Surfacing in manga form in the mid-70s, Glass Mask is a rare spectacle that presents the life and career of an actress as she rises to fame from humble beginnings. I call it rare because, despite the general idea existing since time immemorial, there are few writers who have dared to write a blossoming acting career in such depth as Suzue Miuchi. Perhaps because of this, the Glass Mask manga found huge success in Japan during its run and spawned a couple of anime adaptations – including this one, circa 2005.
Glass Mask follows the acting life of Maya Kitajima, a prodigy discovered by a retired leading lady who immediately invites her into an acting troupe she's just formed, with the eventual aim to fashion her into a specific role; the role of the mysterious Scarlet Angel. However, Maya soon finds out that it's a dog-eat-dog world and that the wrong word at the wrong time can sway public opinion in an instant. In fact, Glass Mask really finds its feet when it comments on the idea of celebrity. On several occasions, we get it drummed into our skulls that acting isn't just about individual talent, but about how the audience is affected and about the power of the media. Most of Maya's trials and tribulations come from external forces rather than her own internal conflicts (of which there are still many as she journeys through puberty), with a number of characters attempting to mould her future to their designs.
So, on one hand, what we have is a social commentary on the theatre industry. Unfortunately, on the other, we have a somewhat laboured coming-of-age diatribe coupled with a few hundred over-dramatised performances of some of the greatest literature in the English language. For all its talk of how much acting is about getting the right expression in your voice and flourishing the right hand gestures, it's unthinkable that the creators would make such a heinous crime to literature as making up scenes. Being an English nerd, I baulked at the additional scenes they magicked into Little Women and A Midsummer's Night Dream and there were several times where their interpretations of important fictional characters were too simplistic and verging on the side of being completely wrong. For a show that uses these as plot developers, this was downright loony.
The romance side of things is also a historical throwback. The romantic link that Maya develops in the first handful of episodes isn't resolved (despite some fairly obvious hints that would knock anyone out through their lack of subtlety) until the final episode – at which point, it takes on a distinctly spiritual, almost magical atmosphere that's some stretch from the actual bipolar situation. The ending itself is the hardest pill to swallow because it isn't really an ending – it's the equivalent of “but that's another story” at the end of Thomas the Tank Engine books, which suits pocket kids' books the size of your fist just fine, but doesn't exactly sit well after fifty-one twenty-something-minute episodes.
Not a great deal to say on this point: it's pretty mediocre for a 2005 production, but it's not eye-bleed material. Character designs are pretty retro, but not in the good way, with Ms. Tsukikage being the only character that stands out because she's meant to have a facial deformity. Everyone else, including Maya and her supposedly more attractive counterpart, Ayumi, is pretty much pulled from a “how to” guide on drawing anime characters. Landscapes are pretty dull, including the sets, which you'd think would be the first thing to focus on for a series that focuses on the ability of plays to transport you into other worlds.
The opening song is laughably retro to match the animation style and it almost works. The voice actors, however, fail to display any individuality and there was more than one occasion where I felt the voice acting spoiled a well-worked scene due to lack of emotion and emphasis on the right words. Considering how important performance is to this series, I was a little disappointed at how little of a performance I was given by the voice actors.
It's perhaps a little unfair to rebuff these characters for being clichéd because I'd imagine they weren't so stereotypical back when they were created in manga form. However, despite sitting through fifty-one episodes of this series, I failed to connect with a single character. Not one. The creators seem to assume that we'll all root for Maya because she's the clumsy girl, the one who can't get anything right – plucked from obscurity into the limelight because of an amazing talent for remembering lines. Sure, we buy into this the first few times it's brought up, but after a while, the repetition wears you down. Especially when Maya is so meek that she wavers every time she's met with adversity before she overcomes her fears by putting more effort in. Her blind faith is sometimes entertaining, but aside from that, she's a naïve little girl who doesn't ever seem to learn from her experiences.
The other characters are pretty much anonymous. Only Hayami shines as the CEO of Daito Entertainment, a multi-faceted theatre company that is at once Maya's greatest ally and greatest enemy. The interplay between Hayami and Maya is pretty much the only reason to watch this series and unfortunately, the rollercoaster of emotions between these two is so hackneyed, it's vomit-inducing. Maya oscillates between wanting to kiss him and wanting to kill him, while Hayami does his best to repel Maya at the same time as attempting to invite her in. This would work better if it wasn't so goddamn annoying all the time.
Ultimately, Glass Mask falls down where a number of similar shoujo titles fall down: believability. The biggest flaw comes from the fact that Maya takes nearly fifty episodes to work out who her secret admirer is, despite having some pretty colossal hints along the way. Think Sailor Moon and her inability to see through Tuxedo Mask's paper-thin mask and you're pretty much there. It wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that it's the only interesting part of the plot. The rest of the series seems content to wander from title to title in the literary canon, destroying classics as it goes, with additional characters thrown in just to make up the numbers.
But don't get me wrong, there's definitely a good story in here somewhere – the problem lies mostly with the fact that the series never really knows what it's driving at and usually ends up defaulting to its usual moral viewpoint of: if you put enough effort in, you'll get everything you want. Such a simplistic philosophy just doesn't cut it when you consider the sheer insanity of the acting world. Couple this slightly dodgy get-out-of-jail-free clause with the yawning crawl of a fifty-one episode iceberg and you'll soon be jumping for your copy of the far superior Skip Beat!
Maya is a dreamy young girl whose clumsiness is matched only by her absent-mindedness. While others have given up on her, the legendary actress Tsukikage sees her hidden potential and offers to take Maya under her tutelage. Maya loves the theatre more than anything, and as there's not much she can do about it at home, she chooses to run away with Tsukikage. The world of theatre is harsh, however, especially for a naive young girl far away from home. While she finds new friends who support her, her mentor has powerful enemies and Maya is often on the receiving end of their ruthless plans. In face of the adversity, Maya must constantly fight to develop her skills to catch up with her unbelievably talented rival, Ayumi, if she hopes to inherit Tsukikage's legendary role: The Crimson Goddess.