Revolutionary Girl Utena Anime Box Set – Volume 2, Disk 1 (English)

November 29th, 2011

The first episode of the first disk of Revolutionary Girl Utena, Volume 2, or what is commonly referred to as the Black Rose Arc, is that staple of long-running anime, the clip episode. Clip episodes became so common around the turn of the century, that in some infamous series, clip episodes were practically more common than actual story episodes.

In this case, the clip episode is welcome. Not only does it highlight each duel from the Student Council Arc, (which gives us a chance to relive the duels and their wonderful background music) but it provides an apparently objective perspective of each duel, allowing us to understand the motivation behind the duel, behind any discussion of the End of the World, a World Egg or Revolutionizing the World or other important-sounding nonsense.

The story of Nemuro Hall and the Mikage Seminar is set up, and we are quite suddenly dropped into a new, even more obscure arc than the last. Where the Student Council fights to possess Anthy, these new, derivative, duelists, seek to remove her completely from the game.

It’s not often I find myself incapable of half-watching an anime. Most of the time I watch something while simultaneously reading or writing. I wander off do a chore, come back and pick up the story wherever it’s taken me… it’s easy enough to do this if one doesn’t much care about the exposition. When Utena is on the screen, I do nothing else. There’s too much happening, too many symbols (both substantive and imaginary) and above all, there’s Anthy. This is the third or fourth I’ve watched this series and this time, I find myself watching Anthy intently. The joke is on me, because she rarely does anything. So every little nuance I perceive is me making it up in my head. ^_^

Of the many important things that happen on this disk, I consider most important the involvement of Kozue. It appears to us that her relationship with Miki and his with her are significantly dissimilar. Her Black Rose duel to me says that they are not, actually, that dissimilar at all. It’s simply that in those relationships, each holds a slightly different place in the other’s relatively similar world view. For Kozue, Miki holds the place of sibling, sempai and beloved, where for Miki, these are three separate positions. (I’ve always imagined that, post-series, it is Kozue who has the highest chance of becoming the next Rose Bride, despite it being a meaningless position by then.)

Also important is Nanami’s episode. These appear to always be the comedic relief episodes, but it’s important to remember that both Miki and Nanami are younger than Utena, and are working even harder to build a world that makes sense, with the fractured people around them. Miki appears to be the most innocent, but if we understand that innocence functions in part as a block to be carved, it’s instantly apparent that Nanami is the most innocent character in the series.

Two duels in to this arc and we still have no idea, really, what Mikage is after. However, if you’re adept at reading the signals here, you can see where at least two things are headed. Several key symbols have been introduced -the pointing fingers, the planetarium machine (which could spawn an essay all by itself) the pupa/moths (which return in the movie with a vengeance) and the elevators, both up and down, which Ikuhara uses again in Mawaru Penguindrum.

Two duels in and already the relationship between Utena and Anthy has radically altered. Anthy is something else to someone else and Utena begins to not note the obvious, in the most obvious manner. If Miki is clearly turning a blind eye to Kozue, how much more is Utena shuttering her eyes and ears?

The Black Rose Arc has always been my favorite. It is apparent to me that what Ikuhara does best is create tension. Scenes here are so fraught, so tightly wound, that we spend the episode watching wildly, waiting for the first blow. I described it recently as if, when we watch an Ikuhara production, we are standing in the middle of a ring of people with slingshots drawn, ready to shoot, not knowing where the first shot will come from, but knowing it will come. This tension makes us read into every comment, every scene, every background, whether there was something there to be read into or not. Every episode we’re standing on pins and needles, and Dios inhabiting Utena to win the duel fills us with the relief of predictability.

DVD extras are a pleasant addition for those who like production art, and the pamphlet this time is perhaps less distressing that the one that came with the first collection. Ikuhara’s episode commentary, and the discussion of the creation of Be-Papas and the anime and manga for Utena are equally full of pretension and insight. There is some discussion of the scene in which the sword is drawn from the Rose Bride’s chest and how the instructions were to make it look like a love scene, something that I think has stood the test of time. Of particular interest to me was the comment by one of the creators discussing the brief thought of redoing this anime, and realizing that it stood up so well and was so unique that there was no need. I agree completely. More than 10 years have passed since this series first aired and it still has the power to compel and enchant. Most series upon rewatching seem a little dated, maybe a little sentimental…not this one. I watch with the same creeping sense of…something… this time as I did the very first time. This series was one that I had on my personal top ten, but I presume, always, that nothing is as good as you remember it to be. This series is. Possibly even better.

