“The normal happiness, the pleasures of a young girl, all burned away to aim for a distant twinkling.”
-Giraffe, Shoujo ☆ Kageki Revue Starlight, Episode 1
Karen Aijou is teased by her classmates for her inability to wake up early. It’s appropriate, friendly banter, especially given how much effort Karen’s friend and classmate, Mahiru Tsuyuzaki exerts trying to shake her awake. Their early morning conversations are light-hearted, poking fun at Karen, singing happily for short periods, and dancing freely around the studio.
Until Maya Tendou walks into the room. She interrupts Futaba Isurugi and Karen’s conversation and walks through them. They part, making way for her. Maya announces her name, position in class, and immediately stands at attention beside a pink piece of tape in the center of the hardwood floor that designates the center position.
Futaba drops her sleepy friend Kaoruko Hanayagi. Each individual class member announces their name, number, and walks to take their place on the studio practice stage. It’s time to work.
This sudden shift in atmosphere makes what initially appeared to be fairly mindless morning chatter ominous. There’s an entire other level of conversation that has nothing to do with sleepy morning conversations had with friends in order to wake up a bit more quickly. When Maya enters the room, they are in competition. They announce their class number and step forward.
The young women of Seisho Music Academy appear to harbor no delusions of what they’re getting into or the position that they’re aiming for: position zero, center stage.
Position zero, or the center, has been the the goal and envy of myriad young women in animated idol shows — AKB0048 immediately comes to mind, following the pattern of AKB48 senbatsu elections. In idol culture, the center is the face of the group, the star, and often the leader of the group as well. When you think of a particular group, the center will almost always be the individual that comes to mind first. They are the focal point of group formations.
Yet, Revue Starlight isn’t solely focused on idol culture. The center position is applied to a musical stage performance that includes acting, dancing, and singing. There are elements of stage production and musical theater throughout, and the more classical-focused Seisho Music Academy seems to be training the next troupes of the Takarazuka Revue more than it is raising idols. When Karen describes the school’s classes, everything from singing, dancing, acting, set design, and scriptwriting is mentioned. Revue Starlight‘s idea of a center is a young woman who is able to do all of these things exceptionally and embodies the desperate desire to take that center spotlight. The center position is synonymous with best.
Throughout Revue Starlight‘s first episode, that pink piece of tape on the studio floor becomes a recurring visual motif, reminding us of its importance. It even appears in the episode’s endcard as a small icon at the bottom of the screen. Karen immediately walks towards it and stands beside it when she’s the only person in the studio.
Maya is introduced to us through her assertive walk towards the center position. The lettering designating her name and title in class is shown with the image of her feet at position zero. Her shadow is cast over the pink tape and unlike Karen, she stands at the center point itself. Revue Starlight is telling us that, right now, Maya is the center. With the context of Junna Hoshimi, Hikari Kagura, and Karen’s duel in the underground theater of Seisho Academy, Maya is likely at the top of the chain because she is the center and leader. Junna is beneath her in rank.
The other person to take the center is Karen, who not only straddles the point but stabs it possessively with her cutlass after defeating Junna. She will challenge Maya for the center position. This is after she is taunted by a giraffe in saying that girls that can’t get up in the morning or don’t mind not playing the lead have no business in the underground revue. Karen proves him wrong, and Revue Starlight visually tells us throughout this first episode that Karen is made of sterner stuff than she looks.
Position zero is also reinforced visually by placing Karen in the center at nearly all times. When she and her classmates are showering, Karen is in the center stall. When she stumbles into the mysterious elevator that takes her to the basement stage, she stands on the center line. even in dreamier sequences that feature Karen falling in front of Tokyo Tower, Karen is center.
Another trapping of idol culture that Revue Starlight touches upon is the push and pull between conformity and the spotlight. As the leader and literal center of the stage, the center stands out. However, the training programs to be an idol or musical revue star are a machine that presses every young woman into a similar mold. They perform the same play, Starlight, at the academy every year. When Karen transforms, she is given a uniform from a factory line that has made hundreds of them. The sequence includes sewing machines, piles of identical buttons, rows of identical collars, and a uniform pattern that is presumably one-size-fits-all. One of the looms spins red thread, a nod to the red thread of fate indicating an unescapable destiny. Even those chosen girls with special dueling hairpins like Karen, Junna, and Hikari are trapped in a cycle. They’re just higher up on the ladder. Seisho Music Academy is a rigid system both on the surface and in the underground stage where Karen duels Junna.
Director Tomohiro Furukawa worked with Kunihiko Ikuhara on both Mawaru Penguindrum and Yuri Kuma Arashi. Nods to Ikuhara’s work on those two series and Revolutionary Girl Utena are sprinkled throughout this episode from the dueling stage and elevator (Utena) to the more mechanical lead-in to Karen’s transformation (Penguindrum) and the all-girls school Class S setting. Episode 1 of Shoujo Kageki ☆ Revue Starlight sets the stage with a system and a cycle. If Furukawa follows a similar pattern as Ikuhara, I can’t wait to see how Karen breaks the cycle. Already, Furukawa has left us a few visual hints, including the role reversal of Junna and Karen in the daylight and on the underground stage and how Karen uses the cryptic giraffe as a launching pad.