Revolutionary Girl Utena (The Rose Collection 2) Review
As promised in my review of the 'The Rose Collection 1', this write-up will delve a bit more deeply into where Revolutionary Girl Utena came from and where it appears to be going... but first I'd like to quickly clarify the overall series structure in order to forestall potential confusion.
The consensus is that the show is best divided into four major arcs, generally referred to as the Student Council Saga (episodes 1-13), the Black Rose Saga (episodes 14-24), the Akio Ohtori Saga (episodes 25-33), and the Apocalypse Saga (episodes 34-39). As you can see, Central Park Media was quick to release the entire first story arc (back in 1999/2000) on these two fairly packed DVDs... albeit under the new title, 'The Rose Collection'.
Although it was a bit of a dry spell for Utena's Western fanbase in the intervening two years, at the end of 2002 CPM began a regular roll-out of the remaining episodes on DVD... in fact, the conclusory volume has a street date for the middle of next month. The company has also streamlined the series structure slightly, deciding to break it into even thirds by offering volumes 3-6 (covering episodes 14-26) as 'The Black Rose Saga Collection' and volumes 7-10 (covering episodes 27-39) as 'The Apocalypse Saga Collection'.
So back to the story. Just what is Utena all about, anyway? Although there are certainly no pat answers this early on, one central theme of the show appears to be 'finding out who you really are'... or, in a much broader sense, the exploration of identity, self, and gender roles. As mentioned in my review of volume 1, two prior animé which touched similarly (albeit not quite so bizarrely) on these topics are known in the West as Princess Knight and Rose of Versailles. There are obvious parallels to both shows visible in Revolutionary Girl Utena.
The former tells the story of a princess who was accidentally imbued with both a male and a female soul, and whose parents – for reasons of untold expediency, one must imagine – raised her to act like a prince, and indeed present her to an entire kingdom of adoring citizens as their prince. She's dashing, heroic, noble, fearless, and burns brightly enough as an individual to inspire loyalty and admiration in those around her. (Sound familiar?)
In many ways the more obvious precursor to Utena, however, is Rose of Versailles. Set in pre-Revolutionary France, it follows the life of a woman brought up to act like a male soldier and assigned the duty of protecting Marie Antoinette. First off, there's the rose theme that threads its way through all of Utena. More telling, however, are the many nods to French period culture – be it architecture (take a closer look at the Ohtori Academy), language (such as Anthy's name), and fashion (just what are the Student Council wearing, anyway?) – that predominate in the series. This, coupled with marked similarities between certain key characters in either series, strongly suggest that Utena's director and co-writer Kunihiko Ikuhara and lead artist Chiho Saito were both not only familiar with Rose of Versailles, but were suitably taken with the series to incorporate various elements into their own later production.
Considering its slightly-twisted and ever-darkening storyline, Revolutionary Girl Utena was no doubt influenced by many other works (the hand of Jung is certainly apparent, particularly if you've read his semi-autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections), but one that is prominently referenced is Hermann Hesse's Demian, a famous passage of which is adapted in Utena to form the mantra of the Student Council: 'If a chick cannot break out of its shell, it will die without ever being born. We are the chick. The world is our egg. If we don't crack the world's shell, we will die without truly being born. Smash the world's shell! For the revolution of the world!'
The six episodes on this second volume (well, more accurately five episodes and a blatant recap of the preceding dozen) do succeed in marginally advancing the mysterious background plot, but – far more importantly, in my opinion – actually make me eager to learn what will happen next. (And thereby begin to edge out the feeling of general uncertainty that viewing the first seven episodes left me with.) Not only do we learn a bit more about the long-term relationship between Touga and Saionji – and the fact that they both actually met Utena when she was a little girl – but there are also disturbing revelations concerning Nanami's character, and the intriguing consequence of her jealousy being that she is admitted into the ranks of the Student Council duellists. (This is in fact an early foreshadowing of the mechanism by which future duellists will be added to the roster in the Black Rose Saga... made all the more important by the fact that we exhaust the current list of Utena's opponents in episode 11.)
