Revolutionary Girl Utena Anime Box Set – Volume 1 Disk 1 (English)

May 31st, 2011

Slightly more than 10 years ago, anime had already taken over my life. The predominant anime/manga magazine at the time was Animerica which covered what was hot in Japan, and what was starting to trickle over here to the US. At that time, what was hot was a series called Shoujo Kakumei Utena, which was licensed by Central Park Media as Revolutionary Girl Utena. I have great emotional attachment to this series for many reasons. I met some of my best friends in this fandom, CPM was the first company to take Yuricon seriously and was very supportive of us…and it was Utena that I presented at several film festivals, which can arguably be called the beginning of my “career” in Yuri.

When the re-mastered anniversary set of Utena was released in Japan, I expressed skepticism that we’d ever see it, much less at a reasonable price. Thankfully for all of us, I was horribly wrong about that. ^_^ And so here we are, with the remastered Utena, Student Council Arc, in a reasonably priced box set with lovely box design and the extras, both physical and video, from the anniversary set.

Because this series has meant so much to me over the years, I’m fairly sure that nothing I say could even remotely be approached as anything but massively emotional and entirely subjective and I won’t pretend it’s anything else.

If you have never seen the series, you should. If only because it was one of the most unique, genuinely surreal takes on typical magical girl tropes ever. This isn’t deconstruction of the magical girl genre – it represents a wholesale embracing of the most typical elements, with broad nods to its roots in earlier shoujo series. Everything from art to character design can be traced back to something else, but the internal symbolism sets it apart from its predecessors. Just to remind you – the wacky symbolism has no predetermined meaning, is what Ikuhara said to me in an interview. What you think it means, is what it means.

The story, very roughly, is presented as a fairytale. A young girl who was grieving the loss of her parents is “saved” by a Prince and given a token – a ring – that would bring them together once again. So moved by the Prince’s princeliness, the girl was motivated to become a Prince herself. But was that such a good idea? The Shadow Girls (the series’ Greek chorus) ask us.

And we are challenged to answer this question for the entire series. Was it, honestly, a good idea? But we don’t have time to think about it deeply at first, because that girl, Utena, Prince that she is, saves a damsel in distress, ends up having to fight a duel for another damsel, and is drawn into an increasingly bizarre story. As are we.

The duel music is a special thing of its own. When the first notes of “Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku,” the song that accompanies Utena’s transformation scene, started up, I got shivers. I’d forgotten how powerful the music here is. Duel music is an experience, let me tell you. A friend once described the lyrics as a “magical cookbook on acid” and I have to say that I think that sums the lyrics up nicely. Watching this series for the first time in ages, I was instantly sick to death of “The Sunlit Garden” theme all over again, as we all were a decade ago. ^_^

The animation is fantastic – and I notice it has many of the qualities I liked so much in Simoun, with that watercolor look about the backgrounds. The voice cast was top-notch at the time and it stands the test of time – they all still nail their roles.

Which brings me to the…

Scandalous Artbook!

The book included with the box set includes key art designs, essays by the director and other key staff members and…an unattributed essay on shoujo anime and Utena. Within this essay is the unfortunate line “…anomalous breeds of relationships such as homosexuality and incest…” Even as I announced the Yuricon and RightStuf contest to win a copy of the Boxset, someone on Twitter expressed displeasure that RightStuf did not rewrite that line – or at least disclaimer it. In a heated discussion, that person later asked me if I considered it censorship to have changed what they considered to be hate speech.

I thought this conversation important enough to mention here. As you know, freedom of expression is much on mind these days – indeed, every day. So I wanted to make a few points about this essay – and about RightStuf’s rights and responsibilities in relation to it.

Let me first thank the folks at RightStuf, because their reaction was to plainly state they thought that line was ass and that they didn’t agree with it at all.

It’s been many years since we’ve started localizing anime for a western audience and almost universally, fans want the least amount of change possible. TRSI is very good at changing things as little as possible. For the record, yes, if TRSI had rewritten or bowlderized this passage, I would consider it censorship – and I reject utterly the idea that TRSI has the responsibility to change or disclaimer it. They have no responsibility to protect you from having to read an opinion that disagrees with your own.

Now, on to the opinion itself – it may not be your opinion that incest and homosexuality are anomalous forms of relationships, but I think the anime itself presents that opinion. Whether we like it or not, both homosexuality and incest are presented as anomalous concepts – forms of “immature” sexualities. Even the movie, with naked Anthy and Utena street luging down the road kissing, is summarily dismissed by Japanese creators and viewers as not being lesbian – and our insistence that it is lesbian puzzles them. A Japanese viewer at the Tampa LGBT Film Fest said, flat out, that it did not seem lesbian to her, to which I replied that to her it was clearly, obviously, akogare, in which Anthy felt gratefulness and deep admiration for Utena. She nodded strongly at that. I then explained that we don’t *have* an analogous concept to akogare, so it reads lesbian to us.

