was forced to quit JPX48. It’s an important step for Ai standing up for herself against damn fools.

During a tour of backstage, Sarasa sees a dramaticaly-lit door and goes through it, leading to the main stage of the Kouka Revue. Andou-sensei warns her to get off the stage and under no circumstances walk out onto the “Silver Bridge”, the part of the stage where only Kouka’s top stars are permitted to stand.

Sarasa doesn’t break that taboo, but she also takes her sweet time leaving that stage! That’s because as soon as she stands on it, it’s clear she feels she’s where she’s supposed to be. As if by divine providence, a spotlight is cast upon her. Ai can feel that belonging too, dazzled as she is by Sarasa’s stage presence.

Incremental progress is made on several fronts. We’ve got a huge cast of young women, some sympathetic, some clearly villains, and some who are just kind of there. But as long as the spotlight stays on Sarasa and Ai most of the time, I’ll be a happy camper. As Ai’s stalker arrives in Kobe, we’ll likely learn next week how close he ends up getting to Ai, how she deals with that, and where Sarasa (or other classmates) might factor into the forthcoming confrontation.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Kageki Shoujo!! – 01 (First Impressions) – The Immovable Beanpole vs the Unmovable Idol

The apathetic, androphobic, recently canceled idol Narata Ai (Hanamori Numiri in top form) enrolls and is accepted into the exclusive Kouka School for Musical and Theatrical Arts, which is the training stable for the even more exclusive all-women’s Kouka Revue, a stand-in for the real-world Takarazuka Revue.

Her opening scene is a harrowing one, as she attempts to escape one pushy fawning fan only to nearly end up in the clutches of another. Considering she had to “graduate” from her idol group (an AKB48 stand-in) due to publicly calling a male fan “creepy”, the inherent unfairness of that industry has followed her to the outside.

Like Chihayafuru, Rakugo Shinjuu, 3-gatsu no Lion, and Snow White Notes, this is an anime about a very specific-to-Japan thing, which means we’re sure to get an education on the cutthroat world of elite all-women musical theater while reveling in the absolutely wonderful odd-couple pairing of Ai and Watanabe Sarasa, who is fleet, fearless, and five-foot-frikkin-ten. Ai’s quiet jadedness and practiced apathy pairs perfectly with her bold, loud skyscraper of a roomie.

The animators clearly have a lot of fun both with the size comparison and the confident ease with which Sarasa moves those impossibly long limbs. She simply moves differently from everyone else. We’ve yet to see what Sarasa can do on the stage, but it’s great to see how much chaos her huge frame and loud voice causes during ordinary life, as no bed—or hastily-built privacy curtain—can hold her.

Where the two women are similar, however, is that neither intends to play The Game of catty whispers, rumors, gossip, and bullying in which nearly all the other girls on their periphery seem to engage. Ai, because she’s trained herself not to care (though it’s clear she Idoes care); Sarasa because her head is literally in the clouds. Neither of them care what others think. In that regard, they’re two peas in a pod. They can, in theory, support one another in this hostile environment.

When a positively delightful JSDF captain drills the new students on moving in sync, he singles out both Ai and Sarasa. He tells Ai to improve her core and posture, as iodl “cutesiness” has no place in Kouka. As for Sarasa, he just reminds her to be mindful of her limbs, but is impressed when he shoves her back and she keeps her balance.

This in turn leads Sarasa to cheerfully challenge him to shove her again when she’s in a special stance that keeps her firmly grounded. It’s later revealed she used a stance taught by her grandfather, a former kabuki actor (lest we forget, there are no women in kabuki).

While she’s being a lot less aggressive about it, Sarasa is employing a similar stance with regards to Ai, insisting that as roomies they should be friends and support one another. It’s only fitting that Sarasa’s the only girl at school who doesn’t know about Ai’s dark idol past. But even if she did, I seriously doubt she’d turn on her!

Kageki Shoujo!! is off to a strong start, packed with colorful personalities and potential for some pretty cool musical and theatrical performances, which the first episode only hints at. Sarasa has also loudly proclaims she intends to be the school’s top star, and I dare anyone to try to move her from that position.