Again, Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of those series that it's hard to talk frankly about without giving away important plot points, so if you want further clarification, read on... but if you want to avoid any spoilers, please skip down to 'Picture'.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
8: 'Curried High Trip'
Just your average tale about two girls switching bodies in the wake of an explosion resulting from a super-spicy curry. (No, I'm not joking.) This is naturally another comic relief episode – as indeed most of the ones involving Nanami have been up until now – and this time she's sent off to India to hunt down another batch of the magical curry powder which is suspected of having caused all the trouble in the first place. (After she told her minions to swap it with the one Anthy was preparing to cook with, of course.)
Despite inducing a few giggles here and there (bits like Nanami and her groupies being chased all over India by rampaging elephants, or the secondary body-swap that occurs at the very end of the episode), the action here is not very relevant to the core story of the series.
9: 'Castle Where Eternity Dwells'
Ah, and I'll bet you were just wondering when the Touga and Saionji would get their own episode. This one opens with the two of them having a personal kendo match, Touga eventually defeating his green-haired rival while Utena looks on in obvious admiration.
The meat of this episode, however, is the background story which Saionji later relates to Utena, which shows that he and Touga have been 'friends' for a decade already, and have in fact been having regular sword practice during that time. During one flashback, we see the two of them riding home from one such session and coming across a church where a funeral is taking place. Learning that the daughter of the two people who have died has gone missing, they investigate and find Utena hiding in a coffin alongside her parents'. (This goes a long way towards explaining how Touga can convincingly pretend he's Utena's prince, seeing as he actually remembers the day it all happened.)
Lastly, weirdness reigns as Saionji gets a letter from End of the World (the unknown agency behind the Student Council itself, and from which they take their orders) advising him that he'll be permitted entry to the castle-in-the-sky that night if only he brings Anthy to the Rose Arena. However, Utena gets a mysterious phone call telling her that Anthy's been kidnapped and instructing her to go to the Rose Arena as well, setting in motion a hallucinogenic sequence involving everything from Saionji collapsed unconscious outside the gates to the Forbidden Forest, to Anthy apparently asleep inside a rose coffin, to the spontaneous disintegration of the castle-in-the-sky above their very heads.
When Utena rushes to rescue Anthy and everything abruptly reverts to normal (or as normal as this series gets), Saionji feels certain he's been cheated out of his chance to save Anthy and thus achieve eternity for himself, and launches an attack on the unarmed Utena. He's only stopped by the sudden appearance of Touga, who throws himself between them and receives the slash of Saionji's blade across his back.
10: 'Nanami's Precious Thing'
Saionji is expelled from Ohtori Academy for having wounded another student. Foolishly entrusting the exchange diary he's been keeping with Anthy to Touga (who promptly bins it in the nearest furnace), Saionji departs for the time being. However, thanks to the fact that Touga still is recovering from his injury, the End of the World chooses another duellist to stand in for him against Utena.
Thus we flashback to one of Touga's pre-teen birthday parties, where Nanami brought him a kitten as a present. Although it was plain to see how much her older brother loved the kitten, he alas played with it far too much for Nanami's liking (she always wanting to be foremost in her brother's affections), so she put it in a box and threw it in the river to drown. A real charmer, isn't she?
In what seems a very subtle touch for this series, Anthy appears to know about this whole sorry business and re-enacts the scene by presenting Touga with another kitten at his current birthday party... quite possibly to twist the knife a little. Well, if so, it works. Nanami loses her cool and formally challenges Utena to a fight, and as the school rules prohibit anyone not wearing the rose seal from duelling (an interesting fact in its own right), Touga promptly produces a spare signet ring like the one Utena and the entire Student Council wear and places it on his little sister's finger.
