Monday, March 5, 2012

Anime Review: Kaleido Star

Kaleido Star

  • Studio: Gonzo
  • Publisher: Funimation (USA)
  • Network: TV Tokyo (Japan)
  • Air dates: 3 April 2003 - 27 March 2004 (Japan)
  • Episodes: 51
  • Directors: Jun'ichi Sato, Yoshimasa Hiraike

This article was updated on 7 November 2014.

Riddle me this: Have you ever heard of the anime series Princess Tutu? It's supposed to be this awesome magical girl-type show which takes the roles of classic fairy tales and turns them on their head, brilliantly combining the elements of dance, fairy tales, and classical music into a genre-bending experience. There's just one problem... when I said dance, I meant ballet. Now I'm not the world's most masculine guy, but I have to draw the line somewhere, and considering that I already identify as a Lil’ Monster, Brony, Moonie, and... whatever a Totally Spies! fan calls himself, that's saying something. Now, I strongly believe that guys should be able to enjoy girlish things and girls should be able to enjoy… guy-ish things without being labeled a traitor to their sexuality, but… I think I’m gonna have to work my up way to Princess Tutu. Not that I’d try to review it anyway; apart from my aforementioned misgivings, there’s also a fantastic review on the subject done by JesuOtaku way back when, and with the knowledge and insight she exhibited therein, there’s no way I could one-up her. On the upside, its director, Junichi Sato (also the director of Sailor Moon), also created another series – one that should only make you rip a tiny tear into your man cards instead of shredding them up completely. Oh wait, I just said I don't believe in "man cards". Anyway, enter Kaleido Star.

Our series stars Sora Naegino (No, not that Sora. Not that one either.) (EN: Cynthia Martinez, JP: Ryo Hirohashi), a teenage Japanese girl who emigrates to America to join the Kaleido Stage. What is Kaleido Stage? It’s part circus, a little bit musical theatre, a little bit magic show, and so much more. In other words, it’s Cirque du Soleil on drugs. And the drug is anime. (Seriously, is Cirque do Soleil really the only example Americans can recognise!? I guess that just goes to show the stranglehold the Ringling Bros. racket has on our country’s market.) In the first episode, Sora spends her first day in America getting lost, getting her legs checked out by some pervert, and getting her luggage stolen. She gives chase on some roller-skates – think the skateboard scene from Back to the Future on steroids – again, the steroids are anime – and as a result, she catches the thief, but ends up missing the Kaleido Stage auditionfor her efforts. This comes to the displeasure of its current star, Layla Hamilton (EN: Sandra Krasa, JP: Sayaka Ohara), who won't let her try out, for the sole purpose of her being a little bit late. But it turns out the assumed pervert from before is really the founder of the circus, Kalos Eido (EN: Rick Burford, JP: Keiji Fujiwara), who puts her in their show at the last minute. Despite a rough start, and another dismissal from Layla, Kalos intervenes and lets her stay on as part of the Kaleido Stage cast. But Layla intends to put Sora through the ringer before letting her share her spotlight. Sora must push her body to the limit, and rely on the friendship of whomever she can manage, in order to survive.
Sora has talent, but that alone can only go so far in the world of Kaleido Stage.
The series is divided into arcs of five episodes or so, each focusing on Sora's attempts to master a certain act. Whether it's on the trampoline, tightrope, or trapeze, no matter what the circumstances, Sora tries her darndest to prove herself to people such as Layla and the manipulative Yuri Killian (EN: Illich Guardiola, JP: Susumu Chiba). Despite the occasional bout of sexual tension with characters such as Yuri, Sora never shows any romantic interest to speak of with any of the boys. Her raison d'etre is performing to entertain and/or inspire the audience. She is, above all other qualities, selfless, and in the hands of a lesser writer this would run the risk of portraying her as a pretty little perfect Mary-Sue. But her idealistic desires are used effectively, clashing with the harsh realities forced upon her by her peers. Sora is not immune to being comsumed by the metaphorical darkness, but she always has a way of bringing the light of hope back into play.

