Stage musicals blur and bend our perception of what is “real” in a way that’s sort of unique to their medium. With the audience sitting in the same room as the actors (perceived as characters) on the stage (perceived as the fictional world of the story), their suspension of disbelief becomes a little more elastic and more forgiving. We’ll accept the background scenery rolling away because we understand that it’s a set change, we’ll accept the chorus turning and addressing the audience because we understand the “fourth wall” in theatre is much more malleable than it is in movies or television, and we’ll accept characters over-emoting because we understand that they have to convey these feelings to people who can’t see them up close. And most importantly, we’ll accept characters breaking into song, because of the theatricality of the whole thing. The audience-story relationship is by nature more ethereal, so we have fewer demands that theatre conform to “realism”.
In a way, this means a story about the theatre is the perfect place to play around with perceptions of “reality”, and that’s where we come to the delightfully bizarre and distinctly musical Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight.
It all begins ordinarily enough: Starlight is the story of a group of aspiring stage performers attending a music school, the whole setup emulating reality as much as anime can, in its use of shot type, character design, and general adherence to the normal laws of physics and day-to-day logic. Front and centre—in the story, if not on stage—is our main character Karen, a plucky but ditzy lass who has dreamed of being a star since she was tiny. She shares this dream with her childhood best friend Hikari, and the two of them even made a grand promise to end up on stage together in starring roles, before Hikari moved overseas and they were separated.
In the first episode, Hikari surprises Karen (and her classmates) by transferring to her school, joining the ranks all training to take the stage, but seeming strangely withdrawn. Determined to rekindle their kindergarten friendship, Karen tries to draw Hikari out of her shell, only to find that the girl is avoiding her. And so, searching high and low for the avoidant Hikari one evening, Karen stumbles into a very strange part of the campus that she never knew was there—and indeed, by the laws of logic, should not and cannot be there.
And here is where that reality-blurring comes into play—situated, appropriately, within the framing of a stage show. Karen travels down a metaphorical rabbit hole (and a literal elevator) into a massive otherworldly theatre, to find Hikari and one of her classmates engaging in a duel while singing out their feelings. Also, a talking giraffe is there, apparently overseeing these “auditions”. It’s a lush and stylised whirlwind that rockets the show from its grounded state in the realism of the television medium into the ethereal and vibrant world of the stage.
And, as confirmed in episode two, what happens there is not just a weird symbolic dream of Karen’s, but something that literally actually physically happened, and something accepted by the students as part of their line of work. The underground theatre is a separate space that bends the laws of normalcy.
I’m definitely not the first to see the similarities to Revolutionary Girl Utena here—the director of Starlight worked with Utena’s creator on multiple projects, and his influence is clearly showing. Ikuhara’s protagonists often end up in strange fantastical spaces just adjacent to reality and not quite following their rules, often laden with symbolism to the point where you can’t quite be sure where the visual metaphor ends and the magic begins. As with Utena’s duelling arena and Yurikuma Arashi’s Severance Court, the underground theatre in Revue Starlight is an otherworldly space that blurs perceptions of what is “real”, flagrantly disobeying the rules of logic with as much flair, energy, and striking imagery as possible. But again, Starlight’s fantastical, symbolic space is a theatre, so on some level it just seems to make sense.
As I said above, belief is suspended more readily in theatre audiences, and perception of reality is more forgiving and malleable. The underground theatre in Revue Starlight takes this literally, presenting the magical stage as a freeing space with little regard to the rules of physics, logic, and social sensibilities. Here, the girls can do things they simply can’t in their regular lives: they can let their feelings out in poetic song lyrics, they can fight dramatically with swords and arrows, they can leap and bound as the landscape changes around them. You know, all things you’d find baffling and immersion-breaking if you saw in real life, or a screen work trying to emulate real life… but you’d find more at home in, say, an opera.
It’s a fascinating acknowledgement and use of the differences in the mediums. Often, because of that different regard for realism, screen and stage don’t mesh too well. For example, as Lindsay Ellis breaks down in this great video essay, cinematic adaptations of stage musicals often end up either very different from their source material or just not great in quality, to reconcile (or due to failure to reconcile) the differences in mediums and the different expectations in their audiences. Revue Starlight has embraced the dissimilarities between the perceptions of reality on screen and on stage and made them part of the plot and part of the story’s world.
The underground stage is an enchanted system that runs on symbolism, a space (representing a medium) that can give form to formless things in the most dramatic and stunning way possible. What better way to symbolise the competitive battle for the starring role than with a literal battle? The stage, where reality/realism is weaker, is the ideal space to give this interpersonal tension a shape, and a much more glamorous and dramatic one than just bickering between students. The emotional stakes are so much for these kids that the audition process feels like a fierce fight for their lives, so that’s the way it plays out on the magic stage.
They wouldn’t literally challenge one another to a duel in the world above, and if they did it would be perceived as ridiculous. But in the world below, the world of the stage, where expression and impact is more important than conforming to what would actually happen in real life, it makes perfect sense—as much sense as them bursting into song about their inner turmoil, which they’d also never do in the world above. The students’ abilities and behaviour shifts to suit the medium they’re in, remaining as a reflection of reality when they’re in the realistic setting of the school, and transforming to suit the freer and more elastic rules of the stage when they descend to the underground theatre.
It’s a clever use of audience expectations as well as a love letter to the theatre and the strange and heady world of possibilities and expression that it provides (as well as, obviously, acknowledging the ruthlessness of performance art as a business, hence the literal sword fights for the starring role). Framing the theatre as magical captures the enchanting power a performer can feel when they step into that space, and doubles the sense of magic for the audience. As to where all this fanciful and fantastical character drama will go, and whether the strange magic of the theatre will eventually leak out into the world above, all remain to be seen… but Revue Starlight has made sure that, on multiple levels, whatever happens is going to make for one hell of a show.