Revolutionary Girl Utena (Volume 3: The Black Rose Blooms) Review
This write-up is a bit unusual in that it has been deliberately restricted to three sections: 'Episode Guide', 'Extras', and 'Packaging'. This is because this is only one of four individual DVD volumes of Revolutionary Girl Utena contained in Central Park Media's 'The Black Rose Saga Collection', whose overall review can be found here.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
14: 'The Boys of the Black Rose'
This episode sets up the formula used for the entirety of the 'Black Rose Saga', so it's worth watching for that clue-in alone. The basic idea is that there is a twelfth-grade genius at the Ohtori Academy named Mikage who is orchestrating his own bid to 'revolutionise the world'. (That is to say, in isolation from the Ohtori Student Council, whose members we've already met.) Curiously, he too appears to be taking orders from 'End of the World' (the mysterious entity who's been sending the Student Council its instructions).
Working from his offices at Nemuro Memorial Hall (a campus building with a tragic history; apparently at some point in the past 100 students lost their lives in an accidental fire there) and communicating primarily with an androgynous boy named Mamiya (whom he intends to make his 'Rose Bride'), Mikage plots to locate a duellist able to defeat Utena so that he can claim the Power of Dios for himself. In order to achieve this, he is apparently 'raiding the crypt' (so to speak)... taking from each dead student's body a signet ring with a familiar rose crest. (Yes, the same as Utena and those in the Student Council wear... only now charred from the blaze: the black rose seal.)
Meanwhile, the identity of the major character introduced at the end of the previous story arc is finally revealed as Akio, Anthy's older brother... and acting chairman of the Ohtori Academy. Engaged to the Kanae Ohtori (daughter of the actual chairman, who fell mysteriously ill around the time Akio and Anthy turned up on the scene), he lives in a sprawling mansion overlooking the campus. After Anthy admits to Utena that she goes off to meet her brother every Saturday night, Utena wangles an invitation to the mansion and gets received quite cordially by Akio... who will eventually invite her and Anthy to move into one of the spare bedrooms upstairs.
Unsurprisingly, troubled souls somehow find their way into Mikage's lair. The first such 'applicant to the Mikage Seminar' is none other than Kanae, Akio's fiancée. In what will become a very familiar sequence over the course of this box set, she: 1, arrives at Nemuro Memorial Hall; 2, enters a bizarre lift featuring a framed insect (which changes from time to time) and a one-way mirror; 3, is prompted to reveal her inner self by an unseen interrogator (Mikage); and 4, confesses her inability to deal with some current aspect of her life (in this case, her fiancé's sister, whom she despises). After satisfying himself that Kanae is worth enlisting to his cause, Mikage steps out and announces, 'I understand. It seems you have no choice but to revolutionise the world. The way before you has been prepared.' He gives her one of the rings and she becomes the first of the Black Rose Duellists... which causes an abrupt alteration in her personality, such that she challenges Utena to a duel... not realising that she's merely a pawn of Mikage's.
15: 'The World Seen From Kozue'
Well, Kanae turns out to not have quite 'the right stuff' to defeat Utena, so Mikage and Mamiya go back to the drawing board, eventually coming to the conclusion that they can craft a stronger Black Rose Duellist if they choose candidates who's internal conflicts are linked to members of the Student Council (whose duelling skills are not in dispute). They manage to snare Kozue (Miki's twin sister) as an applicant and get her to admit her intense feelings of jealousy towards anyone who dares get close to her brother (as she herself wants to be).
The difference is, although she still goes to challenge Utena for the Power of Dios, her first stop on the way is to visit Miki... and draw a magical sword directly from his chest! (Yes, I did warn you that the symbolism in this series is more or less troweled on. Get used to this particular procedure, though, because Kozue is only the first in a long line of folks who believe they can achieve victory by plucking weapons from those they have an emotional bond with.) As usual, she eventually loses to our pink-haired heroine, and - after collapsing briefly into unconsciousness - is her usual self the next day at school (just like Kanae before her).
16: 'Cowbell of Happiness'
And so we pause for yet another Nanami comic relief episode. (Honestly, in what way is Utena as a series improved by this sort of filler? Oh, well...) The schtick here is that Nanami throws a huge party to show off her latest piece of jewellery, but when Juri arrives, she's wearing an even more beautiful necklace which draws immediate compliments. Conveniently, a package arrives just then from 'a famous designer', and Nanami proceeds to don what everyone (but her) can clearly see is a cowbell.
Stupidly believing herself to be now firmly ensconced at the height of fashion, she wears the cowbell everywhere on campus, indifferent to the tittering of her classmates. However, it's obviously a magical artefact of some sort, because the longer Nanami wears the cowbell, the more bovine she becomes (thinking sluggishly, growing lethargic, eating a lot, etc.)... and it's left to Mitsuru (you know, her adoring middle-school 'boyfriend'), Utena, and Anthy to save Nanami from herself.
