Revolutionary Girl Utena (The Rose Collection 1) Review

The Show

And so we come to one of the most bizarre animé series I've seen in recent memory. (And not in a Serial Experiments: Lain or even an Akira sort of way, no.) Let me endeavour to distil its particular brand of weirdness down into a single sentence... Revolutionary Girl Utena is, above all else, notorious for chronicling the vicious political, philosophical, and sexual intrigues of hyper-angsty middle- and high-school students while simultaneously incorporating regular inferences to classic fairy-tale structure, homosexuality, and incest.

Right. Now that I have your attention, it's time to set Utena's darker reputation aside for a moment so we can see what we're actually dealing with here. Originally entitled Shoujo Kakumei Utena, the 39-episode series began airing in Japan in 1997 and initially resembled just another shoujo production [one whose principal intended audience is girls], albeit a slightly quirkier one than average... after all, the eponymous protagonist is a 14 year-old girl who deliberately wears the school uniform intended for boys and pursues the stated goal of becoming a dashing prince.

Believe it or not, this isn't at all what makes the show unique; the core premise has been employed at least twice before by other animé: the quite famous 1979 production Versailles no Bara ('Rose of Versailles') by Riyoko Ikeda, and – one of the earliest shoujo shows ever – the 1967 Ribon no Kishi (a.k.a. 'Princess Knight') by Osamu Tezuka. Both feature a cross-dressing girl in the lead role, forced by upbringing and duty to adopt a male gender role. Utena's impetus is quite different, however... the fairy-tale prologue explains that when she was very young, both her parents passed away, and in her hour of deepest grief a handsome prince swept in, consoled her, and – giving her a curious signet ring emblazoned with a rose seal – exhorted her never to lose her strength or nobility, and that someday the ring might lead her back to him. Something strange in Utena's character caused her to decide on the spot to become a prince herself one day, and thus was born the guy chic we see in her wardrobe.

OK, so far, so good. As the show begins in earnest, we learn that Utena is just starting the 8th grade at an exclusive private institution, the Ohtori Academy... a sprawling and improbably-beautiful campus for a broad spectrum of students from elementary school through university-level, featuring architecture of a distinctly European, almost Baroque, feel. (How she manages to get in when her parents passed away years ago and there's no indication of a huge family fortune or influential relations to see her through is conveniently glossed over, naturally.) As we soon discover, Utena is nigh-on hero-worshipped by her female classmates, who (completely unlike real teenagers) see absolutely no reason to tease her for acting like a tomboy, but instead swoon at her comings and goings and just 'love' how 'handsome' she looks in her boy's uniform. After the fairy-tale intro, this is perhaps our second clue that the show is set in a universe of convenience where very different social laws are likely to apply. (You don't know the half of it.)



Most of the ensuing plot action revolves around Utena's almost happenstance involvement with the Ohtori Student Council, a mysterious body of (mostly) upperclassmen who appear to be engaged in a perpetual contest over a seemingly-milquetoast girl named Anthy, whom they refer to as 'the Rose Bride'. While she can't make heads or tails of their belief that by participating in this game they are working towards 'bringing the world revolution', the one inescapable fact Utena must face is that by winning her first swordfight against the Student Council Vice-President, she has somehow been assigned Anthy as her obedient 'bride'!

So by now you can discern that the series is a bit odd. Which begs the question, 'Just how odd does it get?' Well, having so far only seen the first two volumes (containing episodes 1-13 of Revolutionary Girl Utena and collectively named 'The Rose Collection' by Central Park Media), I can only speak for one-third of the overall storyline... but it has to be said that it's fairly mild so far, which leads me to believe that the more sinister elements only begin to manifest in the second major story arc ('The Black Rose Saga'). In the meanwhile, we're faced with fairly standard strangeness, like magical swords being drawn out of girl's chests and each episode breaking halfway through so that some silhouette figures resembling shadow puppet girls can give their own bizarre commentary on what's going on in the main story.

