「運命の舞台」 (Unmei no Butai)
“The Stage of Fate”
It’s only the second episode, but this seems to have been more or less the Hoshima Juuna arc and I suppose we can give some conclusions right now: what an unfortunate character Junna is. This is not just in regards to her character, but also in regards to her place in the narrative. Sure, she has her whole personal struggle about being the one who works the hardest yet still falling short. Somehow, though, her one and only motif centres around the fact that she wears spectacles (which another character has to point out, when she shouldn’t have to). Seriously. That’s her thing. It’s often the way of anime with an ensemble cast — idol anime in particular — often don’t actually have enough time for all their characters and so a lot of them have to be boiled down to a single aspect that helps us remember them, and in this case it’s unfortunately glasses. Perhaps this is intended as part of her tragedy; on stage you’re not allowed to wear glasses, or at least not supposed to. They can reflect the lights in unintended ways, obscure the eyes, and are more distracting than they’re worth. So it’s either prop glasses or contacts. Perhaps the point is that she’s disadvantaged from the very beginning.
Even if we’re not sure of the meaning, or if the meaning is completely asinine, this is symbolism, which brings us back to our original topic: Utena. Some of you noted Revue Starlight director Furukawa Tomohiro once worked under Utena director Ikuhara Kunihiko on Mawaru Penguindrum. I’m not going try to guess at how much Furukawa took away from that experience, but just putting these first two episodes of Revue Starlight next to some of Ikuhara’s works we can at least infer some influences. I think one of the major things that draws viewers like you and I to Revue Starlight is its visual aesthetic, whether it be all the glasses or the battle ballet or the giraffe mentor or the transformation sequence that they’re obligated to play every episode like a proper magical girl show. That aesthetic is distinct not just because it’s stylish, but because it’s different. The imagery is bizarre, in a good way, removed from the mundane world and prompting our brains to seek explanation. And here’s where we should touch of surrealism a bit.
So we have our mundane, everyday reality, the one we’re used to seeing. But imagine also a dream world, a subconscious world of pure symbolism, the kind of thing Carl Jung would write about. Surrealism is an aesthetic that merges those two worlds, overlaying dream onto reality basically for the express purpose of being weird, using juxtaposition and non sequitur to take the audience out of their comfort zone and provoke thought. If you just go watch Utena you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s bizarre, but it’s not exactly fantasy (though surrealism and fantasy are not mutually exclusive), as it’s not about a world with different rules than ours but rather our world but experienced through a different lens. Surrealist coming-of-age stories, as Izuhara is famous for, are not actually uncommon, as the entire coming-of-age story is largely symbolic anyway and it’s just a matter of pushing it further, but surrealist magical girl shows are even more popular, taking magical-girl-as-metaphor and going full dream world. From there we get shows like, for example, Flip Flappers, parts of Madoka Magica and Yuuki Yuuna, and most importantly for Revue Starlight, Princess Tutu. These often turn out to be pretty good shows not only because they look interesting, but the effort to make them look more interesting, the surrealism, is usually for the purpose of instilling meaning through imagery or, at the very least, be thought-provoking even without exactly nailing down what they intended that thought to be.
What I wish Revue Starlight to do is to lean into that surrealist aesthetic, to truly embrace it, as Utena did. That’s not to say that more surreal is automatically better; perfectly excellent coming-of-age stories can also be completely grounded like, say, Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho. It’s all a matter of execution. But Revue Starlight has chosen this aesthetic, and I think it will be bolder if they ran with it. I wish that they further blur on-stage and off-stage taking advantage of the thin fourth-wall inherent in theatre. I wish to experience the truly bizarre, that which cannot be explained yet needs no explanation (less running and shooting, more of the battle ballet, please). Most of all, I wish they would stop talking over the damn musical numbers. Musicals are innately surreal to an extent as characters routinely burst into choreographed song and dance. Within the context of the story this is not seen as odd, but is rather us experiencing the story through a heightened form of reality. The song isn’t supposed to be background score or a break in the narrative or a passing amusement. In a properly written musical every song has its place because they are an integral part of the storytelling. So don’t have dialogue over the songs and the lyrics. Let the music speak for itself. Have more faith in your own aesthetic, Revue Starlight.
In less words, shut up, show. I’m trying to listen to you.