Aside from whether I agree with that opinion, I think it fair to say that I try not to judge incest as being lesser than any other form of attraction. The commenter who protested was enraged that homosexuality was presented as equivalent to incest. I am not without my specific prejudices, so I won’t blame them for feeling that way, but I don’t agree that they are not, in the context of the anime, anomalous.

Finally, there is the issue of referring to that line as “hate speech.” I’m about to take a plunge that will no doubt come back to bite me in the ass. ^_^ In MY opinion, hate speech is about intent – speech used specifically to insult, intimidate or incite. Calling me a dyke is an insult. Commenting that I’m fucking dyke and should be raped is hate speech, Saying all dykes should die is hate speech. Saying that dykes just need a good man is an (incorrect) opinion. See the difference? The first is meant to offend me. The last is meant to express knowledge and is pretty arguably incorrect, based on personal experience, research and, one hopes, common sense. The middle two are threats and intimidation and are, pretty clearly hate speech. The essay in the artbook is not hate speech. It’s an opinion that can be disagreed with, but it does not intend offense, insult, intimidation or threat. Therefore, I argue that it is not hate speech – it’s just a potentially disagreeable opinion.

In any case, I don’t think TRSI has any responsibility to change that opinion. I did ask them if we knew who had written it. They confirm that the text was presented exactly as it appeared in the Japanese edition and it had no attribution in the original. In other words, it’s it *someone’s* opinion. You are free to disagree with it, of course – certainly I do. However, blaming TRSI for it seems unfair in the extreme. They were doing what we ask them to do – translating things without interfering too much.

Which brings me to the very last issue- there are no honorifics. Other than that, I thought the translation fine and dandy. And, for some reason unknown to myself, the lack of honorifics didn’t bother me this time. No idea why.

As mostly always, I didn’t watch the dub, so if anyone out there wants to review the dub – send it along! We can’t have too many Utena reviews here. ^_^


Art – 9
Characters – 8
Story – 8
Yuri – 4 Utena is Wakaba’s Prince, then Anthy’s
Service – If violence against girls is a hot point for you, then 7. Otherwise, 1

Overall – 8

This was a gateway series for a lot of Yuri fans. It’s weird, it’s distressing, it’s magnificent, it’s wtf. It revolutionized the world. It is definitely worth watching.

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12 Responses

  1. Eric P. says:

    The Utena creators didn’t see Utena and Anthy’s relationship even in the movie as lesbian? Even if they are the creators who should know their own work better than anyone, is it wrong that I fail to see it any other way no matter what explanation I read? Although I interpret Utena in the movie as being technically bi, since she’s attracted to both Toga and Anthy.

    I got my beatiful-looking box set, but no intention to unwrap it yet. I have a couple other series I’m catching up on, and instead of letting it wear down over time, I’d rather release the magic and check out its contents the day that I do start watching it.

    Great review!

  2. hyun says:

    I don’t see the point of that fan’s displeasure of creators’ essay. Such suggestion misrepresents the creators’ intentions. It also distorts the fan’s understanding of creators’ thought process behind the show.

    Personally, I think it’s wonderful because most anime in the US don’t even inlcude liner notes/mini art books despite selling popular Anime DVD’s sold as set. Sometimes, I envy Japanese fans because they have been enjoyed reading creators’ insight a decade prior to the DVD-box release.

    I think The Right Stuff did all the right things to bring “uncensored” creator’s thoughts just as fans want uncensored anime.

  3. @Eric P. – No, it is not “wrong.” The creator had his intentions, you have your interpretations. Both are valid, even if they don’t match – it’s one of the side effects of good art.

  4. @hyun – What interested me most is that this essay was not by one of the creators, but by some unattributed person.

  5. Cryssoberyl says:

    Even the movie, with naked Anthy and Utena street luging down the road kissing, is summarily dismissed by Japanese creators and viewers as not being lesbian – and our insistence that it is lesbian puzzles them. A Japanese viewer at the Tampa LGBT Film Fest said, flat out, that it did not seem lesbian to her, to which I replied that to her it was clearly, obviously, akogare, in which Anthy felt gratefulness and deep admiration for Utena. She nodded strongly at that.

    Reading things like this always makes me sad. Ikuhara admitted in the CPM series commentaries that he intended them as a romantic pairing all along. In another interview he talks explicitly of depicting lesbians in order to give the feeling of a “minority” worldview. He goes to great lengths in the movie commentaries to make clear that the sexually-charged Utena/Anthy scenes (of which there are many) were entirely intentional. Finally, no matter what anyone says, “akogare” does not involve deep passionate kissing while embracing naked.