Ratings:

Art – 9
Story – 10
Character – 9
Yuri – 3
Service – 3

Overall – 9

Stay tuned – we’re going to have a contest to win the second Box Set from Nozomi/RightStuf shortly! ^_^

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4 Responses

  1. Eric P. says:

    The story had always been charmingly surreal and abstract beforehand. But when Utena reenters the dueling arena for the first time in this story arc, and we see the haunting imagery of the desks, the objects atop them and the body silhouettes—by that point it feels the audience is being told from here on out officially anything can and will go, and the limits will only keep rising. Also, that brief shot of the 100 students looking back at us with lifeless faces remains a haunting image no matter how many times I watch it.

    As for all those symbols–I guess we’ll get to talking about them later in later episodes (particularly the finger-pointing thing). For now I can definitely say for sure that I get the cocoon-to-butterfly frame in the elevator, which I guess is obvious for anyone. Speaking of which:

    “…the elevators, both up and down, which Ikuhara uses again in Mawaru Penguindrum”

    Ikuhara references something out of ‘Utena’ in ‘Penguindrum’? That’s so neat, and *man* it’s too bad I can’t legally watch this show anywhere.

  2. Cryssoberyl says:

    @ Eric P., it’s really more a question of what bit of Utena Ikuhara hasn’t referenced yet in Penguindrum. From elevators to silhouettes, black cats to red sports cars, every episode of Penguindrum seems to bring another deliciously clever reminder of just which puppetmaster is once again pulling the strings.

    @ Erica,

    “It’s not often I find myself incapable of half-watching an anime…When Utena is on the screen, I do nothing else…This series was one that I had on my personal top ten, but I presume, always, that nothing is as good as you remember it to be. This series is. Possibly even better.”

    It’s like you’re reading my mind, or describing my own history with the show. In a condensed version of what I wrote myself over two years ago:

    I will not say I “rewatched” Utena. It’s been years since I last watched it – five at least, and my impressions of the series from that time are so dim and so obsolete that they are beyond consideration.

    You can’t have nostalgia for things so far in the past that you’ve forgotten them, and as Utena became more and more hazy and distant in my mind, I began to doubt that it was really all that special, and even to doubt that I had ever truly thought so. So as I began watching Utena, I was skeptical, even worried. How would Utena acquit itself against the multitude of shows I have seen since? Could 12-year-old Utena really still hold its own?

    Over the ten days I watched it, Utena revolutionized my world. It became my world. It occupied my mind every waking minute, and I quite literally dreamed about it every single night. My “notes” rapidly became “copy down everything everybody said, every action, every scene, every bit of symbolism, every Shadow Play, etc.” in addition to my own rambling thoughts. 24-minute episodes became 45-minute affairs of rewinding, reviewing, relistening, observing every face, interpreting every tone of voice, weighing every Japanese word.

    After having forgotten so much, this really was “watching it again for the first time”, and in so doing, I was able to discover Utena to a degree that I never had before, and to a depth I had never realized existed. It isn’t just that I forgot. I realize now that I never truly knew Utena in the first place.

    When this year began, I could not have named one single anime franchise as my uncontested favorite, let alone name one that I considered as absolutely, unquestionably ascendant over all others. Now, I can do both.

    I will say this though: even after spending months in intense reflection on the work, and having written thousands of words on the subject (mainly for my own benefit in sorting it out), I still don’t comprehend exactly what happened at the end of the Black Rose arc. What was true and what was false? What was reality and what was illusion? What occured, and what had never occured?

    I’ve never managed to form a concrete opinion on it, and I’ve come to realize that a part of me never wants to. Some mysteries are better left unsolved, and that to me is one of the most profoundly intricate that Utena has to offer.

  3. @Cryssoberyl – Very close to my own reaction. I’m a very cynical person, mostly because wide-eyed uncritical discussion of that first anime I saw was so much better than anything since, sets my teeth on edge. I’m not a believer that older is better, or that there was any such thing as a golden age. Now, it wasn’t better “back then.”

    So to have something hold up this well is surprising, pleasing and encouraging.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m so glad you posted this – I’d utterly forgotten to preorder the last set. You reminded me just in time.

    Thank you.

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