Yeah, the drama can get heavy throughout this show, but comic relief comes in the form of Fool (EN: Jay Hickman, JP: Takehito Koyasu), the self-professed "Spirit of the Stage" and our exposition fairy. Fool can only be seen by people who are true stars of Kaleido Stage, or on their way to becoming such. This leads to some… intriguingly realistic reactions when Sora first lays eyes on him and, instead of accepting him right off the bat, thinks she’s lost her mind. But once his presence settles in, he becomes a living barometer of Sora's psychological state. If she loses her ability to see him, then you know trouble’s going down. He also presents the audience, and occasionally characters, with fairly obvious foreshadowing in the form of fortune telling, either of the tarot card or astrology variety. And to round out his character, he has a running gag of making perverted suggestions to Sora, for which he either gets locked in a cupboard or punched into the sky, Team Rocket-style, for his endeavours.

I would say this kind of humour is inappropriate given the context that surrounds these scenes, but A) given the state of such context, I could use a break in the tension every once in a while, and B) all this is handled rather tastefully. In fact, whilst the show isn’t shy on the actual fanservice, it’s also done to a tasteful degree – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – but it even makes sense in the context of the show itself. Think about it – the work of a circus acrobat demands a high range of motion that won’t be hampered by an inconvenient costume, and plus, for the shows themselves, you’d also want costumes that pique the audience’s interests. What better way to accomplish both than, say, a leotard, or if you’re really lucky, something that bares the midriff? Throw in some choice stretches with camera angles that put the focus on certain choice body parts, and badabingo – fanservice you don’t have to feel guilty about! ...Did I mention the guy who created this also worked on Sailor Moon? And no, even the males aren’t immune to the fanservice stick.

The only major character who elicits a "meh" reaction from yours truly would be a mister Ken Robbins (EN: John Swasey, JP: Hiro Shimono). Ken apparently has a weak heart, precluding him from being an acrobat, so instead he got a job running the shows behind the scenes, controlling the set changes, special effects, and what have you. From the very first episode, he becomes one of Sora’s best friends, and I guess the closest thing she ever has to a love interest. But apart from the occasional bout of moral support, he does practically nothing else in service of the plot. Heck, even Sora’s other friends each get an episode devoted to exorcising the metaphorical demons of their backstories, but Ken? Not so much!

The second season mixes it up with two rival performers: Leon Oswald (EN: Mike McRae, JP: Takahiro Sakurai), a loftier-than-thou trapeze veteran whose backstory involves a dead sister, and May Wong (EN: Hilary Haag, JP: Mai Nakahara), an envious ice-skater who’s gunning for Sora’s spotlight. Sora’s conflicts, especially with these characters, highlight the struggle of performance versus technical skill. While Sora does have the goods, she is unable to nail everything that May, Leon, and others are able to pull off. Yet their style is cold and aloof, as if they don't even recognise the audience's existence, whereas Sora takes pleasure in making at least one of her fans smile. It really makes you think of which side of the performer-versus-technician debate is really better. If the decision were up to me, I’d say there are benefits to both approaches. A character who can pull off moves perfectly and effortlessly is awesome in his or her own right, even if -- or perhaps because -- their personality is so cold and aloof. As for the other side of the argument, it reminds me of that starfish fable. As long as the character can make a difference to even just one person in the audience, then the performance, warts and all, will have been worthwhile. So what side does Kaleido Star take in this argument? Well, let’s just say the main character is a "performer" more than a "technician".

Also, even though the conflicts in Kaleido Star are non-violent in nature, I don't think I've seen any antagonists who filled me with as much rage as Yuri and Leon. See, there was this one time when... Well, without wishing to spoil... I don’t know if I can go through with this. Folks, let me put it to you this way: I’m a huge fan of The Simpsons. But there are some episodes I just can never watch again. Because sometimes, unfair things happen to the main characters and they don’t get any decent justice for it. And I bring this up because the same is true for Kaleido Star. In an attempt to give the viewer a taste of the emotions Sora goes through, the series is rife with bittersweet moments. For example, there’s a bit where her parents visit Kaleido Stage, only for her to flub her act.  But then, her stepdad survives a heart attack, and they both have to head back home before they can see her act perfected. And that's only on the first DVD! There are similar moments here and there throughout the series, but there was one episode from season two which… I’m not gonna spoil it all the way, but suffice to say, it was so depressing, that even to this day it’s given me some form of anime watcher’s PTSD.
The Kaleido Stage productions are just as stunning for real-world viewers as for its in-world audience.
It is worth going through all that just to watch the finished acts. Like the superhuman feats of strength and spirit showcased in other genres of anime, the routines here are based in reality but throw in the right pinch of exaggeration and magic that only the medium can provide, to create the perfect spectacle. It also helps that they brought on the multitalented circus performer Atsushi "Dio" Kobayashino, not that "Dio" – as a special advisor. (Fun Fact: A character in one of the filler episodes was named Dio in his honour.) (Second Fun Fact: Ironically, the character Dio uses a whip, even though his namesake quit that act ever since accidentally injuring an assistant with one.) The end result is that the writers and animators know their stuff; they know the ins and outs of how each of the apparatuses are used, how the acrobats must train themselves to use them, and they also know where they can take creative liberties to create the perfect animated spectacle. Let me put it to you this way: if they made an OVA which was nothing but one full-length Kaleido Stage performance, it would be like the COOLEST thing ever!

