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!! – 05 – Staying in the World of Dreams

Trigger Warning: this episode frankly depicts bulimia and the practice of binging and purging.

Some time has passed; the girls are now in their summer unis, and Ai is trying her darndest to both apologize to Sarasa and call her by her first name…but she just can’t quite find the right time. Meanwhile, Sarasa confesses she only knows one Kouka show, so Sugimoto takes her and the others to one of the Winter Troupe shows. They run into Winter’s number two star, Satomi Sei, off-stage, and its top star Kazahana Sou on it.

Ai, totally unaccustomed to fighting with friends, follows her uncle’s advice to take her time and calmly tell Sarasa how she feels when the time is right. That time finally arrives when Sarasa suddenly recites verbatim lines from Romeo & Juliet.

Her peers are amazed both that she memorize the lines so easily, and by her performance on their walk home. Ai can’t help but reach out and grab the star shining brighter that all the others, and formally asks to be Sarasa’s friend. Sarasa, of course, is glad; she’s wanted to be Ai’s friend from the moment she saw her!

Later, Ai had hoped Sarasa would accompany her to the bathroom (as besties do), but instead Sarasa wants to check out the exam scores. Sarasa is delighted to have moved up from dead last to second-to-last in ranking, but the reason for that advancement is less about her studies improving and more about poor, poor Yamada Ayako’s plummeting.

As we saw at the end of last week, Ayako is in trouble. In a desperate effort to lose 5 kg (11 pounds—probably around 10% of her weight!), she is obsessively binging and purging. Her body and mind are suffering. Tachibana-sensei, who called her a “fattie” and started her on this path, defends how blunt she was with Yamada because all students must grow a formidable backbone in the cutthroat environment of the Kouka Troupe.

“If Yamada can’t cut it, she shouldn’t be there” is Tachibana-sensei’s position, while her music teacher Onodera-sensei disagrees in the strongest terms. He understands their role to toughen the girls up, but calling a sweet, sensitive Yamada a “fattie” was way beyond the pale. Tachibana-sensei is also unaware of how badly Ayako wants to make her loving big sister proud.

One night, Ai catches Ayako in the bathroom, and tells her something I never knew: throwing up as much as Ayako does causes the stomach acid to irritate the esophagus, leading to pain, swelling, and the deterioration of one’s voice. She knows because someone in JPX did what Ayako is doing.

The only problem is, Ai, inexperienced with interacting with people, is way too blunt at the wrong time, and Ayako mistakes her concern with kicking her when she’s down. Ayako also has an inferiority complex when it comes to the naturally stunning Ai, even if Ai herself isn’t aware of how her beauty affects other women around her.

One day in singing class, a wan Ayako with deep eye bags and chapped lips can’t sing a single note before collapsing on the ground. Onodera-sensei takes her to the doctor, who diagnoses her with pharyngitis. The only remedy is to rest and relax, something Ayako feels she can’t do because she fears falling behind even further. Thankfully, the doctor is totally unwilling to administer drugs to rid of her fever so she can continue. She has to rest, period.

While lying in bed, at rock bottom, Ayako gets an encouraging text from her sister, and Ayako expresses how she’s suffering by telling her sister all the delicious pastries and desserts her family makes that she wants to taste. Picking up on this, her sister says there’s no shame in quitting and coming home. She contemplates doing just this, prepared to look upon her time at Kouka as a passing dream as she returns to “the world she knows.”

Thankfully, and unlike the horrible Tachibana-sensei—who should be fucking fired for what she did in a just and fair world—Onodera-sensei breaks the rule about no men in the women’s dorm by rapping on Ayako’s door to tell her what she needs to hear. When the dorm mom protests, he asks her to regard him as “a beautiful Kouka girl on the inside.”

Onodera-sensei, who is a genuinely Good Guy, impresses upon Ayako the fact that she is far too young to be giving up on an opportunity as great as Kouka, and that stumbling, falling, and despairing are normal from time to time. He wants her to remember that over  girls couldn’t achieve what she did: get accepted to Kouka. Girls with “nothing to offer” simply don’t get it in. So he asks her to tell him why it is she got in: her beautiful singing.

Even before she got sick, Ayako had never given singing her all in class, so none of her peers heard what got her into Kouka. But apparently her soprano was so sweet and lovely, the normally bored teachers sat up and listened intently. When Ayako recovers from her pharyngitis and returns to class looking much better, Onodera-sensei asks her to sing the same song she sang at that audition, to build her confidence and show the others how beautiful a singer she is when she’s serious.

While it was lovely to see Ai reach out a hand of to Sarasa and begin her awkward little dance of friendship, this was really Yamada Ayako’s episode. Her seiyu Sasaki Rico delivers a stunningly beautiful performance that shattered my heart into a million shards only to painstakingly piece it back together better than ever by the end.

