Review: Revolutionary Girl Utena

Revolutionary Girl Utena was a major hit of 1997, directed by the same director behind Sailor Moon R (Ikuhara Kunihiko). At the time, it was a weird and fascinating series about a high school girl staying true to her identity and fighting against whatever foes, physical and metaphorical, came her way. Today, though, it has become a landmark and inspiration for anime ever since.

Where I first heard of this show, I don’t know. Perhaps it was some random forum thread on Crunchyroll from back when I was first starting out in anime. Maybe it was a high school friend talking about the weirdness of the episode “Nanami’s Egg”. Perhaps it was some random YouTube video I’ve all but forgotten about.

Either way, while perusing the list of shows that RightStuf/Nozomi had the rights to, this show stood out to me. It’s pretty easy to say that this has pretty quickly ascended towards the top of my favorites ever since I started watching it.

An Introduction

Utena Tenjou is a student at the prestigious Ohtori Academy, where the student council has arguably the most power and fame on the campus. After a prince brought her out of a rough time as a child, Utena has always wanted to be a prince herself (is that really a good idea?), and has even begun wearing princely clothing in school. This prince even gave her a ring with a rose emblem on it, as something for her to remember him by. Or was it an engagement ring?

One day, Utena ends up in an argument with student council vice president (and kendo club president) Saionji, and challenges him to a sword duel. He notices the ring on her finger, and immediately accepts the duel – at a special dueling location for those wearing the special ring.

Long story short, Utena surprisingly wins the duel, but little did she know what she ended up entering herself into. The student council has its own competition to see who gets the rights to the Rose Bride, an actual person who does everything her master wants, and harbors the power of “revolutionizing the world”; by winning the duel, Utena wins the quiet, respectful Rose Bride, Anthy, and soon enough, the two end up living in the same dorm room together.

And so the fight for the Rose Bride has one more player.

The Plot and Characters

When it comes to the plot and characters, there’s so much to talk about, it’s hard for me to limit what I want to say.

I’ll start with the characters. Beyond Utena and Anthy, we’ll also get to learn quite a bit about the student council and some other key actors – handled through interactions with said characters themselves, and interactions with characters close to them. With 39 episodes, this show definitely has enough time to delve into each of these key characters, and it does so pretty well, I’d say.

Rather than going through each character sequentially as the show progresses, each student council member (and Utena) develops and changes gradually over the series, the story revisiting them when they inevitably find themselves tied back into the main plot. Even though the student council members act as the antagonists in the first arc, they become uneasy friends with Utena in later arcs as other, bigger antagonists begin pulling the strings.

All in all, there’s three (or four, depending upon the source) arcs, dealing with this ongoing competition for the Rose Bride. Each arc also delves deeper into a bunch of mysteries surrounding the competitions, the powers and role of the Rose Bride, and even the academy itself. There’s a lot of things to be unraveled here, and, similar to other shows like Serial Experiments Lain, Revolutionary Girl Utena doesn’t like to be direct about it. By the final episode, this anime goes full-symbolism, with the on-screen events making no sense if taken at face value. Multiple fan theories and ideas have developed upon what the show was truly about and the meanings behind what was shown on screen. For me, I personally loved it. I really enjoy shows that make you think and that don’t like to show their full hand right away… although even when Utena does finally show you a card, it’s covered in so much symbolism that it’s really hard to tell.

To continue talking about the story, though, we also have to talk about the episode structure. To be honest, it is really repetitive. Although each arc changes up the formula a tiny bit, it’s still basically the same thing. A specific character is presented with an issue, this issue is aggravated to the point where they challenge Utena to a duel, Utena wins the duel, and then it’s all over. Although sometimes this is prolonged to two-part episodes – and there’s also highly entertaining filler episodes beside that do add some variety – the pattern is still there, making it very much feel like a “villain of the week” type thing.

The specificity of each character’s issue and a lot of the buildup and emotion (especially during two-part episodes) that lead up to the sword duels, however, is what makes these episodes watchable for me. The opposing character’s struggles and motivations are unique to each of them – even if they’re sometimes petty. However, it’s still a pattern that’s being followed again and again.

