When it first burst onto the R1 anime scene over a decade ago (on VHS) Revolutionary Girl Utena was a strange and very different show. Taking the trappings of a magical girl show and twisting the conventions around to make it nearly unrecognizable, the show gained a lot of praise from critics and fans. Now the good people from The Right Stuf! have started to rerelease the unconventional and cryptic story from a newly restored print. How does the show stack up after all these years? While it's not as ground breaking today as it was when it first arrived, the program is still a surreal adventure that is totally unique but still quite entertaining.
When Utena Tenjou was a child both of her parents died. She was distraught and miserable until a prince stumbled upon her. He said "Never loose that strength or nobility, even when you grow up" and gave her a ring with a rose seal on it. He said that the ring would one day lead Utena back to him, and she hasn't taken it off since.
She was so inspired by the prince's words that Utena decided that she wanted to be a prince herself. Now, years later, she's attending
One day Utena sees a member of the student council, Saionji, slapping and berating his girlfriend, Anthy Himemiya. Utena runs to the protection of the young and charming Anthy but Saionji just laughs when she tries to interfere. It turns out that Anthy is his betrothed, and the only way Utena can stop him from mistreating her is to 'win' the girl in a duel.
That evening Utena travels to a walled off section of the campus and is able to open the forbidding gate because of her rose ring. Climbing to the top of a long spiral staircase she reaches a dueling platform with a large city floating, inverted, above it. Here she learns of the duels. Certain members of the student council are duelist, following written instructions they receive from "The End of the World" they compete in a series of sword fights to try to win the Rose Bride, Anthy. Whomever has the bride at the end will win the power to "revolutionize the world." Whatever that may mean.
In this first arc of 12 episodes, Utena wins Anthy, who them moves in with her since they are then engaged to be married, and takes care of the cooking and cleaning. Utena firmly believes that Anthy can do whatever she wants, and tries to get the young girl to make friends and chart her own course, but the Rose Bride isn't sure that she wants that. There are several other duelist who yearn to "revolutionize the world" however and Utena has to keep her skills up if she hopes to keep Anthy for herself.
What, at first glance, appears to be a standard anime show is actually much more than that. Unconventional, cryptic, and symbolic, Revolutionary Girl Utena looks a lot like a typical magic girl show at first (the creator first gained fame with Sailor Moon) is actually much deeper and deals with topics not covered in many shows, animated or not. Gender roles are a big part of the show, as Utena dresses as a boy and wants to be a prince, yet she doesn't want to be a man... she still retains her femininity and is very caring. Homosexuality, incest, and androgyny are also themes for the show, though the show isn't just about sexual roles.
There is a lot of symbolism too, and to make sure that people catch it, many scenes are repeated. This is one of the shows biggest flaws. Sure it does save money, but where as many magical girl shows will repeat a quick transformation scene, Utena has several different scenes that are repeated time and time again. Anthy's releasing of the sword and the duelists getting ready to battle, the student council member in the elevator, and, most of all, Utena climbing up to the dueling platform. These are long sequences too, and while I really liked them (and the music) the first few times they were played, watching the shows one after the other makes these grow old fast.
This isn't a show for everyone. There are a lot of utterly bizarre sections that will leave a lot of viewers scratching their heads. Each episode is interrupted in the middle, for example, by a pair of characters who talk in riddles and are only seen via there shadows. They tell a little story that is semi-related to the theme of that episode. Whereas I loved their surreal and sometimes comic intermissions, I can definitely see many people thinking "what the hell was that?"
The first 12 episodes, which contain the first story arc, arrive on three DVDs, each in its own slimcase. These three cases, along with a booklet about the series, are housed in a black slipcase with a nice red illustrated front. It's quite attractive and fits the series.
Viewers have the choice of watching the show with the original Japanese 2.0 soundtrack, a new 5.1 Japanese track, or a stereo English track. I viewed this with the 5.1 audio and found it excellent. The sound was nice and crisp with good use made of the whole soundstage, especially during the dueling scenes. I spot checked the other tracks and while they seemed fine, the 5.1 audio is definitely the way to go. (And as one who had to choose between an English 5.1 and Japanese 2.0 soundtracks that have been traditionally offered, I was happy to see the original language track get the extra attention.) There are optional English subtitles as well as a 'signs only' option.
The newly restored 4:3 image looks very good as well. Originally created on 16 mm film and restored in HD, the lines are tight, the colors are bright and the overall image is excellent. Aliasing, something that traditionally mars animation, is absent and the same can be said for other compression artifacts. My only complaint is that this series isn't being releasing on Blu-ray.
The set includes a clean opening and closing and several promotional TV spots for the restored DVDs and CD boxed set. There's also a very nice 48 page booklet
Definitely not your ordinary anime show, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a strange yet compelling program and one that's definitely worth checking out. The newly restored video makes this an easy one to give a highly recommended rating to, but only for those who are looking for something a bit bizarre and off the beaten path.