I’m totally psyched to watch the girl who won’t let herself be emotionally moved live and work with a girl who won’t let herself be physically moved unless she allows it. I imagine Ai will eventually thaw a bit in the searing sunshine of Sarasa’s personality. That stalker coming for Ai better watch out—he wants no part of that Watanabe Sequoia smoke!

Kakushigoto – 12 (Fin) – Lifting the Veil

Kakushigoto’s finale is truly a crowd-pleaser, and I mean that in the best way. It spends its entire runtime in the “future” and painstakingly reveals all of the mysteries and answered all of the questions we might’ve gathered from the slow trickle of information throughout the season. It expertly released and justified all that built-up anticipation to deliver one satisfying reveal after another—including several secrets we didn’t consider!

For one thing, neither we nor Hime had any idea Kakushi was the love child of a kabuki actor and his mistress (though it explains a lot!). We didn’t know he had a half-sister, who had a son the same age as Hime, who visits her at the Kamakura house.

Among the other blanks of Kakushi’s story are also filled in, we learn that for ten years after his wife was lost at sea he spent a significant amount of his income on continued searches, not believing she was gone. When Hime was in middle school the tabloid article came out that killed his confidence in ever being able to make readers laugh again.

After finishing Tights and putting his pen down for good, Kakushi took on a number of menial labor jobs, culminating in perhaps the most ironic and symbolic accident imaginable: in a forklift accident he was crushed by a palate full of the very manga publication he quit drawing for.

Kakushi has been in a coma for over a year, but he same day Hime’s cousin visits her, he regains consciousness, and Ichiko and the Detective Agency escort Hime to the hospital, where they learn that he has amnesia—specifically,  he has no memories of the last seven years.

For Hime to finally see her father awake only for him to not recognize her seems almost too cruel, but I was confident Kakushigoto would find a clever way for things to eventually work out. Sure enough, the key to restoring Kakushi’s memories is the thing he loved doing for a living, despite keeping it secret from Hime.

Kakushi’s seven-year gap means he’s stuck in the time when Hime was ten (i.e. all those episodes that felt like the present at the time but are now the past). As such, he believes Tights in the Wind is still in publication…and he’s eager to get back to work.

His old team of assistants (including Rasuna, who is now an accomplished mangaka in her own right, with Tomaruin as her editor) gets back together, and turn the hospital room into a studio. Assuming Hime is a new assistant, he asks her to go to his house and make sure his daughter isn’t lonely. Of course, her daughter will always be least lonely when she’s with her dad.

Seeing her dad working for the first time is momentous for Hime; so much so that seeing him so happy doing what he loves makes her hesitant to continue efforts to restore his memories. He’ll get back the good times in the last seven years, but also all the heartbreak and despair.

What ultimately sways her is when she asks him if he’s happiest being able to continue drawing his manga, and he says no; the one thing that makes him happier than anything would be Hime growing up big and healthy. Hime rushes back to Kamakura, the Detective Agency in tow, and returns to the room with all of his manuscripts of the last seven years.

As Kakushi looks them over and remembers drawing them, he also remembers moments of Hime’s life that took place when he drew them. As the veil on those seven years of memories is pulled back, he watches Hime grow into the 18-year-old woman before him and finally recognizes his daughter. His first instinct, of course, is to try to hide the manga from her; to maintain the secret.

Now, as Kakushi prepares a comeback (perhaps with a story very similar to what we just watched…very meta!), we see the tables have turned: Hime has secrets of her own, like the fact that while she’s an accomplished and award-winning painter following her mother’s father’s footsteps, she also has a passion for drawing manga, something she’ll keep secret from her dad for a while. It’s only fair!

Kakushigoto was a beautiful blending of the clever, sometimes goofy, sometimes artfully intricate “miscommunication” humor of author Kumeta Kouji with genuine and powerful emotional stakes. It never felt too melodramatic or goofy because the drama and levity were always so well balanced. Indeed, that made it feel more real, despite how convoluted some of the mysteries and secrets turned out to be. The wit was sharp, while the heart was always warmed.

No matter how many walls or veils or feints Kakushi put up to keep his precious daughter from the truth of his livelihood, he couldn’t hide his true passion from her forever. Nor could the truth that whether he could feed that passion for a living or not was immaterial in the face of his overarching priority: ensuring Hime had a stable, happy childhood full of laughter and fun.