Luckily, all semblance of the pattern breaks down in the last seven episodes, where symbolism, backstory, and who-even-knows galore take front stage. If you look past the repetitive parts, though, there is a lot of entertainment here; a serious story is being crafted, and these characters and their unique and visible personalities help fill each scene they’re in.

Finally, the last thing I’ll go into is the sword battles in this series. These battles aren’t actually lethal: the first one to knock an embedded rose off their opponent’s chest is decreed the winner. Also, these battles are over so fast and end up being so underwhelming. Even in the last few battles, Utena basically wins them in what feels like 2 minutes. There isn’t really a building feeling of intensity and suspense with the battles as the show goes on. It honestly feels that, despite the duels being integral to how this world works, the anime’s producers didn’t know the best way to actually write and animate a sword duel.

All in all, though, this is a great series. Even the characters alone make this series, each one of them is so awesome. I so wish I could go into more details about each one of them, but any more time I spend will just make this review longer and longer. The repetitiveness of the majority of Utena is probably going to turn off a few people for sure. The characters and the hyper-symbolic layered story of this show, however, make this one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen in a long time.

The Atmosphere

Revolutionary Girl Utena is a show that really likes its rituals and patterns, if you couldn’t tell.

For each sword battle, a scene occurs with two shadow actors acting out a skit (of varying relevance to the actual story) followed by a constantly-reused segment of Utena climbing up the stairs (or taking an elevator) to the dueling arena while the exact same song plays. I phrase that as a complaint (and honestly, the latter part kind of is), but it is really a minor annoyance, at best, for me. The shadow acting skits are actually pretty humorous, if not a bit out there, and the two characters, A-ko and B-ko, are some of my more favorites in the series (although I have many favorites).

The choral rock music in this show, though… if you don’t like it at the start, you’ll end up liking it (or at least tolerating it) by the end. Each time that staircase scene is used, or a sword duel is going on, there’s a choral rock song going on as well. Although there are electric guitar and percussion accompaniments, the singing choir is far and away the huge focus of each song, and they’re sung in this distinct way that’s neither great nor terrible.

Beyond that, the instrumental soundtrack is pretty dang good, I’d say. The same basic 6 or so melodies are reused (with varying ornamentations) for a lot of the tracks throughout the series, but each of the melodies are great and memorable. Rather than using the more rock style present everywhere else here, the instrumental themes are more orchestral, relying on piano and stringed instruments a lot more. I guarantee you’ll at least get one of the songs from Utena stuck in your head.

The opening theme – more of a mellow rock style – is also pretty good, but was definitely another thing that took some warming up to. Part of me kind of wishes there was more than one opening to this show, but I’m not too miffed. There were, however, two endings to this series, with the ending changing after episode 25. Although the first song is more traditional rock-sounding, the second ending song is more in the style of the choral rock music used within the episodes themselves. I honestly prefer the first ending song a bit more, but prefer the second ending’s animation (both songs are good, but the second ending’s animation is a lot cooler and more interesting to look at than the first’s animation).

Oh, let’s talk about the visuals though.

This show aired in 1997, like previously said, and it definitely comes off as a 90s show. There are some parts with stiff animation, but even at its smoothest, it’s still not as smooth as today’s shows (although there are some quality exceptions). The character designs aren’t as complex as today’s, either, but they’re still quite detailed. I like the amount of work done with each character’s school uniform; in fact, Utena has some of the most ornate clothing I’ve seen in quite a while.

Each character has their own color, displayed either by their hairstyle, their uniform, or both. This is one of the many things this show uses for symbolism, because oh man, is there a lot of symbolism here. There will be scenes that transpire like normally except with a baseball game happening in the middle of it, or with blinking arrows pointing out random things in the background. I’ve already talked about the symbolism at some length above, but most of it comes through in the visuals – a majority of the time, it isn’t even acknowledged on screen excepting a few small remarks.

With the buildup of symbolism in the second and third arcs, that is when we get to see this show begin to become more unique and fascinating, visually. Scenes of a hallway, both sides lined with chairs, each holding a sign with a finger pointing towards a door, still appear when I close my eyes. There is this weird hybrid of realism and fairy-tale-ism in this series, and the show takes full advantage of that with its visuals. It’s sometimes hard to remember that this takes place in modern day, with Anthy watching a small “portable” TV and characters using flip phones. (Well, this was modern back in the 90’s, okay?)