Which is not to say that you can't find 'objectionable' content on this DVD if you are desperate to locate it. I suppose that some parents out there wouldn't want their children seeing anything even remotely smacking of gay or lesbian overtones, although at this early stage in the show I'd argue that the implications are far too subtle for the average pre-teen to notice... and actual teenagers will hardly be shocked by anything they see here. To reiterate, this show is (so far) more 'weird' than 'warped'. (Or, if you prefer, more 'hen' ['strange'] than 'hentai' ['perverted'].)

I don't want this to run overlong, so I'll try to address some more of the background influences regarding this popular series in my review of the second volume. For a much better idea of what Revolutionary Girl Utena is like, please examine the following episode summaries... although if you're already convinced to watch the show and don't want any of its surprises ruined for you, I'd suggest skipping down to the 'Picture' section.



Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)

1: 'The Rose Bride'

Your basic introductory episode. Wakaba, a fellow 8th grade girl who has been infatuated with Utena since their previous year of classes together, waits around for her 'boyfriend' to arrive... but soon discovers that Utena has blown her off and ends up chasing after her onto campus.

Meanwhile, Utena witnesses something peculiar going on... a green-haired 11th grade boy backhanding a girl Utena's age across the face and knocking her to the ground before another upperclassman steps in to restrain him. Wakaba, having caught up with Utena and noting her gaze, names the girl as Anthy, a loner type, and the abusive boy as Saionji, Vice-President of the Student Council. From the tone of admiration evident in her voice as she mentions the latter, it's unsurprising what happens next...

Utena decides to challenge Saionji to a fight after he takes a private love letter Wakaba had written him and posts it on the school bulletin board so that all the other boys could ridicule it. He accepts, instructing her to meet him that evening in the Forbidden Forest behind the school for their duel. Things get a bit surreal as Utena discovers that her signet ring (you remember, the one given to her by her 'prince') magically opens the locked gates to the forest, and that the duelling arena is a levitating platform beneath an inverted castle-in-the-sky, reached by climbing a spiralling staircase.

Cue the fight... the goal of which is apparently to knock off the rose pinned to your opponent's chest before he can do the same to you. Even though he's the captain of the Ohtori Academy Kendo Team and fences at the national level, Saionji miraculously suffers defeat at Utena's hands, the latter winning Anthy for all her efforts. Go figure.



2: 'For Whom the Rose Smiles'

The dorm assignments come in, and – quelle surprise! – Utena and Anthy are slated to share the same room... not only that, but in an old manor house at the edge of the school grounds rather than in one the traditional dormitories with the rest of the student body.

Anthy attempts to explain that her position as the Rose Bride makes her Utena's to do with as she pleases, but Utena is of course having none of this. However, Saionji still harbours feelings for Anthy, and after trying (and failing) to get her to admit that she still loves him from when she was his Rose Bride, he arranges for another duel with Utena.

At first it looks as if he will succeed in the rematch (in part because Utena has decided to throw the match and be done with all this 'Rose Bride' duelling nonsense), but at the last minute she is given a strange burst of power from her rose seal ring and she defeats him once more.



3: 'On the Night of the Ball'

Utena, concerned that Anthy has no friends (well, apart from Chu Chu, a genuinely disturbing little monkey/mouse thing she keeps as a pet), is determined to help her get out more. We're introduced to the President of the Ohtori Student Council, the red-haired bishounen ['beautiful male' – as, frankly, are all of the boys depicted in this show] Touga. He promptly makes a pass at her, and with a flash of his rose seal ring plants the seed of doubt in her mind as to whether he might actually be the prince from her memory.

Meanwhile Touga's younger sister, the 7th grader Nanami, is plotting a scheme of her own... Upset that Touga seems to pay so much attention to Anthy instead of her, she invites Anthy to attend the annual school ball to determine the Dance Queen, which she tells Anthy she's been nominated for. That evening, two different packages arrive at Utena and Anthy's room... one from Nanami containing a green dress for Anthy, and one from Touga containing a pink dress for Utena, who promptly scoffs at it and says she won't be going. (Oh, sure, the colour's good enough for her hair, but not to wear.) However, Anthy begins to show her manipulative side as she immediately says that she won't go if Utena doesn't, thus forcing the latter's hand.

