"Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Black Rose Saga" Takes a Dark Twist
Revolutionary Girl Utena‘s “Black Rose Saga” marks a distinct and substantially darker shift for this bizarre but intriguing series. The prior set introduced us to our heroine and the premise of student duelists competing for possession of Anthy, the so-called Rose Bride, for the sake of supposedly revolutionizing the world. Utena successfully fended off each member of Ohtori Academy’s student council, which has temporarily ceased to be a threat. Their leader, Touga, goes on extended leave after his loss to Utena at the climax of the prior arc, with the irksome Saionji absent as well. Meanwhile, the remaining members are left drifting without further instructions from the enigmatic “End of the World.” But Utena’s challenges are far from over, as a new and much more nefarious foe strikes at her indirectly from behind the scenes.
That enemy is one Souji Mikage, who seeks not to possess Anthy but to kill her and install his younger companion, Mamiya Chida, as a “Rose Bride” in her place. Chida is a boy, but that’s just the very beginning of what’s bizarre about this saga. To a great extent the series was always only ostensibly about the duels; but here it takes special interest in the deep-rooted motivations and feelings that drive Utena’s new set of opponents. Each individual’s psyche gets thoroughly explored; and at times these are truly unsettling places to be.
Paradoxically, Utena seems to be only barely the star of her own show throughout it all, as each Black Rose duelist is connected to one of the student council members or another notable character in some way. Miki’s twin sister Kozue harbors an unhealthy brother complex that drives her to date boys she knows he won’t approve of in an attempt to keep his attention, an effort she comes to fear is all in vain. The return of Juri’s former best friend, Shiori, reveals the roots and dirty details of what is in fact a twisted love/hate relationship between the two. The air-headed and selfish Nanami is crushed on by elementary schooler Mitsuru, who adores her despite her obvious faults and feels immense frustration that he’s not nearly old enough to act on his feelings. The same Nanami has three lackeys that do what she says because they think they’re in love with her brother Touga, who Nanami herself is possessive of, and she’s such a jerk to them that one of the girls is driven to Mikage’s seminar. Even Utena’s friend Wakaba ends up connected to the Black Rose duels, and more than once at that. The saving grace is that a defeated Black Rose duelist is released from the curse and returned to normal, although whether this will ultimately lead to resolution or at least progress for any of these individuals is an open question that may well be left open to audience interpretation in the end. Time will tell.
The catalyst of just about every conflict in this arc is Mikage, who comes off as the sort of villain that one loves to despise. The members of student council were many things, but while they were antagonists they were generally not malicious. In contrast, Mikage not only wants Anthy dead but occupies the position of student counselor at Ohtori, where he runs his so-called “Mikage Seminar.” In any given episode the character of the day suffers from some sort of deep personal trouble and pours out his or her soul in a private room, at which point Mikage exploits their insecurities and seems to bewitch the victim with a black rose and hand him or her a black rose signet ring that apparently once belonged to a deceased duelist. When it’s time for the duel of the day the victim is palpably changed, driven by negative emotion and convinced that killing the Rose Bride will somehow solve their problem.
There is a bit more going on in the show here besides these matters. Utena is introduced to Anthy’s older brother, Akio, the acting headmaster of Ohtori and a man supposedly oblivious to the matter of the Rose Bride and the duels. But as the arc draws to a close and the roots of Mikage’s own behavior are abstractly explored, the viewer is left with a veritable mind screw that invites at least as many questions as answers, not the least of which being how much we really truly understand about both Akio and Anthy at this point.
In the present day I fear all this would be lazily dismissed as “filler” by more than a few people, and some may find the psychological trauma that goes on here unsettling. But all in all the Black Rose Saga does keep delivering what made Utena an engaging watch in the first place, and it does develop salient details about the plot even as lingering issues regarding the bond between Utena and Anthy remain unanswered. It is well that fifteen episodes remain to address this and other matters.