Despite this, there are times where the visuals were not always up to snuff. I particularly remember episode 23, the finale of the second arc. An important conversation is had early into the episode showing either Utena and the antagonist facing away from the camera (so they don’t have to animate their mouths), or showing random background shots of the school (doing the same shot twice in a row before moving on). It was obvious they were in a time crunch to finish this episode, but it’s annoying that this happens during an arc finale. There are other cases like this as well, but this is probably one of the most visible in the series.

Finally, I’ll discuss the voice acting. Being a very character-focused show, I’m happy to mention the voice acting is pretty good… on the Japanese side.

Tomoko Kawakami (as Utena) is able to handle both the louder and quieter moments wonderfully, and Yuriko Fuchizaki does well to add onto Anthy’s character and her mystique. The voice acting is also done well for the student council members, and I think Takehito Koyasu and Yuri Shiratori (as council president Touga and his sister, Nanami) each fill and expand their characters with their acting. Honestly, I have nothing but praise for them all.

There is an English dub for this series as well, but RightStuf’s DVDs default to Japanese – an uncommon thing for dubbed anime DVDs, but I’m thankful for it. The dub was created by the now-defunct Central Park Media, and it’s… pretty bad. I honestly can’t think of a single voice that’s better in English than in Japanese. Few get close, such as the second arc’s antagonist, but… the dub is not worth your time. Truly, it isn’t. I’d like to think I don’t have high standards for dubs, but this… this is just… no. I expect the Blu-Rays to be the same (see below).

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Revolutionary Girl Utena is a remarkable show from the 1990’s. Within the span of its 39 episodes, we meet a variety of unique, complex characters, and see them deal with their own issues while also finding themselves trapped within the main plot of the show. The story doesn’t like to give all the answers, though, and this is reinforced by the constant symbolism in the visuals. I certainly can’t call Utena perfect, but it’s hard for me to not call this show “amazing”.

Honestly, this is one of those shows that I think everyone should at least give a try at watching. I’m sure that not everyone will get through it due to the repetitiveness of the episodes and the older animation, but I think those that stick with it will end up with an experience that sticks with them. That being said, you’ll also probably not like this series if you don’t like the super-symbolic, think-for-yourself endings, because this show doesn’t reveal much to you in that regard. Either way, though, I still highly recommend it.

Also, if you’re looking for a Blu-Ray release, good news! One is forthcoming, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show. You can pre-order it online from Amazon or RightStuf (maybe elsewhere too?); I’ve already pre-ordered mine. 🙂 If the extras in the limited edition Blu-Ray box is anything like what’s in the DVDs (and I’m sure it will be), the limited edition one will be more than worth it for fans of the show.

Rating; Great
Recommendation: Put This On Immediately
+++ amazing characters, the final seven episodes, fascinating visuals in latter half
— very repetitive, sword battles leave room for improvement, English dub is just bad

 

Review: Aldnoah.Zero

 

Hey, look at our totally awesome show that has all these famous names attached to it; it’s really not terrible at all! Yeah, I’m coming out of the gate swinging. This show was announced with Gen Urobuchi’s name (of Fate/Zero and Madoka Magicka fame) slapped in big letters right on top, and that it featured Kalafina and Hiroyuki Sawano (the composer from Attack on Titan), and so on and so on. So I, like a lot of people, thought, “hey, these big names working on a cool-sounding, emotional story involving mechas. This seems like a good show.”

Ooooooooohhhh man.

(Note: In my searches, most reviews of this show I’ve seen only talk about the first 12 episodes of the two-cour series. They took a six month break between airing episode 12 and episode 13, so I feel I’m in the minority by actually sharing my thoughts on the entire 24 episodes.

Also, fair warning: this is a long review.)

An Introduction

This show’s premise is one of those things that makes a lot of sense, but is really hard to put into words. I’ll try though:

So in an alternate universe, the Apollo 17 mission discovered some ancient Martian technology on the Moon that allowed people to travel to and colonize Mars. Some of these first colonists created an empire on Mars: the Vers Empire. Ever since this empire was created, the humans on the two planets have drifted further and further apart. This led up to a giant interplanetary war in 1999, where Vers tried to take over the Earth. They really only succeeded in blowing up half the moon though (in an event called “Heaven’s Fall”), leaving random Martian spaceships among all the space debris. Since then, there’s been an uneasy peace, although some in the Vers Empire secretly still want to show Earth what-for.