They both attend, with Nanami leading Anthy off while Touga tries to hit on Utena. While she's distracted, Nanami cues her minions to splash Anthy's dress with champagne, promptly causing the specially-designed fabric to dissolve. Utena snaps out of her conversation with Touga, ditches her own dress (employing your standard Clark Kent manoeuvre to instantaneously switch back into her boy's school uniform), and shows how easily a simple tablecloth can be transformed into a stunning white ball gown for Anthy. They dance the night away and are well admired by all, throwing Nanami's plans back in her face.



4: 'The Sunlit Garden – Prelude'

Next on the Student Council roster is blue-haired Miki, a 7th grader taking university-level courses (yes, he's a complete genius) who has developed something of an infatuation with Anthy... who somehow reminds him of his younger sister, with whom he used to play piano in his youth. He ends up helping both Anthy and Utena with their coursework, while Nanami grows ever more frustrated that now both Touga and Miki seem interested in Utena and Anthy.

So it's time of course for another of Nanami's crackpot schemes. This time she tags along with Miki to one of the study sessions he's leading at Utena and Anthy's place, in the hopes of showing Anthy up as – and I quote – 'a big weirdo'. (Not that Anthy isn't a big weirdo, mind you, but that's aside the point.) Of course, her plans – involving everything from stuffing a snail in a pencil box to putting an octopus in the closet – completely backfire, the most amusing of which being when Anthy's pet mongoose (stored in a drawer of her roll-top desk, as you do) makes a quick snack of the garter snake Nanami had been planning to plant there.

After all these shenanigans, Nanami gets offended when Anthy offers everyone a dinner of flavoured ice (as Chu Chu made short work of the meal that Nanami had prepared for the group) and Anthy flees to another room and begins playing the piano... coincidentally, a piece called 'The Sunlit Garden' which Miki and his sister used to play so many years ago.



5: 'The Sunlit Garden – Finale'

Yet another of the mysterious Student Council is introduced... this time it's the orange-haired Juri, an upperclassman girl for a change (and captain of the Ohtori Academy Fencing Team). After she and Miki have a little fencing match, we cut to a backstory that clarifies things a bit. Apparently all of Miki's happy memories lay during that period when he and his sister used to play piano together. But he ruined everything by cajoling her into playing with him on stage before an packed theatre... and at the last minute, falling ill so that she was forced to go on stage without him. As is usually the case in such stories, she couldn't perform without him, so ran off stage and never played the piano again, to his eternal shame.

When he recounts this story to Anthy and Utena, he also mentions that the feeling that he thought he'd lost he's found again in Anthy's piano playing. Utena accuses him of having fallen in love with Anthy, then goes on a rant about how this 'Rose Bride' system is unforgivable as it deprives someone of her personal freedom. This statement prompts Miki to go and make a little speech of his own before the Student Council, saying that it should be dissolved so that Anthy can live her life as freely as she chooses to. Of course, Touga and Juri scoff at this resolution, discerning that he's fallen in love.

An interesting development follows, as Miki runs into his younger sister Kozue just leaving the music room (and readjusting her clothing, for the keen-eyed). She asks him if he's still trying to convince her to play again, and he brusquely says that he's given up on her. When he then demands to know what she's doing in the music room, she cattily replies that she's free to do as she pleases and that the music room isn't just for playing music. We get a better idea of what she's been up to when Miki goes inside and finds Touga lounging around with his shirt completely undone, making thinly-veiled comments about how cute and 'easy-going' his sister is, and how if Miki doesn't defend that which is precious to him, others will take it from him.

Of course, Miki is as easily manipulated as everyone else, so off he goes to challenge Utena to a duel in the Rose Arena over Anthy. When the time for the duel arrives, Miki's doing unsurprisingly well, fuelled by his newfound love for Anthy. The only problem is, at a crucial moment he hears her cheering for Utena instead of him, and with this his confidence crumbles and he loses the match.

