Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Blu Ray Part One
Utena Tenjou is an eighth grader at Ohtori Academy. She came there pursuing a mysterious “prince” who rescued her in the wake of her parents' deaths – giving her a ring with a rose seal and telling her to retain her nobility of heart. Now years later, Utena has decided to be a prince rather than wait for one any longer, although she still desperately wants to meet him. This leads her to participate in a strange series of duels fought by the student council members (who also have rose rings) for possession of the Rose Bride, a fellow eighth grader named Anthy Himemiya. As Utena is drawn further and further into the student council's world, it becomes increasingly apparent that not all is as it appears in Ohtori Academy...
First airing in 1997, Revolutionary Girl Utena has proved to have a lot of staying power among anime fans. The recent release of the show on blu-ray is not only truly gorgeous in picture clarity and color, but it also provides the show a chance to reach new viewers. While it may not have quite the same impact for first-time watchers, as many of the themes that were so shocking (and affirming) back in the late '90s are no longer unusual for anime, the story's use of these ideas is still impressive. Even all these years later, Utena still has the power to hold our attention.
The story follows Utena Tenjou, an eighth grader at the prestigious Ohtori Academy. Utena has aspirations to be a prince based on a childhood experience where she was (emotionally) rescued by a mysterious prince following the deaths of her parents. The prince gave Utena a ring with a rose seal, and Utena has been chasing him ever since. Wearing a boy's uniform, Utena fulfils her princely aspirations by standing up for those in need, and defending the honor of her friend Wakaba leads her to become involved with the student council, who are conducting strange duels over a girl known as the Rose Bride. Utena becomes the unwitting betrothed of this bride after defeating the student council vice president in a duel, and she struggles to make sense of the system, her own feelings, and Anthy herself as further duels commence.
On the surface, Utena simply appears to be a twisted fairy tale, changing around the basics of the prince and princess roles in various ways. And while those themes are certainly present, there's also much more going on in the story. The most obvious theme is the portrayal of gender roles and sexuality – Utena's declaration that she wants to be the prince might at first appear to be a statement that she would prefer to be a boy, but Utena soon clarifies that what she really wants is to be the savior rather than the saved – she wants a role in life that is traditionally coded as masculine. Utena's wish to be this savior (prince) is presented in contrast to Anthy's role as the ultimate submissive figure; in other words, Anthy is the feminine to Utena's masculine. At first, this simply looks like another basic prince/princess fairy tale with a twist, but it would be a mistake to take Anthy at face value.
While Utena is the more outwardly interesting character, Anthy is the one worth keeping an eye on. Early evidence of her complexity can be seen in the ending theme, when she is shown looking over the shoulder of her prince with eyes staring straight ahead; if you compare this to Utena's closed eyes, it can be seen as Anthy being aware of what's really going on while Utena is blind to it. Anthy is also raising the roses used to represent the duelists in a garden beneath an enormous birdcage – while Anthy spends much of her time within the cage, she can also come and go there freely, implying that she may be more complicit in the dueling system than the duelists understand.
The imagery of a bird and cages is also present in the elevator sequences, where student council president Touga repeats his mantra about a chick breaking out of its shell. While we could read this as simply heavy-handed symbolism, it seems a bit too on-the-nose for this particular show and director. While overtly a reference to Hermann Hesse's Demian, this passage also recalls the Japanese children's song "Kagome Kagome", whose title refers to the shape of holes in a traditional basket (like the bars on the elevator/cage), while the second line of the verse is translated as “the bird in the cage.” While there are multiple interpretations of this rhyme, many variations take on a sinister tone, and one of the popularly accepted interpretations is that the song is about a child in the womb. Arguably all of the chosen duelists are struggling to be born, with the school as their womb – the completion of the duels will give them the chance to begin life anew by breaking their natal world. This is a metaphorical rather than literal birth, as each member of the council appears to have something that they are working through psychologically. The final line of the poem, “who stands behind you,” also recalls the presence of the mysterious End of the World, who is pulling the strings. We often see the student council's meetings as if from the perspective of someone looking out a window – possibly End of the World's perspective.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is the sort of show that spawns endless theories and interpretations, none of which distract from the enjoyment of the piece. While its deliberate weirdness can be off-putting at times, the stylized art and rapidly changing music hold up remarkably well. The dub track holds up less well, unfortunately, as a relic of the bad old days of dubbing – one particularly memorable Americanized line is “Nice skirt, Saionji” when the character is clearly wearing hakama. The pronunciation is also highly suspect, although that's a bit less distracting than the acting.
Although this is a bare-bones release with no remarkable extras (clean songs, commercials, company trailers), it's also worth the price. The picture is beautiful and the story has aged well. Whether you're new to the series or want to update your collection, the first arc of Revolutionary Girl Utena is still worth your time.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Story holds up, BD looks great, interesting folklore elements and gender politics
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