I’ll admit it: I have an agenda. It is my goal to spread the word about Kageki Shojo!! and inspire more anime and manga fans to check out this delightfully comedic, surprisingly deep, and altogether beautifully-crafted series!
The story follows the ups and downs and all round antics of a group of theatre-girl hopefuls (or kageki shoujo) intent on pursuing a career with the all-female acting troupes of the Kouka Theatre, which is styled after the real-life Takarazuka Revue.
Having written about the anime series a couple of times, highlighted it among BtT’s Top 10 Anime of 2021, and interviewed one of the animators, it’s time to tackle the source material, skillfully written and illustrated by established shoujo mangaka Kumiko Saiki. So far, the volumes are still catching up to the anime, but my reviews here are for manga-only readers. So don’t worry, I won’t spoil you.
Without further ado, let the curtain rise!
Prequel Omnibus Volume: Kageki Shojo!! The Curtain Rises
What does it take to become a top star in one of Japan’s most elite theatre companies? And how do the young women vying for this opportunity navigate the combination of rigorous training, stifling tradition, and (inter)personal baggage that characterize the specialized two-year candidate’s program at the Kouka School of Musical and Theatrical Arts? The story of Sarasa Watanabe, Ai Narata, and the girls of the 100th class of this prestigious school begins in the prequel omnibus, Kageki Shojo!! The Curtain Rises. This volume gathers together the fourteen chapters that were originally released in the now defunct Jump X magazine, and is the best place to begin reading (rather than volume 1).
While introducing the ensemble cast, the omnibus centers primarily on the initial personality clash between roommates Sarasa and Ai. Sarasa is loud and overconfident, but with a naïveté that makes her charming rather than annoying—at least for the reader if not always for her classmates! Ai is reserved and expressionless, dubbed “robotic” by her former bandmates in the idol group JPX48 (named after Jump X). On the outside, Sarasa is a wild card as a Kouka candidate, while Ai is more of a shoo-in, with her demure looks and background in performance. But on the inside, it is the gangly otaku Sarasa, with her mysterious connections to all-male kabuki theatre, who is passionate about the path that she is on, while Ai is more interested in the training program as an escape from her current life and, more particularly, from the creepy stalker guy who was responsible for her ejection from JPX. Can these two opposites find any common ground and take those first tentative steps together toward friendship?
The setting of Kageki Shojo!! is fascinating, with copious details about Japanese traditional arts interspersed with contemporary (otaku) cultural references that will delight manga and anime fans. The pacing is excellent, as mangaka Kumiko Saiki resists the temptation to rush through weighty issues like Ai’s abusive backstory or one of the other girl’s struggle with bulimia, or resolve these elements hastily with grandiose heroic gestures. Instead, Saiki gives her story and the girls room to breath and develop at an organic (and thus, often hesitant) pace. There is substance to each of these girls, and I for one am delighted that the series survived the dissolution of its original publisher so that we get to see what happens next. These girls are going places.
Volume 1 is Sarasa’s story from start to finish, and revolves around the tensions between creativity and tradition in the life of the performing arts. It opens with Sarasa catching sight of the Kouka stage and rushing in where angels fear to tread. As in the prequel volume, when she and Ai stood beneath the cursed cherry tree (dooming themselves to never become top stars, according to urban legend), Sarasa once again manages to crash her way unknowingly through an ages-old taboo. Will she escape unscathed?
At first, it seems that she has, as she sets in motion the overturning of yet another restrictive tradition—the one that forbids students from actually performing in their first year. Sarasa’s backstory in this volume reveals that she’s always been rather oblivious to tradition and the limits it would set on her dreams, yet that she has also suffered painful consequences as a result of this disregard.
Rather than presenting tradition as solely reactionary and controlling though, Saiki examines the roots of tradition and its importance in providing a firm foundation in times of chaos, making this a nuanced portrayal of a clash that, though common in literary and cinematic explorations of creative life, can often be reduced to a simplistic dichotomy, with tradition equated to “repression” and innovation to “freedom”. Interestingly, the final installment in Sarasa’s story in this volume also hints at the ways in which she has embraced tradition in a manner that may actually be more damaging for her dreams of the spotlight than any rules or taboos about stages and cherry trees. A thought-provoking treatment, indeed, particularly in light of the recent reforms that have unfolded at the real-life “Kouka” school affiliated with the Takarazuka Revue, and which saw the repealing of a number of the more outdated of regulations. Reality mirroring fiction!
Volume 2 picks up right where the previous volume’s cliffhanger left off—sort of. Sarasa and Ai are finally on their way to spend the summer holidays with Sarasa’s grandfather in Asakusa, Tokyo, but while Ai is reveling in the fact that she has her first genuine friend in like ten years, Sarasa is still reeling from Andou-sensei’s blunt feedback on her performance. The protagonists’ two states of mind provide the themes of the volume: what does it mean to be a friend? And what does it mean to be a performer?
