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"Revolutionary Girl Utena, The Student Council Saga": Take This Revolution

If one had to label Revolutionary Girl Utena, calling it a fantasy drama would not be too far off. It’s like real life blended with a fairy tale. You have a typical school setting, but one that is merely a stage for an enigmatic battle for power that is anything but clear by the time the twelve episodes on this first “Student Council Saga” collection are done. But no matter; viewers will feel not confused, but enticed to see more by the end. Meanwhile, fans that already swear by this show ought to be well pleased by the top-notch remastering presented in this set.

Our key player is one Utena Tenjou, an orphaned teenage tomboy who’s the darling of her class at Ohtori Academy. In memory of a so-called “prince” who comforted her after the death of her parents years ago, Utena dresses in a boy’s uniform, aspiring to follow that noble example that made such an impression on her. She has but one memento of her prince, a rose signet ring that he claimed would lead her to him again one day. But her simple and merry life soon changes when she runs afoul of the despicable Saionji, a member of Ohtori’s student council and captain of its Kendo team. Utena observes him abusing his apparent girlfriend Anthy Himemiya, and soon afterward he humiliates her best friend Wakaba when he publicly displays a love letter she wrote to him just for laughs. Utena calls out Saionji’s behavior and challenges him to a duel—and then things get strange. Utena is summoned to an off-limits garden on campus, passes through a massive gate to climb a spiraling staircase, and arrives at the top of a tall tower where a castle is floating upside down in the sky. Saionji declares that her rose ring identifies her as a “duelist” fighting for the right to be “engaged” to the “Rose Bride”, none other than Anthy herself. Supposedly, possessing her is key to gaining a so-called power to revolutionize the world, and Anthy proves something supernatural is indeed at work when she conjures a magical sword for Saionji on the spot. Despite this, Utena pulls off a slim victory, but her troubles are only beginning. The other members of the student council are all duelists also vying for Anthy, taking their cues from a mysterious organization called “End Of the World.” For her part, Anthy promptly latches onto Utena and moves into her dorm room, and there is no going back for our heroine.

Utena is a very strange program, and our protagonist seems just as aware about the weirdness of it all as the viewer. She starts off rather incredulous at her fantastic situation (and certainly about the fight over the Rose Bride), as she dislikes how Anthy is generally regarded as some possession to be owned by the other duelists. Compounding matters is the fact that Anthy seems to either embrace her role or meekly accept it, to the point that she’s disturbingly docile around others and particularly to her designated partner. The contrast between her and the assertive Utena could not be starker, and in response to this demeanor our heroine does her best to befriend Anthy and help her open up. The duelists on the student council, on the other hand, have the opposite attitude. At first Utena remains a duelist under threat of expulsion from the student council, but she comes to care about Anthy soon enough even though she doesn’t take her “engagement” seriously. On the other hand the student council routinely discusses the duels for Anthy with complete seriousness, accept such strange things as floating castles in the sky with nary a comment, and are motivated to fight for personal reasons that these early episodes aspire to explore. For the most part they succeed, and characterization is where Utena arguably succeeds best. Not every member of the student council is as terrible as Saionji, but these people all have issues, and the show thoroughly exposes the nuances, the imperfections, and even dysfunction that lurk beneath their attractive exteriors. The show deserves ample credit for generally rendering Utena’s opponents all-too-human as opposed to detestable caricatures. This is especially true in the case of the suave Touga, who has a connection Utena’s past and is a much more compelling rival than the rest. The result is an engaging narrative that is many things but never dull, and Utena’s virtue and level head makes her an appealing and likable heroine in contrast to the flawed foes and bizarreness surrounding her.

This said, some flaws do keep the episodes in this collection from perfection. Utena is no fantastical soap opera, as its comic relief and surrealism help keep the overall narrative sufficiently light and engaging. On occasion, though, the attempts at humor don’t work so well. The antics of a pet mouse that Anthy keeps around are a significant source of the humor; at times they might be good for a chuckle but they’re really a distracting sideshow. One absurdly goofy episode centers around Utena and Anthy switching bodies simply by eating some strange curry, climaxing with a certain character challenging a boxing kangaroo of all things. It’s an interesting experience if only to witness Utena behaving the way she wishes Anthy would toward those around her, but overall the episode feels out of step with the general tone of the show. On another front, when it’s time for Utena to duel most episodes occupy plenty of time with a lengthy transformation sequence of sorts. Utena ascends the tower to confront her latest opponent, she and Anthy magically change appearance, Utena draws her special sword from Anthy. To the show’s credit this sequence is grandiose and well-drawn, and the haunting and magnificent “Absolute Destiny Apocalypse” track helps these moments feel epic and important. Even so, any recycled chunk of animation eventually wears thin, and there are times where the daily duel actually takes less time than this process! On a related point, while the duels are a secondary matter to their causes, they do vary substantially in quality. Sometimes Utena fights well and clearly deserves to win, but other times her victories are the rather unsatisfying result of absurdly good fortune.

Surprisingly, just when the series seems to settle down into a predictable formula, the final plot arc of this student council saga dramatically disrupts it when Utena essentially suffers a crisis of faith about the way she’s been living her life. By the end this problem is resolved, and yet not completely so, for while Utena finds a personal answer for herself, unsettling issues about Anthy persist. The latter’s loyalty to her so-called fiancée is unflinching; she remains quite submissive in spite of Utena’s efforts; and it’s an open question as to what extent their friendship is genuine and to what extent Anthy is merely continuing to fulfill her role. Is Utena heroically forging her own path for herself and Anthy or is she acting out a farce, playing at the part of a make-believe prince fighting to save a damsel that doesn’t understand she’s in distress or—even worse—does not want to be saved? For now, this first time viewer only knows that it’s well worth sticking around to find out.

Revolutionary Girl Utena was distributed by the now-defunct Central Park Media years ago, but this set from Nozomi Entertainment is justifiably marketed as the definitive release. The series recently underwent a HD remastering for rerelease in Japan, and those same high quality materials are used here to offer greatly improved picture along with a 5.1 Japanese audio track as well. The appearance is sharp, clear and robust; this is as good as any hand-drawn anime from the 90s can ever expect to look, and Utena‘s idiosyncratic style deserves no less. Nozomi’s limited edition release also includes a wonderful companion booklet that contains episode commentary from director Kunihiki Ikuhara, in-depth discussion about the remastering process done for the show, key art, liner notes and a short feature on the making of the ending animation. Its forty-six pages of content are actually worth a fan’s attention, the sort of thing that truly renders a “limited edition” release something worthy of the name.

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