Frankly, the most interesting thing about this episode (and indeed this 2-episode mini-arc) is the scene at the very end, showing Kozue talking about her past with another schoolgirl. Her take on what happened is very revealing both about her own character and that of her brother Miki's. Apparently she was never very good at playing the piano, but Miki was such a prodigy that he not only made up for any inaccuracies on her part while the two of them played together, but he never even realised that she was so inferior to him in that regard. She had always enjoyed the experience of playing the piano with him... until he forced her to do the concert and then left her in a lurch when he got sick. So now she torments him by refusing to play!



6: 'Take Care, Miss Nanami!'

Ah, after five episodes introducing key characters in the Utena universe, we pause here for a somewhat cheesy interlude involving a paranoid Nanami convinced that someone's out to kill her. Things get promptly out of hand as she overhears a conversation between Touga and Anthy (quite obviously about killing off insects in the school greenhouse) and assumes they are conspiring to murder her. As it happens, this is merely a plot device to bring in a minor character called Mitsuru, a much-younger kid who's been pining over her for years now and (ooh! what a shocker!) has engineered her recent spate of near-catastrophes expressly for the purpose of rescuing her (which he does). Yes, in the Utena universe, even little elementary schoolchildren pursue Machiavellian plots.

Or course, it's open to debate whether or not this particular strategem backfired on Mitsuru or not, as in the following montage of scenes we see that Nanami's treating him less as a boyfriend and more of a cross between a personal servant and a bodyguard. It's only at the very end of the episode that all is revealed, and after the obligatory sequence involving Touga dealing a knock-out punch to a rogue kangaroo (!), Nanami reiterates her devotion to her older brother and breaks up with Mitsuru.



7: 'Unfulfilled Juri'

And so we return to the standard episode formula of Revolutionary Girl Utena: 1, introduce a new principal character; 2, find some excuse for him/her to duel with Utena; and 3, cut to said duel, with the challenger promptly losing despite all odds.

This time around the duellist is Juri, whom we met earlier. The basic philosophical underpinning here is a dispute over whether miracles do in fact exist. Juri attempts to explain a bit about how the person to whom the Rose Bride is engaged will allegedly receive 'miraculous' powers to revolutionise the world. Juri professes agreement with Utena when the latter mocks belief in such things and says that fighting over the Rose Bride is silly. When the inevitable showdown finally arrives, she easily defeats Utena, even going so far as to knock the Sword of Dios from the latter's grip... but just as she prepares to flick the rose from Utena's chest, gravity kicks in and the sword plunges earthward again, snipping Juri's rose from her chest in the process!

Whether or not Juri's purpose is actually to disprove miracles, we do learn a bit of her past... namely, that she carried a torch for another girl named Shiori (who not only didn't reciprocate Juri's unspoken affections, but took her apparent disinterest in their mutual male friend, Ruka, as carte blanche to turn his affections away from Juri and towards herself). Juri is the first unquestionably lesbian character we're presented with in Utena (as Wakaba, albeit more demonstrative in her affections, also seems a trifle less earnest), and is not an unsympathetic one, despite her own unresolved anger. Her 'love triangle' with Ruka and Shiori is certainly more intriguing than the somewhat tepid backstory of Miki and Kozue, but the audience is left with the definite impression that we'll be seeing a lot more of all of these secondary characters in the not-too-distant future.



Picture

As with almost every other aspect of the series, the actual animation in Revolutionary Girl Utena seems to have a uniquely polarising effect upon viewers. There are many fans out there who absolutely adore the highly-stylised renderings of artist Chiho Saito, rife as they are with impossibly-thin, incredibly-angular character designs, predominantly-static pans, and curiously-gyrating 'rose frames' highlighting the occasional bit of action. I personally fall into the other camp, as I cannot help but notice that the animation is in general rather unremarkable and in specific instances actually somewhat off-putting.

In an attempt to remain objective, I'll quickly summarise what I consider to be the visual failings of this particular show. First and foremost, Utena was produced on a relatively small budget and unfortunately this is plain to see almost anywhere you care to look. The worst offender in this regard is the endless re-use of stock footage throughout the series, which becomes grating after a while. (I know that certain fans like to style it as 'emphasising the importance of ritual in the Utena universe', but there's really only so many times you can watch the exact same animated sequence over and over before admitting to yourself that it's actually a cost-cutting measure.)

