Revolutionary Girl Utena Anime Review
Shoujo Kakumei Utena
US Release By
Modern-day Fairy Tale Drama
39 25-minute episodes
1997-04-02 - 1997-12-24
One day, as a young orphaned girl mourned her parents, a prince appeared, comforting her and telling her to always maintain her inner strength and nobility. He gave her a rose crest ring, telling her that it would someday lead her to him. Of course, this fairy tale is a little different--that girl, Utena Tenjou, was so impressed that she decided to become a prince herself. And become a prince she does--she comes to her high school, Ohtori Academy, in a boy's uniform, plays basketball with the best of them, and is admired by the girls and envied by the guys.
Other than that, though, Utena is leading a pretty normal life... until she meets Anthy Himemiya. Though she only intended to give Anthy a hand, Utena becomes involved with the members of the Student Council as they duel over who will posses Anthy--also known as the Rose Bride--and with her, the Power to revolutionize the world... whatever that may be.
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Don't let the colorful, heavily shoujo-styled initial episodes fool you; Revolutionary Girl Utena is more like Serial Experiments Lain does The Rose of Versailles (the whole thing is, in fact, a kind of surrealist postmodern homage to that quintessential gender-bending shoujo classic). It offers a unique combination of symbolic coming-of-age fairy tale, layered psychological study, and religious allegory that eventually goes dark and strange places. Constructed of a fantastic facade of heavily symbolic storybook visuals, the repetitive cadence of a classic fable, increasingly involved and dark character studies, and grand, evocative music, all grounded with a foundation of mundane humanity, the series is a feast for the eyes, mind, and heart. Add in a talented voice cast in both languages, and so long as you can stomach the shoujo overdose and overlook a few startlingly goofy episodes early on, you've got one heck of a series.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is far too idiosyncratic to appeal to everyone, but its storybook style and endless layers of symbolism should prove engrossing for fans of cerebral shoujo and allegorical fables alike.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Although stylistically shoujo anime, Revolutionary Girl Utena is more like The Rose of Versailles meets Serial Experiments Lain. It offers a unique combination of heavily symbolic coming-of-age fairy tale, layered psychological study, and religious allegory. Don't let the colorful and silly initial episodes fool you--the series eventually goes dark and strange places, and while it's far too idiosyncratic for some, its storybook style and endless layers of symbolism will prove engrossing for fans of cerebral shoujo and allegorical fables alike.
The whole series has the look and feel of a fairy tale. The settings are grandiose, from huge promenades at the school to the massive dueling arena, and almost everything seems to be taken from the pages of some fancifully illustrated children's book. The story, similarly, is full of mysterious letters, duels over the Rose Bride, and a group of diverse people, each searching for power to attain a different goal. Even the repetitive cadence of the episodes harkens to classic fairy tales--repetition in a TV series is usually due to of lack of originality or budget, but in this case it is very much an artistic decision, with each of the three seasons repeating a theme with subtle but meaningful variations. And there are variations--note, for example, that every song preceding a duel has different lyrics.
The accompanying flights of visual fancy are both refreshing and interesting to watch. For example, each episode in the first season has its halfway point marked by a sort of surreal shadow puppet show symbolizing whatever the theme of the episode's story is. Other arty touches are everywhere--the stylish duels, an odd knife-throwing scene during a conversation, and repeated use of stylized rose-pattern borders overlaid on the screen, which look as much like the illuminated border of an old manuscript as classic shoujo decoration. Things like these, coupled with the artistic settings, give the series as a whole a whimsical, storybook feel.
Now, if you're not accustomed to shoujo style (or you dislike it), Revolutionary Girl Utena suffers from something of an overdose, particularly early on. This isn't necessarily a negative, however; the series uses every shoujo cliche to its advantage. The characteristic over-the-top drama and soap-operatic themes are a near-perfect fit with the larger-than-life world of duels and ballrooms in which Utena is set.
On that note, the entire series is, to a degree, a kind of surrealist postmodern homage to The Rose of Versailles, the quintessential gender-bending shoujo classic. From the setting, to the ongoing themes of revolution, to the heavily artistic visual style, to Utena herself, the references are constant and pervasive, and it lifts many of its stylistic conventions directly from that classic.