And so on to the duel. Nanami loses the fight, but has concealed a dagger up her sleeve and carries on attacking even after Utena knocks the rose from her chest. Again, it is only through Touga's intervention that things don't get messy for our heroine, but this episode clearly ups the ante for Nanami and her potential impact on the future plot of the series.
11: 'Gracefully Cruel'
This instalment seems hand-tailored to get across a single key message regarding the Rose Bride: namely, that she doesn't have much of a personality of her own (which will come as little shock to anyone who's seen Anthy in action!), but instead simply mirrors the feelings and desires of whomever she's currently engaged to. With this modest revelation a number of aspects of the Utena universe become clearer: for instance, it no longer seems surprising that Anthy put up with Saionji's rough treatment of her... nor that he mistook this submission on her part for a special bond of love between them. Similarly, it explains why ever since Utena bested Saionji, Anthy has been more interested in interacting with other people and social activities in general.
Alas for Utena, she cannot comprehend this fact, and honestly believes that Anthy hates being the Rose Bride and desperately wants to make friends... a misjudgment on her part that Touga is more than happy to cruelly disabuse her of. He having pushed enough of Utena's 'prince' buttons to psyche her out, when their duel comes along at the end of this episode, she's completely unable to slice the rose from his chest even when handed the opportunity on a silver platter. And indeed, the moment he wins the fight, Anthy reverts back to how she was before (not surprising as both Touga and Saionji are painted as being extremely possessive personalities), even going so far as to state that she enjoys being alone and without friends!
12: 'For Friendship, Perhaps'
First off, nice work on the title here... injecting just the right amount of ambiguity to leave the viewer wondering if it's referring to Utena's actions or to Wakaba's (as would be my take)... and if the latter, what other than friendship could be coming into play. Regardless of how you read it, this episode gives Wakaba the chance to play an important role in advancing the story – and she doesn't blow it.
When Utena fails to turn up for class in the wake of losing Anthy to Touga, Wakaba goes to visit her, and is shocked at the change that's come over her 'boyfriend'. Dejected, Utena decides to come to school wearing a standard girl's uniform from now on... another red flag. Wakaba, noting that Anthy is no longer living with Utena – and later that Anthy and Utena meet on the path in a very formal way rather than the warm one they are accustomed to greeting each other – infers that the two of them had a quarrel, but soon sees that this is not the case.
When Touga brings Anthy round to prance her in front of Utena, Wakaba deliberately creates a scene to try to rile Utena into snapping out of her funk... which eventually succeeds. The two have a heart-to-heart talk, and Wakaba (sensibly enough) points out that Utena saying that wearing a normal girl's school uniform is 'normal' isn't 'normal' for Utena. She also causes Utena to realise that she's given up a part of herself and that she needs to take back the person she was... which Utena immediately associates with having Anthy back in her life.
In the inevitable rematch with Touga, she looks set to lose again because he – demonstrating a vastly advanced knowledge of the mysteries behind the End of the World – invokes the power of the Rose Bride to protect his sword, rendering it almost invincible. He proceeds to slice through Utena's sword (and not a wooden practice one, either!) just above the hilt and is about to defeat her again... when Utena's behaviour triggers some distant memory in Anthy which causes her to withdraw her support at a critical moment. Touga's shock is enough to give Utena the opening she needs, and again victory is hers.
13: 'Tracing a Path'
This is essentially a recap episode, although it does introduce a mysterious new lavender-haired character, who recounts all that has happened in his one-sided 'conversation' with Dios (as in 'the Sword of Dios', the freaky magical blade that the reigning champion can draw bloodlessly from Anthy's chest), who never replies.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this otherwise lacklustre episode is how we learn that Utena has been progressing up a ladder of specific emotional/psychological battles which mirror the physical duels that she's been fighting. He rattles off the names of the duels she's made it through so far: 'amitié' ('friendship' – the duel she fought for Wakaba, not knowing what she was getting into), 'choix' ('choice' – the first duel she made a conscious decision to fight), 'raison' ('reason' – Miki's moment), 'amour' ('love' – Juri, of course), 'adoration' (yes, Nanami), 'conviction' (Touga), and 'soi' ('self' – as Utena has to regain that part of her that she had lost). Apparently if Utena can carry on successfully as a duellist, she may eventually reach that elusive duel named 'revolution'.
