Baleful Enchantments of Identity: on Shōjo☆Kageki Revue Starlight
Let’s start, as I always like to start a post, with some pseudo-philosophical platitudes. Today we use the word “identity” a lot, mainly to describe the things with identify with: gender, sexuality, faith, fandom even. In our languages, this often takes the form of names—as Walter Benjamin says:
The state of being, beyond all phenomenality, to which alone this power belongs, is that of the name.Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (London; New York: Verso, 2003).
We realize something—an idea—as part of our identity, and this becomes true in the process of naming ourselves. Put differently, the idea gains its truth in becoming a name, which alone becomes identical with ourselves. Said in this way it becomes evident (that in the word “identity” as we use it today, the concept of identicality is implied), and of course it is the way we, even without thinking about it, go about using it in our daily lives. But what if there existed an identity—a name, then—which was guaranteed not by its correspondence with its idea, but rather by its non-identicality with it? What if the name we gave ourselves had to always contain something different in order to be our identity? This is what I propose is the meaning of a butai shōjo.
The claim creates a tension: as has been pointed out time and time again by now (I will link useful posts at the end of this one), Shōjo☆Kageki Revue Starlight openly criticizes Takarazuka’s “top star” system. It would make sense to see the instability of the actresses’ identity in the same breath; ruthless competition and restless change often being one and the same in our contemporary society, two legs to support the tower of postmodern capitalism. To support my proposal, then, I will attempt to underline a number of contradictions which run throughout the show, and provide a reading of it as a dialectical process which aims for a synthesis between what it sees as perversions of the system, and what it accepts as the inevitable reality of being an actress.
Shōjo☆Kageki Revue Starlight is made of pairs. On the most visible level, this is true of its characters, who always come matched with someone else: an otokoyaku and a musumeyaku, to use Takarazuka language. The Takarzuka system, the object of the series’ criticism, is embodied by Maya and Claudine; Nana exposes its consequences; and finally, Hikari and Karen transform it.
Let’s start with Maya and Claudine, then. The former is, from the first episode, utterly dominant, reigning over the stage as its one and only top star; the latter is also gifted, but unable to reach her rival’s heights (in both the literal and the figurative sense). Maya is the musumeyaku; Claudine, the otokoyaku. Interestingly, their relationship is never the object of a specific arc, but rather a continuous presence, as if to reflect the Takarazuka system’s all-encompassing shadow. This dynamic is maintained thanks to the two’s relentless attitude: Maya regularly acknowledges Claudine’s efforts, and in general is aware of other performers as potential rivals: she is conscious that her supposed dominance is hiding the pressure to constantly renew her efforts. As for Claudine, her desire to match Maya’s ability is a point the show gives a lot of sympathy. They accept the hierarchy, but this breeds a mutual respect—a sense that they are worthy competitors for each other—in which the seeds of its overcoming are already present. Flowers grow during episode six, where Claudine is associated with Futaba (something which had admittedly already occurred in episode three) and Maya with Kaoruko. What does this tell us? Kaoruko dominates Futaba in almost every relevant accept, this we are made to accept early on; yet this dynamic is reversed when Futaba menaces Kaoruko’s hegemony, only for this to serve as a reminder that Kaoruko came all the way here to show Futaba her talents; in the same movement their relationship is reestablished in a more harmonious and equal order (which is why Futaba cannot conceivably win: it would show a far less nuanced, more moralistic path to reconciliation). The otokoyaku cannot shine without her musumeyaku; if so, both should receive the same admiration.The Maya-Claudine pair’s reversal doesn’t happen as visibly due to the form I have mentioned above, rather we are led more subtly: the show labors to give Claudine as much attention as Maya throughout, avoiding any hierarchy in its structure. This is expressed when they eventually lose to Karen and Hikari. We understand that Claudine did not only see Maya as an obstacle to overcome, but rather as a motivation to aim ever higher. Maya answers: it is because there is someone so close to her that she can continue to improve. In this mutual recognition, their relationship loses its hierarchal division, and they can become “one”, as Maya noted of Karen and Hikari. What had happened with Kaoruko and Futaba reproduces itself here: the dialectical process is one of reconciliation, which makes us accept an order, turns it on its head, and ultimately reestablishes in a superior plane, where opposition has disappeared and been replaced by emulation. The criticism thus involves no destruction, for now at least. It is a local instance of the show’s larger process, which also plays out at the level of motifs.
