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"Kaleido Star" Dazzles and Inspires

by on February 21, 2011

Relentlessly positive and fun-loving, Kaleido Star is the tale of a plucky teenager’s rise to stardom, and is possibly the best family-friendly Japanese cartoon that has not been picked up for U.S. television broadcast. Armed with big dreams matched by her great heart and gymnastics skills, Sora Naegino travels from Japan to California to audition for the famous Kaleido Stage, where she has dreamed of performing for years ever since her late parents took her there. It is a place that delights its adoring audience with dazzling performances where the circus and stage performance collide.

However, Sora’s pursuit of this ambition gets off to a rocky start. After using her skills to thwart a would-be mugger, she is late for auditions, leading to a cold dismissal from top star Layla Hamilton. Fortunately it turns out that earlier in the day Sora caught the eye of none other than Kaleido Stage’s owner, Kalos, who drafts her to fill an open spot on the evening’s performance. Despite a flawed debut, Kalos elects to keep Sora around, a decision that is both a blessing and a curse. With the exception of the stage manager, Ken, and Layla’s dashing costar, Yuri Killian, Sora is the object of ire of nearly every performer at Kaleido Stage, who see her as a mere beneficiary of favoritism. Only through unyielding determination and an immense amount of hard work can Sora win the respect of her peers and fulfill her dream of becoming a star.

There is admittedly an amount of predictability to Kaleido Star. With a setup like this any viewer would assume that Sora is ultimately going to succeed, and time and again Sora indeed rises to the occasion to meet any challenge she is presented with. To boot, soon after her arrival Sora meets a whimsical character known as Fool, a diminutive “spirit of the stage” that only appears to guide those rare few with the potential to become a “true star” of the stage. Fortunately, putting aside that Fool turns out to be more useful for comic relief and exposition than good advice, there is more to the show than the tale of a blessed chosen one or a series of similar training arcs. Early on, Sora meets a challenge from Layla to learn her signature Golden Phoenix maneuver in order to earn respect from her and the others, but it’s a close call and Sora’s challenges vary from that point on. On stage she learns to work together with others, to deal with negative public criticism, and to make a starring role her very own instead of trying her best to emulate a past wonderful performance. Off stage she quickly wins over what will be two of her closest friends, has to calm her foster parents’ concerns about how she’s doing, mentors and befriends a young prodigy, and tries her best to make a genuine connection with Layla. In short, Sora’s success on stage is a secondary point compared to how she grows as a person and the relationships that she builds along the way. Since Sora is such an emotional and positive person, the viewer naturally wants to root for her.

Another essential part of what makes Kaleido Star engaging is the underlying theme that success is not at all the absence of failure. On the contrary, it is achieved with effort and no small amount of difficulty, especially in show business and particularly when Kaleido Stage has a reputation for being the best in the business. Layla is renowned for her talent, but the viewer gets ample opportunity to see that she trains harder than anyone. Meanwhile many steps of Sora’s rise to greatness only come with plenty of trial and error, setbacks, and her fair share of discouragement. But the point isn’t merely demonstrated through training; the dedication of Sora and her friends is put to the ultimate test when a plot twist leads to the departure of Kalos and Layla and most of the cast striking out on their own. Rather than move on, Sora’s inner circle simply put together their own independent performance troupe, and when the chance comes to get Kaleido Stage back on track Sora and Layla reunite to train for a legendary—and life-threatening—maneuver. Nonetheless the pair carry on, just as much as for themselves as for the stage. They know it’s the performance of a lifetime and they want to be able to say they’ve done it. It’s here that Layla practically becomes a second main character; she comes out of her shell, does everything she can to support her partner, and pursues her ambition despite risking the disappointment of the wealthy father she always wanted to please.

In the second season the show widens its scope, and becomes considerably better for it. Sora has challenges to overcome here just as in the first season, and there are just as many performances and stunts. This time around, though, Sora finds herself adapting to changes at Kaleido Stage and struggling to reconcile her idealism with the competitiveness that it takes to remain the leading performer on stage. Amid all this and a whole lot of dialogue about what it really means to be a “true star,” Sora clearly remains the main character, but the narrative also delivers on so much characterization and development that the show is immensely satisfying just as the tale of Kaleido Stage itself. Throughout the series we see that Kalos is a demanding boss and at times even a harsh one, but above all he wants to bring nothing less than the very best out of his performers. When someone has a good idea he will listen, and his willingness to give his people a chance to try something new keeps the show going as much as Sora’s determination. Sora’s closest friends Anna and Mia eventually grow into special roles of their own, with Anna embracing her passion for comedy while Mia becomes invaluable as a writer. Rosetta, the aforementioned prodigy, is particularly charming. She initially closes herself off and obsesses over technical excellence, but soon learns to exhibit her emotions on and off the stage and comes to idolize Sora as a little sister would. Yuri and Layla depart as series regulars, but return in very important ways later on. The second season introduces May Wong, who arrogantly wants to usurp Sora’s position and has the talent to back up her boasting. But she does some growing up and goes from being a loner to one half of a very successful partnership with another character. French superstar Leon Oswald brings needed publicity to the stage, but he’s practically an antagonist due to his coldheartedness, cynicism and the stiff demands that he makes on Sora and the other performers. Fortunately, even Leon has more to him than what’s on the surface, and the changes he goes through by the end are satisfying even if one can’t quite manage to empathize with him as Sora does.

In addition to the series’ fifty-one episodes, two OVA episodes are available as extras and offer more story beyond the ending. “The Amazing Princess Without A Smile”, a sweet episode-length story about Rosetta’s first starring role, was included on DVD years ago. For this new release FUNimation has included the second OVA “Legend of Phoenix” in Japanese with subtitles, bringing the full animated story to fans and new viewers for the first time. Unlike the first OVA, “Legend of Phoenix” runs for fifty minutes, and its animation quality is noticeably better than the TV series’. The OVA focuses on Layla and is a more subdued and introspective affair; the familiar training is cast aside as Layla goes on a journey of self-discovery when she feels she’s hit a creative and emotional dead-end in her performing. In time Sora goes after her, and the pair find the inspiration to make their next performances something special, but the story is really about Layla’s character and the close bond built between her and Sora throughout the show. This is time well spent, as witnessing these two very different women bringing the best out of each other was one of the greatest joys in the series. From Layla to the rest of the show’s magnetic supporting cast, one way or another Sora inspires change in them all. As such, Kaleido Star delivers a palatable concluding message: the truly great ones not only excel but also bring out the greatness in others.

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