The beginning of this season was somewhat problematic. The truth of the matter is that season one ended on such a high note that it would be a hard act to follow. The conclusion of the first part of this series was reached in such a way as to cause viewers to assume there were no more stories left to even tell within such framework. I am happy to report that season two still has some interesting things left to say. The downside to that good news is that the show takes its sweet time getting there and the payoff is not as stellar as what was experienced upon reaching the final moments of the first season.
Things are off to a troubled start almost immediately with two unnecessary clip-show episodes that add nothing of substantial value besides an interesting ability to annoy fans with details that were already established. New viewers may appreciate that these episodes are included but if you're a newcomer you should really just start at the beginning with season one. These first two episodes do no justice at all to the majesty and grace of what happened previously. New audiences and longtime fans will collectively scratch their heads while watching these episodes so I urge fans to simply skip these instead for their sheer redundancy.
As soon as those first two "catch-up" episodes are over things start to really pick up in steam and become interesting rather fast. New characters are on the horizon. May Wong is an up and coming rival for our lovably optimistic Sora Naegino. May has aspired from an early age to someday be a performer for the Kaleido Stage (just as Sora had once dreamed) and when she is accepted as a member of the stage she quickly rises in status to the point that she is almost exactly duplicating Sora's success-story from the previous year. The biggest difference though? May has an attitude problem and isn't nearly as nice (or optimistic). She wishes to surpass Sora and become the new star attraction of the stage.
Such success does not come quite so easily though. Another new character named Leon Oswald serves as a huge key to the rest of the series. Leon is a famous trapeze artist who joins Kaleido Stage as a performer and he tests the strengths and weaknesses of both Sora and May. The goal of these tests is to determine which one of them would possess enough skill to become his performance partner. Leon is not as friendly a character (or at least he seems arrogant and unkind when one first meets him) and that story element certainly does take things to new places.
Eventually the story of season two reveals itself to be partially about perfecting a legendary form of stage performance: The Angel Act. The downside to this revelation is that this idea follows the same basic story threads found in the first season's arc of Sora and Layla attempting to perfect the Legendary Great Maneuver. The similarities make certain elements of the series seem less enjoyable this go around as there are less surprises to some extent.
Things are kept involving though when Sora battles with her inner thoughts. If the first season showed an unbelievably courageous lead heroine season two demonstrates that even those with the most talent often face doubts and misgivings. After participating in a rather fierce competition at one point in the season Sora realizes that one of her new dreams is to create a stage that is free of battles - and free of harsh competition. She simply wishes to make those in the audience smile.
Fans of this series supporting characters will be glad to know that Layla, Ken, Mia, Rosetta, and Anna are still prominent to the enjoyable nature of the show. While some storylines seemed a bit brief in comparison to the previous season a lot of new development is still found and this is very much a welcome addition to the warm-hearted nature of the show.
While I enjoyed the strong direction found in season two it is worth noting that director Junichi Sato (of Sailor Moon fame) did not return to the series and instead the episodes were directed by Yoshimasa Hiraike. Reiko Yoshida remained onboard as the series primary writer and ultimately delivers a satisfying payoff to the season's core themes even if some elements seemed too repetitive. The classical style of music by Mina Kubota remained as beautiful and essential to the show as it has always been.
Animation and other production elements were maintained at a strong level. This body of work is a notable accomplishment and never once did the technical craftsmanship fail to amaze me throughout each and every episode. I am constantly in awe of how beautiful the illustrations are on Kaleido Star. That is where a lot of the charm comes from, and one can't help but simply smile when watching such a beautifully done and optimistic show.
This series is presented with both an English 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound mix and a Japanese stereo mix. While the English surround option is slightly more enveloping overall, the series is still a front-heavy show. The actual dubbing for the original Japanese language track is more impressive in terms of voice acting and that easily made it my preferred choice for primary viewing.
Note -- The Legend of Phoenix: Layla Hamilton Story OVA is only available to view with the original Japanese stereo mix. No dub was provided.
The video presentation by Funimation is quite pleasing with a strong image quality on display with the original aspect ratio (OAR) of 4:3 fully preserved. The colors are rich and generally well defined. The contrast is quite strong for the most part too - even if the series is sometimes plagued with slight softness. The image quality is about on par with the first season set. I did not detect and noticeable disappointment in the presentation.
Note -- The Legend of Phoenix: Layla Hamilton Story OVA is presented in the original aspect ratio, with 16:9 anamorphic widescreen enhancement, and is easily the best looking transfer in all of Kaleido Star.
The extras are much better this time around. The biggest inclusion is two OVA episodes. The Amazing Princess Without a Smile is the first OVA, and it is essentially just the length of one standard episode of the series. It follows a stand-alone adventure of Rosetta's, and is adequately entertaining if a bit light and underwhelming. The second OVA (available in North America for the first time) is the Legend of Phoenix: Layla Hamilton Story. This OVA was a definite highlight of the entire series. It adds every possible flavor of entertainment found throughout the entire series and mixes things together in a wholly satisfying way. The already stellar animation receives a boost, and viewers can see the world of Kaleido Star in anamorphic widescreen for the first time ever. The story itself is quite interesting: it adds a lot of depth to Layla that fans were perhaps hoping for throughout the run of the series. This OVA runs around 50 minutes long which makes it feel more like a short theatrical film.
The first season set included one lone commentary track - one which was uninspired. For this second season release viewers are instead treated to two commentary tracks that are significantly more interesting and ultimately worthwhile. Both commentaries offer up some background information behind the creation of the English dub and serve as interesting additions to this release for anyone who is interested in voice acting.
An interview is included with the English voice actor for Rosetta (Serena Varghaese). This short featurette essentially lets viewers follow her around for a day to see what her activities are like outside of voice acting and how she handles juggling both those 'normal' activities with her duties at ADV Films. This was an interesting bonus even if it is ultimately only necessary viewing for fans of Varghaese.
Rounding out the extras, Funimation has also included clean opening/ending credits for Kaleido Star and trailers for other recent and upcoming releases.
I found the first season of Kaleido Star to be one of the best and most entertaining anime series ever made. While I cannot claim to have the same sentiments about this second and final season, I can happily acknowledge that I still found the story and characters to be entertaining and worth watching for existing fans. Newcomers should start at the beginning, but if you've already seen the first season continuing to view the show would seem to be the natural course of action. Devoted Kaleido Star fans who already own the previous release by ADV should even consider a purchase for the newly available Legend of Phoenix: Layla Hamilton Story OVA.