Mania Grade: A+
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- Audio Rating: A+
- Video Rating: A+
- Packaging Rating: A
- Menus Rating: A
- Extras Rating: N/A
- Age Rating: 13 & Up
- Region: All Region DVD
- Released By: Central Park Media
- MSRP: 29.99
- Running time: 170
- Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
- Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
- Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
- Series: Revolutionary Girl Utena
Revolutionary Girl Utena Vol. #01
By Steve Brandon
February 18, 2002
Release Date: July 29, 1999
"Revolutionary Girl Utena" is Central Park Media's (primarily U.S. Manga Corps, though "Utena" is sold under their "Software Sculptors" label) first attempt to put a television series on DVD. This particular disc contains 7 episodes; the next one will contain 6. In other words, one DVD volume has the contents of two volumes of the VHS release. Personally, I consider this to be about the optimum number of episodes per disc. It costs a little more than a 3 or 4 TV episode disc like "Tenchi in Tokyo" or "Serial Experiments lain" (though only about 4 dollars at some of the discount on-line retailers), but it's not nearly as expensive as a box set such as the ones that AnimEigo is proposing. I ordered my copy from one of said on-line retailers, and actually paid less than what I paid last November for the first VHS volume of "Utena" at my local (Montreal area) comic book store, where I bought most of my Anime before I upgraded to DVD! I know that people have varying opinions on what constitutes the "ideal" number of episodes on one disc; 7 episodes is mine and you can agree or disagree with me as you please.
The cover art is simple. I liked the cover art on the original VHS tapes better. Volume 1 had the same cover image as the DVD case, but on a pink background with blue roses. I thought this effect was striking, but I guess the fine folks at CPM. thought it looked too much as if it would be right at home in your video collection in between "Priscilla: Queen of the Desert" and "The Wizard of Oz" (if you catch my drift), so they decided to change it to white for the DVD release. I love the opaque plastic case.
The visual quality on this disc are beautiful, second in quality only to the "Tenchi Muyo Ultimate Collection" OVA DVD set. The sound is as good as it possibly can sound on my simple "DVD Player connected by AV. cables to a stereo TV" set-up. I wonder how good it sounds on a full home theatre set-up? I'm glad that CPM. left the Japanese Kanji credits intact, though I wonder why they felt the need to repeat the Japanese credit sequence after episodes 4 and 7, followed by the English credits? I've read in the Forum that some people have had problems with their "Utena" discs freezing up their players or not being able to select the Japanese dialogue. Fortunately, my disc played just fine. I have only a few minor technical quibbles: this disc ignores my language pre-sets (playing in English instead of Japanese, though with the subtitles still on), however, this is easily remedied by selecting Japanese in the menu. The subtitles are somewhat translucent; occasionally, they blend into the background. The songs have hard subtitles, not DVD subtitles. And the Japanese voice actors aren't identified in the English credits on the disc (and only the Japanese voice actors for the main roles are listed in the case's notes. Other than that, the disc is perfect.
If you're familiar with the format of my "Tenchi" reviews you will no doubt guess that some "spoilers" are ahead. Read beyond this point at your own risk.
"Utena" is a shoujo series, which means that it is aimed primarily at young girls, in this case about junior-high age. However, what Japanese junior-high schoolgirls watch isn't necessarily appropriate viewing for kids the same age in North America. While the first disc has only one scene of suggested sexual contact between two of the characters, in episode 5, from what I understand there will be a lot more such scenes as the series progresses. For this reason, I'd personally feel uncomfortable showing this series to anyone much under the age of 16. This series ain't "Urotsukoji Doji" or "Venus 5", full of depraved, sick, graphic sex scenes by any means, but the relationships, both requited and unrequited, between the characters will no doubt disturb many viewers (including myself, to a certain degree, at least from the spoilers that I've read). The inner notes say that very few shoujo titles "are ever imported into the United States". At the beginning of last year, perhaps that would have been true, but now, aside from "Utena", we have "Fushigi Yuugi", "CLAMP School Detectives", "Magic Knights Rayearth", "Don't Forsake Me, Daisy", the 3 "Sailor Moon" movies subtitled, and a persistent rumor that AnimEigo is considering licensing "Kodomo no Omocha", so I'd say that shoujo titles are rapidly becoming popular with North American fans.
