Revue Starlight The Movie – Review

Revue Starlight The Movie is a sequel in the familiar sense of the word. It follows up on the conclusion of the television series, and gives its characters another chance to soak in the limelight before one last bow. However, it would be more accurate to say that it is a sequel in the sense that Adolescence of Utena was a “sequel.” It’s a dreamlike recapitulation of its stories and themes, not retold, but remixed and refined into an eye-popping package overflowing with song and style. It is, in other words, exactly what a Revue Starlight movie should be.

I begin with a comparison to Utena, because it remains Starlight‘s most obvious antecedent: its guiding star in the vast sea of anime. In terms of style, director Tomohiro Furukawa has emerged as Kunihiko Ikuhara‘s closest protégé. The two worked together on Penguindrum and Yurikuma Arashi, and many of Starlight‘s cues—the theatrical blend of the uncanny and the concrete, the front-and-center symbology, the swashbuckling girls in epaulets, the menacing talking animal mascot—owe their lineage to Ikuhara’s iconic body of work. In fact, there were many times during the TV anime where the shadow of its pedigree overcast the ambition on screen.

Diet Utena is, in my opinion, still a pretty darn good thing for an anime to be, and I enjoyed Revue Starlight a lot when I watched and reviewed it. However, it never quite ascended to the heights I wanted from it. The form was there, but the substance was lacking. The characters and themes were too cramped. The hyperfocus on the politics of the Takarazuka Revue, while a fascinating angle, seemed to hold Starlight back from making a statement grand enough to match its onscreen swagger. The story was never just about being a Stage Girl or becoming the Top Star, of course, but when the curtain fell on its finale, I wished I had seen more of the bigger picture beyond the stage.

Revue Starlight The Movie addresses and fixes nearly all my quibbles with the series by burning off the fat and violently compressing the remaining stylistic meat into a brilliant multi-faceted diamond. Furukawa hones his craft into his sharpest point yet, eschewing linearity and clarity in favor of a sensory whirlwind that whips up its cast into a concatenation of passionate performances, sung in duet and fought in the crucible of the soul. It has the same structure as Revue Starlight‘s first act, but done better, bloodier, and towards a more satisfying conclusion. It assumes familiarity with the TV series (and those fans will certainly get the most out of the experience), but I’d honestly recommend it to anyone who can appreciate a film that wields aesthetic like a broadsword. Revue Starlight The Movie couldn’t care less about its plot. It’s meant to be felt first and foremost.

The story’s obtuse presentation obfuscates its simplicity, but that’s not a bad thing. Karen and the other girls, having finished the 100th performance of the musical Starlight, are now in their senior year at Seisho Music Academy, preparing for the 101st performance and their inevitable graduation. The suffocating air of anxiety about an uncertain future not only suffuses the entire film—it’s the dramatic and thematic lynchpin. A series of interviews with the school counselor reacquaints us with the girls, who each have their own goals in mind. Some plan to audition for the Takarazuka Revue equivalent, some have other plans outside of school or theater, and some don’t know what to do. Most importantly, Karen’s most beloved fellow thespian Hikari has once again returned to London, estranging the two and piling on the depressive mood.

High school graduation is a kind of death and rebirth. It’s perhaps the final, most definitive endpoint of childhood, and consequently, it marks the always uneasy transition into adult life. Revue Starlight, as it is wont to do, takes that metaphorical death and rebirth and uses the magic of theater to transpose it into the full blood-soaked splendor of the surreal. Blood (tomato juice) spurts from neck wounds and dribbles down chins. It pools in the empty boots of the Stage Girl uniforms they used to wear. Those characters have no more lines. Those auditions have long since ended. The train roars onward towards an inexorable future, and Karen and the others have to find their new roles and new stages before the next station approaches. Visual metaphors of this ilk fully take over once the film completes its first act. It sheds the trappings of reality and devotes the rest of its runtime to full-throated psychological drama acted out on some of the grandest stages I’ve ever seen in an animated film.

