Revolutionary Girl Utena (The Black Rose Saga Collection) Review
Well, it's been two months since I covered the basics of the Revolutionary Girl Utena universe in my reviews of the first thirteen episodes (released by Central Park Media on two packed volumes) and some of you have probably been wondering if my brain exploded upon viewing the middle third of this truly strange little TV series. The answer is 'not quite'... so here at last is my write-up of the second major arc of the story for those Utena aficionados out there (or for the merely curious, who've heard of the show's reputation).
This time we're talking about a box set which comprises four individual DVD volumes of Utena: 'The Black Rose Blooms' (volume 3), 'Impatience and Longing' (volume 4), 'Darkness Beckoning' (volume 5), and 'The Beginning of the End' (volume 6). Together these discs contain the entirety of 'The Black Rose Saga' (generally considered by fans to span episodes 14-24) plus the beginning of the ensuing plot arc. CPM has subsequently made its own division of the series into neat thirds (13 episodes each), which explains the 'bonus' two episodes included in this set.
In my last Utena review, I stated that the series had progressed to a point where I was actually fairly eager to learn what would happen next. So the natural first question to answer is, 'Was such anticipation warranted?' I'd have to say yes. The Black Rose Saga generally delivers on its promises, and is of slightly higher quality than what came before it. It still shares the same failings witnessed in the first 13 episodes (for example, over-reliance on a stock formula and the use of yet another 'blatant recap episode' as filler), but the show delves deeper into the psyches of the various core characters of the Utena universe and provides us with a number of very intriguing developments. So, assuming you're OK with the concomitant weirdness, giving this arc a watch is not an unrewarding experience.
As this box set is merely a compilation of four discs that were released individually from late-2002 to mid-2003, I debated the best way to present the following content. I finally decided that each DVD deserves its own brief write-up, all four linked from this one. To minimise repetition, however, I'll leave out the shared sections ('The Show', '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 3: The Black Rose Blooms)
Revolutionary Girl Utena (Volume 4: Impatience and Longing)
Revolutionary Girl Utena (Volume 5: Darkness Beckoning)
Revolutionary Girl Utena (Volume 6: The Beginning of the End)
This time around the action is spread across 4 DVDs, which gives things a bit more elbow room in the data department. As I mentioned previously, the first two volumes of Utena came on dual-layer discs to give the video plenty of bitrate for good presentation. This time around there are twice as many DVDs, however all but the first one are in fact single-layer discs (as they contain only three episodes each). All in all, I'd say the picture quality doesn't suffer at all for this reshuffling... apparently there's plenty of room on each disc for the show and all of its associated special features (more on which below).
That said, I stand by my earlier comments regarding the overall animation quality and visual stylistics of Revolutionary Girl Utena... which is to say that although Central Park Media (Software Sculptors) 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 with tiny characters drawn in the middle to far distance that look more or less like blobs of colour. Oh, and speaking of the colour palette used in this series... also the opposite of spectacular.
Again, I have to stress that some of this is subjective. While it's clear that a lot of shortcuts and general cost-cutting was done by the original animators, there are people out there who really like the animation style of Utena. You may be one of them, so if the story appeals to you, don't let my criticisms put you off picking up a copy.
One further bit of good news is that this time around 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.
As a side note, there's a brand-new ED (end credits) theme tune that appears for the first time at the close of episode 25, along with a new closing animation sequence. For episode 26, the song remains the same but the animation changes once again, which is unusual but interesting. (And no, the new ED theme isn't nearly as catchy as the old one. Oh, well... can't have everything.)
The menu design for these four discs is slightly improved from what we saw on the first two volumes of Utena, though it's not the kind of change that's going to take your breath away. Firstly, all of the menu screens now possess either fully-animated (as in a looped video clip from the series) or slideshow (as in a series of stills from the show) backgrounds behind the text selections. These are accompanied by suitable music or sound clips and there are nice transitions between some of the sub-menu screens.
Unlike on the two 'Rose Collection' DVDs, here even the 'Chapters' menus are graced with the standard 'animated windows' to help you remember where exactly each chapter begins. And where before we were only given two chapter breaks per episode, here we're generously provided with six: 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 with an embossed cover (well, the bits featuring Utena and Anthy are embossed, that is). For more details regarding the packaging, please see the write-ups for each of the individual DVD volumes (linked above).
Although Revolutionary Girl Utena has yet to really win me over, having now seen 26 of its 39 episodes I can confidently say that it's not merely the pretentious mishmash of forced weirdness that it at first appears to be. There are a number of good points to this series, the most obvious of which are the various explorations into the psyche undertaken by the principals. Also intriguing is the slightly-askew universe in which the show takes place, as well as the evidently sinister backstory that is being drip-fed to the audience episode by episode.
Alas, there are almost as many bad points: very heavy-handed 'symbolism' of the 'yes, yes, I got it... and so did my dog, for that matter' variety; serious issues with timing and mood (for example, many ostensibly-dramatic moments are utterly ruined by the comic antics of Chu-Chu, the mouse/monkey/thing that Anthy keeps as a pet), and quite a bit of filler-as-ceremony. All in all, however, things balance out well enough and my fondness for the surreal casts the deciding vote; I'll keep watching Utena, hoping that the now-escalating action will be capped by some amazing denouement at series' end.