Review

by Rebecca Silverman,

Revolutionary Girl Utena [Complete Box Set]

GN 1-5

Synopsis:
Revolutionary Girl Utena [Complete Box Set]  GN 1-5
When she was a little girl, Utena Tenjou was saved from drowning by a mysterious prince who smelled of roses. He gave her a ring with a rose crest and told her that they would meet again if she continued to live a noble life. Now fourteen, Utena enrolls in Ohtori Academy in an effort to find him, only to find that she's not the only one with the rose ring. The ring is a symbol from someone calling himself World's End that signifies Utena as a duelist who can fight for the power to revolutionize the world. Utena becomes involved in the strange saga of the Rose Bride, World's End, and what it means to be a prince in this beautiful re-issue of Chiho Saito's manga. The manga version of the Adolescence of Utena alternate retelling is also included.
Review:

Despite being created simultaneously by the creative collective Be-PaPas, Revolutionary Girl Utena's manga version, written and drawn by Chiho Saitō, predates its anime version by roughly a year. While it shares characters (at least in terms of names) and a basic plot with its more popular sibling, Saito's five volume manga tells a very different story – one that doesn't quite hold up as well. Although it follows the same basic concept, the manga version of Utena lacks many of the themes that helped make the anime memorable.

Originally published in five volumes (with a sixth for the retelling, Adolescence of Utena), Chiho Saitō's series begins with a prologue that sees Utena at her previous school. She's a rebel even there, wearing her pink version of the boys' school uniform and getting herself in trouble with stodgy teachers. Since she was orphaned as a young child, Utena lives with her aunt, a renowned interior decorator, and her best friend is a young man named Kaido. Shortly after her parents' deaths, Utena fell through a hole in a fence and nearly drowned, only to be saved by a princely man smelling like roses. He licked her tears away and gave her a rose crest ring, inspiring Utena to become a prince herself in hopes of fulfilling his admonition to live a noble life. Now she receives a postcard every year from the prince and still dreams of reuniting with him. Eventually Kaido, who is clearly in love with Utena, figures out that each postcard's image fits with the others to create a picture of Ohtori Academy, and the prologue ends with Utena transferring there while her aunt moves to the Netherlands.

While it is understandable that Saito would have wanted to give Utena a reason to be at Ohtori – this was written in 1996, when the “ridiculously posh and exotic high school” boom hadn't happened yet – the entire storyline is largely abandoned once Utena arrives at Ohtori and begins her life combating the other duelists. Kaido becomes a lost character, and the although the idea of licking away tears, which is so central to Utena's memories of her prince that she calls him “Mr. Licky-Lick,” comes back briefly towards the end of the series, it's also basically forgotten. This gives a sense of disconnect to the first volume of the manga that makes it a bit harder to get into than necessary.

That's true of the whole series when you come right down to it. There's a much more predictable shoujo sensibility to the manga than the anime, with more emphasis on heteronormative romances (Juri is madly in love with Touga and another male senpai in the manga) and a much more friendship-based relationship for Anthy and Utena. While this can be a disappointment, it does allow for the idea of the Rose Bride to be much more based in the objectification of women in general than in ideas of romance, which is an interesting theme in and of itself. Although there is some girl/girl kissing, Utena is much more concerned with Anthy's lack of agency than either girl's romantic status – she wants Anthy to be more than just a scabbard for a sword, which carries its own messages about the role of the woman in a heteronormative relationship. As the Rose Bride, Anthy is expected to do whatever her affianced tells her to, with no expression of her own desires; this directly relates to outdated ideas about the role of a wife in a traditional marriage, largely stemming in Japan from the 1875 ideal of “ryosai kenbo,” or the “good wife, wise mother”, whose main duty is to her husband and the nation. (Anthy's relationship with Akio can certainly be read this way.) That Utena wants to be the prince rather than the princess also speaks to this – her desire to forge her own path and be the protector is a wish for the masculine privilege of action and agency rather than the feminine one of passive safety. Touga is able to realize this, which becomes part of why he loves her; Akio, on the other hand, seeks to chain her back down to a more traditionally feminine role by forcing the part of Rose Bride upon her, ultimately undermining her entire time as a duelist by converting her bid for princedom into the means of making her a princess.

When the story is focusing on these themes rather than the fact that Juri is jealous of Utena, and all boys except Saionji are in love with her too, it makes for interesting reading. Unfortunately, it also gets bogged down in '90s shoujo trappings, particularly toward the beginning, and attempts to be funny and cute that don't quite work. There's also a fairly large creep factor in that Utena is fourteen and being actively pursued by a high school senior and a college student, along with implied incest between Anthy and Akio. (Miki's relationship with his twin sister is largely sidelined and played for laughs.) The final third of the second volume, the manga version of The Adolescence of Utena film, is actually much better done in general, deriving much of its strength from the portrayal of Utena and Touga's relationship by building on the original manga's version of it. It once again takes an interesting look at the role of bride as object, but plays Anthy up as a much more sexual character, while questioning whether or not Ohtori Academy itself really exists. (This can be seen as building off the Black Rose short story, one of the stronger elements of the main series.) It also works with one (anime-related) theory about the retelling – that it is Utena's dream as she waits for Anthy to come find her.

Viz's special edition of this series more than merits the higher (but not unreasonable) price. Both hardcover volumes open with a large selection of color images, and the box that holds them also contains a small poster of Utena and Anthy. If you're the sort of collector who doesn't like fingerprints visible on your books, the material used for the spines may prove an issue, but the paper inside is high-quality and feels wonderful on your hands. Saito's art works particularly well in the oversize format, as it allows for her sweeping use of space, although it also lets us see how disproportionate her bodies can be, the biggest issue being tiny torsos atop giraffe-like legs. Although the books are a little too heavy for comfortable holding, the spines are flexible enough that they can be opened on a table or stand easily. The translation does not appear to be new, which results in a few oddities such as a brief switch to writing Chuchu's speech as “xiu xiu” and a misstatement about Utena entering grade seven at Ohtori rather than eight.

Revolutionary Girl Utena's manga doesn't quite hold up the same way its animated sister does. Despite this, it still makes for an interesting read that tries to subvert shoujo manga messages about princesses and what girls have to be, even while it falls into a few of its own traps, particularly with Juri's character. This gorgeous release of Chiho Saitō's books more than does it credit, even if it isn't as good a story as it has the potential to be.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B

+ Interesting statements about the objectification of women and the role of the “bride”, sweeping page layouts, Adolescence volume is excellent, gorgeous release edition
Prologue serves little to no point, story undermines its own message at times, anatomy can be distracting, some translation issues

Story: Be-PaPas
Art: Chiho Saitō

Full encyclopedia details about
Revolutionary Girl Utena (manga)

Release information about
Revolutionary Girl Utena [Complete Box Set] (GN 1-5)

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