The style alone would make Revolutionary Girl Utena worth watching, but it's not the end of the story. Providing a contrast to the fantasy is Utena herself, very much a headstrong and lively normal anime girl. There are, similarly, always touches of the mundane--studying, eating dinner, going to class. This contrast is fun, but more importantly the sense of reality grounds the fairy tale and provides an emotional hook.
It also allows the characters to be more than just archetypal facades. This is vital, because Revolutionary Girl Utena is more than anything a story of self-discovery and a series of character studies. If you don't believe (and like) the characters, all the symbolism and art in the world won't make that work.
On that note, Revolutionary Girl Utena is as heavy on symbolism--both subtle and not--as it is on artistic flair. Everything from the clothing to the settings is representative of something, and the whole story is a carefully-constructed allegory. But not an obvious one: Part of the fun is figuring out just where it's all headed. Much like Serial Experiments Lain (stylistically opposite but similar in concept), the story is definitely going somewhere, but that destination is shrouded in mystery, and you're left guessing at what's really going on. That, along with the marvelous artistry and intriguing characters (Anthy in particular is so much more than is visible on the surface) kept me coming back and wanting more.
Now for the bad news. The biggest issue is that some of the early episodes are just plain silly. I can accept it up to a point, particularly in a series as over-the-top as this one, but when an episode ends in a boxing match with a kangaroo, it's gone too far. Thankfully, the bad stuff is pretty concentrated--the few clunker episodes keep to themselves, and are all in the first season.
The cute little monkey-thing, Chu-chu, also feels a little too much like a marketing gimmick to me. He is a significant part of the story and an expected bit of comic relief, but having him present in some of the more serious scenes is unnecessary at best.
The bits of silliness in early episodes are particularly odd since the series eventually becomes dark and sexually charged enough that it's not really even appropriate for viewers of the age you'd expect to enjoy that sort of thing. The thematic change from "childish" to "mature" is very much a part of the progression of the story and characters, but the series was quite successful at portraying innocence without resorting to goofy gimmicks.
Visually, I've already mentioned the storybook style--detailed but loosely-painted backgrounds and fanciful settings. The distinctive character designs are classic shoujo, with thin, leggy physiques and sharp, angular faces, and are quite attractive. There is a little less variety in the costumes than you'd expect, since everybody is wearing school uniforms (creative ones, but still uniforms) for the most part. The animation is impressive for a TV series of the vintage, with fine action sequences and quality character animation. Of particular note is the opening sequence--there's some really cool looking stuff there. The series makes heavy use of re-used animation (every season features several sequences that are nearly identical in every episode), but for once it feels as much like an artistic decision as budgetary constraint. Further, subtle changes in these repeated parts are symbolically significant (don't zone out and miss something important).
The Japanese acting is top-notch and well cast. Although it's not the kind of role I've heard her in before, Yuriko Fuchizaki (among my favorite voice actresses) does a fine, subtle job as Anthy. Tomoko Kawakami as Utena is full of infectious energy. The student council is mostly quite good, with one exception: Although Hisakawa Aya is a skilled actress, she's not known for her portrayals of boys. She does a good job dramatically as Mickey, but whenever he's talking to Utena or Anthy he sounds too much like a girl. Not a major issue, but kind of a shame.
The English dub is generally well done, and the casting fits quite well. Utena sounds a little less spunky than she does in the Japanese, but Rachael Lillis turns in a good performance in general. The real standout, though, is Sharon Becker as Anthy--her voice and acting fits the mysterious character perfectly.
Finally, no discussion of Revolutionary Girl Utena would be complete without bringing up the music, which is masterful. The background music throughout the series fits perfectly with the fairy tale feel: Grandiose, classical music evoking everything from the beautiful school grounds to a fanciful ballroom. The music also plays a significant part in the story; each duel is accompanied by a unique and appropriately apocalyptic chorus hinting at... something. Two early episodes also center around Mickey's quest for feeling in his piano playing. Rounding it out, the opening and end themes are much more standard but still unusual and catchy anime themes, completing the mix of tradition and art that is visible throughout the series.
In all, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a unique piece of anime. The story is a tale of self-discovery and exploration of the darker corners of the human heart told through a mix of down-to-earth characters, mysterious forces, and grand fairy-tale themes. The whole thing comes packaged in a whimsical, artistic, beautifully constructed world filled with fantastic places and storybook images. It might sound like another magical girl series, but there is so much more to it, and I'd recommend almost any anime fan at least give it a look.
