Saturday, September 25, 2004

Anime Review — Revolutionary Girl Utena (spoilers)

Earlier in the year, after working my way through Evangelion, and then trying to work my way out again via fan-fic, I started to look for other fan takes on Eva. And encountered Neon Revolution Evangelion aka Shin Kakumei Evangelion. I had previously seen mention of RGU aka Shoujo Kakumei Utena that all tended to put it amongst the most regarded of titles, but NRE gave so much of a teaser (without making it obvious what bits were spoiler and which were original synthesis) that I thought that I'd just have to get around to seeing it; so taking advantage of the weakness of the US$ and Linux libdvdcss enhanced DVD players, I purchased the whole run - 39 episodes, plus the movie (yet to watch) from, and watched it 3-4 episodes at a sitting, on a weekly basis over the last few months.

Well, it was weird. Not in the same way as Lain, but weird, nonetheless. A series for which the word "epicene" was invented, with few of the relationships being even close to what one might call "normal" - after all, you start off with one girl stating that she's waiting for her "kareshi" (lit. boy-friend), and said person turns out to be the eponymous Utena (a girl who just dresses in a mannish fashion for most of the series), and then it turns out that if any girl has a brother anywhere on stage, that is where her interests tend to be directed. Even the boy-girl relationships that don't involve siblings have strong degrees of control or other ulterior motive.

The series is clearly aimed at a female audience, especially in the later episodes where there are a lot of episodes involving bishounen displaying their manly pecs, and especially lounging around on cars, in a manner normally associated with bikini-clad "booth babes" at car shows.

If I wanted to be arch about it, I'd say it was merely a slight exaggeration of adolescence, with the need to discover who one really is, cast as a HeroQuest to become the Prince. And it is indeed an undeniable HeroQuest in the last handful of episodes, as the Prince is revealed, and the sacrificial nature of the Rose Bride made manifest.

My feeling on watching the ending was "How very sweet, how very fitting." and I will add my voice to those heartily recommending this series to anyone who can watch it without getting hung up on the appearances and superfices.

Thoughts and reflections

SKU is definitely a series to be watched with sub-titling and a smattering of Japanese : the English language loses a lot of the sub-text that is there in the various forms and degrees of address, or in the use of pronoun-equivalents. Idiomatic English speech can't really mirror, for example, the change between Himemiya's use of "Saionji-sama" when Saionji Kyoichi is the One Engaged, to her almost spiteful dismissal of him as "Saionji-senpai" when he has just lost her in a duel to Utena. Nor is there a simple way of showing that Utena refers to herself as boku (an informal form most often used by males) rather than atashi (a formal, female form, even used by such frail flowers of delicate femininity as Yuumura Kirika and Iwakura Lain). Utena even uses boku to state "Well, I am a girl." when it is suggested to her that she is being particularly feminine, without irony (compare and contrast with a similar remark by Lovely Angel Kei from DPFlash Mission 2 ep 1 using an even more aggressive and unfeminine pronoun form).

It is a series where there are characters about whom one feels strongly, for or against, but is not afraid to twist things so one's perception and feelings about the characters do change. The vulnerable Rose Bride, at times, does have episodes what look very much bouts of sugar-coated passive-aggressive nastiness (as noted above). By contrast, Kiryuu Nanami, who is introduced as haughty, selfish, green-eyed kitten-drowning bitch (and those are her good points), reaches a state where even being predisposed to detest her, I found myself feeling sorry for her plight instead.

And, having reached the end of SKU, I can now say that the bits of NRE where I see characters being most out-of-character are that Kaoru Kozue (even though I do actually have a sneaking fondness for her in retrospect - maybe that's because she's the most overtly sexy of the characters*) and Saionji Kyoichi are more sympathetic than I found their canonical appearances. Plus I would quibble that in NRE, Utena has not been pulled aside from the Prince HeroPath as she is in the later parts of SKU, so should possibly not have followed quite the same path in the Duel named Révolution, would have been more Princely. Other Eva-ish consistency checks - Utena's mother - definitely dead; the Kaoru twins' mother - separated at least, and definitely out of the picture, but still writing letters; Arisugawa Juri's mother - no data.

Annoying dangling loose end related to the above - the Rose Bride as step-mother to the Kaoru twins thread that was introduced in a brief scene and then forgotten.

* — female characters that is. Bishounen don't do anything for me :)

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Nice review of the show. Utena is such an eclectic series; it's always interesting to hear what other people have to say about it.

On loose ends: I always thought that the Anthy-as-stepmother angle was metaphorical, highlighting the fairy tale tropes that the series uses (the witch as surrogate figure of power, luring men into the realm of her influence) to strengthen the implications of the Rose Bride as an Eve figure, so to speak.

To the Kaoru twins, it doesn't matter who their new stepmother is; she's just a distant figure used to emphasize their estrangement from their parents. A catalyst, if you will. She is at once every woman, and no one in particular.

This is also consistent with how various characters view the Rose Bride throughout the series -- if she's not an maidenly damsel-in-distress (a princess), then she must be an active, corrupting figure responsible for the downfall of all (a witch). And so it becomes even more poignant when this trope gets torn down in the conclusion of the series.

In short, it's not Anthy herself the viewer is supposed to see in that scene; what's shown there is merely the role she plays.