The packaging boldly states that "Utena" is "From the Director of SAILOR MOON". To be more specific, the series director is Kunihiko Ikuhara, who was also the director of "Sailor Moon S", the third, and the best, at least in terms of animation quality, season of "Sailor Moon". Rumor has it that the original impetus for the "Utena" manga and anime was that Ikuhara, and other members of the "Sailor Moon" animation team, were dissatisfied that "Sailor Moon" creator Naoko Takeuchi got rich from what was mostly their work, so they created a new series where they had total creative control (and a higher share of the profits). Does this series look much like "Sailor Moon"? In a review of "Utena" that I submitted to the Concordia University "Concordian" student paper last fall, I wrote that newbies would be forgiven if they thought that the characters look a lot like those on "Sailor Moon". Seasoned anime veterans such as yourselves, dear readers, should be able to see the difference between the character designs used in the two series'. "Utena" characters have more angular features than "Sailor Moon" designs. Their chins in particular are much sharper. But the uniforms of the student council members are somewhat reminiscent of those worn by the villains on "Sailor Moon". One can even find an obvious allusion to Sailor Moon herself in Utena's dueling costume; Utena's epaulettes, or shoulder ornaments, are suspiciously similar to the red "lights" on Sailor Moon's hair. I don't see why the connection to "Sailor Moon" would turn people off (unless you've only seen the dubbed YTV version). ("Sailor Moon" is paradoxically one of the best known, yet vastly under appreciated, anime series as far as I'm concerned.) But even if you are the most ardent Sailor-hater, I'd suggest that you'd at least rent "Utena" before writing it off as just another girl's show.
The most distinctive feature of the "Utena" character designs is that each and every character has large, dilated irises with a total absence of any pupils. This effect suggests that the characters are in an eternal, dream-like state (or they're all stoned). I ascribe to the theory that the entire world of "Utena" takes place in her dreams. It would explain a lot. There are no "normal" characters in "Utena". Every character is oddly eccentric or obsessively habitual in some way. I particularly like Miki. When he isn't playing the piano he feels a bizarre compulsion to check his digital stopwatch every minute or so. Exactly what he is timing is never revealed. (The digital stopwatch perhaps also serves as a visual device, placing this series somewhere on the weird outermost fringes of our own reality. Or perhaps it serves no real dramatic function; it's just there somehow, like the Polaroid camera in "Dragon Knight".) The setting of "Utena" is hallucinatory: Ohtori Academy is situated on a hill not unlike the Acropolis in Athens. The focal point of the architecture is the large, dare I say erect, bell tower. Hmm, I wonder if that has any hidden meaning? The ultimate manifestation of weirdness in "Utena" is in the dueling scenes. "Utena" pulls on the door handle, a drop of cold water splashes on the rose seal on her ring, the fountains behind her spring to life, the door (shaped like a giant rose) opens, she climbs the long, long staircase and arrives at the battling arena, above which a castle (which looks a lot like Cinderella's Castle in Disneyland) floats upside-down in midair. If this sequence sounds intriguing, you're in luck, since it happens in nearly every episode, almost as if they are just re-using the same one-and-a-half minutes of animation over and over again. The sequence where Utena unsheathes the Sword of Dios is equally intriguing and disturbing; she pulls it directly out of Anthy. If "Utena" isn't a dream (or a nightmare), it might just be a modern day fairy-tale (an apt comparison since the original, unexpurgated versions of Grimm's fairy tales were also dark and disturbing fantasies even if they were just kid's stories). And I haven't even mentioned the shadow puppets (whose names are, apparently, A-ko and B-ko), but even after this long paragraph, I'm only scratching the surface of this show.
The dramatic tension in the early part of the series is between Utena and the Ohtori Academy student council, linked by the Rose Seal, which they all wear on their rings. Utena got hers from a mysterious prince when she was younger. She was so impressed by the prince that she decided to become a "prince" herself, which is why she acts the way she does. But where did the student council get their rings? Why do they fight duels with each other for Anthy, "The Rose Bride"? And what is the nature of the mysterious "End of the World" that sends them instructions through letters? In another frequently reused sequence, the council discusses "smashing the world's shell". Now, if I had a sick, sick, black sense of humor, I'd imagine them wearing black trench coats when they say that. (For those of you in Rio Linda, I'm talking about the events in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado last April, where 2 teenagers went on a shooting rampage, killing 13 students and them themselves. For some reason, all I could think of when I heard about the so-called "Trenchcoat Mafia" was the Ohtori Student Council.)
