Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Student Council Saga
Anime DVD Boxset Review
Some shows are derided as being style over substance, but to make that criticism of Revolutionary Girl Utena is to miss the point: in Utena, the style is the substance. Every aspect of the show, from the highly stylized visuals to the dramatic but lyrically oblique choral music that plays during the action scenes, hints at a deeper message that viewers are invited to parse. It won't be easy to do so, but that's the joy of director Kunihiko Ikuhara's best-known work.
After years in legal limbo, Right Stuf and Nozomi Entertainment have re-released the series in three gorgeous box sets; we devoured the first one, covering the first twelve episodes and the anime's first arc, The Student Council Saga. With a complete remaster, the series looks and sounds even better than it did in its 1997 run on Japanese television.
Like Sailor Moon, to which Utena is if not a spiritual successor, then at least a distant cousin due to Ikuhara's involvement, the overwhelming message of Utena at first seems to be "Girls rule, boys drool." Pink-haired Utena is rescued by a prince in her youth, and decides based on that experience to become a prince herself. She only wears boys' clothes and defeats many opponents, mostly boys, who vie for possession of a princess, the Rose Bride, in dramatic sword fights. The male characters are mostly smug and unlikable, and desperately need to be dropped down several pegs, something our athletic heroine is perfectly capable of doing. Thank goodness for Miki, the one nice guy, otherwise we might have gotten the impression that all men in Utena's world were inherently evil.
However, there's more going on with the show than a simple dose of feminism. Despite being a tomboy, Utena is feminine in many respects, and turns down a place on her school's basketball team so she won't have to deal with "smelly boys' sweat." She wants to take on the chivalry of a prince while still remaining, at least in part, a princess. However, Utena's obsession with the prince from her childhood belies her independent attitude; isn't she, on some level, just pining after a boy she liked? What's empowering about that?
The Rose Bride, Utena's mysterious classmate Anthy Himemiya, is stereotypically feminine: demure and beautiful (although everyone on this show is beautiful; that's just how they roll.) However, even in the first twelve episodes, it's hinted that Anthy's passive demeanor might be hiding something more sinister. Even though the Duelists claim to be fighting for "possession" of Anthy, who really has the power here?
At it's most basic, the show does seek to deconstruct the stereotypical male/female power dynamic, using the symbolism of princes and princesses to do so. However, unlike more typical "Girl Power!" fare, Utena acknowledges that this dynamic is complex, and at times, contradictory. This take on the subject that makes the show better suited for older teens and adults than younger viewers.
Other things that skew the show older are hints of taboo topics like incest, and more than hints of domestic abuse: if you take a drink every time Anthy is viciously slapped by her "lover", you will become very drunk (hint: don't actually do this.) A lot of the true darkness of Utena doesn't emerge until the show's latter half, after the Student Council Saga, but younger viewers will likely be confused and maybe even bored by the show's constant barrage of symbolism.
However, Utena is something of an acquired taste, even for adults: the world of Ohtori Academy is a surreal dreamscape, and expecting the rules of reality to apply will lead to frustration. Everything is so dramatic, and even melodramatic, that everyday sights like the academy's teachers giving tests and students playing baseball seem like refugees from a different show when they do appear. Either you buy into the surrealism and its accompanying melodrama and eat it up with a spoon, or it annoys you: viewers used to more down-to-earth stories will very likely wish they could slap everyone involved and tell them to get over themselves. Even we sometimes did, and we love Utena! In short, the show is best watched with the mindset that this is a kind of art film, not an attempt to depict anything realistic.
Speaking of realism or lack thereof, Utena goes completely over-the-top with its humor; the total silliness of the filler episode plots contrast starkly with the darker aspects of the story. While this was no doubt intentional, some viewers may have trouble taking the main conflicts seriously after episodes featuring surfing elephants and magical exploding curry.
Visually, the show hasn't aged quite as well as some other series from the late '90s have: while there are some fluid sequences of animation, particularly during the duels, and impressive stock-footage sequences that remain beautiful even after you've seen them ten times, parts of the series look low-budget. Sweeping aerial views of the Ohtori Academy grounds, which were supposed to be impressive, looked under-detailed and washed out to us, a lot of footage is recycled, and the characters are sometimes drawn off-model. Utena in particular is often a victim of unfortunate camera angles; it's hard to be a pink-haired prince.
Still, those with the patience for art-for-art's sake and a love the romantic would be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable series than Utena; those put off by the series' melodrama would be better off experiencing Utena in the form of the feature film, "The Adolescence of Utena," arguably Ikuhara's masterpiece. it's borderline incomprehensible, but a more concise version of the tale for those who don't want to invest in a 38-episode series.
The new boxset comes with great and appropriately stylish cover art, and a booklet containing artwork from the series, as well as Ikuhara's episode commentary and excerpts from the original Laser Disc liner notes. This is the kind of release we like to see: now, we're just waiting impatiently for our copy of The Black Rose saga to arrive.
Reviewed by Karen Gellender, November 2011
Utena Website Links:
Utena Official US Website from Rightstuf
Utena Wikipedia Entry
Utena Symbolism at MyAnimeList
Empty Movement: A Utena Fan Website
Ursula's Kiss (Enoki Films USA website)
Utena: The Movie entry at Internet Movie Database
Revolutionary Girl Utena -
Anime DVD Review
Director Kunihiko Ikuhara takes the entire TV series plot and streamlines it to 80 minutes, while at the same time, giving the fans an entirely new alternate universe, all new action, and produces a film unlike anything you've ever seen before. The opening sequence alone makes this one worth watching — again and again. And watch it many times you must — in order to peel away the incredible number of layers of dense metaphor. Much like TV's first true masterpiece The Prisoner, Utena's surface action is really just symbolism for a deeper, thought-provoking and somewhat incomprehensible plot.
We're sorry, but your brain must be ON while you watch this film. Taking everything at face-value will leave you confused and disappointed. But those of you that can see the lines of the story between the written words will be in for a real treat. Simply every scene is loaded with allegorical imagery and the film is loaded with jaw-droppingly beautiful artwork. However, a warning: instances of lesbianism, murder, incest, child molestation, and suicide might make this movie inappropriate for children's viewing (or may make your parents squeamish!). So watch in private!
Reviewed by Brian Cirulnick, October 2002
Virtual Star Embryology
Anime Soundtrack Review
A must-have companion CD containing unconventional, but unique blends of eerie, mischievous, whimsical, moody and emotionally-charged dueling chorus music produced by Shinkichi Mitsumune (Fooly Cooley) and J.A. Seazer for the Revolutionary Girl Utena TV series.
This 28-track CD swings out with 10 vocal tracks, including the second ending theme "Virtual Star Embryology" (as well as a Karaoke version), and the TV size versions of the first opening song "A Round Dance Revolution", the ending theme "Truth", as well as 18 instrumental tracks that retain the clever. eclectic characteristics of the first soundtrack.
Reviewed by Brian Cirulnick, April 2005