17: 'Thorns of Death'
Back to the action. Shiori (on whom, you'll recall, Juri has had a secret crush for many years) transfers back to Ohtori Academy and tries to apologise for what she sees as having ruined their friendship in the first place: her stealing away from Juri a boy named Ruka they both used to spend a lot of time with, and one who initially fancied Juri. However, Juri (who of course was never in love in Ruka), coldly informs Shiori that the whole business with Ruka doesn't matter to her, and refuses to permit a reconciliation (and, to those of us in the know, is clearly upset that Shiori never did - and apparently never will - understand her anger and frustration).
Well, after having to face the past again, Juri finally resolves to put Shiori behind her... and throws away the locket she's been wearing all these years that houses Shiori's picture. In retrospect, this was a really stupid thing to do on a backstabbing campus like Ohtori Academy. Sure enough, someone retrieves the locket and carefully places it in Shiori's room for her to find. When she does, everything becomes clear to her and her long-time feelings of inferiority (compared to Juri, who always excelled at everything) evaporate.
But her darker nature kicks in and she sees an opportunity to turn the discovery to her advantage. Off she goes to Nemuro Memorial Hall, becomes the next Black Rose Duellist, plucks her sword from Juri's breast, and tromps off to duel Utena, as usual.
While the first two volumes of Utena ('The Rose Collection 1 and 2') were a trifle lacklustre in the special features department (notwithstanding a fair amount of DVD-ROM content which isn't going to be accessible to everyone), these later releases from 'The Black Rose Saga Collection' fare somewhat better in this department.
On volume 3, we have a decent selection of extras. First, there's an art gallery (essentially an automatic slideshow of 13 images, framed - that is, not full-screen - accompanied by sound clips from the show). This is followed by a interview with Kunihiko Ikuhara (the director) regarding Revolutionary Girl Utena (in actuality one-quarter of a single interview session was edited down and distributed across volumes 3-6). Although Ikuhara himself only speaks Japanese, the interview session is fully subtitled in English, so no worries there.
The segment included here is called 'The Roots of the Rose' and deals primarily with what set the stage for the series. Alas, at just over 2 minutes in length, there's not a lot of time for Ikuhara to really reveal much about the genesis of Utena... and if truth be told, I'm not sure he had all that much to say to begin with. (His responses to the interview are all very 'shoot from the hip' and peppered with 'umm's, 'erm's, and 'dunno's. You get the distinct feeling that he had other places he wanted to be when it was taking place.)
Next on the menu is an actor interview with Roxanne Beck, who plays both Wakaba and Kozue on the English dub. She's done a fair amount of previous voice acting, including prominent roles like Lum in Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, both Kardis and Neese in Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight, Princess Otto from Gokudo, Amy from the Gall Force series, and various roles in Boogiepop Phantom and Pokémon. This is a slightly-meatier interview than the one with Ikuhara, clocking in at about 6 minutes long... although, to be fair, the last third of that is just her promoting her musical interests by singing a song on camera. (I'm afraid there are no English for the Hard of Hearing (HOH) subtitles provided for this particular interview.)
Following this we have a quick text-only recap of the storyline covered during episodes 1-13 of Revolutionary Girl Utena. This is decidedly handy material to have on hand if it's been a while since you saw the first third of the TV series... or for those who've heard that things really start hotting up in the 'Black Rose Saga' and just decided to pass on the first two volumes of the show. (Although how anyone could come into Utena in the middle and expect to understand anything beats the hell out of me.)
Lastly among the proper special features on this disc is a mini-bio (again, a text-only automatic 'slideshow' presentation of 4 small pages of info) regarding Chiho Saito, the mangaka (Japanese comics artist) who wrote the original Revolutionary Girl Utena manga on which the animé production was later based. (And based fairly loosely, by the by. Apparently she penned the manga version of Utena in 1996 and it was only ever 5 volumes in total... and missing a couple characters who feature prominently in the animé version, including Nanami. Ah, so she was just inserted for mindless comic relief!)
In the way of 'sort of' extras we have a brief advert for the 2003 Big Apple Animé Fest and a handful of trailers for other Central Park Media DVD releases (Angel Sanctuary, Now and Then, Here and There, Geobreeders: Breakthrough, Legend of Himiko, and The Ping Pong Club).
That's it for what's easily accessible right from your standalone DVD player. However, if you have a DVD-ROM drive on your computer, CPM have also included a PC-compatible application which will give you access to additional content in the form of the complete cast listing, production credits, and English dub scripts. These are nice to have, but the fact that they are put in a place not everyone will have access to means I can't give them full credit in the Extras score for these DVDs.
Each of the four DVDs included in the box set comes in a transparent Amaray case with double-sided sleeve inserts (a nice touch which is fairly standard on CPM releases), the reverse of which provide complete lists of both chapter breaks and voice casts (both English and Japanese) along with an abridged version of the production credits.
As for the cover art, volume 3 features a picture of Utena with her arms wrapped protectively around Anthy (a shot that will no doubt appeal to fans) on a plain white background with a red rose border. The back cover looks a bit busy by comparison, as every scrap of white space is filled with text... but it's better to have more information than less, so this isn't really a criticism. (Although the 'summary blurb' isn't particularly useful.)