Review: Revolutionary Girl Utena DVD Vol. 1

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Revolutionary Girl Utena, Volume 1 (Episodes 1-12)
Episodes 1-12
Nozomi Entertainment

With the widespread availability of so many current series these days, older anime – even classic ones – seem to be ever drifting into obscurity. Thankfully, production companies like Nozomi Entertainment are still releasing many of these shows on DVD. And with Kunihiko Ikuhara now directing Yurikuma Arashi, it’s as good a time as any to revisit, or as in my case, watch for the first time his opening work as head director for a series, Revolutionary Girl Utena.

The first 13 episodes of Utena, entitled “The Student Council Saga,” introduce us to the incorrigible Utena; the himesama, Anthy; and the gaggle of not-quite-fully-antogonistic student council officers.  Symbolism and mysteries are built and some slowly unraveled as the season progresses, with Utena finding herself drawn into duels as she fights for Anthy, whom she regards with humanity, but whom others see merely as a means to some powerful end.

It is the themes, symbols, and and unknown elements that keep the viewers gripped as we wonder what all these elements mean (if anything).  Certainly, we get few answers in the first arc. Self-contained, it’s frustrating, because apart from the Ikuhara’s cleverness and unique approach to anime, we’re left with a season that’s mostly boring, with generally unremarkable characters and tedious fight scenes.

But even without knowing how the entire story pans out, this saga shows us some of what perhaps makes Utena a classic property – most of all, the revolutionary way it works with gender roles.  Utena is the “prince” of the series, dressing as and playing the role normally reserved for a male character. She’s also a kick-butt heroine, more common now, but much less so when these episodes originally aired in 1997.  The undetermined relationship between Utena and Anthy also places the series in the yuri genre, which Ikuhara fully embraces with Yurikuma Arashi.

Noizomi’s DVD release is excellent for fans of the series, containing lots of little nuggets in the form of TV spots and trailers as extras, plus the remastered visual and audio for the series, which perhaps those who watched the show long ago would appreciate more than I could.  The neat little booklet that’s included contains a lot of great insight from Ikuhara himself, and even for newcomers to the series, it’s a wonderful addition as an in-depth look at the creation of and remastering of the show.

It’s these “marginal” pieces, both in terms of the DVD extras and imaginative flourishes in the show, that must be embraced to enjoy these first thirteen episodes, because the story itself won’t do it.  But I’ll reserve the right to rethink my rating of this arc upon completion of the show, as it is apparent that the structure of the series demands it.

Rating: C+

One thought on “Review: Revolutionary Girl Utena DVD Vol. 1

  1. Even this early in Utena though, the show is making a point about something with a very deep meaning. Although as meanings go, a fair warning is involved here: It is a lot more subversive than it appears to be.

    You see, Utena is talking a LOT about humanity’s obsession with the divine and the Eternal. Our endless fascination with and obsessive desire to grasp onto something immortal and shining in a transient, nihilistic, empty universe. The desire to make our best memories and bits of nostalgia last forever, that place where “all good things never die.” This is represented by the fairy tale, happily ever after castle hanging upside down in the sky.

    Except that Utena is asking whether we can even pull off finding Eternity, touching perfection, and even if we could whether we actually want to. Anthy herself represents the key to Eternity, but also the objectification of female characters seen AS that key, in media. The princess for the Prince, who must be the seeker. She’s a living representation of what most male characters must abuse and destroy and take advantage of to reach “Eternity,” a blank slate that emotions can be projected on.

    In particular Saionji’s bizarre third episode in the first season makes this very clear, and later seasons only enhance it. Then again, it’s probably only clear to me in retrospect from the third season. Warning: The second season is easily the worst of the lot.

    Watch this one. :}

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