Reviewby Zac Bertschy, May 25th 2011
Revolutionary Girl Utena
DVD Box 1 - The Student Council Saga
As the story goes, one day a fair and handsome prince bestowed wisdom upon young Utena Tenjou, instructing her to never lose her strength or nobility, even when she grows up. Rather than pining for her rose-scented Prince Charming, Utena decides that she's going to be a prince herself, a kind and noble person who helps those in need. Now she's enrolled at the prestigious Ohtori Academy, donning a custom boy's uniform, where she suddenly finds herself embroiled in strange duels against the enigmatic (and melodramatic) members of the Student Council. They're in competition with one another at the instruction of a mysterious entity known as "The End of the World" for the hand of the Rose Bride, a girl whose engagement bestows upon her “owner” the power to revolutionize the world. Also, there's a runaway bull. And a giant octopus.
There are a handful of anime titles from the tail end of the 20th century that most people can generally agree created a big chunk of today's adult anime fans. The same list of names always pops up – Neon Genesis Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, maybe the Kyoto arc of Rurouni Kenshin – these coveted classics are still trotted out even today to show the uninitiated the incredible entertainment value and creative possibilities hiding inside the medium. Ask any one of the series' legion of fans, however, and there's one name that is sometimes curiously absent from that list, one that proved to an entire generation of new fans just how special, strange, artistically challenging and downright funny anime really could be – Revolutionary Girl Utena, Kunihiko Ikuhara's beautiful and absurd shojo masterpiece that's finally been resurrected and restored after years of neglect.
This box set contains the series' first 12 episodes (dubbed here “The Student Council Saga”) from a recent Japanese HD remaster, which comprises the first major story arc of the series. Utena shows up at Ohtori Academy in a boy's uniform with the Rose Crest ring and finds herself thrusting a dueling sword at a bevy of emotionally busted heartthrobs on the student council. All of this is a big competition for the hand of the gentle Himemiya Anthy, the Rose Bride who grants her victorious suitor the power to revolutionize the world, at least according to an unknown force calling itself “The End of the World”. At the end of these 12 episodes, we've explored the murky psychological waters of each member of the student council, we've been treated to a bevy of enchanting apocalyptic fairy-tale imagery and there's even a satisfying emotional climax wherein Utena loses and then regains her belief in herself and her dedication to her princely ideals. It's a wildly successful first act.
Really, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a triumph on multiple levels, but two more importantly than the rest: character and tone. The true strength of this show – aside from all the flashy modernist art and captivating shojo melodrama – is in the way these characters are written, most potently exemplified by Utena herself, a truly progressive heroine that has you in her corner from the first moment she appears. Utena's confidence and selflessness – a brick wall of heroic qualities that hide a relatable adolescent insecurity about who she's trying to be – make her easy to root for. The way this first arc is structured is a brilliant way to allow us to investigate the motivations and psyches of the rest of the glamorous student council; as they fight for possession of Himemiya, we learn that ultimately each of them desire her not necessarily for her mythical ability to “revolutionize the world”, but because of what she's come to represent to each of them, her polite, unfailing smile a perfect canvas for these broken supermodels to project their personal demons on. This structure even further strengthens Utena's role as hero, as she is clearly the only person sincerely motivated by the desire to free the Rose Bride from this cruel cycle. Himemiya is a princess who needs saving, and Utena's going to fight for her, because she's the only real prince in a society of sinister pretenders.
All of this would be almost crushingly sincere and dramatic if Ikuhara had insisted that the show take itself seriously at all times, which it wisely and deftly avoids. In fact, Revolutionary Girl Utena – while it can be examined as a deep work of artistic ambition – is often downright hilarious thanks to Ikuhara's ever-present absurdist sense of humor that somehow feels completely organic mixed in with all the angst and swordplay. The show is allowed to take itself seriously when the moment calls for it – and it rightfully earns those moments thanks to careful screenwriting – but before you know it, preening villain Nanami is fighting with a giant octopus balloon and Touga is boxing a rogue kangaroo (no, really, that happens). It is a singularly unique execution, a balancing act rarely seen in shojo melodrama, and by the time the really strange stuff starts happening you're already along for the ride and will accept virtually anything Ikuhara throws at you (and he throws seemingly everything he can think of).
The effort Right Stuf has put into this release is second to none. Artistically, the show really holds up well for being 14 years old. Sure, this is late 90's TV anime, but the lush character designs and gorgeous background art hold up especially well in this restored edition; the extensive liner notes mention that the average number of visual corrections made to each episode was around 100, and based on the vibrant image quality here, that isn't difficult to believe. There's a little unfortunate aliasing in some moments – likely a production issue rather than a restoration issue – but the audio's been fully modernized as well, with a beautiful Japanese 5.1 soundtrack that envelops you in the show's timeless score. Right Stuf has also seen fit to include the usual suite of extras they include in their deluxe releases in a classy, understated black chipboard box. Included is a booklet that contains insightful (and predictably strange) commentaries on each episode by Ikuhara, the original liner notes from the show's Laserdisc release, interviews with the guys responsible for the restoration, key art and more. They didn't skimp on the on-disc goodies either; Japanese trailers for the remaster, music videos and clean opening/closing animation are all there. It's as deluxe a release as this show will likely ever see (short of an eventual bluray release).
That's not to say the series is without its imperfections. One thing many fans complained about when the show was just leaking out in the late 90s was the endless use and re-use of the sequence where Utena enters the dueling arena and ascends that giant spiral staircase, and frankly, it's still kind of annoying today. Roughly 4 minutes of each episode feels like recycled material, and it functions as a speedbump in the narrative every time they use it. There are plenty of obvious shortcuts in the animation, as is to be expected from really any TV anime series. This particular batch of episodes includes the 1998 CPM dub; it's a good thing they included it, as many fans who started watching this show way back when doubtlessly have fond memories of it and want to see the series as they remember it, but it's a stiff, amateurish production with some truly awful early performances from now-veteran voice actors. In a perfect world, this arc would've been redubbed, with the original track included as an extra. It's nice to want things. Frankly, the sumptuous Japanese 5.1 track more than makes up for the clunky old-school dub.
After many, many years of being ludicrously out of print, Revolutionary Girl Utena is finally available again to a legion of dedicated fans and a whole new generation of people who have never had the opportunity to experience it. The best part is, even after everything this spectacular box set has to offer, there are still 27 more episodes to go.
Overall : A+
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ Simultaneously beautiful, emotionally powerful, artistically triumphant and absurdly hilarious.
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