    Just this once, would it hurt them to say “Yes, in this case, I admit there is a lesbian romance at work”? Or can they just not do it? The Japanese can furrow their brows all they like, but in Utena’s case, I can only conclude they don’t see it as lesbian because they don’t want it to be lesbian. Which it is.

  6. @Cryssoberyl – While I agree with you, it’s a fact that our perspective and the perspective of the creators is not enforcible.

    In fact youthful same-sex relationships were chalked up to “akogare” for many years in Japan, so it’s not bizarre for them to write it off as that. Remember, same-sex relationships is school are not unheard of – they are not seem as an expression of an adult sexuality, but a kind of “trying this all out.” Being a “lesbian is a political and social statement and has almost nothing to do with just having sex with a same-sex partner. You can do that and still be straight to most of the world, as long as you have the requisite opposite sex spouse and children, as you are required to have.

    So, while you see akogare as a spcific thing, for many years it was an umbrella term under which “non-normative” relationships were allowed. It’s only recently that the idea that a person might actually be a lesbian has been seen as an issue at all.

    For that woman, the relationship portrayed made perfect sense as akogare…and no sense at all as lesbian.

    Even when Ikuhara is saying it’s a romantic pairing, that *still* fits under akogare, because that was never the issue. Of course they could have a romantic relationship…it’s just that they are not “lesbians.”

  7. DezoPenguin says:

    So in essence, we Westerners see it as “lesbian” because it involves two women in an obviously sexual situation, while the Japanese do not because the scene is completely divorced from any external social reality…in the same sense that, say, saying “I’m a Republican” would be meaningless in 11th-century England, because the relevant social context that defines the term does not exist?

    And that in other words, “lesbian” means completely different things in the two cultures?

  8. @DezoPenguin – In some sense, yes, “lesbian” means something very different to different cultures – also to different people in different situations.

    In Japan, the idea that people might have same-sex relationships in their youth has pretty much no relationship to the assumption that – regardless of their affection or interest in a same-sex partner – they will get married and have children.

    In many parts of the world, people have sex with members of the same sex, but are not “gay.” (And might be offended if you suggested it.) If a guy in Italy has sex with guys, but is married with kids, he is still straight, and nothing you say will convince him otherwise.

    Saying that you are “gay” or “lesbian” in Japan is a political statement. Perhaps equivalent to telling a Catholic parent that you are becoming a vegetarian Buddhist. It means that you have made a decision to identify publicly as this not-normative thing, instead of doing what is far more normal, and just going to bars on the downlow, then coming home to your opposite-sex spouse.

    Your allegory of saying “I’m a Republican” in the 11th century is an apt choice. Japanese conservative viewers *had* a way to explain Anthy and Utena that would not make themselves uncomfortable – and some would chose this, because it made them less uncomfortable.

    Remembering that anime viewers in Japan are primarily male and socially conservative, it makes sense that they could dismiss the naked street luge scene as akogare…in other words…it’s not real. Nothing in that relationship threatens their a priori understanding that Anthy and Utena go on to marry and have children, as all women must.

    And, I think it’s fair to point out that not *every* Japanese viewer though this way. There were plenty of Yuri views of Utena from Japan. It’s just wouldn’t be the majority opinion, or the opinion of the majority.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Even the creators thought that? Even Ikuhara who once publically stated that, in Utena, they were using homosexuality as a metaphor for gayness (or something like that)?

  10. @Anonymous- Aside from the fact that that would be a pretty incoherent analogy (why use a thing as an analogy for itself?) I cannot tell you what the creators think. We have their own words in the interviews.

    My point was to express that our needs and interpretations are not necessarily the needs or interpretations of the people who contributed to, wrote the essay about or were the intended fanbase of Utena.

  11. Cryssoberyl says:

    @Anonymous – As noted above, we have Ikuhara’s own repeated statements in interviews and commentaries to the effect that he intended the homosexual elements in Utena to be precisely that – homosexual. Even his chief detractor, manga artist Saito Chiho, confirms that they clashed heavily over this aspect. I doubt she was threatening to quit and scuttle the whole project over “akogare“.

    By Ikuhara’s own admission, he loves immersing himself in fringe cultures and making “normal” people as uncomfortable as possible. I don’t know what any of the rest of Be-Papas thought was happening, but I believe that he at least has made his meaning very clear.

  12. DezoPenguin says:

    Death of the Author at work there, I suppose…the author inserts content, and the audience interprets that content through their own social/cultural/psychological lens. Upton Sinclair wants to motivate the country to adopt socialism and instead gets the nation agitated over food safety laws…

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