As the top star in a classical tragedy, Maya is associated with the Venus of Milo. She is a symbol of beauty, but an old and entirely generic one: part of a tradition of sculptures widely practice at the time of its making, its maker is unknown, and its fame owes as much to circumstances as it does to the work’s intrinsic beauty. We can see it, then, as the allegory for an old order: in an ingenious moment from episode three, it is associated with both Maya and Nana. But a few minutes later, it is an anonymous student’s paper plane which reaches the Venus; or is it blocked by it? We can see it both ways, which is, if anything, only more interesting.
The statue also bears intriguing resemblances with the play, Starlight. Both come from the distant past; we know the maker of neither; they are both generic representations of ancient taste. They stand out in an otherwise contemporary setting, and in fact early on it is rather bewildering seeing them cohabit with the Tokyo Tower and the mechanical “reproduction” process. This strange association, coupled with the Venus’ famous incompleteness, create the beginning of a doubt: the show’s antique aesthetics are put in a precarious position, in danger of being erased. We lose sight of their reason for being here, especially when the Tokyo Tower benefits from much more powerful associations, as we will see later.
Still, the road to drawing conclusions from these inconsistencies is long, and the show doesn’t miss its opportunity to expose the current order’s consequences. In her arc, Nana comes to deny it in a rather extreme way. She underlines the instability of identity it enforces, exhibiting the reaction one may have to this unbearable situation: a fetishism of a supposedly stable past, a search for the radical identicality of all things with themselves, a world in which time’s heartbeat has stopped. Her actions are not posed as a moral problem; in fact, she is framed as a lonely being, unable to see the ground because her ideals have pushed to climb too high. Revue Starlight accompanies her back to earth with virtuoso. Nana starts out as an actress with the talent to surpass Maya, but finds her happiness in being everyone’s, well, banana: bringing the group together and making everyone happy with her treats, covering them in her warmth. For her, the 99th Seisho Festival is the crystallization of this effort; its irreproducible high point. So she goes on performing replay after replay, protecting her eternal moment; or so we think. The perfect instant only exists in her memories; she is explicitly unsatisfied with her replays. She thus invites the final result herself: in her time travels, she works to make the 99th festival into an ever more perfect realization of the group’s chemistry, leading to Hikari’s appearance, at which moment the gears of fate sound, inviting Karen to change everything and cut Nana’s ambitions short. Her arc is the emergence of a Proustian temporality in which the moment can only be realized in memory, after its actual experience. Yet this should not be cause for despair. Although she isolates herself during her arc—being the only character whose name gives an episode its title—Junna walks to her side and pushes her forward: Nana has to change, but she doesn’t have to do so alone. The past only lives in her; but the present she can share with others. In the final episode’s opening scene, she rejoices that they can enjoy the same meal together. She sets us on the way to the finale, handing Karen the baton to cap the story off.
