I'm only reviewing the first season (26 episodes) of the TV series of Kaleido Star. That's all I've watched and it didn't encourage me to hunt down the rest. However the full roster to date is:
- Kaleido Star (two-season TV series, 51 episodes, 2003)
- Kaleido Star: New Wings Extra Stage (2004 OAV, one episode)
- Kaleido Star: ~Layla Hamilton Monogatari~ (2005 OAV, one episode)
A 16-year-old Japanese girl, Sora Naegino, has travelled all the way to America for the sake of her dream. She wants to audition for Kaleido Star, a world-famous circus troupe of clowns, trapeze artists and death-defying acrobats. Can she overcome hostility, challenges and rivals to become the star of the Kaleido Stage?
There's plenty of good in this show, especially once it overcomes its teething troubles. It's heartfelt and watchable, with a likeable cast. Sora in particular is an excellent lead character, with an endearing sincerity and a never-say-die determination. No matter what, she's always worth watching. She never stops trying and caring.
Unfortunately I couldn't believe in its world. The Kaleido Stage bears no resemblance to any other form of show business in the world. This series has heart, but no brain. Characters throw down ridiculous challenges to each other and threaten to cancel shows at the last minute. Huh? No, I'm sorry. You rework scenes, you simplify stuff, you bring in last-minute replacements who if necessary go on stage with a book in their hand, but you never cancel the show. My suspension of disbelief flew out of the window. Show business may be full of temperamental prima donnas, but the first law of the stage is The Show Must Go On.
Episode one has the boss putting a complete newcomer on the stage. Okay. Fine. It's a cliche, but I swallowed it. However in episode two Sora accepts a challenge to do something impossible or leave Kaleido Star, although it's what she wants more than anything in the world. What? Is she a moron? It's idiot plotting, creating false jeopardy for the sake of a one-off episode. However worst of all is episode five, in which Sora's father wants her to abandon Kaleido Star and return to Japan. Of course we know that won't happen, so the writers throw in nonsense about him collapsing in the street, plus of course her real parents are dead and these are her foster parents who've looked after her since she was... bleah. Kill me now. This series doesn't know what it's talking about. You could get endless drama from the world of a performing arts company, but these early episodes always seemed to go for the big stupid unbelievable option.
Nevertheless Sora always shines. Even in the most ridiculous stories, being jerked through idiot plotting that should make you lose all patience with her, she could still pull out emotional moments. I was impressed. Even when I could believe in nothing else, I believed in Sora. She's strong-willed and talented without being so ridiculously so that she gets everything on a plate.
I have another problem with the circus setting. The shows look fantastic, but their rehearsals are boring. They lack the intellectual element of the theatre and the musical element of dancing. Sora and her friends are just doing gymnastics. It's purely physical. There's no narrative, nothing to think about. It's almost like a sports anime, but without the competitive element. Kodomo no Omocha's Sana was far more interesting in every possible way, for example. Admittedly the Big Top performances are visually spectacular, but I think you'd have to work even harder to make an interesting series out of life backstage at a circus. Unfortunately Kaleido Star doesn't have the brains for it.
Those early episodes are full of things that don't fit. Take the super-deformation, for instance. Normally I don't mind that kind of thing, but Kaleido Star has lovely realistic visuals that really pull you into its world. It feels solid, with digital animation's ability to pan around and swoop through space like a real movie camera. Unfortunately all this great stuff makes the cartoonish bits annoying.
Another example is Fool. He's a magic spirit who lives in Sora's dressing room and can only be seen by Those Who Are Fated To Be The Greatest Oh For Crying Out Loud Tell Me You're Kidding. Again it's a cookie-cutter element that slithered in at the planning stage and should have been chucked straight out again. This isn't a magical show. I'd have also liked his Tarot gimmick better had it had anything at all to do with anything else. The only thing in Fool's favour is that the show's willing to make fun of him and his pervy desire to see Sora in the shower.
In fairness, the early episodes are the roughest. Later on they identified what wasn't working and tweaked the formulae, but that beginning is obviously cobbled together from stock ingredients that we've seen a million times before. Episode one made me think they didn't understand their own show. I'd have been surprised to be surprised. There's the bitch queen who hates Sora for absolutely no reason and makes her life hell. There's the circus boss who randomly meets Sora before they know each other's real identities, supports her against Bitch Queen and has unshakeable faith that one day she'll be a star. There's an amiable nonentity of a backstage boy who'll obviously have a thing for Sora. I liked the policeman, though.
I loved episode three, which was about the meaning of performing on stage. It's about bringing pleasure to people. That's a noble goal and I admired Sora for it. It shed light on her personality. By the time we reach the end of season one, most of the annoyances have gone and the show's very watchable. The conclusion has weight, emotion and sacrifice. Unfortunately I still couldn't quite believe in the circus world being portrayed, in which Sora and Layla must perform the Legendary Great Maneuver for which complete belief in yourself matters more than a stress fracture. It's like bloody magic. Similarly the business side of things is unbelievable.
Season one has a good ending. Sora has achieved her goal. It's strong, it's satisfying and it's a shame they carried on for another season. Even an intelligent show might have had trouble working out where to go next. This one... uh, yeah.
Kaleido Star was a dream project for its director Junichi Sato and only realised through foreign funding. In the end it was an international joint project with Japanese (sodding bloody Gonzo), Korean (G&G Entertainment) and American (ADV Films) companies. Looking at the circus routines, it's easy to see where the money went. However I can't help wondering if trying to please all those investors was bad for the show. Kaleido Star hardly ever dares to be original, while what should have been its unique selling point turns out to be a drag factor on the storytelling. In comparison, Junichi Sato was the series director for Sailor Moon's first 59 episodes and thereafter still did storyboards and directed individual episodes. That show was ignored by its studio and had almost no money in its first season, but was genuinely groundbreaking. I also have high hopes for another Junichi Sato project, Magic User's Club.
A lot of people have liked this series and in fairness I was absolutely the wrong person to show it to. Its production values are lovely and it can be impressive when it's focused on its characters. Its vision of the circus world is more problematic, but I'm sure most people would have less trouble with this than me. This show may be unoriginal and a bit dumb, but it means well.