Well, Kageki Shojo!! wouldn’t be a true school manga if it didn’t have some kind of a sports or cultural festival arc, would it? It’s practically a prerequisite for these arcs to pop up as a break in the monotony of student life, something that feels of deathly importance at the time when they don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. However, since Kouka Academy is a very unusual school, they have a very unusual sports festival: instead of students competing against each other while their parents root for them from the sidelines, superstar veterans compete for an audience of their adoring fans while the current students play strictly support roles.
One of the fun things about Kageki Shojo!! is the opportunity to learn about the real-life traditions of the Takarazuka theater, which Kouka is very much based on regardless of any minor details that have been changed. The Grand Sports Festival in volumes 3 and 4 is a real tradition, a competition between the theater’s troupes held for the fans every ten years. Information on it in English is sparse, so it’s hard to say how realistically or accurately it’s being represented. I can’t really gauge how plausible it would be for, say, a current student to be pulled in as an alternate when one of the veterans gets injured.
Plausible or not, that’s exactly what happens, and Sarasa is naturally the one who ends up chosen. With the sports festival, Sarasa’s internal conflict about not understanding how to create her own interpretation of a character is put on pause in favor of external events. Kumiko Saiki must walk a delicate balance, keeping Sarasa at the center of the action without giving her a case of Protagonist Syndrome, wherein it feels like the universe is warping itself so that everything revolves around her. Overall, she’s done a solid job setting up the characters and story so that it doesn’t feel unnatural. Sarasa, with her height, poofy hair, and extroversion, just naturally draws attention to herself, positive and negative. Her ignorance of the rigid traditions and hierarchies of Kouka make her stand out, supplemented by her enthusiasm for everything she does and her natural charisma.
With everything falling into her lap, she could easily have morphed into the dreaded Mary Sue – a term I don’t use lightly – by this point in the story, but a few things save her from that terrible fate. For one thing, you really do find people who are just naturally charismatic in the performing arts, especially when they have such charming, guileless enthusiasm. Another is that while some of her classmates adore her, others resent her for how easily she’s noticed, and how she gets away with stomping all over tradition when others would be seen as disrespectful for the same faux pas. This resentment, along with her struggle to understand how to build her own characters, is a major source of insecurity for Sarasa.
This insecurity also highlights the interplay between Sarasa, who is inexperienced but naturally talented and passionate, and Ai, who is a seasoned performer but has trouble settling into her niche as a musumeyaku. There’s less emphasis on their bond than the last couple of volumes, but Ai manages to give Sarasa the advice she needs to understand what is needed of her, while her own growing attachment to her roommate and best friend serves as a source of inspiration that allows her to grow as an actress herself. While Ai is undoubtedly the deuteragonist to Sarasa’s protagonist, the emphasis on her psychology and trauma in the first volumes of the series has already laid the groundwork for her own internality. Because of this, she never feels like she’s just a convenient guide to Sarasa, but someone on her own journey that intersects with and are inspired by the others. They are twin stars, not a planet and its moon.
Speaking of twins, Kageki Shojo!! continues to explore its secondary cast, both in the main plot and through side stories at the end of the volume. This time, the twins get the focus, and for a series with character writing as strong as this one, their plot is maddeningly boilerplate. They’re close. They’ve always been together. As identical twins, they’re always in sync, but now as teenagers, they’re starting to want to assert their individual identities. This is a particular point of frustration because I myself am a twin, and while yes, that is an important phase of development for most sets, it’s exhausting for it to be the only narrative we get over… and over… and over. I swear we have rich inner lives and goals beyond our relationships with our siblings, and the way writers keep turning to this gimmick represents a huge failure of imagination.
Luckily, the side stories about Kaoru, Sei Satomi, and Hijiri fare much better, each delving into the characters’ backstories and fleshing out their motivations along with their backstories. The pressure Kaoru feels as a “thoroughbred,” the third successive generation to attend Kouka, has been well-established, but it becomes the source of her bond with the younger brother of a popular baseball star that turns into a sweetly touching summer romance. Hers in particular could have worked well as a standalone story, with their circumstances both well-established fictional tropes that don’t rely solely on Kaoru’s connection to Kouka, and relatable to many people’s everyday lives. Although it’s not part of the main plot, it truly is a highlight of the series so far.
Sei and Hijiri’s stories may not have the same power as Kaoru’s, but they still fill in important backstory for two characters who have mostly been mysterious so far. If you’ve been reading so far and wondering just what Hijiri’s problem is, well, this won’t totally offer answers; I’m 90% sure at this point that she really is just kind of a bully who gets mad when things don’t fit her image of how they’re supposed to be. However, I actually prefer that Saiki doesn’t try to explain away her unpleasantness, even when humanizing her and depicting how she was kind of a misfit herself before enrolling at Kouka. Most of the time, bullies don’t need a deeper reason to be jerks.
These side stories go a long way toward making the world of Kageki Shojo!! feel less like it’s revolving around Sarasa, and more like she’s just the member of the cohort the story focuses on, a cohort full of driven young women with big personalities; in short, the kind of young women who go into theater. Kageki Shojo!! has continued to be a thoughtful character piece, exploring the lives of the people in the world of Kouka, all while largely avoiding indulging in cliches.