My chief complaint with this episode is that it seemingly solves Ayako’s eating disorder far too quickly and easily. But at the same time, I’m relieved beyond belief she’s okay, she’s not quitting, and a decent adult was in her corner when she needed one, reminding her how she earned the right to be here by her own talent and hard work, and that she belongs there just as much as top stars Satomi or Kazahana.

GODDAMN TEARJERKER™ CERTIFIED

Kageki Shoujo!! – 04 – Opening of Borders

I was both fully expecting and looking forward to Sarasa either scaring Mr. Stalker away with her imposing stature or showing off her jujitsu moves if he persisted. Thankfully something completely unexpected and much better happens. Truly great art tends to challenge the viewer in some way, rather than giving them what they expect or predict.

That kind of narrative and thematic creativity really suffuses this, the best episode yet of Kageki Shoujo and the one that finally had me coming around hoping there’d continue to be less actual on-stage performance and more human drama. Like last week, there are some tough-to-watch moments, but also moments of great joy, goofiness, and redemption.

Mr. Gross Otaku, one of Sarasa’s many hilarious, unintentionally insulting nicknames for the guy, didn’t come to exact “revenge” on Ai; he came to apologize for being the one who ruined her career. He was a shut-in NEET who had lost hope until he first saw Naracchi on-screen, and it fascinated him how she was trying so hard never to smile.

In one unguarded moment, Naracchi does smile, and there’s video evidence, but that little smirk at the sight of her favorite mascot shattered Mr. Gross Otaku’s hermitic existence, inspiring him to get a job and make friends (naturally, other admirers of Naracchi). At the in-person event, he was so nervous about properly thanking her for helping save his life, he held on her her hands too long, leading to her making the remark that ended her idol career.

Taichi, who had been observing from a close distance in case Mr. Gross Otaku was a Mr. Total Perv, tells the guy that it wasn’t anything personal; in fact, it was likely only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like Otaku Guy once did, Ai has given up on the world, and it led her to shut off her emotions. And yet, running away and leaving Sarasa alone invokes very strong emotions indeed, to the point Ai works up the courage to go back.

Naturally, her timing is terrible, and when she sees Sarasa doing goofy dance moves with the would-be tormentor while Taichi watches, Ai’s concern immediately curdles into something resembling hatred, and she storms off once again. The only problem is, poor Sarasa doesn’t know what she did to engender such hate!

Sarasa is persistent, and Ai finally makes a deal: she’ll tell her why she’s mad if she leaves her alone from now on. But when she does, Sarasa still doesn’t get it: if she came back out of worry for her, she should’ve been happy she was alright! As usual, Sarasa is right, but too blunt, and Ai retreats behind her curtain. Both girls seem incredibly unsatisfied where things end.

Sarasa, understandably getting a little fed up with being treated like this, declares that they’re “through”, though later confesses that might’ve been too harsh via Twitter to her friend Akiya—whose fellow Kabuki actor-in-training is tweeting more profound responses on his behalf. He tells Sarasa not to rush until they know each other, to be prepared for her feelings to be entirely one-sided, and appreciate that that’s beautiful in its own way.

The next day, Hijiri, Kouka’s Shit-Stirrer-in-Residence, confronts Sarasa with the pic she snapped of her with a guy (Mr. Gross Otaku), but Sarasa doesn’t have any time for this nonsense, as Ai is skipping classes and Taichi is worried about where she ended up. Sure enough, while staring at the sea, Ai is harassed by a couple of guys who recognized her, and one of them grabs her arm.

I have scarcely felt more fear and apprehension for a character than I did for Ai in this moment, but that was tempered by the knowledge that somehow in short order, Ai would be rescued. I just didn’t know it would happen by Sarasa calling Mr. Gross Otaku, who predicted Ai would go to the ocean to calm down (as she once stated in an interview) then run a social media search and locate her .

From there, all Mr. Gross Otaku has to do is buy a little time by haplessly trying to attack Ai’s harassers. He fails, faceplants, and gets a bloody nose, but still wins, as Taichi and Sarasa arrive and the latter screams for the police, who come running. There are no words for Sarasa’s transformation above as she voices satisfaction for scaring off the jerks.

What’s even more heartwarming about this entire scene that lets me forgive its many contrivances—as well as the entire premise of using stalking methods to save the target of stalkers—is that at this point, Sarasa is sticking to her guns when she said they were “through.” Yet even if she’s uncertain Ai will ever want to be her friend, she rescued her anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

When Sarasa explains to Ai how they found her and the role Mr. Gross Otaku —real name Kitaouji Mikiya—played, it’s Ai’s turn to do something completely unexpected: offer her handkerchief for Mikiya’s bloody nose. During the hand-off she drops the cloth on the ground, but it wasn’t intentional or meant as a slight.