I'm not quite sure if there is as much of a lesbian subtext in "Utena" as others would suggest. Sure, one of the main characters is lesbian. We find this out for certain in episode 7, but one does not have to be Sailor Moon (wink, wink) to figure out which character is lesbian before you reach that particular episode. I guessed who it was by episode 2. It's quite obvious if you think about it. But one can make too much of the other female friendships seen on the show. Wakaba displays great affection for her "girlfriend" Utena, but, from all indications, it's more of an "idol worship" of Utena than an actual lesbian crush. Of course, the main female to female relationship on the program is between Utena herself and Anthy, the Rose Bride. I know that they have some teaser shots of the two embracing in the opening sequence, but in my opinion it's strictly "fan-service" to entice more male viewers to see the show. Utena makes it clear early on that she likes boys. But what about Anthy? I was musing over their relationship recently and it occurred to me that Anthy is the supposed ideal Japanese woman. She's diminutive, she doesn't like to show outward displays of emotion, and she is completely submissive to the will of her "husband". Utena, on the other hand, is a very modern type of girl who wants to beat the boys on a level playing field. She doesn't want to be a boy herself; she wants to be better than the boys. As more women in Japan go to college and choose careers over marriage, could this series possibly be about the desire to reconcile the traditional and modern ideals of femininity? Maybe I'm just reading too much into things. I'm not claiming that this is the "right" answer to the mysteries of "Utena", this is only my interpretation and it may change as the series progresses. (I never could enjoy "Neon Genesis Evangelion" fully because it's a series I feel that has been analyzed to death on the Internet by fans, each of whom claims to have the only "true" explanation of an obtuse series.)
This is the first time that I've heard this series dub. The dub cast is quite good, although not as good as the regular "Tenchi" English cast; though that could just be because I'm a lot more used to the "Tenchi" voices. Utena herself is dubbed by Rachael Lillis, who also does a lot of the female character voices on "Pokemon". I think that some of the other voices are also on "Pokemon", but I don't have any episodes of "Pokemon" on DVD, so I can't confirm this for myself. It is actually disturbing in its own right to hear the "Utena" characters speak like "Pokemon" characters. Any weaknesses in the dub? I think Sharon Becker's Anthy sounds a little too American; a mysterious princess like Anthy would have been better served with some exotic type of accent. Also, she speaks with too much emotion. The point of Anthy's voice is that it rarely betrays Anthy's own feelings; this makes the scenes when she is laughing all that much more disconcerting. I think that the biggest weakness in the dub cast is Jimmy Zoppi as Miki. Miki is the youngest of the three male student council members, so why does he sound like the oldest? Also, the entire point of bishonen (literally "pretty male") characters is that they are androgynous, with the best qualities of both sexes. In Japanese, the effect was heightened by having the popular female voice actress Aya Hisakawa (also the voice of Ami Mizuno/Sailor Mercury, Iria, Skuld in "Oh my Goddess", and Arimi Suzuki in "Marmalade Boy" among many others) play Miki. Jimmy Zoppi's voice is too masculine for the role. As a whole, Anime dubs sound a lot better than they did even two years ago, and in terms of acting quality "Utena" sounds as good as any TV dub.
The music in "Utena" is something else. I love the orchestral background music, heavy on strings and woodwinds, which give it a warm feel. I don't think it's by the same musicians as "Sailor Moon", but the effect is somewhat similar. Some people prefer modern Techno background music, as heard on "Rurouni Kenshin" for example, but I love the retro feel. The musical highlight of each episode is the choral pieces with nonsensical lyrics by the "J.A. Seazer" chorus, which includes Kunihiko Ikuhara, the series director. Why do the choral pieces sound so familiar? How many 60's Anime have I even watched? (I have the first "Utena" Original Soundtrack CD (Star Child KICA-354). I brought it with me on my vacation to Britain. One of the best memories that I have of the vacation is walking through central Exeter with songs such as "Absolute Destiny Apocalypse" in the background.) And the opening theme is one of my favorites in all of Anime. For some odd reason, the vocals are removed from the opening on the English soundtrack in episodes 6 and 7.
Of all of the Anime DVDs in my collection thus far, "Utena" joins the "Tenchi Muyo Ultimate Edition" set as titles that I consider "showcase" discs; discs to show to your skeptical friends, still hooked on VHS tapes, to convince them that DVD is vastly superior. How I wish that CPM. would give the "Patlabor" TV and OVA series' the same treatment.