Sailor Moon is one of the most famous anime series ever, to the point that even non-anime fans are likely aware of it. Some of the credit for Sailor Moon's success can be given to Junichi Sato, the director who handled the first two seasons of the anime and helped give Sailor Moon its unique and memorable aesthetic. However, ten years after Sailor Moon's debut, Sato created another, sadly overlooked, anime.
In 2003, Kaleido Star launched on TV Tokyo. This anime series was created and directed by Junichi Sato. Reiko Yoshida, who is most known for her work on K-On! The Movie! and Blue Exorcist: The Movie handled the show's screenplay. The series was animated by legendary animation studio Gonzo, known for animating cult classics like Welcome to the N.H.K., Hellsing, and Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo.
The series follows Sora Naegino, a young girl who lost both of her parents in a tragic accident. One of Sora's most cherished memories is her family taking her to a circus called Kaleido Stage. Sora dreams of joining Kaleido Stage and starts to train as an acrobat. Once she graduates junior high, Sora goes to America to audition for Kaleido Stage. However, things soon go wrong for the poor girl as she has her luggage stolen and misses her audition. However, when another performer gets injured, the owner of Kaleido Stage, Kalos Eido, lets Sora perform.
However, this upsets the other performers, who think that Sora got the job via luck rather than skill, forcing Sora to work extra hard to earn their respect. On top of this, Sora meets The Fool, a tiny perverted jester who only Sora can see. The Fool suggests that there is something more going on under the surface of the legendary Kaleido Stage, especially when Sora learns about some mythical forbidden techniques.
Kaleido Star stands out as there is nothing else quite like it. While it used a magical girl aesthetic, its plot is closer to that of a sports drama, with Sora undergoing a semi-realistic training routine. Cirque du Soleil performer and Japanese circus legend Dio Kobayashi was a special advisor for the series and it shows. The series treated circus acrobatics with respect and all of the stunts have some grounding in reality. However, like most sports anime, the show is built around intense character-driven drama. This includes some realistic and surprisingly dark interpersonal drama, as Sora has to overcome the other performers' hatred for her and earn their respect. Kaleido Stage is also plagued by jealousy and internal politics. This often leads to the performers doing anything to get ahead, no matter how much it hurts others, with some even crippling their rivals.
Kaleido Star was followed up with a second season called Kaleido Star: New Wings. This season continued Sora's journey with the Kaleido Stage. It saw Leon Oswald, a trapeze artist, join the Kaleido Stage and shake the group up, causing new issues and drama. However, Junichi Sato did not direct this season, handing over the duties to Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku director Yoshimasa Hiraike.
The series also got several spin-offs. This included an OVA called The Amazing Princess Without a Smile which explored The Fool's backstory. There was also a computer-animated OVA called Good da yo! Goood!! which featured shorts focused on cooking, circus skills, and comedic skits. In 2005 Legend of Phoenix ~Layla Hamilton Monogatari~ was released. This TV movie focuses on the recurring character Layla Hamilton and followed her as she tries to find herself before a big upcoming show. However, this forces Sora and her friends to search for Layla, presuming she has gone missing.
The series got a manga adaptation in 2007 called Kaleido Star ~Wings of the Future~. This series was serialized in Shōnen Fang magazine, and it is set 15 years after the anime and follows Sora's little sister, Yume. Thankfully, the anime series, including The Amazing Princess Without a Smile OVA, is available via Funimation in subbed and dubbed formats. So American fans can stream and enjoy this overlooked classic.
Junichi Sato's Kaleido Star is a fascinating watch as there is nothing else quite like it. The blending of sports, drama and magical girls make it stand out from the crowd and, despite sounding slightly odd on paper, the series works well. It is packed full of memorable characters and gripping human drama, even if it is darker and more intense than you would probably expect going in. If you're a Sailor Moon fan, or an anime fan looking to try something different, Kaleido Star is worth your time.