The intersection of personal relationships and the messy cocktail of talent, drive, and competition has become, increasingly, my narrative catnip. I love a good sports anime that is Actually about Human Connection All Along. Some of the most complex and painfully human character types come from these stories: the prodigy who doesn’t want glory as much as everyone wants them to want it, the relentless competitor who can’t work their way into born talent, or the people who define their entire worth by a grueling and fleeting achievement.These tensions have been explored wonderfully in shows like Ping Pong and AKB0048, and this past summer, Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight.
In Revue Starlight‘s Takarazuka-based performing arts school, the girls are not only training to be musical theater stars in their everyday lives, but competing in after-hours, surreal duels to choose their own “stage of destiny,” Yes, the director worked with Ikuhara. Fantastical elements aside, Starlight has moments of surprising bluntness regarding the ruthless and often unfair system that allows only certain actresses to set on a path to become a Top Star. I loved the arc of rivals and leading students Maya Tendou and Claudine Saijo, or the tragedy of Nana Daiba, a girl who rejects her potential to be a top star because she fears the isolation that her success at the expense of others’ failures would bring.
I’ve started a few drafts about Maya, Nana, and others, but I keep coming back to an episode of Revue Starlight that ultimately doesn’t have much to do with being a star, but being a good partner. The protagonist, Karen, is motivated by promise she made with her childhood friend, Hikari, but to me there is a far more compelling look at the weight of long relationships and promises in the duo of Kaoruko and Futaba.
Unlike Karen and Hikari, Kaoruko and Futaba have spent their entire lives physically together. Also unlike the main pair, their relationship is not defined by a shared desire for stardom. Neither are they rivals/co-inspirations like Maya and Claudine. As the heir to her family’s line of traditional dance, Kaoruko has a unique talent and the privilege of lifelong lessons and access to resources. But she’s no prodigy and it’s clear (often in comic relief scenes) that she dislikes extra work and effort. Before Saijo Academy, Futaba didn’t have a personal or familial theater background, but she turns out to have extreme dedication and stage charisma that doesn’t come naturally to Kaoruko. When we get to their episode, the terms of their lifelong bond have changed.
Kaoruko’s laziness and stagnation has put her behind her classmates, while Futaba’s extra practicing has paid off. Futaba lands a lead role in the upcoming production of Starlight while Kaoruko doesn’t make the cut at all. This lays bare the toxic seams in their relationship. Futaba has, up to now, taken her cues from her more assertive friend, but now that she’s earned something Kaoruko is losing out on, the power dynamics of their connection are no longer sustainable.
To be clear: Kaoruko absolutely takes advantage of Futaba and is an all around brat (despite the joy the often brilliant comic timing of her spoiled attitude brings me). As selfish as she is, though, I don’t find her entirely unsympathetic. She is a classic “special child” who has learned to rely on getting her way, being chosen, and being coddled. It’s not surprising that a 16-year-old girl experiencing the first major rejection of her life would react terribly. She spirals into the worst tendencies of those of us prone to bitterness and jealousy.
The confidence Futaba has gained in her own skills allow her to break free from Kaoruko’s manipulation and tantrums. She can’t afford to lose what she’s worked so hard for, both on the stage and the more independent sense of self she’s gained outside of the friendship. It takes a truly garbage princess move on Kaoruko’s part – flouncing and threatening to leave the school – for Futaba to break down and go after her. But even in this confrontation, it’s clear that Futaba has no intention of returning to their old patterns of behavior. They’re at a standstill, unable to come to a resolution but desperate to regain security in their relationship. Of course, that’s when the giraffe text comes in.
After the extreme focus on Karen and Hikari’s childhood promise to share the stage, Kaoruko and Futaba’s audition duel is the one titled “Revue of Promises.” The audition scenes are a highlight of Revue Starlight, with an inventive transformation sequence, thrilling fight choreography, and compelling music. Kaoruko and Futaba’s duel and their song, “Hanasaka Uta,” remain my favorite even among so many great choices. Where many audition stages reference Takarazuka traditions like the grand staircase set piece, their stage takes them back to their shared childhood in Kyoto.
Futaba finally vents her years of frustration to Kaoruko. Her dialogue during the fight is justified and angry, giving her friend a litany of the sacrifices she’s made and the ways she’s not only put her own needs aside, but kept Kaoruko from giving up on theater and dance. As someone born into a legacy, Kaoruko can’t appreciate the anxiety of not being guaranteed a place. Until Futaba surpasses her, of course. This duel could have easily been framed as a competition to become a star now that both girls have more to stake on their performance. But their song cuts to their raw emotions – they are two people who love each other, and faced with the deterioration of their connection, want to come to a new understanding.
Kaoruko comes very close to not realizing what the relationship really needs. When she truly accepts Futaba’s role as a stage girl in her own right, her first reaction is to try and throw the fight. Futaba is once again forced to be her motivator. But Kaoruko bucks up and wins. I think fan reactions to this outcome were mixed, since we’ve clearly been shown that Futaba is the stronger talent at this point. It really worked for me! Part of her promise to Futaba was to show that she could achieve her full potential. A win for Futaba ran the risk of confirming their status quo: Futaba as dedicated to improvement, and Kaoruko unwilling to rise and continue to grow with her. Kaoruko’s victory was not a besting of Futaba, but a symbol of her renewed commitment to the relationship. To show that they were fighting for each other, their duel concludes conspicuously far from position zero. It was never about stardom.
This episode really got to me. It’s rare within the “childhood friends” structure to see such a touching and realistic portrayal of what happens when such a long relationship starts to turn toxic. Kaoruko needed to internalize that a healthy relationship requires her to do the work. Futaba needed to reach a point where she no longer bailed Kaoruko out of acknowledging that work. The ending scene returns to their normal routine: Futaba driving Kaoruko to school on her motorcycle. This time, however, Kaoruko got herself out of bed. It’s a small gesture and played partly for laughs, but it’s a hopeful start after her renewed promise. Their relationship won’t be made perfect over the course of one night, but now they’re side by side to rebuild something together.
*other stupid title ideas for this post included “When the Promised Flower Blooms” and “The Flower We Saw That Day”
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