I give this anime about girls going to a theater school...an 85/100!
I pretty much knew nothing about this series until someone posted a review of the first part of the manga on Anime News Network, and that review pretty much made me want to buy it. I mean, hello? In this recent sea of bland isekai, bad ecchi, or generic media, when was the last time we had a genuine shoujo manga that actually had an intriguing story that harkened back to a lot of classics like Rose of Versailles and Glass Mask? Yeah, the whole idea of girls going to a specialized performing arts school has been done to death in other places, but my philosophy is that if you actually put effort into what you create and manage to make something compelling, complete with good execution and characters we can care about, then there's nothing wrong with reusing a well-worn premise. I actually bought the manga for Kageki Shojo as soon as I read that review, along with what little of it has been released here in the US so far, and liked it a lot, so you can bet as soon as the anime was announced, I was going to watch it without hesitation. So I'm glad to say that this series did meet my expectations, even when it covered parts of the manga that haven't come out in the US as of this writing.
The story takes place at a famous performing arts academy called the Kouka School of Musical and Theatrical Arts. It's basically a school version of the Takarazuka Revue and has been teaching girls since the Taisho era. Two very different girls, Ai Narata and Sarasa Watanabe, find themselves becoming classmates upon being accepted into the famous school, but they couldn't be more different. Ai, a stoic, emotionless girl, was kicked out of her old idol group after an incident with a fan, but this doesn't bother her, as she came to Kouka so she could live a life without being pursued by men. On the other hand, Sarasa is a tall, loud, chipper, energetic girl who loves anime and manga, and her reason for coming to Kouka is that she wants to star as Oscar in a production of The Rose of Versailles, having loved it since she was a kid. They, along with several other students they come to know, will have to learn to cooperate with one another if they have any hope of surviving Kouka's notoriously rigorous training, along with all the pressures and hardships that come from being in such a competitive setting.
One thing you'll notice about Kageki Shojo right off the bat is that it references and takes a lot of cues from both old school anime such as Rose of Versailles, and the famous Takarazuka Revue. For those not in the know, Takarazuka is basically an all-female acting troupe that is famous for putting on lavish, Broadway-style musicals that adapt everything from Western novels, shoujo manga, films, folktales, and on rare occasions, video games (Can you believe they did a series of musicals for Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney of all things?). Rose of Versailles in particular is important because the Revue has performed multiple shows for it, and in-universe, it's the main inspiration for one of the lead characters' motivations for going to Kouka. That being said, both the anime and manga expect its readers/viewers to have some degree of knowledge of both. While it's not outright required, a lot of the references will fly over the heads of people who know absolutely nothing about Rose of Versailles or Takarazuka, especially the latter and how it operates. Whether you're knowledgeable about Takarazuka or not, it's made very clear that the people who worked on both the anime and manga for Kageki Shojo have a deep love and reverence for the performing arts. I mean, somebody made an entire Twitter thread dedicated to showing off all the references and setpieces that Kageki Shojo uses, from various landmarks all the way down to replicating real actors' poses. So I can give the anime props for actually caring about its source material and respecting the intricacies behind the performing arts, both showing off how great it is while refusing to gloss over some of the more dangerous parts of it, such as the overly competitive atmosphere and even some toxic attitudes. A series that really goes out of its way to pay close attention to its setting and the framework behind it deserves major props in my book.
The reverence for Takarazuka also shows in the animation, from replicating setpieces, actors, and performances down to the poses, like I mentioned earlier. Of course, Pine Jam did more than just simply copy the most well known parts of Takarazuka here. The animation is smooth, and the characters have simple designs that manage to toe the lie between being cartoony and realistic, even if some characters' hair colors don't exactly mesh well with the more realistic setting. Seriously, who's idea was it to have Sarasa's blonde hair have light green tips?! Plus, the backgrounds are nicely detailed, the performance sequences are well done, making good use of lighting and motion, and even some of the cartoony parts, like exaggerated facial expressions, aren't so pervasive that they ruin the show's overall tone. The soundtrack is okay, though I didn't find it to be too memorable except for the more orchestrated parts, like the ending theme song. I heard one person say that the show places inappropriate music for some scenes, making them feel dissonant with its intended atmosphere, such as playing soothing harp music while an adult man is leering at a 10-year-old girl, but personally, I disagree, though I think part of it is because the voice acting is louder than the music at times, so maybe I missed it. But I really don't think the soundtrack is as jarringly dissonant as that user says, though I have heard examples that are way worse about this, such as Nurse Angel Ririka SOS and Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics, especially for the Japanese version of the latter.
(more to come soon)