Revolutionary Girl Utena (The Apocalypse Saga Collection) Review
And so at long last we come to the end of Revolutionary Girl Utena. This time we're talking about a box set which comprises four individual DVD volumes of Utena: 'Temptation' (volume 7), 'Unveiling' (volume 8), 'Revelation' (volume 9), and 'Finale' (volume 10). Together these discs contain the entirety of 'The Apocalypse Saga' (episodes 27-39).
In my review of the previous Utena box set, I indicated that the show had moved beyond the 'weirdness for weirdness' sake' exercise that I had first taken it for, and despite its many shortcomings had captured my interest... or at least, my curiosity as to how the writers would forge a path to the series' conclusion. Now having seen Revolutionary Girl Utena in its entirety, my personal feeling is that it was worth seeing once, but I cannot honestly say that I would rush to watch it again. While most of the show's dedicated fanbase would probably report that they get more out of Utena each time they watch it, I think I'd only get a headache from a second viewing. (And no, not from all its funky imagery and rough-and-ready symbolism... it's just that I now see all of the ways in which the series easily could have been improved, and it's frankly frustrating to see it mired in its current condition.)
The best thing about the series is its end (and I do not say this merely to be funny). The last half-dozen episodes are what make the time spent wading through the highly-contrived bulk that preceded them bearable. However, to be fair, the conclusion also shouldn't have taken this long to reach; considering the huge amounts of repetition (for example, three out of every four duels could be cut) and mindless filler (such as most of the Nanami-centric episodes and recaps), Revolutionary Girl Utena could easily have been condensed into a series half this length that would have felt considerably less tedious and vastly stronger from a dramatic standpoint. C'est la guerre, I suppose; as it stands, it's interesting but not truly compelling.
As this box set is merely a compilation of four discs that were released individually during the second half of 2003, I've given each volume its own write-up, all four linked from this one. To minimise repetition, I'll leave out the shared sections ('Picture', 'Sound', 'Menus', and 'Overall'), as what I've written in this review of the box set will apply equally to all 13 episodes. Anyone interested in the episode guides, special features, and packaging of the individual volumes can find them discussed here:
Revolutionary Girl Utena (Volume 7: Temptation)
Revolutionary Girl Utena (Volume 8: Unveiling)
Revolutionary Girl Utena (Volume 9: Revelation)
Revolutionary Girl Utena (Volume 10: Finale)
As before, the action is spread across 4 DVDs, which gives things a bit more elbow room in the data department. All but the first of these are in fact single-layer discs (with volume 7 getting a dual-layer disc ostensibly because it holds four episodes instead of three).
Nor is there all that much to add regarding the overall animation quality and visual stylistics of Revolutionary Girl Utena... which is to say that while CPM has handed us as good a video encode as one could hope for, the source material simply isn't anything to shout about. This just isn't the kind of animé production you pop in the DVD player to wow your mates with its perfect visuals and elegant, detailed, cutting-edge animation. Utena has a distinct look that's all its own, but in this case it's not necessarily a good thing. The character designs for this show (with their impossibly thin, stretched limbs) leave most of the principals looking like 'spaghetti people'. Very little attention has been paid to depth or focus, which leaves the whole series looking, well, flat; there's usually no distinction between foreground and background as you find in most modern animation. Nor does it help that many scenes are rendered in insufficient detail coupled with a wide shot, which leaves you squinting at tiny characters drawn in the middle to far distance that look more or less like blobs of colour.
The good news is that, as with the four volumes included in the previous box set, all of the original Japanese OP and ED sequences are completely intact. (Well, with the exception of one English overlay displaying the title of the show, but even it has been placed below the original Japanese title rather than over it.) For those of us who are keen to see the opening and closing credits just as they were initially broadcast, this is a definite plus. And for those of you worried that this means that you'll have to resort to the DVD-ROM content to read the credits, never fear... at the end of each disc (after the last 'Next Episode Preview' plays), CPM has inserted an additional credit scroll in English, not only listing all of the production staff but also both sets of voice actors (English and Japanese). An example of how to do this right.
There's not much new to report on the sound front... we're dealing with a bog-standard stereo mix in both the original Japanese and the subsequent English dub, and both sound perfectly acceptable. It's fairly evident that budget constraints restricted the number of 'fancy' directionality effects that might otherwise have found their way into the action sequences. Instead, you'll find most of the swordfights, etc. to be primarily centre-channel-based, with not a lot of left/right separation to speak of. Still, the show's music gets better use out of the stereo soundtrack, so it's not a total loss.
As for the voice actors' performances, I'll grant that you can listen to the show in either language without cringing too much (which is to say, there are no 'problem voices' that will make you dive for the remote control). The English dub predictably hams things up a bit more than the Japanese one, but for an odd series like Utena, there may be those viewers out there who prefer it that way. On a similar note, while the original Japanese shows the characters talking a lot more frankly about 'unsavoury' topics, if you prefer a more streamlined, sanitised approach to Utena, by all means go for the English dub. My preference remains with the Japanese voice cast... which, not coincidentally, overlaps slightly with the team that voiced Sailor Moon (director Ikuhara's previous major undertaking): from Kotono Mitsuishi, who played Juri here and Usagi (Sailor Moon) there, to Aya Hisakawa, who played Miki here and Ami (Sailor Mercury) there.
The menu design for the first two of these discs is precisely the same as the layout used on all the volumes of the previous box set, while volumes 9 and 10 possess slightly more elegant main menus, but in all other respects are the same. To recap, all of the main menu screens are now animated in one way or another, feature nice transitions between each sub-menu, and are accompanied by Utena's catchy music looping underneath. The scene selection menu on each DVD provides six chapter stops per episode: intro, part A (up to eye-catch), part B (up to 'shadow girls' segment), part C, end credits, and next episode preview. Speaking of which, the audio track in the 'Chapters' menus synchs with the 'shadow girls' animations, so be prepared to make your selection fairly quick if you don't want to listen to them playing out their surreal skits.
Really, the menus are fine, have fast access times, and get the job done. It doesn't matter that they're not glamorous. The only actual complaint I have is my standard one with Central Park Media discs... whoever they have doing the actual DVD authoring has set the PBC (playback control) behaviour on the discs so that: 1, if you don't make a selection from the main menu fairly sharpish (say you stepped out of the room to get some popcorn), it will automatically start playing the first episode without any prompting from you; and 2, if you change your preferred viewing options from the audio set-up menu, the moment you do, the disc will begin playing... again, before you even have a say in what episode you'd like to start with! Vaguely vexing, but also very minor problems.
The four Amaray cases contained in the box set come in a cardboard slipcase, but unlike the 'Black Rose Saga Collection', this slipcase doesn't have an embossed cover. Not that I suspect this news will ruin anyone's day, but if it's any consolation this box set also comes with an bonus glossy booklet that contains episode synopses for all 39 episodes. For more details regarding the packaging, please see the write-ups for each of the individual DVD volumes.
Whew, what a long, strange trip it's been. It's difficult to resist giving my overall impression of the series as a whole rather than merely of this box set, but focusing solely on these four DVDs I'd say that the first two volumes (7 and 8) are slightly weaker than what went before, while the final two discs (9 and 10) are quite a bit stronger, and easily represent the best part of the entire show. Dedicated fans of animé have a small dilemma on their hands: Revolutionary Girl Utena is so famous that at some point you will be expected to see it... but do you really want to wade through 39 episodes that are on average half 'filler' in order to find the good stuff? The answer to that question will depend upon your personal temperament. While there are many good things about Utena as a series, you'll find you need a little bit of patience to pick them out from the chaff.