Spoilers for the entirety of Revue Starlight.
“So let us march ahead! Away with all obstacles! Since we seem to have landed in a battle, let us fight! Have we not seen how disbelief can move mountains? Is it not enough that we should have found that something is being kept from us? Before one thing and another there hangs a curtain: let us draw it up!”
– Bertolt Brecht
A performance, either on the screen or the stage, reflects in some way the world in which it exists. While it is created as entertainment first and foremost, it also exists as an imitation of nature, an idealised world with all the complicated edges smoothed and filed to simplify the story. So it is that The Starlight Gatherer, the eponymous play featured in Revue Starlight, reflects the real happenings of the girls rehearsing for it. Its protagonists, Claire and Flora, reach for the brightest star and are punished for it – meanwhile in the auditions, performed on the Stage of Fate, the girls compete to grasp the position of top star, the most revered member of a Takarazuka troupe, in the hopes that the stage will grant their wish in the form of a performance focused on them.
Along with her childhood friend Hikari, Karen has dreamed of performing Starlight, taking the route of becoming a performer to do so, but the cutthroat world of Takarazuka means that as an average performer, and one who least fits either archetype of otokoyaku or musumeyaku (the typical male and female roles), she has a slim chance of arriving on stage at all. On her first visit to the Stage of Fate, Aijo Karen is deposited in the balcony seats alongside a talking giraffe, who reprimands her; “those that can’t wake up on their own in the morning, that don’t mind not playing the lead…will not be called upon”.
The Stage itself exists at the centre of a vast sea of water, separating the spectators and performers entirely from each other. While the Stage itself is not separate from the audience, it does everything it can to stop them from being active participants in the play itself, so that it can present its occurrences as being fated to happen. Yet when confronted with the looming defeat of her friend Hikari, Karen boldly leaps from the balcony onto the stage itself, using the giraffe as a springboard. In this act, Karen proves that the events of the stage are not set in stone, that they can be changed not only by the participants but by the spectators too. It will take some work, however, until Karen can convince everyone else of this.
Although the stage inducts her as an auditionee Karen is clearly considered an outsider to the proceedings. While every performer has their own set on which they fight – Junna’s arches and mannequins, Mahiru’s cartoony reflection of the Academy itself, even Hikari’s hastily assembled stars – Karen has none of her own. In fact, the proceedings exist to try and repel her completely, and in her fight with Maya Tendo the stage itself shifts and warps to combat her. The ones on ‘top’ of the auditions are those who lean hardest into its expectations; Tendo Maya and Saijo Claudine are the Stage’s preferred ‘top star’ pair because they most embody the roles of otokoyaku and musumeyaku – even when Daiba Nana is the reigning champion and chooses her stage of fate to repeat endlessly, it’s with those two as the lead roles. The auditions themselves are not a rehearsed performance, but the strong favouring of certain participants over others, and the staging and set design of each duet makes it seem like they may as well be.
Karen’s biggest strength in these auditions is her determination to enact change – she wins most of her duels by exposing to her opponent some truth about their perspective on performance. While most of the cast fights with the belief that they only have a single chance at stardom and must make great sacrifices to do so, Karen refuses to give herself up to the performance. In theatrical terms the girls of the Academy all follow a Stanislavski-inspired devotion to realistic acting, while Karen, ideologically opposed to this, represents more the epic theatre of Brecht.
Stanislavski’s techniques instruct actors to embody the character in their entirety both in their behaviour on-stage and off-stage. On-stage, the ‘actor’ ceases to be, replaced entirely by the character; in doing so the actors are able to create the illusion of reality, a world on the stage that the audience cannot interfere with but believe fully. This manifests itself for the Seisho girls in the idea of sacrifice and repeat performance – Nana, for example, repeats the 99th Starlight infinitely out of a fear that the events of the play will hurt its performers, believing its events to be both real occurrences and an unchangable fate as a result of the illusion.
