Adventures in the world of shojo continue! I’ve been noodling a little longer (lingering, loitering, getting side-eyes from suspicious shop clerks) in the shojo sections of bookstores these days, trying to see past the dazzling displays of tiresome and heteronormative romances (I’m sorry, romance-loving friends. Girl/Boy falls for boy/girl who doesn’t even notice her/him is just so dull to me. I want stories about people doing things other than falling in love and trying to get the attention of their crush) and dig deep into the possibilities shojo has to offer me. On one such trip to the bookstore, I ducked into an aisle to one side to avoid the curious gazes of actual shojos perusing the shelves. And lo! Awaiting me there was Kageki Shojo, an honest-to-goodness delight and a gem of a series. Why did none of you tell me what a great artist Kumiko Saiki is?! I could have been reading her work for years already instead of only stumbling upon it now.
Fortunately, it’s never too late for great books. And now that I’ve finished all five available volumes of Kageki, I can go back through Saiki’s catalogue. She’s been making manga since 1999! She’s got a lot of books for me to devour. My future right now is very bright, my good chums. I mean, when even the legendary shojo artist Riyoko Ikeda is blurbing her books, you know you are in for some very delicious treats. (Seriously! Can you imagine being a shojo artist and having praise from Ikeda printed on the obi for your book?? I would have the vapours and be calling for smelling salts.)
Kageki is set in a performing high school that is the feeder to an all-female revue that is basically Takarazuka in everything but name. Here, the revue is Kouka Kageki, and they are divided up into Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall troupes, with each troupe having a top musumeyaku and otokoyaku. If you’ve ever seen anything about Takarazuka, then you know how this works. But how do you become the top star in a troupe? Where are these women coming from?? That’s where Saiki’s focus is.
Sarasa is accepted to the school in the hundredth year since its founding, and she has her heart set on being a top otokoyaku. In particular, she is adamant that she will be playing the role of Oscar in Rose of Versailles. And if nothing else, she has her height going for her. At nearly 180 cm, Sarasa is tall. She towers over the other girls in her class, especially roommate Ai. Before coming to Kouka, Ai was a member of the idol group JPX48, a thinly disguised AKB48. It’s hard to believe she was an idol, though. She’s cute enough for the job, but she is as sullen as Sarasa is sunshine. And because of her history in show business, she’s never really had friends before, so she clings to this new friendship with Sarasa and fumbles her way through having an actual relationship with another person.
Because of the nature of the troupe system (roles are allotted rather than auditioned for), there is little competition among the 100-year girls. So we get to see them work together and support each other, their various personalities coming through as the story progresses. And with the spin-off bonuses that start in volume three, we get deep dives into the histories of the girls and see what brought them to Kouka. She also peeks into the stories of the teachers at Kouka, allowing us to see a deeper history of Kouka itself, especially in the tale of Mr. Kunihiro (which straight up made me cry).
But the story is, in the end, about Sarasa and her dream of being a top otokoyaku. So it’s her backstory we keep returning to. She lived with her grandparents and grew up wanting to be a kabuki star, thanks to her grandmother’s love of kabuki and the lessons she took in the neighbourhood (one of the advantages of growing up in a traditional neighbourhood like Asakusa, I guess). She even steps in as a pinch hitter when the kids who were supposed to walk down the hanamichi with the star get the flu. And she takes to the stage like a fish to water or a bird to the sky or whatever it is that is perfectly at home in the place it finds itself. But then she finds out she can never be a kabuki star. Because she is a girl. The “you’re a girl” trope comes up all over the place in shojo, but honestly, I feel like this is a pretty fresh take. She’s trying to join a world that is literally exclusively men and has been for hundreds of years. So she takes all her sadness and anger and longing for the stage and sets her sights on Kouka. And when her friend and son of a kabuki family Akiya says he’d like to join her on stage, she yells that he can’t because he is a boy. It’s such a refreshing and vindicating twist on that trope.
Saiki brings Sarasa and the other characters to life with such clean lines, enough of the big-eyed expressive faces and flowery panels to put this firmly in the realm of shojo, but with her own unique style that called to mind artists as diverse as Natsume Ono (especially in the character design for the teacher Ando) and Haruko Kumota. Her panelling is so smooth and really pulls you through the story effortlessly. It’s clear she’s been doing this manga thing for a while. Saiki knows how to deliver. And her cover and frontispiece game is off the charts. The cover for volume one so perfectly captures all the dreams and hopes of these girls to stand on the silver stage.
Kageki Shojo is honestly so well executed and such a wonderful read, I can’t understand why it hasn’t been licensed already. Or why none of Saiki’s work is available in English. I know that shojo is always underrepresented in the North America market, but even so, this seems like such a solid hit. Have you forgotten the endorsement from Riyoko Ikeda?? At any rate, it seems this will remain a delightful pleasure for us bilingual readers for the time being. The rest of you will just have to throw yourselves down on your beds and cry yourselves to sleep as you dream of a Takarazuka-inspired manga world where you too might one day be Oscar.