We have established that although Maya’s instable position is criticized, Nana’s radical reaction is portrayed as impossible, once again containing its own abolishment. This also plays out in a few of the show’s motifs. The giraffe often uses the word “fate”. Its meaning is entirely mysterious, mainly because our long-necked animal loves to speak of a “fated stage” that is “unpredictable to anyone”; which, given his omniscient position (he can see everything from up there and is even conscious of Nana’s time loops), makes little to no sense: he should know Starlight and the fate which awaits its characters. Similarly, in the finale he speaks of his position as the spectator, which he always reminds us of with his now iconic “I understand” (わかります); however, he often says this without awaiting an answer from the people he is speaking to, as if he assumed his own understanding. He understands himself as omniscient. He wants to see something unpredictable, but in saying this he reveals his assumption that the “fated moment”, no matter what its exact shape is, will always see every drop of luster robbed of the actresses for the otokoyaku to bathe in undying light. With his contradictory statements, he invites the change brought about by Karen; and can finally burst in manic cries when she opens the encore. The unchanging nature of the play his words imply is denied in the same moment by the actresses’ power he also burns for.
We have seen the thesis, the antithesis; now it is time for the synthesis: Karen and Hikari. Our heroines are bound by a promise to stand together on the stage of Starlight, and as we are aware by now, this ambition contradicts the rigid system which only accepts one “top star”. Why would they be the ones to break the mold?
Let’s talk about the Tokyo Tower. It represents the vertiginous heights which a butai shōjo must climb (supported by Karen’s fall from it), and connects with the industrious production process which gave birth to it. In fact, it falls from its vertical standing and becomes a bridge in the finale, visually establishing the abolishment of the “top star” system in favor of one which values the two actresses’ need for each other. But interestingly, the Tokyo Tower is not merely an objective referent; it is also a personal place for our heroines. It foreshadows their eventual victory: the tower where they renewed their promise cannot become the tower of their separation. The giraffe’s Tokyo Tower may be vertical, but Karen and Hikari’s need not be. But why the Tokyo Tower? Here the dialectic which started with the Venus reaches its conclusion: from Maya and Claudine, to Karen and Hikari; from the Venus of Milo, to the Tokyo Tower; from the past to the present. The Tokyo Tower, in the context of our heroines, is not a negative symbol: it embodies the present and its new possibilities. Although it originally cohabits with the Venus, we now see that it represents the current moment which has evolved from this millenniums-old history. Because Revue Starlight does very much acknowledge this progression. When we think of classic Greek plays, tragedies come to mind (the show in fact emphasizes this with regards to Starlight, and Flora’s fate does remind us of Icarus’); and history has evolved to tell the stories which lie beyond the tragedy’s closed door. Here, Karen is the one who dares to knock it open.
As Nana explains, although it may seem like Hikari’s appearance is the disruptive element, it is in fact Karen’s actions that change everything. They made their promise to become stars together. Note that this is not a denial of competitiveness in and of itself, as they draw a lot of drive from this promise, and Junna validates the “sinners” in episode eleven. Rather, their promise was made outside the system, which cannot change it. Karen, whose role reproduces that of Flora, has a personality which is all but the antithesis of the tragic hero; the antithesis of Hikari. Hikari is a stern but highly talented person: exactly the type who is too integrated in it to reject it by the time it denies them. Meanwhile, Karen is an easy-going girl whose personality is quickly dismissed as unfit for the hellish competition required of her; as though only one profile could shine under the spotlight. And this is why she can save Hikari: she may not have the talent to rise to the top on her own, but she never loses track of the essential. She does not accept that there should be a “tragic heroine” fixed in a role which she can only repeat endlessly as one of Hell’s damned souls; she knows there can be another story, after all these centuries. She denies tragedy not by abolishing it, but by adding a new chapter which reveals the possibilities previously denied. She completes Hikari; two resolve into one, a process which entirely denies the “top star” system. Maya and Claudine are the past; Karen, in her pairing with Hikari, is the present, an acceptance of the need for change; including that of the system which is holding things back. In all of this, Karen embodies Revue Starlight’s heart. But let’s not discount Hikari’s importance, either. Although she accepts the order, she is no Claudine. Having been separated from Karen, her impulses are not directed at an ever-present competition, but rather toward a promise the future holds; in fact, it is the present which wants to turn her away from the future. This desire makes her fit to be Karen’s partner; much as she loses sight of it, it is the origin of the reversal Karen brings about.
