Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Blu-ray Part Two - The Black Rose Saga
As Toga languishes in a catatonic state following his defeat at Utena's hands, the student council tries to keep things at Ohtori Academy moving smoothly. Their efforts, however, are disrupted by the arrival of Souji Mikage, a high school genius who uses his special seminars to create new black rose duelists to fight Utena. What is Mikage's end goal, and what does it have to do with the simultaneous arrival on campus of Anthy's older brother Akio?
The second of the anime's three story arcs, the Black Rose Saga may actually hold the keys to understanding the entire series. It also seems to set the longer narrative up, telling its story through three different lenses. If the Student Council arc was “philosophy” (the Hesse references) then the Black Rose Saga is “psychology,” as Mikage's motives stem back to his own thwarted dreams and desires, and we see the emergence of some very Freudian themes.
The most obvious theme to emerge in this arc is the idea of what separates the adolescent from the adult. This is the subject of many conversations within the story, from Mikage telling the story of the one hundred boys who supposedly burned to death in the old Nemuro Hall to Akio's increasingly sexual presence on campus and what he might be doing with his sister. Much of it brings to mind Bruno Bettelheim's analysis of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale in his book The Uses of Enchantment, where Sleeping Beauty sleeps not only to show that passivity is nothing to be feared, but also as an escape – “If we are insensitive to the world, the world ceases to exist for us.” When paired with Akio's statement near the end of the arc, (“As long as they stay in this garden we call an academy, people will never become adults.”) the series casts all of its student characters as sleeping beauties, insensible and insensitive to the world outside of Ohtori's walls – and Akio as the evil fairy who put them all in that state.
To be fair, that last part hasn't been fully realized in this story arc, although it is becoming increasingly obvious as Akio smarms his way into Utena's heart. What's more apparent is the struggle the characters are facing as they try to grow up. That's a desire that Mikage plays with in order to create the Black Rose Duelists – as they ride downward in his elevator, Mikage acts the part of therapist, pulling their urges and emotions out of them. On the wall we see a somewhat too on-the-nose depiction of what they're going through: a butterfly devolves into a caterpillar and they typically end their elevator ride on the floor in a semi-fetal position, stripped of their pretensions of maturity. Thus laid bare, the Black Rose Duelists have essentially no awareness and no chance of success when they fight in the arena. When they inevitably lose, they're deprived of their memories of ever being duelists in the first place: forcibly reduced back to the children that Akio wants them to be. It's a confusing metaphor at times, but it seems to speak to the desire of the child to grow up while the adult wants to keep them “pure” in the safety of childhood. (It may be worth remembering that originally the evil fairy wanted Sleeping Beauty to die in early adolescence, which can be interpreted as sparing her the trials of adulthood.)
This set of episodes is much more sexual than the previous arc, albeit not explicitly. Most of the converted duelists go to Mikage's seminar out of romantic worries – Mitsuru wants to be “adult” enough to have a relationship with Nanami, Akio's fiancée is jealous of Anthy, Kozue is preoccupied with her brother in a non-sisterly way. They get their swords by pulling them from the chests of the ones they love (with few exceptions), and there's a very sexual component to their retrieval, moreso than when Utena and Anthy perform the same action. It's almost a reverse penetration, still symbolic of a loss of virginity, but oftentimes it's a girl initiating this action, which is an interesting change-up of traditional roles. More importantly, this is all a direct result of Mikage manipulating the emotions of his supplicants, parallel to the fact that Utena can now respond to the Shadow Play Girls, which may indicate that they are similarly internal forces pushing their way through to the surface.
Alongside all of this is some excellent foreshadowing for the series' final act. Mikage is a big part of this turn, but the fact that only Utena doesn't have a name label on her locker, the way the internal stories at Ohtori Academy are constantly rewritten, and the lack of understanding of our place in Ohtori Academy's timeline is all very significant. Does time literally not pass at Ohtori Academy? Why is it always either spring or fall but never summer or winter? Perhaps equally important, did Saionji really leave the academy or was he hiding somewhere the whole time?
All of this strong storytelling takes place over the ten episodes that make up the core arc (nine if you discount the bizarre Nanami cowbell episode), because both the first and last in this set are clip shows, one summing up the previous arc and the other hitting on Nanami-related highlights. The dub is also not up to the task of this more nuanced plotline, although the sub track holds up well. Extras this time are some storyboard art and two short clips of interviews with director Ikuhara, which were transferred over from the old VHS releases of the show and are mildly interesting.
The psychological turn of the Black Rose Saga makes it a strong arc in its own right, one worth paying attention to as the final storyline plays out in the last set. There are a lot of clues here that can drive your interpretation of the series' ending as a whole, and it's worth paying close attention to what characters say and do—especially Anthy, who's always there, quietly listening.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Interesting use of psychology, lots of hints for the final arc, wonderful music, restoration looks great
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