Picture & Sound
There's not much to add to my comments in the 'Picture' and 'Sound' sections of my last review... that is, other than flagging up a few minor glitches, I'm afraid.
At first I was excited to discover that episode 9 features 'clean' opening and ending segments – that is, the original Japanese sequences uncluttered by any trace of the forced-overlay lyrics that marred the episodes on the first disc. (Yes, I know this is actually good news, but read on.) Alas, I then decided to check the other episodes on this volume... and discovered that it's all very hit-or-miss whether Software Sculptors used the 'clean' or 'hard-subbed' versions of the OP or ED, each episode having a different mix of the two. So consistency seems to have been a slight problem this time around. (Another moment of weirdness involves the unexpected appearance of the 'Next Episode' preview screen near the very start of 'Castle Where Eternity Dwells'... definitely not the right place for it!)
Frankly, episode 9 is a good example of where the production went a bit awry all around... for instance, in a truly bizarre decision by the outfit that prepared the English dub, during the entire sequence early on where Saionji and Touga are preparing for their personal kendo match, the sound (in the original Japanese audio track) of many adoring girls' voices cheering on the lads is replaced with eerie silence filled only with the sound of kendo practice swords fallen forward in their bins. This is particularly unfortunate as, by blanking the lines of dialogue immediately preceding Utena's arrival on the scene, the ADR team has rendered her own comment ('Prince?') completely nonsensical. (For the curious, it's in response to some of the other girls referring to Touga as a prince after he bests Saionji.)
Other than such small failings, the video and audio quality on this DVD is about the same as what we saw on the previous volume... which is to say, decent if not anything spectacular. (Oh, excepting the songs written specifically for the duel scenes, which continue to be nonsensical dreck.)
Menus & Extras
The main menu looks more or less the same as the one on the last disc, but with the handy addition of a new extra, 'The Cast'... a section which includes direct links to brief scenes featuring six of the main characters: Utena, Anthy, Wakaba, Nanami, Touga, and Saionji. As before, 'The Songs' makes an appearance, this time indexing to both the OP and ED theme tunes as well as three new 'duel songs'. There are also a few new sneak peeks available on this disc, the full list including Darkside Blues, Ayane's High Kick, Cybernetics Guardian, Wild Cardz, and Wrath of the Ninja.
Slightly unfortunate is the fact that the special features on this DVD get their biggest boost from the DVD-ROM section of this disc. Not only is there a nice art gallery containing three dozen still images from the show and the complete English dub scripts for all 13 episodes, but also included is an abbreviated list of the Japanese and English voice actors, a sign-up form for CPM's email newsletter (AniMail), links to two related websites, and the current Central Park Media DVD release schedule. This is a fairly decent selection of extras and more in line with what I've come to expect from CPM, but the fact remains that anyone without a DVD-ROM drive will be unable to access these special features on their standalone DVD player.
Well, things are certainly beginning to get interesting in the Utena universe. As with any good introductory arc, the Student Council Saga ('The Rose Collection') has presented us with a broad spectrum of recurring characters (some considerably more complex than others), all possessing their own personal quirks, shadowy secrets, hidden agendas, and psychological triggers. The general outline of the plot has been sketched in for us, so we now think we know (generally) what this is all about... while of course leaving plenty of unanswered mysteries for us to look forward to seeing explored in the future.
Revolutionary Girl Utena, while remaining a deliberately strange series that frequently focuses on style over substance, has also proven itself to be a fascinating journey into the twisted minds of its principals, not to mention a show that comfortably mixes darker subject matter with light-hearted comedy.