At the heart of both of these questions and the young women’s journey in this volume is Sarasa’s boyfriend and kabuki heir-apparent, Akiya. Up until now, Ai’s tentative exploration of friendship has centered on overcoming her self-protective instincts, learning to call Sarasa by her first name, for instance; now though, she must face the fearsome hurdle that is jealousy, or at least uncertainty as to how to behave around her new friend’s other friends and “precious people”—Akiya prime among them. Sarasa too must confront her buried childhood jealousy of Akiya, who was able to continue on in kabuki when she was forced out. As she reflects on her past for clues about how to step into the future on stage that she so desires, Sarasa is able to find inspiration amid the pain of her hurt and disappointment.
In this way, the volumes acknowledges the fragility of newfound friendships and the brittleness of long-standing ones, while yet foregrounding the reasons why we persevere in building community, even when it’s risky. The artwork in this volume in particular does a lovely job of conveying the mixed emotions of joy and caution, affection and resentment that variously tug at the protagonists’ hearts.
Volume 3 is where the rest of the cast of Kageki Shojo!! begin to shine in earnest. It’s the event of the decade as the Kouka Troupes prepare to go head-to-head in the fan favorite Sports Day event. In addition to the four teams based on the seasonally-themed troupes and captained by their top otokoyaku (or male-role actresses), the competition is also set to involve a fifth team made up of “Superiors”, or veteran stars, alongside a few second-year students. For their part, Sarasa, Ai and the first-years are on pom pom-making duty, while also dusting off their elementary school recorders in preparation for the grand opening (and prompting Sarasa to reference this hilarious video).
Tensions rise between twins Chika and Chiaki as the seeds of jealousy planted in earlier volumes finally come into full bloom. Fortunately for them though, they are surrounded by some pretty supportive classmates, senpais, and one particularly wise Superior. Can they patch things up in time for the big day? And why is Sarasa butt-bumping that elderly man? This volume also includes a bonus chapter with Kaoru Hoshino’s backstory, which humanizes the short-tempered otokoyaku-hopeful. In both plots, the psychological subtlety granted to these supporting characters is worthy of leading protagonists, and so transforms Kageki Shojo!! into a true ensemble work. It just keeps getting better and better!
Volume 4 sees the completion of the Sports Day arc, with an unexpected development taking center stage: the Summer Troupe is down a team member and Sarasa is selected to sub in. What follows is a crisis of confidence for the usually gregarious girl, and a bevy of advice coming at her from all directions. This advice ranges from the unsolicited and unhelpful, to the very much sought after and incredibly wise—all of which Sarasa interprets in a characteristically hilarious manner. But what is most intriguing here is that every exchange, whether positive or not, plays an important part in ushering Sarasa to a deeper level of maturity. So although resident mean girl Hijiri’s words cut to the bone ruthlessly, they actually instigate a much needed period of self-reflection for the oblivious Sarasa which, softened and redirected through conversations with Ai, Risa, Sei Satomi, and ultimately her entire friendship circle, see the girl accomplish something she could never have managed on her own. In this way, the volume deepens the lead’s characterization, while also strengthening and nuancing the whole network of relationships that makes this ensemble work so compelling.
A standalone chapter devoted to an ailing Ai as she combats a cold accomplishes the same, highlighting just how much she has grown in her time at the Kouka school, and showcasing how valued she is by her new friends. Meanwhile, the side story for this volume delves into the school years of the dashing Winter Troupe lead, Sei Satomi, and reveals how heartfelt her advice to Sarasa actually was, and the rather melancholy, if not slightly tragic circumstances from which it sprang. Another reminder, as we watch these girls struggle to accomplish their dreams, that every star has her origin story.
Volume 5 brings Romeo and Juliet, which featured in volume 1, back into the mix. This time, instead of everyone having the opportunity to perform in a scene from the play, the first years will be competing with one another for the chance to display their talents at the upcoming culture festival. Tensions rise as friends and classmates turn into rivals and the four available roles hang in the balance. Sarasa and Ai each face their own challenges as they prepare for the audition: Sarasa, in finding her own voice both as a person (deciding which role she herself prefers to try for) and as an actress (determining how to play that role once she has made her choice); and Ai, in finding an authentic place in her own life from which to draw when expressing the emotions of a girl in love. Meaningful snippets from both girls’ childhoods clarify why it is that Sarasa and Ai struggle so fiercely with their particular challenges. Beyond the two leads, the volume also explores the range of ways in which the young women of the centenary class respond to stress, and how they help one another navigate it, sometimes in surprising ways. Nary a cliché to be seen here, folks. This is quality writing!
The side story concentrates on second year student Hijiri Nojima, who is both a mentor to Ai and her biggest fan, but who is also a bit of a thorn in the side of Sarasa and her mentor, Risa. Hijiri’s backstory proves to be far more layered and sympathetic than I anticipated. Although—or perhaps because—this installment leaves her arc far from complete (and prompts a great many questions as to how exactly she turned into the near “villainess” she is now), it is enough to promote Hijiri to the position of most intriguing character in the series for me. A most unexpected development! Every villainess has her origin story too, as the recent spate of villainess series would attest, and here mangaka Kumiko Saiki handles the subject with a refreshingly light touch.
Let me know what you think in the comments: will you give this one a try? (I promise you enthused emoji in the chat if you say ‘yes’!)
Kageki Shojo!! is being released by Seven Seas Entertainment.