ADV Films // 2004 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Sandra Dozier (Retired) // October 14th, 2004
"That's right! I can't say that I can't do it. I can do it!" -- Sora, after a misstep during her first performance.
Kaleido Star is absolutely delightful. At first glance, it seems to be a sort of dreamy, cutesy fantasy world, sort of like Cirque de Soleil. In other words, all fluff, no substance. But a closer look reveals that the performance aspect of the show is actually the smallest part of it, and what really counts is the relationships that Sora (the main character) forms as a result of her involvement with the Kaleido Stage. Her shyness and awkwardness transform into a grace and confidence that are reflected in her performances, and we enjoy watching her go through the process of discovering herself and her true ability.
Sora Naegino travels from Japan to the USA in order to perform on the Kaleido Stage. It has been her dream since she was a child, when she saw Kaleido Star with her parents. As soon as she gets into town, she has a chance encounter with a mysterious man, and her bag is stolen. Her quest to recover it leads her to police custody, where she meets Mr. Policeman, a huge and gentle hulk of a man who decides to look out for Sora since she isn't with her parents. Unfortunately, the police processing delays her leaving for Kaleido Star auditions, and she arrives too late. The stage manager, Ken, falls in love with her instantly, and is about to make an exception and let her try out, when the star of the show, Layla, flatly refuses. Incredibly, it turns out that the mysterious man she met in town is actually the owner of Kaleido Stage, and he wants to give her a chance to prove herself. Thrusting her into the show that night after another performer cannot go on, he decides that she has a ways to go, but that she has passed her audition and will be trained for the Kaleido stage.
This leads to much resentment among the new inductees, who think she got a special break because she knows the owner. After having tried out two or three times before getting in, they think her acceptance was too easy, and they want her to prove herself. This leads to several challenges that Sora must overcome, and who she meets along the way will make a difference. One of her allies is Fool, a living doll who calls himself the "Sprit of the Stage" and can only be seen and heard by Sora. He tells her that only those destined to perform a difficult maneuver can see him, and Sora is the chosen one. Of course, he barely gets this out before she freaks out and knocks him across the room, then rubs her eyes very hard to make sure that hearing dolls speak doesn't mean she's going crazy.
Sora doesn't always perfectly overcome the challenges that she faces, but she never backs down, and gradually she earns the respect, if not the good word, of the others involved.
Although the series is set in the United States with a multicultural cast, there's a definitely Japanese aura to Kaleido Star. Two things stood out for me: the idea that conflict improves character, and the merciless taunting and hazing that peers subject each other to. Only in Japan do these things become opportunities for character development. Sora gets plenty of both in the series, which is why we root for her. In the first episode, when she is rushed on stage without a rehearsal, she is far from graceful or even competent...she misses her cue, lands on her backside instead of her feet, then slips off the trampoline altogether at the end -- the one botched performance in an otherwise perfect production. But it's that one kid in the audience yelling "Keep trying, Miss Rabbit!" (Sora is in a rabbit costume) that makes it all worth while, and if the show has already worked its magic on the audience by then, we're feeling the elation that Sora feels when she hears this encouragement.
Athleticism is important for Kaleido Stage, and we actually see more of what Sora does to prepare for her performance than the actual performance itself. At first, she can't even swing on the trapeze; she merely hangs, then falls to the net. We see the effort she puts into just swinging from one trapeze to another, something that looks so effortless when you are in the audience. We see the bruises she comes home with, and when another character notices, she strikes a pose and proudly proclaims, "These are my battle scars!" This does much to remove the saccharine goopiness that one might expect a show like this to be clogged with. Although Sora is idealistic and manages to work through all the challenges put to her, we know there is a tangible cost.