Thankfully, the animation is up to the task of bringing it all to life where it counts, doing sweet justice to the many performace scenes. Even if the other scenes get the short end of the budget, such as some training sequences relying on a series of still-image overlays to show action, the animation quality never dips below comfortably competent even then. As for the voice acting, the Japanese dub has got the goods, with Ryo Hirohashi's Sora packed with the enthusiasm so inextricably associated with the character, albeit never crossing over the boundaries of being "sugary". The English version, whilst by no means being of 4Kids caliber, has a few more misses. In her take on the lead role, Cynthia Martinez does keep much of the emotion of her character intact, but sounds far too young and, dare I say it, annoying for a lead character. Ironically, the reverse is true for Serena Varghese as Rosetta Passel, the young diabolo champion who joins the cast a few episodes in, who sounds too old and wooden for someone her character's age. And rounding out his status as a "meh" character, John Swasey's performance as Ken is downright derpy. I do like how the English actors for Yuri and Leon did their respective Russian and French accents, but other than that, I can't completely recommend the English dub.

And then, there's the soundtrack. You may not think the soundtrack can make or break an anime, but it can. And in the case of Mina Kubota's score for Kaleido Star, it makes the show. The lighter scenes use cheery woodwind melodies, the more melancholy moments bring in solo horns or pianos, and the circus performances bring the whole orchestra together for an epic musical climax. In fact, I doubt that certain scenes would have had half the dramatic impact if not for the music scored for them. The same cannot be said of the theme songs, however, which are pretty much your standard female-fronted J-pop fare. If I have to pick a favourite among them, I'd choose "Tattoo Kiss", used during the second season, because unlike the others its melody at least has some texture to it, starting in a minor key only to crescendo into a major-key climax.

In the case of Kaleido Star, I do see a couple of flaws here and there. Some of the more emotional scenes are just too hard to sit through for some viewers, myself included, and of course the English dub's a little hit-or-miss. But let me put it to you this way: I don’t know if I'll ever raise a family. But if I do so, I would show this to my hypothetical children. Sora Naegino is just such a great role model for anyone who has goals for their lives. It's true that outside circumstances may put a damper on those plans, but with enough diligence and the right attitude, she can power throw anything life throws at her. Now that, more than anything I could say about the animation, the music, the storylines ‒ which are all fantastic by the way ‒ is the greatest compliment I could give anything. But even if Kaleido Star's problems are enough to dock it some points in the end, well, that's why I invented the Dragon Award modifier -- to celebrate those works which do something so amazingly and uniquely good, that I simply have to recommend them despite any minor flaws. So, if you can steel yourself for a bit of heartbreak, you're in for a fantastic treat for both the eyes and the heart. And hey, if it gets you turned onto Princess Tutu, so much the better! I won't tell.

+ Superbly well-written characters.
+ The story is moving and even inspirational.
+ The circus scenes are well-animated.
+ The soundtrack complements the show's moods perfectly.
- Some episodes may be too heart-rendingly bittersweet for some viewers.
- The English dub is a little hit-or-miss.

Acting (English): 3 Fools out of 5
Acting (Japanese): 5 Fools out of 5
Writing: 5 Fools out of 5
Animation: 4 Fools out of 5
Visual Design: 5 Fools out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)

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