In contrast, Karen believes that acting is a performance first and foremost, and that it shouldn’t be sacrificed to at all. Brecht’s acting technique refused to allow the actors to embody a character as in Stanislavski’s technique, arguing that the theatre was a representation of reality and that in making this explicit with the acting and staging, the audience should be placed in a state of disbelief at the events themselves. Rather than an imitation of life, epic theatre was conceived as a dialogue with the audience, demonstrating to them some inequality of the world and encouraging them to think critically on it, and to hopefully wish it to change. In many of the duets, the shift in momentum to Karen’s perspective is often accompanied by the exposure of the staging, the wooden boarding of the props placed in full view of the audience.
The giraffe, always watching from the balcony, stands in for the spectator, as is made explicit in the grand finale. The constant catchphrase “I understand” is not a literal expression of understanding but of acceptance – the giraffe accepts everything on stage as being part of the grander scheme of Starlight, that fate as shown on the stage can’t be intervened in from the spectator seat. The Revue’s demand for the best actresses and performances exists in order to convince the spectator that the events are an illusion of reality, which the spectator understands and even encourages – the giraffe’s comments to Karen, all the way back in the first episode, reflect this.
In the final audition Hikari ‘betrays’ Karen to take the top star position, sacrificing herself much like Nana did to shield the others from tragedy but paradoxically enacting it in the process. It’s in experiencing the tragedy firsthand that the difference between the illusory and epic theatre is made explicit; while Hikari, who previously lost to the ‘top star’ at a different academy, felt the experience literally, physically wounded and tasking herself with making sure it never happened to anyone else, Karen refuses to accept it. Mirroring events in episode 3, Karen breaks into the auditions with a crowbar, but unlike Hikari – who, believing that Karen will lose to Maya, fails to reach the stage at all – her disbelief allows her to physically enter Hikari’s Stage, encouraged on by her co-stars.
Hikari’s Stage of Fate is invisible entirely, a massive desert stretching out infinitely, where in her ‘atonement’ she takes the place of both Claire and Flora. This presents the conclusion of the ‘illusion’ of theatre, which convinces both audience and performer that the events are unchangeable, forcing its performers into a repeating cycle of despair. As Karen tries to break her from the trance of performance, Hikari ignores her, taken in completely by the illusion of the stage – even when she’s able to briefly reach Hikari past the ‘character’, the Stage whisks her further away. Ultimately, in the tragedy that Hikari is forcing to act out, Karen has to lose, separated forever with Hikari declaring that “our dream will not come to be”. Hikari remains trapped in the tower.But Karen has already refused the events of the tragedy. In fact, her rising up from defeat, continuing the story beyond its limits, is a complete encapsulation of the techniques of epic theatre. In recreating the Stage of Fate to perform again, speaking her lines both as Flora and as Karen simultaneously, and describing a possible ending that saves the characters, Karen invokes what Brecht called the “V-effect” – turning what is accepted and ordinary into something bizarre and unbelievable. Starlight has concluded, or should have, but by continung the story on her own the audience and performers have their illusion destroyed; Hikari is unable to react sufficiently to the performance while the giraffe, amazed by the events on stage, has their first true declaration that “I understand!”. On Karen’s Stage of Fate, anything is possible – and she uses this power to defeat the Stage of Fate itself, by ramming Tokyo Tower straight through it.
In the final scene, the Stage is revealed from under the desert on Hikari’s Stage of Fate. She no longer believes she has to sacrifice herself for an illusion or even in the tragedy of Starlight itself, and allows Karen to take the spot of top star – along with her. In upturning the tragedy of Starlight Karen and Hikari save not only Claire and Flora but the entire Revue. The Goddesses, who previously guarded the Star, no longer take up arms against the two seeking the star: Nana’s line changes, from “It repeats itself again: the cycle of despair, that which lies below the Starlight”, to “How admirably you’ve found your way to the truth, Flora. You two have set the Goddesses free! We have been watching over you the entire time.” And they really have been. The girls of Seisho, blinded by the ambition set by the toxic star system, who cared for and supported each other the entire time, were trapped under the tower by Starlight. And now they’re set free.