October 4th, 2009 by Lianne
PG-13 for mostly tame high school melodrama, kissing, and fighting, although some of the teacher stuff probably skews PG-16; super awesome official Japanese website
UPDATE: They just announced that this franchise is getting an anime. I guess this won’t be flailing in English-speaking obscurity for long, and for one of the first times ever, Sleep is for the Weak is ahead of the curve. Let’s celebrate by not updating for a thousand months.
If I had to pick one franchise that’s symbolic of the wave of Female Gaze crashing through geekdom in Japan right now, I’d pick Starry Sky. We could talk about this cultural phenomenon in broader terms: we could talk (again) about rising homoeroticism in shounen titles showing that Girl Influence is spreading into traditionally male-aimed corners of the geek universe, and then I’d reference Ooku again to talk about how these influences are in “higher-brow” aspects of comics culture over there, too. But these are things that helped start the current wave, that shape the wave. Starry Sky is a direct result of the wave. Starry Sky has cashed in on the fact that other titles/franchises/media outlets have paved the way for big-budget, unapologetic girl media, and now it’s going full force because the market is finally ready. I suppose a better way to describe it is to say Starry Sky is the bishounen surfing on the Girl Wave, and he’s got a big, non-threatening smile on his face and a school uniform with the top button of its collar undone.
Starry Sky is based on a simple premise – astrology is silly bullshit that every girl has giggled about at one or more middle school sleepovers. Certain personality “types” are supposedly present in people born under a particular astrological sign. For example, I’m Aquarius, which means I’m honest, independent, and awesome (or something). Starry Sky is about twelve cute schoolboys (three of whom are actually teachers) who each reflect astrological personality types. The Aquarius boy is Tsubasa, a member of the student council with big headphones who’s totally weird and likes a.) making weird inventions and b.) his freedom, which he usually applies to making weird inventions. Did I mention that he’s totally cute and totally has a crush on you, the audience? And did I mention that he’s one of twelve?
So the company Honey Bee (that pays the bills by releasing CDs of famous voice actors whisper-counting sheep to help fangirls go to sleep) designed these twelve Zodiac boys and made one “boyfriend” drama CD for each of them, which are basically first-person audio dramas where the boy asks you on a date, repeats your unasked questions and answers them, squeals when he gets Valentine’s Day chocolates from you, and whispers sweet nothings because he loves you so much, Girlfriend. And then, to give these drama CDs a bit more weight and context, Honey Bee designed four visual novel-style girl PC games – each takes place during a certain season with three of the boys, who are connected socially in some way, and you are the Heroine With No Eyes who joins their social circle and chases one of the boy and wins him for some sweet hugging and kissing CGs. It’s completely straightforward and unapologetically girly.
Then Honey Bee marketed the bejeezus out of this. First of all, the release dates of each of these CDs and games span all of 2009, with each month seeing the release of the “boyfriend drama CD” of the boy whose Zodiac sign is up. Each game is released at the end of its appropriate season – the Starry Sky in Spring game was released in late March, the Starry Sky in Summer game was released in late June, etc. Each game comes with another drama CD, this time featuring some tracks with all three boys from that game arguing amongst themselves while they try and have a conversation with you (not to mention more solo tracks of each boy in that game). The games all connect, since all the boys go the same school and thus their social circles overlap a bit, and I think the drama CDs that come with the games connect a bit, too. Then buying limited-edition early releases gets you even more bonus drama CDs and extras. Then Honey Bee made a great promotional video for all this, designed a huge website, and made opening videos for the games that are really f*cking awesome. And then they announced if you buy all twelve of the drama CDs and send in the UPCs at the end of the year, you’ll get a bonus, secret drama CD featuring a THIRTEENTH BOY, voiced by Mamoru Miyano, one of the hottest voice actor properties among girls in Japan right now. And did I mention that most fangirls agree that he’s even totally cute in real life?
Do you see how this never ends? Do you see how this never ends? It’s like a positive feedback loop of Girl Crack.
Before you decide whether or not you can tolerate Starry Sky, keep in mind that it follows a few general rules: it’s deeply embedded in the Female Gaze (although not a particularly sexually exploitative version), it’s constrained by heteronormative behavior, and it makes the viewer/gamer/listener a complete Mary Sue, specifically of the teenage schoolgirl variety. Whereas these techniques can sell a lot of media to girls and women *cough*Twilight*cough*, it ain’t for everyone. That said, for what it’s trying to do, Starry Sky isn’t half bad. First-person drama CDs are (understandably) a pretty bizarre media format, but Starry Sky has employed a dozen of the best current male voice actors, many of whom are long-term vets of girl media, so they rock the CDs as much as those sorts of things can be rocked. And the games are pretty simple visual novel fare, but they’re sweet and to the point, and the interaction element between the boys is cute and reasonably immersive. More than anything, Starry Sky succeeds at hitting a lot of broad appeal buttons without going too far or shrinking too far back. Starry Sky in Spring incorporates three boys who are childhood friends of yours, so they watch out for you, clamor for your attention, and are completely non-threatening. Starry Sky in Summer involves three boys in the high-stress competitive atmosphere of the archery team, so they’re good for girls who thrive on conflict and drama; Starry Sky in Autumn has the three teachers for girls who prefer the risque; and the unreleased Starry Sky in Winter is the Sexy Student Council, which I can only assume is intended to appeal to nerd girls.
But rather than narrowly appealing to a few fetishes, Starry Sky only uses girl cliches as general guidelines and infuses a more old-fashioned, less wild shoujo mentality that harkens back to a time when girl media wasn’t completely dependent on shock value and ridiculous school hierarchies. The boys are at various maturity levels, they won’t make out with each other for your amusement, they don’t think that being a dominating asshole is the only thing way to attract girls, and they’ll hug you and kiss you and a few of the more forward ones may push you onto a bed, but no one’s going to corner you and grope you just to add melodrama and unfair, victim-blaming shame to the heroine to make the work more angsty. Starry Sky is actually fairly respectful to its female audience. But it’s also not so washed-out and tame that older girls and girls looking for some bang for their buck can’t find it appealing. It’s a surprisingly effective middle ground with a broad appeal, a mix of sweetness and sexiness, a few surprises, and lots and lots of boys who are, because of the format of the franchise, as equally well-developed as all the others. And I must say that the lack of The One Lead Boy Whom You Have To Get With Because He Has Dark Hair is a nice change from the rigid format of most shoujo (and the pseudo ensemble casts of most dating sims and visual novels). This is an actual ensemble cast. The only true main character is You.
So, in short: Starry Sky works. It’s trying to be the current Definitive Mixed Media Girly Franchise in Japan…and because it was constructed with a fair amount of care, love, and respect for a series that was designed to raid girl wallets for an entire year, it’s actually doing very well and few people are begrudging it its success. Too bad none of the franchise is in English and probably never will be. Still, I guess this is one of those things that pushes geeks to learn foreign languages.
Initial impression: If, while reading this review, you scoured all of the links in the hopes of finding the boy who’s cutest, has your astrological sign, or has the astrological sign most compatible with yours, you’re Starry Sky’s target audience. Go nuts and don’t feel too guilty, because at least this is a money-sucking franchise that’s surprisingly tasteful and doesn’t hate you or tell you to hate yourself, as far too much female-aimed media (including shoujo) tends toward. The rest of you, feel free to safely ignore this entire page. (Lianne)