It’s now 2014, 15 years later. The show starts off with Princess Asseylum of the Vers Empire arriving in Japan to try to negotiate a more solid peace between the two planets. But, as she’s being escorted in a limousine, a missile suddenly appears and “KA-BLAM!”; no more Asseylum. So, naturally, the Martians, upset by this sudden regicide, declare war against Earth. Martian ships and mechas rain from the sky, and suddenly Earth’s fight for survival begins!

Here, I’ll introduce one of our main characters. Inaho, one of those cold and calculating types, finds himself in the front lines when one of Vers’s first waves of attack appear in Japan: a giant, superpowered mecha. Through pure cunning, he manages to find a way to best it. Soon afterwards, Inaho, his high school friends, and a few others, arrive on a ship alongside some other “refugees”, trying to make their way to a global army headquarters to figure out where to go from there. And on this ship is someone that looks suspiciously Asseylum-like…

The other main character we have is Slaine. An Earth-born human that ends up on Mars after a crash landing, he became one of Asseylum’s closest friends, teaching her about the wonders of Earth. At the same time, the rest of the Martians treat him terribly, calling him names, pushing him around, whacking him with canes, and even worse. After the explosion and second Vers-Earth war began, Slaine enters the fray to find those responsible for Asseylum’s death.

The Plot and Characters

The fascinating thing about this story is just how much potential there is here, right from the get go. The first few episodes not only set up this really fascinating premise, but you also have: a main character (Inaho) that uses plausible science to back up the cool action stuff he does, a view into the complex political world of a war nation, a character (Slaine) dealing with and growing from his terrible treatment as a minority, and overall, we have this underdog story where everything’s on the line. There’s even a supporting character who’s a recovering alcoholic with PTSD, having been in the army during the Heaven’s Fall war 15 years prior, which is pretty cool.

The sad thing is, though, that these beginning few episodes (and a couple other cool points in the first half) are about as good as this show ever gets. As the story moves on, things become more contrived, unbelievable, and clichéd.

Inaho is completely emotionless, from the very start to the very end. His older sister seems to imply there is some reason for it, but if there is, we never see it (or at least, it isn’t made clear). I can understand a relatively silent character; they can be pretty cool. However, Inaho is darn-near robotic with his actions, forgoing absolutely everything for the sake of him kicking some Martian butt. (Why he gets himself so involved with this war, we also don’t really know. My guess is he just kind of went with the flow.) In fact, in the second half, one of his body parts gets replaced with some cybernetic technology. We’re supposed to feel sympathy and sorrow for him about that, but it did nothing. I couldn’t make myself care more about his situation than he does, which is not at all.

As well, Inaho, this empathy-lacking high school kid, ends up becoming “humanity’s only hope”, as Earth’s forces kept getting pushed more and more into a corner. He became the only one on Earth’s side that ever got to do anything cool, or he orchestrated it for others to look cool. It came to a point where I began rooting for the other Earth characters whenever a battle happened, hoping that they’d get to show off a bit on their own without Inaho being the only one worth the attention. The show relied too much upon Inaho when he wasn’t even a character we could relate with. He had no internal conflict that got us to really connect with him and sympathize with him, leaving him this cold shell.

Of course, there’s the flip side of the coin: the Vers Empire side.

Throughout each episode, Aldnoah.Zero splits up its time between Inaho and Earth’s forces, and Slaine and the politics of the top Martian generals. For the first half of the show, I actually enjoyed watching Earth’s side more as the adventures and drama of the characters upon the ship were actually rather riveting and fascinating. The Mars side was cool to watch too, with us witnessing all the scheming and treachery of the Vers Empire’s top leaders, and also seeing Slaine trying to reach his Asseylum-related goals, but it wasn’t quite as attention-grabbing.