Of course, there is a little romance, too. Ken, the kindly teen with a bad heart who "performs" for Kaleido Stage behind the scenes, loves Sora but can't find a way to tell her. It's sweet to watch him encourage and support her, often with surprisingly tough methods, just for that moment when she smiles and tells him how much he means to her. Ken isn't your typical "I see nothing but her" boy; he keeps his head and gets the job done, balancing Sora's happiness with what is best for the Kaleido Stage. Again, this helps to make the relationship between Ken and Sora less cutesy and more sweet.
I can't sing the praises of Kaleido Star without mentioning one of the smallest characters: Fool. In concept, he sounds annoying -- a living doll dispensing advice about how to be a great stage performer? Apparently, the creators agree, because Fool comes on, speaking in his breathy, ethereal voice, dispensing advice and words of wisdom, and Sora promptly ties him up and stuffs him in her dresser, or accidentally knocks him across the room when she's working out. "How dare you treat the Spirit of the Stage this way?!" he demands. Then, when there's no answer, he ventures a timid, "Sora?" After a while, she sort of grudgingly accepts him, and their relationship provides much of the comic relief in the series.
What I liked best about Kaleido Star was its attitude: Sora succeeds because she recognizes what she has done well and what she needs to work on. She may go out on stage and miss her final cue altogether, plummeting to the net. Instead of seeing this as abject failure, she instead focuses on the middle of her performance, which was difficult to achieve and hard-won. She sees her success there, and vows to work on the finale. Through challenge comes character. This is an excellent message that anyone can benefit from -- recognize your success, make it the core of your strength, and use it to help you overcome your failures. It's simple and elegant, and I can't think of a more entertaining way to hear it than through the gorgeous scenery and compelling stories of Kaleido Star.
Kaleido Star has some wonderful music, which is thankfully not traditionally circusy at all -- it sets the mood for both happy and sad scenes, yet never overwhelms. Most of the English voice acting is right on, with Cynthia Martinez turning in a spunky, effervescent performance for the title role of Sora that helps to establish her personality early in Episode One.
To complement the dazzling animation, which is bright and clear and has convincing sparkle effects during performance scenes, the DVD transfer for Kaleido Star is topnotch. The color depth is bold, the image is clear, and the 3D animation (mostly in the beginning scenes when Sora comes in by airplane and sees Kaleido Stage for the first time) blends seamlessly with the traditional animation. Sound quality is also excellent, with a clear and robust Japanese 2.0 soundtrack as well as an English 5.1 soundtrack. For the 5.1 dub, voices and certain ambient sounds travel well between all channels, with offscreen characters appearing in back speakers before traveling to the front channels. This series uses the 5.1 separation well. The extras are nothing special, with a palm-sized cardboard standee of Sora included as an insert and some production sketches in the extras section. Probably the most helpful or useful extra is the character bios insert. Here, you get a peek at some of the motivations for the characters that are not yet revealed in this first disc. There are no spoilers; it just helps to round out some of the more major character arcs.
About the only stumbling block here was the English dub voice for Ken. What I expected was a soft, clear voice for Ken, who is fair-skinned, blond and blue-eyed, and has a heart condition -- all traits that make him appear physically fragile. Instead, Ken has a deeper, throaty voice. It's not a bad voice, per se, and the actor definitely nails the hesitant way that Ken speaks, but it seems stronger than what I would expect for Ken. However, it wasn't long before I warmed up to it and understood that the strength communicated in his voice was a reflection of the strength he felt inside. It's not the typical choice for that type of anime character, but I think that has more to do with my own particular expectations and what I have come to see as a pattern in this type of fragile character than with the voice itself.
Otherwise, there is very little to complain about with this series, other than the usual: not many extras here. Still, with five episodes per disc, that isn't so bad.
This is definitely one to check out, especially if you were initially turned off by the heavily magical-looking trailers for this series...aside from the enchanted Fool, there isn't much that is supernatural about this series. It's more about character, determination, and facing life's challenges head on, on your own terms. It's good stuff.
Review content copyright © 2004 Sandra Dozier; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Japanese)
* English (signs only)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Character Standee Insert
* Production Sketches
* Character Bios
* Official Site