Second, even when the animators aren't rehashing the same piece again and again, the quality is nothing to write home about: 1, highly simplified movements may make things like the duel sequences look slightly more 'flowing', but at the expense of realism and the creative use of alternate camera angles normally seen in animé fight scenes; 2, not a lot of attention is paid to rendering background details, which ends up looking a bit sloppy but may have been a deliberate stylistic choice to underscore the surrealism of the series; and 3, the actual palette used for Utena is unexpectedly restricted and comes across looking rather drab and washed-out, vivid colours being more of the exception than the rule.

Third, for a series that was produced in 1997, Utena somehow manages to come across looking dated... which for a show as unique as this one simply isn't right. While this – not to mention the inexplicable softness (occasionally bordering on haze) exhibited by the picture – again may have been a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of the animators, I have to ask myself, if so, whether it was the right choice.

On balance, however, none of the above are insurmountable obstacles to your enjoyment of the series; they are merely drawbacks you should be aware of. The good news is that, regardless of what one might say about the animation itself, Software Sculptors (Central Park Media) didn't drop the ball when it went to create this DVD. By using a dual-layer disc and a suitably-high bitrate for the encode, the company has managed to achieve a great-looking transfer free of any of the more-worrying flaws usually seen on animé releases. The series is presented in its original standard TV aspect ratio of 4:3 and I didn't spot any print damage, artifacting, or macroblocking over the course of watching the included seven episodes through twice (once for each language).



Sound

Ah, which brings us to the audio. Whereas most animé shows are content to serve up some vaguely middle-of-the-road sonic fare (generally taking the form of inoffensive J-pop or enka [Japanese ballad] tunes that you may or may not find yourself humming at inopportune moments days or weeks after you finish watching the series), Revolutionary Girl Utena has adopted a slightly different approach: mixing the extremely catchy with the utterly abysmal. (Then again, no one has ever claimed consistency was one of Utena's strong suits.)

This is a shame, really, as if I could restrict myself to writing only about the opening and ending songs, I'd have to rate Utena's music very high indeed. The OP ('Rinbu Revolution') and ED ('Truth') themes are addictive pieces of ear candy that you probably won't be able to dislodge from your head without a sledgehammer. There's also a lovely and evocative little number called 'The Sunlit Garden' which forms the basis for two of the episodes on this disc.

Alas, that's the end of the good news on the music front, as every other song I've heard to date in the series has been, well, execrable. Atrocious Greek chorus-like chanting coupled with truly risible lyrics (in one song we are forced to listen to them rattle off a litany of geologic time periods, for heaven's sake!) make for a very ear-punishing experience indeed. (Particularly as the viewer gets to hear 'Absolute Destiny Apocalypse' no less than four times in the first seven episodes, as it's the song that accompanies Utena's long march up the spiral staircase to the Rose Arena prior to each duel. Apparently she never got the memo regarding the lift that all the other characters seem to use!) Although many fans have desperately tried to dignify these lyrics with a critical analysis, the fact remains that they're rubbish... another fine example of 'weirdness for weirdness' sake'.

While we're on the subject of the songs, one bad decision I feel Software Sculptors (Central Park Media) made has to do with their use of the dub masters when they burned these episodes to DVD. For the uninitiated, this means that any place where a song occurs during the show (and this is fairly often, even if you don't count the opening and ending theme songs), you'll be confronted with hard-subbed overlays displaying the English translation of the lyrics... which you won't be able to turn off even if you speak Japanese fluently, or merely wish to admire the artwork without huge green blocks of nonsensical text blotting it out.