The second half, the side I enjoyed completely switched. Earth’s side became almost cringe-inducingly hard to watch, with the Our-Only-Hope-Inaho-Fest turned up to 11. Luckily, the show seemed to focus more on Slaine’s side for the second half; Slaine, through a series of well-timed events, got himself into power as one of the counts/generals of the Vers Empire, and used his influence to rally the Martian side to continue the war against Earth. Slaine, with his newfound power, had begun to grow mad, and built up this corrupted system around him, even more so than the Vers generals he had overthrown. It was fascinating to see how far things could build up before the inevitable point where they’d all come crashing down around him.

However, I can’t really say the ending to the show was all that satisfying. I won’t even hint at what happened (partly because, frankly, it left me confused, and I can’t be bothered to attempt rationalizing it right now), but I had wished for something a bit more epic and grandiose than what we got. Of course, there was this big space battle beforehand between Inaho/Earth and Slaine/Vers that the show tried to build up, but it wasn’t much more than what we’ve already seen throughout most of this second half by this point. The end of episode 12 (the end of the first half) was more dramatic and tense than the actual end of the series was.

The secondary characters on Earth’s side were relatively flat, with small exceptions here and there when some did receive some development. For the most part though, they stuck to their tropes and one-line gags, disappointingly so. The character with PTSD, by far, had the most development, but the conclusion to his side plot seemed a bit rushed to me. On the Martian side, though, there were some interesting characters. The show tried to develop some of the Martian counts and a few of the others we see… although a number of them receive as much development as the Earthlings, but hey, at least there’s something. On both sides though, even if there wasn’t the most development, a number of the supporting characters were certainly memorable in their own right, which is a plus.

Worldbuilding in this show also wasn’t particularly great. I wish we got to see more of the impact this Heaven’s Fall war left behind (all the main Earth characters look at some meteor or something in the first episode as their bus rolls by it, but we never see it), beyond the PTSD character. There was a hearty attempt on the Martian side to build how the Vers empire worked and to a decent extent, it’s definitely well appreciated. At the same time, though, we really never got a good look at what Mars itself actually was like (the most we ever see of that world is the inside of the royal palace).

All in all, though, the show’s story felt poorly done. They had this excellent start, and built it fairly nicely in the beginning (probably because of Gen Urobuchi’s help), but someone dropped the ball somewhere after that. Aldnoah.Zero started off as “great” and “attention-grabbing”, and it became barely tolerable at the end. I can’t feel anything but disappointed, because it could’ve given us something so much better than what we got. But yet, no matter how crummy the plot got, the show still treated itself super-seriously, sometimes to the point where it was a bit overboard and pretentious.

The Atmosphere

The production value of the show is where things really shine with this show. While the story had a one-way ticket to Suck-burg, at least the train ride was a very pretty one.

Aldnoah.Zero’s background work looks really cool, especially the designs (inside and out) of the giant Martian spaceships. I can’t say it’s the best art work I’ve ever seen, but gosh darn it, that doesn’t stop me from appreciating how cool some of these places looked. If there was anywhere needing improvement, I would say the ship(s) that the Earth side usually resided upon – they looked drab and boring.

A dynamic color scheme, with the darkest of darks and the lightest of lights, was used throughout (although more on the dark side), which I don’t think hindered its presentation, but it didn’t make it better either.

The character designs are also really good. They’re clean and smooth, and each character stands out enough and looks unique in their own right. If I were to complain, it’d be Asseylum’s design, but otherwise, I like it. I was especially intrigued by the visible difference between the Earthlings and Martians. There is the usage of CG with the mechas, but it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen (although that’s not really saying something, because I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff). I wouldn’t know if it’d qualify as the best CG ever, but I found it to not be too much of a distraction. Either way, the mecha designs, at least on the Martian side, look rather good.

The music for the show is also really great. Like I said, they had the music composer from Attack on Titan on this show, and it sounds great. The music here is so memorable and unique, I’ve actually considered buying a copy of the soundtrack. However, I even have a complaint here: the show replays so many of the tracks that the feeling of the great-sounding tracks start to lessen. It’s disappointing, because I do really like the music. The opening and ending songs also sound really cool for this series, although the ending animations tend to not be too flashy.

