Go buy this so the sequel can be licensed THANK YOU.
Stand-offish Ai Narata is starting afresh after getting booted from the idol megagroup JPX-48 for calling a fan a creep at a handshake event. Accepted to the Kouka School for Theater and Musical Arts, she’s looking forward to living in a world largely free of men – after a two year program of study at the all-girls’ school, she’ll be able to move onto being a member of one of the likewise all-female Kouka Theater troupes. (Yes, its all Takarazuka, even if it’s got a different name to it.) To her chagrin, though, she discovers she’s been paired for room assignments with the wildly boisterous Sarasa Watanabe. Sarasa seems an odd fit for such a prestigious place, as she’s had little formal training in performance arts and lacks the guile one would think was necessary for surviving in such a competitive environment. But if Ai’s powered by a desire to avoid dealing with men, Sarasa’s the one who has her eyes on the top… even if she hasn’t quite realized that that’s the implication of her ultimate goal of playing the role of Oscar de Jarjayes.
Clocking in at nearly 500 pages, Kageki Shojo!! The Curtain Rises is a pleasingly chunky release that delivers plenty to sink one’s teeth into… while also somewhat maddeningly cutting off right as the going is getting good, thanks to the whims of the market… which isn’t really the manga’s fault, although it does leave one hoping fervently that Seven Seas picks up the sequel, Kageki Shojo!. For, this series ran for roughly two years before the seinen magazine in which it ran, Jump X, was shuttered in 2014. Author Kumiko Saiki was luckily able to pick the ball back up again by starting the sequel series in the shoujo magazine Melody* in 2015, but this portion isn’t licensed… yet.
Despite what seems to clearly be the makings of a hothouse environment, what we get here is a relatively down-to-earth drama story following a group of teen girls as they begin to come to terms with what is entailed in their pursuit of their goals. Ai may be relatively content to tread water in the mid-ranking of her class since her presence is tied to her interest in not being around men (when it’s pointed out that some of her teachers are male, she blithely declares that they don’t really count), but an environment in which she’s constantly physically sharing close quarters with others, both in her dorm room and while in class, doesn’t make it easy for her to continue to be deliberately aloof with everyone. Supporting characters undertake to fulfill the harsh senpai role only to realize they just don’t have it in them. Sarasa seems a bit more immune to change, as she presents more often as a force to which the other students must slowly bow as unkindness simply bounces off of her, although there are glimpses that joining Kouka might have been because she was not allowed to work toward her true dream – maybe her changes pre-dated her enrollment.
I mentioned that the drama tends to be relatively down-to-earth, and I should clarify that what I mean isn’t that it avoids touching on heavier topics, just that it tends to avoid being sensational in its treatment. One of the girls develops an eating disorder and we learn another was molested as a small child, something which the adults around her did not take seriously at the time. Problems with sexual harassment recurs as a theme. That this is handled as it is is pretty clearly linked to a key driving message of the manga, one that is a bit surprising given the setting – that is, that the ability to succeed is about talent and hard-work, yes, but that it is also very much to do with the support of one’s peers, friends, and family. Ai enters the story struggling in part because she does not have a particularly supportive family; Sarasa, meanwhile, is significantly lacking in training but has a loving grandfather and a whole hometown rooting for her to flourish. And that classmate who develops bulimia? She’s able to make a comeback because one of the teachers is concerned enough and believes enough in her to tell her she’s there for a reason and he knows she’s got a bright future. It’s all such a nice change of pace from the tendency for these kinds of stories to devolve into teen girls treating each other badly for the sake of our own entertainment while teachers look on impassively or gleefully pile on.
I’m pleased enough with the Seven Seas release that I find myself contemplating picking up the physical release despite already having the digital one (I did consider buying the paperback from the outset, but knowing the shipping would be slow steered me off of that since I was hotly anticipating this). Courtney Williams did a wonderful job with adapting the logo from the Japanese release, maintaining the spirit of the original.
This one’s an extremely easy recommendation from me; I can think of an awful lot of people I know who’d probably rip through this in one sitting. Among others, I think it’ll appeal immensely to people who enjoyed Revue Starlight, even if it doesn’t plow the more fantastical elements of that show, as well as to Glass Mask fans, although it is far less melodramatic than that. Hell, for that matter, remember Kaleido Star? Did you like it? Decent chance you’d like this. Now go buy it so I can read the sequel, okay?
* Some places on the internet misidentify Melody as a josei magazine, and I can understand why they do so, as a lot of the stablemate manga running in it seem more comfortably classed as josei, but publisher Hakusensha themselves list Melody as a shoujo publication (scroll down to the bottom and you’ll see it listed under 少女まんが誌).