These duels/duets pit each of the show’s “canonical” couples against each other, one at a time. Like many idol and idol-adjacent anime, there might not be any characters turning to the camera and saying “we’re lesbians,” but in the case of Revue Starlight, a mildly attentive viewer can pick up on who is who’s girlfriend. Crucially, none of these pairings plan on going to the same place after graduation, so this separation anxiety fuels their fights. While this resembles the outline of an average episode in the series—a personal conflict that gets resolved in the underground revue—the film smartly dispenses of most of the offstage context and goes all in on the onstage melodrama. The latter is just an augmented version of the former, after all, so why not focus on the side that’s more dazzling? What is theater for, if not for that?

This isn’t a decision made lightly, because the resulting story is fractured and open-ended. You have to fill in the blanks on your own, and you have to want to fill in the blanks on your own. The story doesn’t make an argument for itself or for its characters. It simply is. That’s the barb-wired hurdle that holds it back from mainstream appeal. The tradeoff, however, is more than worth it, because we get a film that plays to Revue Starlight‘s strengths: spectacle, sound, and sensation.

Futaba and Kaoruko transition from a steamy cabaret seduction into a blinding clash of war rigs. Nana and JUNNA trade blows and self-destructive spirals in a deadly hunt on fractured schoolyard grounds. Maya and Claudine step into the most contextually loaded shoes of all, acting out a divine battle between the light and the darkness of the stage, ascending to heaven and descending to hell in the same swoop. As always, poor Mahiru gets the short end of the stick, but in exchange, she tests Hikari’s resolve by subjecting her to the film’s most terrifying dark night of the soul. All of these battles are sumptuous sensual treats, constantly innovating and iterating on their already surreal imagery in order to provide the most cinematic version of itself possible. This isn’t a half-baked rehash of the television show. This could only be a movie. The theme across these revues, “wi(l)d screen baroque,” acts as a tongue-in-cheek reference to such.

At the heart of this is Karen and Hikari’s relationship. As the meddling giraffe and metaphysical projection of the desert-bound Tokyo Tower beckon them back together, the film frequently interjects their journey with memories of their time as childhood friends. Their bond was probably the original show’s most glaring weakness; I never quite felt like their passion for each other had enough of a foundation to sustain the weight applied to it. The film corrects this somewhat by keeping them in focus longer and homing in more on their messy feelings about each other and art. Karen benefits in particular. In the end, they’re still fairly archetypal characters, but they feel more authentic now—more vulnerable—and their resolution feels more satisfying and nuanced. And while I won’t get into the specifics of the climax, imagine a synthesis of Adolescence of Utena‘s third act, Penguindrum‘s transformation sequence, and Mad Max: Fury Road. It rules.

On a technical level, Revue Starlight The Movie is nearly impeccable. The weapon choreography and set design both handily outdo anything the television series threw at us, and that was already a high bar to clear. Yūto Hama‘s iconic typography and overall graphic design return to define the classy look and feel of Revue Starlight. The interstitial music is lovely and orchestral, but for me, the duel choruses are the real treat here. None of the duets from the TV series stuck with me that long, but I left this film wanting to hear all of the featured songs again. Evoking a kaleidoscope of genres, often within the same performance, they’re a fitting accompaniment to the emotional maximalism on display—and most crucially, they’re straight-up bops. Trying to understand the lyrics, read the dialogue, and put together the characters’ motivations and fears is a tall order for a subtitle reader, but I wouldn’t worry about understanding 100% of the film on your first go-around anyway. To reiterate, Revue Starlight The Movie is meant to experienced, so just by vibing with the art on display, you’ll come away with what’s most important, whatever that ends up being for you.

As you can probably tell by now, I absolutely loved this movie. If you enjoyed Revue Starlight, you need to see it. If you were disappointed by Revue Starlight, you should see if the film’s many refinements entice you back to the stage. If you’ve never even heard of Revue Starlight, I still think you should try this out. One of my most formative experiences was watching Adolescence of Utena late at night, on cable, bereft of any context, and with scant prior art film experience. It blew my mind wide open. If Revue Starlight The Movie has the potential to do the same for at least one other person, then I have no choice but to recommend it.

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