In 2020, Kunihiko Ikuhara is a highly rated and well-respected anime director, producer, writer and artist. After starting his career in Toei animation, with his most famous contribution being towards the mega-franchise Sailor Moon, he struck out on his own in the late 90s and has since then created multiple beloved series such Penguindrum, Yurikuma Arashi, and Revolutionary Girl Utena. But if you somehow, had a time machine and could go back to the early stages of Utena’s production and say to Mr Ikuhara himself that in the future he would be regarded as one of the best in his field, it would likely not be believed. When he left Sailor Moon to produce Utena, he did not think the show would be financially successful and therefore set out to produce what he thought would be his last ever work. He set out to make Revolutionary Girl Utena his magnus opus and the hard work paid off. Not only is Revolutionary Girl Utena considered one of the best series of its genre, but also one of the best animes of the 90s and very influential on Western animations released many years later such as Steven Universe and She-Ra: Princess of Power (be wary, that the link contains spoilers!) This stunning Blu-ray set, thanks to Anime Limited, is the very first time the series has been made available in the UK, with only the movie released via MVM back in 2008 before now. So has the wait for such a pillar of the genre worth it? Or has it not aged as well as we had hoped?
Utena Tenjou was just a child when she lost her parents and found comfort in the arms of a rose-scented prince, who gave her a ring and a promise that it would lead her to him again. The encounter proved to have a significant impact on her; not just in her choice of schools – attending Ohtori Academy to hopefully track down her prince – but also in her identity, choosing to dress like a boy in hopes of becoming a prince one day herself, to help those in need. On her first day at school however, her close friend Wakaba Shinohara is shamed by the cruel antics of student council member, Kyouichi Saionji, so Utena challenges him to a duel. To her it’s merely a way to avenge her friend, to him however it’s a challenge to steal his rose bride, Anthy Himemiya, because wearing the ring of the rose comes with a cost that Utena is not aware of.
If you’re a fan of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s recent works, but have yet to see this series, you’ll be surprised to know that, unlike his more recent work, which start with their outlandish premise and bombastic symbolism at 100% and rarely let up for the rest of the ride, Revolutionary Girl Utena is much more of a slow burn in comparison. The first episode is filled with fairy-tale logic, crazy plot details and fantastical imagery that ropes you into its story from the start, but for the majority of these episodes it slows down and keeps the larger story close to its chest, focusing more on the characters and their internal struggles. There’s still plenty of beautifully imagery to enjoy of course, and dialogue that is obviously saying way more than what we think, but unlike some of Ikuhara’s work which can overload the viewer with subject matter and symbolism, this one feels more welcoming and does a great job of luring audiences into its wonderful world. Second viewings potentially serve as a reward, so you can see what the early scenes mean, once the larger picture has been revealed. Personally, this is my first time experiencing the series, but I was surprised to recognise some scenes from the film in their original context, despite having not seen the movie in years.
The first set covers the ‘Student Council Saga’ and it’s a fitting title, considering that we get to know the four student council members incredibly well throughout the first arc. It’s a bold move, considering that we barely know Utena outside her introduction and next to nothing about Anthy, and they’re suppose to be the main characters, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t grow. Utena’s main drive is to become a prince, but also in turn to find hers, and through her journey we meet the council members who all contain aspects that one would consider ‘princely’. Saionji is the handsome kendo captain that holds strong feeling towards Anthy, Miki is the young genius and gifted pianist who appears to be very kind, Juri’s fencing skills are unmatched, just like her determination and noble poise, and then there’s Touga – the student council president who radiates chivalry and protectiveness towards his sister. But one by one, we see that their ‘shells’ are hiding something much darker underneath. This unfolds in front of Utena and her perception of what makes a ‘prince’ and how she views her own identity begins to change. The build-up to the emotionally powerful Episode 11, and the eventual pay-off in Episode 12 is by itself so satisfying that it not only shatters Utena’s expectations but also the audience’s, and I, for one, can’t wait to see how it continues from here and discover what UK fans have been missing out on for all these years.
Animation is provided by J.C. Staff, a studio that’s still in action to this day, but at the time of Utena’s release, it was one of their earliest TV series, but the work here is still to be admired. As it was originally released in 4:3, there are black bars either side of the video, and you can tell its age with some obvious re-used animation cycles and noise on the picture, but the visual upgrade to Blu-ray is well handled and you can admire the unique styling that’s gone into the character designs as well as the school grounds and the castle that hovers over the duelling forest. As it’s part of the magical girl genre, there’s the expected re-used segment of ‘transformation’ animation but here, it’s a very different kind of transformation. Instead of a frilly outfit being conjured and elaborate movement from the heroine, we instead get an extended segment of Utena climbing a long, winding staircase to the battle arena, with quick cutaways to her outfit change. It’s accompanied by a rock track with a chorus of deep vocals with lyrics like ‘birth records, baptismal, records, records of death’ – it feels more like a boss theme and Utena is walking into a fight to the death, which is a powerful mood to accomplish, considering that it’s almost guaranteed what the outcome of each battle will be.
Speaking of the soundtrack, whilst the epic rock themes are provided by J.A. Caesar, best known for writing music for Japanese rock operas and theatre, the main score is from Shinkichi Mitsumune, who has many anime credits to his name from FLCL and Rozen Maiden. Then you have the main theme, ‘Rondo Revolution’ by Masami Okui, which admittedly I couldn’t get into at first, but after a third listen of the catchy keyboard intro and the ‘oooooh yeah’ at the very start made the song impossible to skip after the first disc. Overall, the soundtrack is very varied but also blends well, despite being handled by multiple cooks, per se.
Blu-ray extras include clean opening and closing, TV spots and ads, both the 2.0 and 5.1 audio for Japanese is included, but only 2.0 for English. Despite being a fan of English dubs overall, I do not recommend listening to Utena’s English track. It contains the debut/early works of many beloved voice actors we know today, from Crispin Freeman to Rachael Lillis, but you can really tell that the majority of the cast was inexperienced when recording this; from hammy performances, to hearing tongue clicks mid-sentence, it’s really off-putting. The only good thing it has going for it, is that it follows the Japanese script very closely, so at least if you do go for the dub, you won’t be getting an inferior translation.
If you were lucky enough to grab a copy of the collector’s editions of the whole series, or Part 1, they come with additional box to hold all 3 parts of the series in, plus 5 lovely art cards as well as a poster. It should be noted that Part 1 contains Episodes 1 – 12, whereas some sites list the Student Council Arc to contain 13 episodes, but it seems that the last episode (a clip show) will be found in Part 2 releases.
The influential series Revolutionary Girl Utena is finally here in the UK and, so far, it’s been very much worth the wait. Despite showing its age in its animation, and the English dub being a let-down, the story is off to a fascinating and strong start, with memorable and compelling characters, striking visual style and unique soundtrack that weave you into its unique world. Any Kunihiko Ikuhara fan, anime collector or viewer just wanting to see what this classic show has to offer, should not pass it up.