It is with some relief that I greeted the final episode of Shoujou Kageki Revue Starlight, because it’s over with and I don’t have to pretend to be interested anymore.
On paper, the show sounds fantastic. It’s a cross between Utena and a bit of Puella Magica: a story taking place at a theatrical academy where girls moonlight in a secret surrealist tournament where they combat to become the ‘Top Star’ who’s granted a single wish, refereed by a talking giraffe. It’s not slice of life, it doesn’t restrict itself to being exclusively a high school romance (e.g. Citrus), there are elements of the supernatural. The animation looks very good (albeit it suffers from some reused footage), there’s nothing to complain about regarding the voice acting, the concept is fine and the music fantastic.
But as each episode aired, I grew less and less interested, and watching it becomes perfunctory. Oh, it’s cute, it’s very gay, and more often than not the gay isn’t subtext, it’s just text. But, and this is endemic to a lot of shows like this, they forgot to make the characters… well… characters. This is an issue with shows that are heavy on girls and/or with a magical girl tint: characters are cheerful, loving, social, optimistic, positive, and they are rarely conflicted, interesting, human, or even have a personality. Even the revelation that one of them has been looping time — and so forced the entire class to repeat the year over and over again, possibly countlessly — doesn’t shift the show’s tone. The time-looper is forgiven instantly (!), everyone moves on, things proceed as usual. The spirit of competition is never particularly vicious, the girls all get along, everything is wholesome and therefore almost unwatchably dull.
I think there’s some level of authorial cowardice going on: a lot of writers can’t come up with characters that can carry their own stories, so they resort to the belief that if someone is nice, slightly ditzy, plucky and relentlessly optimistic, that character must by definition be likable and therefore viewers will keep watching (or readers will keep reading). But it’s also gendered: girls are not really human beings. Girls are nice and soft and sweet and frilly, and are not capable of expressing or accessing the full range of human emotions. Friendship is magic, they’re never angry at each other for long, everything is stifled under this layer of infantile refusal to let these characters have actual feelings or even negative traits.
The heroine of Starlight could have been the ambitious over-achievers or the girl who time-loops for twisted reasons: any of them would have improved the show tremendously and possibly grounded it in something — anything! — other than this lumbering, molly-coddling obsession with wholesomeness so total there’s no real emotion behind any of the characters. Karen’s promise with Hikari is touching, I guess, but pretty much everyone else has more dimension: Karen isn’t a person, she’s just pluck. And pluck’s fine, whatever. But when the entire cast comprises of threadbare cuteness, no amount of fine animation or music or lesbianism is going to save it. Puella Magica would have been beyond dull if every character in it was Kaname Madoka; Steven Universe would be unwatchable if every character in it was Steven Universe (and, even then, I find him as a character increasingly insufferable).
It’s not even that Starlight is about empathy or forgiveness. None of the characters has ever experienced or exhibited anything resembling a mean though or action, so it’s not like there’s anything to forgive. They don’t compete. They don’t get angry. They haven’t sacrificed anything. Their sense of camaraderie rings hollow because what have they actually been through together? That’s right: nothing.
Hikari’s own sacrifice is hard to appreciate when it doesn’t amount to anything, and it’s done for the sake of Karen, a character so painfully pointless and boring I wish she could magically be excised from a show that would in her absence be quite decent. And that’s despite Starlight offering okay lesbian representation that’s almost impossible to find (positive, non-fetishized, non-tragic), something for which I can usually ignore almost any flaw.
But not this time. Karen sucks. The tone of the show is already too saccharine and Karen taints everything further by being an unending blackhole of suck. There is no tension, no drama, no up or down or anything else. Shoujou Kageki Revue Starlight is one long, big flat line. Come for the lesbians, the animation, the music. But don’t expect anything that resembles an interesting story, good pacing, or even characterization.
Give me Princess Principal. I have some fucking standards.