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.
A show like this lives or dies on its characters, and in that aspect, I think Kageki Shojo succeeds. Since this series only has 13 episodes, it doesn't have time to develop all of them, but it does keep the focus centered on a few important ones, mainly the ones depicted on the main key art. All of them receive time in the spotlight, showing what their strengths and weaknesses are, and why they chose to come to this particular school. Even the characters who might come across as really cliche and annoying, like Sarasa, are given more depth to them later on, and Kaoru's episode is easily the best one. One thing people will notice about Kageki Shojo is that it's not afraid to tackle serious, sensitive subject matter such as eating disorders, stalking, and child sexual abuse. Anime is no stranger to tough topics, but many of them do struggle with depicting them tastefully and not in a voyeuristic manner. Kageki Shojo manages to treat them well enough that it doesn't border on voyeuristic or purely for shock value, but it does tend to tie up the subplots involving them a little too neatly, with one example being the eating disorder subplot with one of the side characters. An eating disorder doesn't simply go away in a week just because someone encouraged her to keep going, though to be fair, the manga had the exact same problem, and apparently that was mainly because the authoress for the manga found out too late that the story was being moved to a different magazine and felt she needed to resolve it so as to not leave loose threads hanging. But that's a story for another review. Really, that's the only problem I had with Kageki Shojo is that it's too short and that it ties up certain subplots too neatly, but those aren't even exactly a mark against its overall quality.
There is one character I want to talk about, and that's Sarasa, and there's something I've noticed among anime when it comes to characters like her, particularly kids anime. I'm in the process of watching another anime called Tropical Rouge Pretty Cure, and the main character of that show, Manatsu, pretty much has the same personality as Sarasa: Cheerful, enthusiastic, determined, and nice to everyone, even when people are being really mean to her. Here's the thing: It seems like most people who work on anime like this believe that if you have a character act brightly enough all the time, the audience will see them as cheerful characters, but rather than simply portray someone who's cheerful, they make the mistake of making them so over-the-top cheerful that it becomes their sole character trait. They don't show them as having any other emotions than being overly happy and zany all the time. My problem with Manatsu is that, after 30-something episodes, she hasn't shown any other emotions than being over-the-top happy and zany, constantly shouting "Tropica-shine!" every two seconds, and the few times she acts anything but happy is played for laughs. She's not allowed to be vulnerable or even act like a normal human being, which annoys the shit out of me. Sarasa, on the other hand, is an example of this type of character done right, especially in her focus episodes. Yes, she's shown as being cheerful and annoying at times, but the creators actually allow her to show emotions other than mindless happiness. They allow her to be angry, sad, jealous, insecure, the whole gamut of emotions, which actually make her into a more well-rounded person. She has moments where she's vulnerable and insecure, and she has to feel other emotions when playing characters in a play, because if you don't put yourself in that character's shoes or just copy someone else's take on it, you're nothing. It's the same thing with the two Cinderellas from both Disney movies, the 1950 one and the 2015 live-action remake. The former, while not the most proactive character, feels more like a human being and actually gives a shit about the situation she's in, whereas the 2015 movie tried way too hard to make her smart and independent while accidentally making her more passive and like an overly happy zombie who doesn't even try to do anything about her situation. What makes or breaks a character is how they deal with their flaws, because rather than simply make a character one thing and nothing else, they need to be interesting first. Tl;dr, Sarasa from Kageki Shojo is a better genki girl than Manatsu from Tropical Rouge Pretty Cure because Sarasa is allowed to be flawed and act like a human being.
Alright, I better get off this soapbox. If you're looking for a show that actually cares about its material, definitely check out Kageki Shojo if you can. It's an underrated gem that absolutely deserves more love than it gets.