Which is unfortunate, because in every other respect the subtitles work on this disc seems to be top-notch. I found the subs to be far more appropriate to the overall feel of the show than the English dub dialogue, for one thing. Despite the fact that neither the original Japanese nor the English dub track had any recording flaws to speak of (no pops, no drop-outs, no distortions, no odd fluctuations in sound level, and in fact great stereo separation for all of the music), I vastly preferred the actual voices, the voice acting, and the translations of the Japanese soundtrack to the English version. (My general impression thus far is that the writers of the English dub sought to play down certain 'unsavoury' implications present in the original Japanese dialogue... which kind of defeats the whole purpose of a show like Utena.)



Menus

The menus on this disc are fairly utilitarian, but at the very least aren't clunky or aesthetically displeasing. Consisting solely of completely-silent static pages, each features a handful of selections superimposed on a still image from the show. Options available from the main menu include 'Language', 'Play Movie' (even though technically this isn't one), 'Pick a Scene', 'The Songs', 'WebConnex', and 'Want More?'.

The first sub-menu allows you to select the usual four combinations found on bilingual animé DVDs (Japanese/English language and subtitles on/off), but suffers from the same minor quirk as most Central Park Media discs in this regard... namely, the moment you change any setting here, the show automatically starts playing from the start of episode 1.

'Pick a Scene' also behaves a bit differently than you might normally expect; instead of the usual sequence of sub-pages with chapter breaks for each individual episode on this DVD (e.g., 'Intro', 'Part A', 'Part B', 'Ending', 'Next Episode Preview'), you're presented with a single screen containing 14 named chapter breaks (2 per episode). The sole benefit of this arrangement is that the even-numbered chapter stops coincide with the beginning of each 'shadow girls' segment, so if you're a fan of these slightly-freaky sequences, you can jump right to them.

The remaining three menu selections aren't all that exciting, although – credit where credit is due – CPM did make an effort to provide something interesting with 'The Songs'. Alas, as I've already mentioned, the only good tunes featured in the series (at least these first seven episodes) are the OP and ED theme songs. Why anyone would want to jump directly to such golden classics as 'Absolute Destiny Apocalypse' or 'Paleozoic Era in the Flesh' is beyond my personal understanding... but these and three other songs of their ilk are available from this sub-menu.

'WebConnex' is just a mention of the included DVD-ROM content on this disc, which is unusually meagre for a Central Park Media release. (In my experience, CPM can generally be counted on to provide at the very least a full art gallery and a few episode scripts in their DVD-ROM sections, but not here.) This time around it's just a handful of links to the related company websites (Central Park Media and Software Sculptors) coupled with a catalogue of CPM's current releases alongside their planned DVD release schedule.

Finally, 'Want More?' offers trailers for five other CPM releases, including Darkside Blues, Legend of Lemnear, A Wind Named Amnesia, Wrath of the Ninja, and Knights of Ramune.



Extras

No, I'm afraid not. The closest thing to special features on this disc would be 'The Songs', described above, but as this only plays five short music-laden scenes from the show, it's not all that.

However, on the positive side, this DVD offers two other hallmark features of most Central Park Media discs: 1, it comes in a nice transparent Amaray case with dual-sided artwork on the sleeve insert; and 2, it's a region 0 (all-region) release, so it will play on whatever DVD player you happen to have lying about the house. I suppose these technically aren't 'extras', but they're nice to have all the same.

Overall

So what's the verdict? Good question. Revolutionary Girl Utena is unquestionably one of those shows that most people will either adore or despise. I can understand both positions, frankly. On one hand it's an interesting series with lots of potential, several intriguing mysteries being dangled before the viewer, a group of characters capable of almost anything, and an evident willingness to pursue topics that many people would consider taboo. On the other hand, it does seem extremely pretentious, keen on artificial eccentricity, somewhat overhyped considering its actual production values, and exhibits, well... an evident willingness to pursue topics that many people would consider taboo.

As long as you're OK with that and the general premise of the show appeals to you, then I'd recommend this disc on the basis of value for money alone. Rarely do you find animé distributors willing to put 7 episodes (as opposed to the usual 3-4) on a single DVD volume, and the second volume of 'The Rose Collection' is similarly generous, containing the remaining 6 episodes of this introductory story arc.


Film
7 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
1 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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