All that we’ve seen so far is embodied in a simple phrase: Atashi, Saiseisan (アタシ、再生産). This prominence of the word saiseisan (再生産), which means reproduction, is to be contrasted with that of the word umarekawaru (生まれ変わる), meaning to be reborn. The focus on the production process may be eyeing the work’s critique of the Takarazuka system, that is to say how it produces its top stars, but this is unsatisfying. Firstly, the association between the two words I’ve mentioned above adds (for lack of a better word) an existential nuance to saiseisan. This is furthered by a second element: the actresses speak the word themselves, mainly Karen when she gives birth to Starlight’s new chapter. And this is where we start to see the problematic of the non-identical identity peeking its head. As Karen explains from the first episode, butai shōjo are evolving everyday; they are born over and over each time they stand on the stage anew. This means that they produce and reproduce themselves all the time; that to be a butai shōjo means accepting the fate (this coincidental one) of having to change all the time, of not being able to provide the same performance twice, even if one is acting in the same play. And that in this identity, the possibility of an entirely new conclusion already exists. The stage is reproduced; and in this very process, so is the I, the young girl. The name butai shōjo is always the same; but the architecture of its content, always different. And in establishing from the story’s beginning, the possibility of radical change is already possible; in the twelfth episode it is finally realized, as Karen reproduces herself into the Flora who will finally free Claire. The truth is now revealed: the actresses who were following the established order already carried in them the possibility of overthrowing it when chose to be butai shōjo. This also sheds light on the meaning of the phrase: “This is an epic of ancient times, and a drama of the far future”.
Because as long as it connects into the future, the past should never be forgotten; if anything, it is Revue Starlight’s only constant, a connection with it being the main drive behind its story. In the Tower, Karen reassures Hikari: she hasn’t changed one bit from that day where they made their promise; meanwhile, Junna, who constantly stresses the need for betterment, encourages Nana to bring her script of the 99th festival into future performance. It is on this note that we can finally round off our analysis. The butai shōjo’s identity is always changing, reconfiguring itself; but this change implies a history to build on and renew. The one thing that never changed in Hikari is her aspiration to stand on stage with Karen, and the reverse is true; as for Nana, she must keep her script so that she can improve on it. Every new meaning the name butai shōjo contains, carries in it all the past butai shōjo which have existed; and in this same name, all the future butai shōjo are also prefigured. This is why past and present coexist, why Revue Starlight delights in its contradictions so much; because it knows that history cannot move forward without a past to build off of. It is strange to say, but we wouldn’t have Tokyo Tower if there hadn’t been a Venus of Milo; and there wouldn’t be today’s Starlight if it hadn’t been a tragedy.
My hope, in this analysis, has been to show how Shōjo☆Kageki Revue Starlight, while criticizing a toxic system, also embraces an instable conception of identity needed for an actress to fulfill her role. Via a play on pairs and contradictions, it plays out a dialectical process which reconciles its characters with their condition by abolishing the unnecessary pains produced by the system; better, it shows that this possibility is radically inscribed within the existing order. To many, this will surely raise questions: for a series resolved to scrutinize a system, is it not placing too much weight on its characters’ shoulders? If the system is so bad, then can an actress or two really change anything about it? These are important questions which lead us to deeper questionings around the show’s politics. Despite its supposedly systemic criticism, it seems unable to move away from the individual form of its medium; that is to say, the fact that anime revolves around an individual’s quest, as does much modern media. Its point of focus remains its characters, which limits its themes’ true political weight. But how the viewer will evaluate this depends on their own views on art’s political reach. Even if one believes that art is political, is Revue Starlight’s worth diminished by its inability to get us on board with a more programmatic message? Or is its progressive revealing of the system’s flaws not already enough? Shōjo☆Kageki Revue Starlight has certainly garnered rightful appreciation for its numerous qualities; now it is time to ask if we want to question the politics of its form or not.