It's different, at least. I hadn't been particularly gripped by ep.1, but I stuck with it anyway because the show had a reputation. Tomohiro Furukawa worked with legendary whack job Kunihiko Ikuhara on Mawaru Penguindrum and this show suggests that the experience rubbed off on him.
Unfortunately, though, I didn't think it was up to much. Surreal, yes. Schoolgirl lesbians, yes. Powerful story to make us care about the weird stuf? Nope, not really.
It starts out resembling an idol anime, except set in the world of Takarazuka. (All-female theatrical troupe, intensely stylised, mega-camp in its heightened way. You get some Takarazuka costumes here, but ironically the episodes convey no Takarazuka vibes and it could have been any stage school anywhere. One of the girls has transferred in from a name-changed RADA in London. To be honest, I get the impression that the only reason the show's set in the Takarazuka Music School is that that's the most natural way to justify an all-female cast.) This is where I started to drift on my first viewing.
We then discover that auditions are being overseen by a talking giraffe in an underground magical dimension, where the girls fight duels with daggers, rope daggers, naginatas, bows and arrows, halberds and various different swords. While singing throughout. Tokyo Tower is also down there.
This is fun, up to a point. You can't say it's not different... but I didn't really care. "Different" is relative. This is anime. You soon get used to the auditions. Magical singing sword fights, okay. Gotcha. They're well animated, but yeah. You start noticing that no one ever gets injured in these all-out duels with frighteningly dangerous big, sharp implements. It's bollocks, frankly. Pretty, exciting-looking and empty. It would change nothing to replace those duels with a chess tournament, coin tosses or just a few minutes of a blank screen.
You move beyond that stage, to the less fruitful one of looking for a point to it all.
The cast are fine. I didn't really care about them, but they're fine. Karen has a childhood friend called Hikari who's returned to Japan after twelve years in England, but is acting as cold as ice. (Karen also has a roommate, Mahiru, who likes her a lot. You can't help but feel sorry for Mahiru, who's one of the few cast members not to be half of a pseudo-couple. This show is more fuelled by lesbian overtones than it is by underground giraffe auditions.)
Other pairings include Maya-Claudine and Futaba-Kaoruko. There's also a girl called Big Banana who's admirably embraced the fact that her parents had no naming sense.
These people are perfectly okay, but they're static. The show's going nowhere. The girls are preparing for a stage show, which is hardly surprising. There's a modest amount of rivalry about who'll get a lead role, but that's mild and goes nowhere. The show's a bunch of well-made, wheel-spinning little episodes that explore the Girl of the Week's character and end in an underground sword fight. I quite enjoyed them, but you could shuffle the running order and/or omit some without really changing anything. Admittedly the show starts going somewhere in its second half, with Next Stage Mental in ep.7 and some darker truths about the auditions, but even then it still feels a bit arbitrary. I wasn't grabbed. It's likeable, but it's not clear why we should care about any of it. Lead role in the play... well, yeah. It'll be someone else next time. Motives are fuzzy. End goals are vague. Karen and Hikari are the show's main duo, but also its least interesting characters.
As for the surreal content, just being surreal doesn't automatically mean you've earned your screen time. It looks great, obviously. I like surrealism. However, if we're comparing with Ikuhara, (a) his surrealism is wittier and more outrageous than this, and (b) he'll have shocking, savage themes under the surface.
This show is exploring the nature of performance. Is stage acting an endless time loop of repetition, or is it being reborn with every performance? Actors are told to shine, but what does that mean? I love the loud, literalist presentation of the themes and the way that the surrealism allows impossible storytelling avenues. You could have a lot of fun chewing this over with like-minded friends. You could dig deep into it. However your discussions would be all theme and no story. You might mention the latter in passing, flap a hand without much interest and move on.
This isn't a bad show at all. It's one rethink away from being something I'd love. Plenty of reviewers put it in their Best of Summer 2018 lists. It's cool to look at. I'm glad I watched it and I'm unlikely to see anything else like it, but I see no need to keep the episodes.