As Ai says with tears welling up in her eyes, “this is the best I can do right now.” But Mikiya, being uncharacteristically cool, tells her to dry her eyes; all he and her other fans wanted was to see those rare and amazing moments when Naracchi genuinely smiled. Because that meant their idol was happy. He promises to return to see her perform on the Kouka stage.

Ai and Sarasa take the long walk back to their dorms, where they’ll face consequences for the incidents that transpired. While they walk, Ai opens up to Sarasa, asking her what she should do about something she wants to forget but can’t (though not going into detail). All Sarasa can tell her is to keep having good memories that will eventually cause the bad to fade from prominence.

Notably, Ai can’t see Sarasa’s face when she says this, but it sounds like a new invitation to make some of those memories with her, if she’ll have her. At this point, it’s safe to say the cat-and-mouse game between these two girls will continue, but they’ve definitely already made one of those memories Sarasa speaks of, and I’m looking forward to them making more.

As for poor, Yamada Ayako, who is now purging regularly and barely has the energy to sing, all I have to say is that every one of her upperclassmen and every adult on the faculty are totally failing her, and I’m terribly worried about how bad things will get until someone helps her. It shouldn’t have to fall to someone like Sarasa and/or Ai, but if it does I won’t complain. I just want Ayako to be happy and healthy!

Kageki Shoujo!! – 03 – Toughing it Out

Ai is aloof, standoffish and antisocial, and makes it crystal clear even to a lunkhead like Sarasa that she doesn’t want to be friends with her or anyone else, despite the fact they live and learn together. Sarasa is flummoxed by this declaration, but before they properly discuss it, Ai is whisked off by her big sister, Hijiri.

This week Kageki Shoujo! takes a long, hard, and sometimes downright distressing look back at how and why Narata Ai became the way she is. She always lied about being a perfect loving daughter to her glamorous actress mother, but the lying became harder as she grew older and more beautiful.

I can’t imagine the torment of men both young and old ogling you left and right, and What a cutie being akin to Hello for her, but that’s what Ai endured. When her mother shacked up with one of those older men, that constant public torment became private. She’d always been creeped out by Seiji, but then one day he was alone wither her and kissed her with his tongue.

After such a horrific assault, Ai no longer felt safe anywhere or with anyone…except her uncle, Taichi. And thank God for Taichi, because he was at least able to give her a measure of peace and security by installing a lock on her door and giving her a key to his place should she need to run away. But before he did that, she had already been assaulted, vomited, cut her hair, and tore apart her big teddy.

Considering her interactions with men who weren’t her uncle up to the point she became an idol, it’s not surprising that one day she’d say or do something to break the façade she’d created. Now that very scruffy dude whom she called a creep at a fan event has stalked her all the way to her school. Again, Ai is fortunate Taichi isn’t far, and she runs headlong into his arms. He’s the brother and dad, the family she never had.

Taichi will always be there for his niece, but he knows she can’t go on with no friends of any gender. Kouka is a chance for her to form new bonds with peers, and Sarasa, as bombastic and annoying as she is, really is a good person who would make a great friend. Sarasa is ready to accept Ai’s rejection, but Taichi insists she keep trying with Ai.

Sarasa does so, by escorting Ai home, which leads to the scene I was hoping for: the gigantic Sarasa spreading that massive wingspan to form an impenetrable shield for Ai against the smelly stalker.

Never mind if he’s not there to “get back” at Ai like she fears, but just wanted to return her bookbag and talk to her. The fact is he had absolutely ZERO right to meet with or speak to her after following her there.

Ai may have been rude to him at the fan event, but being rude isn’t a crime, and he doesn’t get to play the victim after committing the actual crime of stalking. While it wasn’t always easy to watch, I’m glad we gained new insight into Ai’s twisted childhood and coming of age, which only makes someone like Sarasa seem more, not less, suitable to be her friend.

My only gripe is that we’ve still gotten very little actual musical theatre education in, with the exception of a brief tap class in which the teacher berated the objectively scrawny Yamada a “fattie” and all but ordered her to give up food. Fuckin’ yikes! I also wish the stalker situation had been fully resolved, instead of us being left hanging.

Even Sarasa looked a little uncomfortable confronting the guy, and no single high school girl, no matter how big or small, should have to go up against someone like that alone. I just hope that as we learned a lot about Ai, Ai also learned more about Sarasa, and how she’s someone she can lean on in times of strife.

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

%d bloggers like this: