Back in 2018, seasonal anime fans were treated to the world of Revue Starlight, a 12-episode marvel that combined the world of theater with life-or-death allegorical sword fights, musical numbers, and an ominous giraffe. Revue Starlight is a full-fledged franchise in Japan, with re-edited film recaps of the show, multiple manga adaptations, and numerous stage shows (including some that predate the TV series) all coming out at a steady pace since the series ended. For English-language fandom, however, there’s been nary a peep about those stage girls since the global release of the franchise’s gacha game in April 2019. That changed this month with the US release of the 2021 sequel film, which, while it has a few notable flaws, is a visual marvel and a must-see bit of emotional closure for fans of the series.
A Revue Refresher
For those in need of a summary thanks to that four-year gap, the series takes place at the prestigious Seisho Music Academy, a school modeled after the programs that train future stars of the famous all-women musical theater troupe, the Takarazuka Revue, and follows nine girls from the 99th graduating class. Each receives an invitation to an “audition” from a rather inexplicable giraffe, where they compete in duels in hopes of becoming the Top Star. Closest to the main character is bold and naïve Karen Aijo, who blusters into the competition to figure out why her recently returned childhood friend Hikari is acting so strangely; Hikari, meanwhile, seems determined to keep Karen from the duels at any cost. As the fighting escalates, the girls prepare to stage “Starlight,” the classic tragedy that every class must perform and the one that sparked Karen and Hikari’s dream of rising to stardom together.
It’s the kind of story that’s so heavy on allusion and allegory that it doesn’t really function if you stop to think about it in terms of linear plot beats, and the need to fit nine separate character arcs into twelve episodes, even when they come in pairs, makes for precious little space to breathe. Fortunately, director Tomohiro Furukawa comes from anime royalty, previously working as assistant director to famous auteur Kunihiko Ikuhara. Revue Starlight is indelibly marked with the fingerprints of Ikuhara’s genre-defining Revolutionary Girl Utena, which structured its storytelling around symbolism-laden duels that served as abstractions of interpersonal or idealistic conflict way back in 1997. And like Utena’s own dizzyingly surreal film sequel, Revue Starlight the Movie takes its visuals up to eleven.
Brilliance on Screen
Set two years after the anime, Revue Starlight the Movie returns to the original cast as they prepare for graduation. Some of the girls are more at peace with their plans than others, though all still keenly feel their loss during the mysterious auditions. Karen seems most adrift of all, purposeless now that Hikari has dropped out. It’s at this precipice of change that the girls are once again called to the auditions, to settle unresolved issues with one another and their own doubts. Put to paper it’s an exceedingly simple plot, with a correspondingly simple script. Scenes set in the real world are often quiet and mundane — the opening scene of the girls speaking to their guidance counselor is particularly melancholy in its familiarity. There’s at least half an hour of these quiet scenes of the girls doing nothing in particular, the film seeming to drift along aimlessly until the viewer is as agonized as the cast for something big to happen. And then, blissfully, it does.
Revue Starlight the Movie is one of the most breathtaking films I’ve seen in a long while. The duels were always the highlight of the TV series, but here they’re electrifying spectacles that lovingly wear homage on their sleeves, from Adolescence of Utena to Mad Max: Fury Road to the Arcimboldo painting “Vertumnus.” Each fight feels like a short film unto itself, packed to the gills with details meant to convey the stories of each girl. The musical duets are stirring and memorable, harkening back to the genres that represented each girl in the show while evolving those familiar sounds with new complexities.
The script doesn’t exactly stop mattering at these points, but it becomes firmly secondary. The words are intoned in the same ritualistic, repetitive way as the historic and much-reused script of “Starlight,” less important in themselves than for the history they connect back to. In other words, prepare to hear the phrase “I’m going on to my next stage” about a dozen times. Each interlude among the secondary cast concludes uniquely, but with a unified sense of hope. It’s ultimately a story about trying again, and learning that there’s life beyond high school, and when those chords hit, they’re bigger than life and tenderly sincere.
A Queer Absence
There are a few sour notes scattered throughout Revue Starlight the Movie. Anyone who’s been involved in the world of theater knows that precious few actors are able to make a living from it, and while the script nods to both Nana and Junna having theatrical interests beyond acting on stage, they’re at best sidelined or at worst treated like a weakness or failing. It’s a shame, since anime has always been good about showing the heart and passion in seemingly unglamorous jobs, but it’s also somewhat understandable that the script elides it given that two-hour runtime. What lingers more is the resolution of Hikari and Karen’s conflict. (Spoilers from here on.)
The story of how Karen met Hikari and consequently fell in love with acting ties the film together, as the two struggle to make sense of the events of the TV finale and find their way back to one another. If the TV series was about Karen eschewing the zero-sum game of the audition system to declare that everyone — especially Hikari — could come together to create a play, then the film is about digging into the potential fear beneath that that without Hikari beside her, Karen has no passion or drive of her own. It’s a smart tack for the film’s themes of graduation and entering adulthood; many can doubtlessly remember clinging to a close friend, even avoiding taking risks or trying new things if it meant not doing them together. As a story of finding self-confidence, Karen’s story clicks.
But as a sequel — and good luck to any newcomer attempting to follow the narrative rather than just the visuals — the climactic reunion feels like it has something missing. Revue Starlight is a powerfully homoerotic series, one that reads quite comfortably as a metatextual romance of the leads rejecting the supposedly inevitable tragedy of “Starlight’s” narrative to craft a happy ending for themselves. The final shot is of Hikari and Karen’s tenderly clasped hands! And the movie carries on with those intensely romantic vibes with the secondary cast, whether it’s Futaba straddling Kaoruko and telling her to wait for her or Claudine and Maya swearing they’ll be bound together forever (as rivals). With all that buildup, it didn’t feel out of place to think that the “one final thing” that Karen had to tell Hikari might be an overt love confession.
But the movie encodes “Starlight” differently from its predecessor. Here, the importance isn’t that two young women yearn to meet each other while a tragic end looms over them; instead, the importance is on the tower where they’re reunited, and its place as a temporary respite. Here, parting is indeed inevitable, and to part is equivalent with gaining self-sufficiency. Both are strong stories, well-told, in isolation; together, it can’t help feeling something like cynicism.
Because unlike its spiritual predecessor, Adolescence of Utena, Revue Starlight the Movie isn’t an isolated sequel to a definitively concluded work. Revue Starlight is a franchise. The gacha game might lean hard on events where the girls buy one another chocolate or portray romantic couples in plays, but it has never and likely will never make any hardline commitments. It’s hard for me to even call it queerbaiting, as that implies a hard refusal of queerness (usually with a straight romantic interest) after playing up the subtext to draw queer audiences. Revue Starlight just refuses to commit at all on a romantic front, and probably never will. It’s better business if people are thirsting for evidence of their ship, whatever that might be, forever.
But my jaded grumping about the interplay of art and commerce can’t dampen my overall enthusiasm. This is a distillation of almost everything that the TV series did well, a masterwork of creative animation, and an unforgettable rollercoaster. For all the slightly eye-rolling fourth wall breaks about the film existing because of audience demand, it’s clearly crafted with care and leaves the characters better than it found them. If you ever took an interest in the original, or you’re fine with having no earthly clue what’s happening as long as you get to enjoy a visual marvel, seek this one out as soon as you’re able.
And in conclusion: