First things first - "Revolutionary Girl Utena" (I'll just call it "Utena" for the sake of brevity from here on) is a weird anime. And I mean *really* weird. The surreal settings, the plethora of symbolisms that constantly assault the viewer, the sexual innuendos... the whole show is so bizarre that it's hard to know where to begin the review.
I'd heard a lot about "Utena" beforehand. Some say it's the shoujo version of "Neon Genesis Evangelion"; others say that Oscar from "Rose of Versailles" is Utena's spiritual grandmother; and many people consider it to be one of the greatest masterpieces in anime. Having seen it, I can conclude that there is merit in all of those statements. Well, perhaps apart from that last one. For me, "Utena" is too flawed to be deserving of that honour. However, there's no denying that it's an influential series, and many of its influences can still be seen in more recent shows.
Although "Rose of Versailles" does have a certian degree of influence on "Utena", most of these extend only as far as the surface. The most obvious of these influences is Utena herself. Born as a girl, but lived most of her life as a "prince" rather than a "princess", the parallels between Utena and Oscar, the heroine of "Rose of Versailles", are obvious. A lot of the visual effects (such as the various rose effects) that "Revolutionary Girl Utena" deploys also seem to be derived from "Rose of Versailles", although a lot of them do seem to be used in a rather more tongue in cheek way. But beyond this, the two series are vastly different in terms of content. "Rose of Versailles" tells a much more straight forward story, albeit with the gender bender twist provided by Oscar herself, while "Revolutionary Girl Utena" is anything but straight forward.
Not being a fan of the overly abstract and surreal, I had a little trouble getting to grips with the show. For the settings in "Utena", you have this school with a bunch of these outlandish rules, where the school council members fights duels with each other in a secret tower in the forest for the possession of the Rose Bride (another student), in order to gain the power to revolutionarise the world... Whaddaf*ck? Is this some kind of peculiar school play? Alas no, it appears to be reality, just not as we know it. Utena (who is, in case you haven't guessed, the protagonist) is thrown straight into this strange setting, and initially, she seemed as confused as I was about the strangeness of it all. She does make some effort towards finding out what the heck is going on, as you would naturally expect her to do, but her efforts are... kinda pathetic. One minute, she's like "WTF is all this?! Duels? Rose Bride?? Power to revolutionalise the world???" Then the next minute she's completely sold on all the weirdness and, without anyone prompting her, starts drawing swords out of Rose Bride's chest and shouting key phrases such as "grant me the power to revolutionalise the world!" like the rest of those freaks from the student council.
And so, after this extremely half-hearted effort at forming a tenuous link to reality (I don't know why they even bothered to be honest), the scene is set for the rest of the show!
Despite all the weirdness of the premises, I initially found "Utena" less difficult to to get through than I would have expected. However, a few episodes in, I found an even bigger problem that made the going a lot tougher - repetitiveness. There is simply a ludicrous amount of it. If they took out all the repeated scenes, the series would probably be able to fit into a standard 26 episode season quite easily. In each of the arcs of the series, the same scene is reused to set up almost every battle as well as to end almost every battle. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Utena accepting the power of Dios into her... it's the same scene everytime, no matter what the situation leading up to it is. Sometimes she would be crouching before the scene, sometimes standing, sometimes even with the enemy rushing towards her, but always, she finds the time to casually stand around, being infused with the power and then lunge at her opponent and win the dual. After seeing it 20+ times (and I don't think I'm exaggerating in the slightest here), there's just one word to describe this... BOOOOORIIIING. Perhaps they're trying to parody the transformation sequence of the magical girl, but even as a (not particularly funny) running joke, it wears out its welcome pretty quickly. The action scenes aren't even good, and they certainly don't become good after about the 30th time of viewing.
The repetitions aren't just limited to the battles either, they extend to the "Duelist of the Week" format. "Utena" really taken this format to extremes, with a lot of the scenes/dialogues being used to set up the duels being recycled to the point of annoyance. In the black rose saga, for example, every episode follows the same formula of some person with some personal problems getting told that their only option is to "revolutionalise the world", and it just seems laughable that it's the answer to all their problems
"My cat has died."
"I see. Your only option is to revolutionalise the world."
"I've lost my favourite red pencil."
"I see. Your only option is to revolutionalise the world."
"I got a hole in my left sock."
"I see. Your only option is to revolutinoalise the world."
You wouldn't believe how sick of that phrase I became. The dialogues often borders on absurd and smacks of lazy scripting.
But because of all the repetitions this show has, on the rare occasions when it does makes a deliberate change to the script, the contrast can really pack a hefty punch, and those episodes shines all the more brightly because of it. It's hard to say whether this is a positive thing because the resulting effect can be so refreshingly wonderful, or whether it's a negative thing because the show's repetitions drove me to the point where I end up over reacting to the smallest change. Probably a bit of both. Perhaps it's all deliberate, and you may say I'm missing the point as I'm unfairly criticising what it's aiming to do, but just because some chef *deliberately* poured a bottle of vinegar into a dish in order to give it an extra zany kick doesn't change the fact that he's completely ruined the dish as a result, and it doesn't make me feel much better knowing that it's all intentional when I'm gagging from the taste.
As someone who's really into character driven shows, I did not find the characters of "Revolutionary Girl Utena" to be particularly interesting in general. There's too much posturing and general displays of shallowness. Every week Anthea the souless doll gets slapped for some petty reason as she's the scape goat for everything; most of the girls are annoyingly vain, but most of the guys are even more so, and need no encouragement to unbutton their shirt and start poncing around. There's an irritatingly large amount of time devoted to this, while more fascinating characters like Jury are criminally under used. Admittedly, by the end, most of the characters do reveal themselves to be more than just faceless people in a dull crowd, but still, with a couple of exceptions, I found it hard to care about most of them at any given point in the show. It says a lot that I'm more interested in what Anthea's pet monkey Chu-Chu is doing than what most of the characters - Anthea especially - is doing. At least Chuh-Chu's crazy antics, in particularly when he's battling his arch enemy the frog, never ceases to amuse me.
Speaking of amusement, the nature of the humour in "Utena" is random, and whether it's effective or not also seem to be pretty random. There are times when it works but then at other times it's just... random... without being at all amusing.
The similarities between "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and "Utena" comes mostly from comes from the apocalyptic themes and also the mountain of symbolisms the two of them contain. If anything "Utena"'s use of symbolims is even more aggressive than that of "Neon Genesis Evangelion" - they're constantly being shoved into your face and, to be honest, I found it all a bit too much. As the author Stephen King once put it, "Symbolisms exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity," and there's a sense that "Utena" is more of the latter than the former. In my opinion, symbolisms should be done with a subtle touch, preferably integrated into the show such that they don't stick out like a sore thumb. This way, it can be nice when you get them and you don't feel like you're missing out if you don't. The fireflies motif from "Grave of the Fireflies" is a textbook example of how I think it should be done. The intrusiveness nature of the symbolisms in "Utena" on the other hand, feels like it goes against the whole spirit of the concept, and it results in some completely bizarre scenes (f*cking cars popping up all over the place, anyone?) that can really be frustrating if you've no idea what these weirdass symbols are supposed to mean.
In terms of production values, "Utena" also comes up short. Other than the ludicrous amount of reused footage that I've already mentioned (they should consider displaying "Warning: Contains at least 25% reused animation! on their DVD boxes), the sound production quality also comes off as something more dated than it actually is. I was unimpressed by the much lauded soundtrack that consists a lot of rather experimental sounding songs with gibberish lyrics relating to apocalyptic themes. What's worse is that those songs tends to stick out badly, so not only did I not like them, I also found it hard not to take notice. It does improve in the second half of the show (I particularly liked the second ending theme, and one of the eyecatch themes is nothing short of beautiful despite its short length), but overall the sound department mostly comes off as a poorly produced, failed experiment.
But despite the amount of time I've just spent bitching about the show, I actually think it's good. It's just that I found it a lot easier to identify the source of my negative feelings towards it than the positive. I guess there's an odd kind of enjoyment to be had in "Utena" by turning off the part of your brain that's grounded in reality, and there's a certainly a kind of magnetism about the show that keeps it interesting. Amidst all the surreal madness, some of the direction is undeniably brilliant, especially in its execution of twists.
Ultimately, "Utena" is a show that's far greater than the sum of its parts - in spite of the overly repetitive animation, the overly similar shallow, vain individuals in its cast, the overly aggressive use of symbolisms and the overly filler nature of the story etc, the whole thing works surprisingly well. I just wasn't blown away, that's all.