Hime is as stunningly awesome and beautiful an adult as she was an adorable, air-headed kid, and she has a bright future whether she pursues painting, manga, both, or neither. It can be said without reservation: Papa did good.

Kabukibu! – 01 (First Impressions)

Kurusu Kurogo loves kabuki. He loves it so much and thinks it’s so fun and free, he wants to start a high school kabuki club. When that fails, he tries to start a kabuki school “group” instead, but needs a minimum of five members. Kurusu and his friend Murase Tonpo set out attempting to recruit three more. They do not succeed.

First is Akutsu, who has kabuki in his blood but would rather play back J-rock to a small flock of groupies; Niwa, an accredited and former child prodigy of dance who now looks like a beat-up boxer; and Asagi, who not only has his own thing going on with drama club (and an entire segment of underclassmen assigned to serving her), but isn’t a he, but a she. Finally, they find an actual, real-life kabuki performer with a stage name in their same grade.

I applaud Studio Deen for taking another traditional Japanese art form and trying to give it extra exposure by putting it in a currently far more popular Japanese art form. It did so with rakugo with immense success…but it strikes out here. It’s all in the execution: this feels like one more by-the-numbers obscure club in danger of never existing or being shut down. The trappings of kabuki are just that: trappings; window-dressing. We only catch the slightest glimpses of the world.

The MC himself is just a tourist, and one of the reasons he fails to recruit anyone (besides the obscurity of his passion) is that his arguments for why kabuki is so great feel so hollow. As reluctant and recalcitrant as his would-be recruits are, you can’t really blame them: they feel less like people Kurusu wants to share his passion with and more like pawns to fill a quota. He just met them all, after all; why does he expect any of them to drop what they’re doing and join his club with such weak sales pitches?

So yeah, while I personally like kabuki (though have only seen it live once), I did not like Kabukibu! Even the title grates; it sounds too much like peekaboo. 

Kabukimonogatari – 01

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At school, Araragi Koyomi‘s classmate Oshino Ougi waxes whimsical about the contradiction between red signs warning of danger being safer than green signs indicating safety; it makes him think of how Hachikuji Mayoi was killed by a truck ten years ago. Koyomi then runs into Ononoki Yotsugi, who has been dispatched to the town for unknown reasons. Back home, Oshino Shinobu points out that Koyomi hasn’t done any of his summer homework. With just two hours until class starts, he asks her to build him a time machine. Instead, she takes them to a shrine where she opens a portal to an alternate dimension. They jump in, and rather than emerging the previous day as planned, they end up eleven years, three months and seven days in the past, with no reliable way back.

Kabuki is typically used as the term for classical Japanese theater (or improperly used to describe intricate political maneuvering) but is also derived from the verb kabuku meaning “to lean”, or “to be out of the ordinary”,”avant-garde”, or “bizarre”. while kabukimono is a term for “someone bizarrely dressed and swaggering on the street”. Furthermore, kabuki’s individual kanji mean “sing”, “dance”, and “skill”. True to its highly versatile (and open to interpretation) title, this episode caters to all the possible definitions. Like every Monogatari episode, the style is very avant-garde and bizarre, with intricate, often poetic or singsong dialogue and characters striking poses in an vaguely kabuki-esque manner. Oshino Ougi has a white, stylized face reminiscent of a kabuki mask.

Officially, Kabukimonogatari means “Slope Story”, continuing the theme of being off-kilter or less-than-straight, and also calls to mind the proverbial “slippery slope.” Case in point: Koyomi wants to go back one day so he has time to do his homework, and puts his trust in Shinobu, who doesn’t reveal it was her first attempt until after the fact, and Koyomi gets a lot more time than he needed. If his present is 2013, they’ve gone all the way back to 2002. Ougi tells Koyomi “If you don’t want to face danger, don’t cross any crosswalks”. But he’s never been one to avoid danger. Now he finds himself in the past, with the chance to stop Mayoi from losing her life while crossing one. It’s a solid start to an intriguing new adventure.

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Rating: 8 
(Great)