I haven’t seen this show dubbed. Watching it subbed, the voices of Inaho and Slaine sometimes sounded a bit too close to one another, but it generally wasn’t too much of an issue. I really enjoyed the voice of Eddelrittuo a lot.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

If you looked up “wasted potential” in the dictionary, you’d find an image of Aldnoah.Zero there. (You’d also see a picture of my face, but that’s a different thing altogether.) This show had such a great start, with so many things going right, but it just couldn’t stay at its high. Even if I’ve heard praise for the show after the end of the first half, there was absolutely nothing by the end of the second half. While the show looks cool and sounds awesome, the story falling on its own face keeps Aldnoah.Zero from being anything good.

Let’s get down to it: I don’t recommend this show to really anyone. This show sounds and looks cool, yes, but unfortunately, that’s only a façade. If you were to watch all 24 episodes, I’m confident you’d see where my issues with this appear. We’d all appreciate an emotional mecha story, but Aldnoah.Zero isn’t where to look.

Rating: Bad
Recommendation: Don’t Watch
+++ great premise, awesome music, Slaine
— story goes way downhill, awesome music gets replayed too much, Inaho… just Inaho

AnimeBird, plans for 2018!

Greetings!

Geez, it’s been a long while, hasn’t it? I really hadn’t meant to disappear from here like I did after my A Silent Voice review. I’m actually pleasantly surprised with how many people saw it, liked it, and followed me as a result.

I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you with my lack of new releases thus far D:

If I were to be a good content creator, I would say that things will be different this year and that you’ll see post more than ever before! and things of that nature. But… that’s probably not going to be how it goes here. I’ll be trying to post more often than I have these past few months, that’s for sure, trust me, but it won’t be every week on the dot.

: :

Since some point last year when I said to you all (and to myself) that this is nothing more than a side hobby, I’ve been really treating it as such: something I do only in my spare time and when I feel the desire to spend doing it. It unfortunately leads to this website/blog thing being woefully neglected at times, though. I do feel bad about anyone who actually is interested in my posts and my thoughts and is receiving nothing from me here.

I have some reviews stockpiled that I wanted to post after I wrote a review for “Your Name”, but seeing as I never finished that review, I never posted it nor posted the stockpiled ones. I’ve been telling myself to just post one of the stockpiled ones and forget about that plan, but obviously, that never came to be either (in the past month).

I’ll be coming into 2018 posting these stockpiled reviews that I mentioned. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, it’ll be reviews for the same exact shows that I was hinting at in the post I linked to a few paragraphs ago. So allow me to quote what I said back then:

The reviews I’ll be posting over the next few weeks will be quite interesting. A lot of them are well-known shows, to be honest, but it’s not just that. The shows I’ll be reviewing are shows that I either really like or really dislike. Not every show can be a winner, huh?

So look forward to that 😀

I will say that despite not posting much on this website/blog thing, I am relatively active on Twitter! Recently it’s just been retweets from my main/personal account, but they’re retweets about the things I’ve watched! If you want my (condensed) thoughts about a show I’ve watched, you’ll find it there, and you’re also open to ask me about shows too!

Also, quick last thing: I do plan on doing that Funimation February thing I did last year again! No promises on those extra pieces about the company itself or the anime industry as a whole, as I had said (and failed to do) last year. But I will be reviewing Funimation shows!

: :

Yet another thing I mentioned in that post and also haven’t yet done (wow, good going past me! /sarcasm), I wanted to talk about video games! Random thoughts about them, maybe semi-reviews about them, who knows? I’m kind of transitioning this website/blog thing to being just my place to voice my thoughts about the media I consume, and of course, I’ve been consuming video games.

I’ve recently been going through a Paper Mario phase (again), so you can actually look forward to a post from me talking about the entire series. Who knows when I’ll have it up, but… it’s a thing.

: :

Anyway, thank you so much for sticking with me… if, uhh, you have been sticking with me… and I’m sorry about my lack of posting here.

I’ve said it before, but this site is nothing more than a side hobby for me. But still, it does sadden me to see people reading/liking my things at the same time I’ve neglected to post anything new. I don’t want people to think I’ve abandoned this place, although that honestly is what it looks like. I guess I don’t quite know how to rectify that, though.

Oh well.

I hope I’ll post more often in 2018, and I hope you’ll be around to read it (and hopefully like it)! See you later on! 😀

Jayke (AnimeBird)