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The most similar series in concept and symbolic construction is probably Serial Experiments Lain, though it looks and feels almost exactly opposite in every way. Boogiepop Phantom also has a bit of the same themes of the dark recesses of the human heart, though is otherwise entirely different. For notably darker shoujo with a similarly broad appeal, check out Tokyo Babylon and the related X.
Notes and Trivia
In addition to the 3-season TV series, there is also a 5-volume 1996-1997 manga series by Chiho Saito (available in English from VIZ); a 1999 movie adaptation, Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Adolescence of Utena (the original subtitle title was "Adolescence Apocalypse"); and a single-volume manga adaptation of the film (also by Chiho Saito) published the same year.
Interestingly, the manga version was essentially a simultaneous production with the TV series; though the concept was developed for TV, each was written more or less independently. The movie, similarly, is a more or less standalone retelling of the TV Series, although it is notorious for making no sense to those unfamiliar with the series and not much more for those who are.
Other spin-offs include a Sega Saturn game and an all-female stage production (though not by the famed Takarazuka troupe, who would have seemed a perfect fit, and indeed did a stage adaptation of the manga/anime The Rose of Versailles).
Several soundtrack albums for the series were released in the US; a large chunk of them is composed entirely of the many variations on the duel themes.
The Rose of Versailles, for those unfamiliar, is an epic shoujo manga and TV series set before and during the French Revolution that was in part responsible for both many of the modern shoujo staples and laying the groundwork for the yuri subgenre. The protagonist, Oscar, is a woman raised as if she were a man, who serves as an officer in the French military. Utena herself is an obvious parallel to the character, and the series is full of references, both visual and in terms of theme and story, to that seminal work.
US DVD Review
USM's DVDs are horribly inconsistent; there were apparently plans to release a complete re-done set, but they never panned out.
The first season is crammed onto two discs produced much earlier than the other two four-disc-per-season chunks. While they are among the best of USM's early DVDs (I assume as a result of Software Sculptors' involvement in them), the video quality suffers noticeably and they are not up to the same standards as USM's newer releases, or the rest of the series.
The second two seasons (Black Rose and Apocalypse Sagas, respectively) are roughly standard for later USM TV releases, and with 13 episodes spread out over four discs the video quality is quite good. Each of the three seasons is available as box set, with the first season, Rose Collection, including the movie as well (which does not fit anywhere with the TV series--it's a retelling).
As for those first discs, unlike most early USM DVDs the subtitles don't seem like a complete afterthought, although the video was clearly produced by sticking both dubbed VHS volumes back to back (including the English credits repeated in the middle of the disc, and again at the end). It was also, I believe, the first of USM's DVDs to include a basic list of the Japanese cast on the Jacket (a big step up from nothing at all), and the first to use a transparent case so you can read the back of the insert through it.
The subtitles are notably uneven. On the negative end, since the video track comes straight from the dubbed tapes all the songs in the story have hardcoded subtitles; the subtitles on the opening and end themes are hardcoded a few times, and the rest are picked up by the subtitle track, if it's on. On the positive side, the subtitle track during the story is remarkably good; multiple colors are used well, and they're courteous enough to move the subtitles to the top of the frame on occasions when the action is taking place down at the bottom.
Extras are more or less limited to clips of the different duel songs throughout the series.
RightStuf has since picked up the license for the series, and will be releasing remastered sets through the second half of 2011.
There is very little explicit material of any sort, but the series has heavy undertones of mature themes and sexuality. USM calls it 13-up, which is certainly appropriate (if anything a little lenient) for the later parts.
Violence: 2 - Some very serious sword fights and frightening moments, but largely bloodless.
Nudity: 1 - Very little.
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - There is nothing explicit, but later parts develop heavy mature themes and sexual undercurrents.
Language: 1 - Nothing significant.
Soon to be available in North America from RightStuf on three remastered bilingual DVD sets, scheduled for release through the second half of 2011. Previously available from the late US Manga Corps on hybrid DVD as three box sets: The first, Rose Collection, contains the first 13 episodes on two discs plus the movie, while the second two, Black Rose Saga and Apocalypse Saga, each contain 13 episodes spread across four discs. The DVDs were all originally available individually. Prior to the DVD release was available on subtitled and dubbed VHS, 3 or 4 episodes to a volume.