I’d heard about Revolutionary Girl Utena when reading fan discussions on Madoka. Specifically it was one of the anime (along with Lyrical Girl Nanoha and a few others) that were cited whenever anybody claimed that Madoka coined the concept of a “dark” magical girl show. No no, this was way darker, and it was made as long ago as the 1990s! Unfortunately it’s not easily available in the UK: I had to buy an American DVD, which only had the first of the series’ three arcs, so can’t (yet) comment on the other two. Nothing in it was that dark, but I could see it had the potential to go that way – and anyway, I don’t see darkness as a virtue in itself.
RGU is set in a huge and very posh school, at which the boys wear military-style uniforms apparently based on a box of Quality Street, while the girls are all puff sleeves. Nevertheless, this appears to be set in the present day – are there really such schools? Set in imitation chateaux? Not that I can complain – I went to college here, after all, though my imitation chateau lacked the mystical floating island behind the bike shed where elite scholars duel it out in order to gain the favours of the Rose Maiden. The Rose Maiden? Oh yes, she’s the girl who is the slave and fiancée (not an obviously unwilling one) of the winner of such duels.
Into this weird set-up walks Utena, a girl who dresses as a boy because a childhood encounter with a prince made her wish to be a prince herself – although another reason might be that the boys’ clothes are just so much cooler. She wins the hand of the RM, and there is clearly the potential for this to turn into a full-blown romance, but alas I had to leave it before that really got underway, as I’d only bought the first of the series’ three arcs and the rest are pretty pricy. I’d like to see the rest, especially if I receive encouragement here – but I’m also happy to wait for a while.
I sought out Bakemonogatari because it was the last big series made by Shinbou and Shaft before Madoka, and had been an even bigger commercial success. This is in fact my third Shaft series, the other being Dance in the Vampire Bund, which I watched and loved before I even knew who Shaft were, and which I also rewatched recently. Dance in the Vampire Bund, which I reviewed here, is not as sophisticated a show as the other two in its design – indeed it’s schlocky in places – but it still moves me far more than Bakemonogatori, largely because it has such a wonderful central character in the vampire queen, Mina Tepes. Bakemonogatari also has a central vampire character (albeit a recovering vampire), but is essentially a harem series about his encounters with a series of girls who’ve been possessed by various kami, demons and the like, and his attempts to help them out of their several travails. It’s full of clever touches (the way that opening credits change to reflect the character of the girl whose story is currently being told, for example), and I noticed plenty of visual tricks that both look back to DITVB (our hero’s cowlick twitches independently much as Mina’s hair ribbons did) and also forward to Madoka, but whether or not because I watched it in the wrong mood or for some other reason I found myself strangely unmoved by it.
Ouran High School Host Club gives us another absurdly posh Japanese school. Our story centres on the eponymous club, a group of boys who while away their privileged time entertaining equally privileged girls – a twist on the idea of a hostess club. The Club comes with a variety of “types” designed to appeal: a strong silent type, a diminutive chibi type, a bespectacled intellectual, a pair of twin brothers who appear to be in love with each other, etc. And here comes our heroine, the humble scholarship pupil, who accidentally breaks a valuable vase while visiting the club and must now work off her debt by dressing as a boy and acting as a member of the host club. Comic-romantic shenanigans ensue in many, many permutations, but though this anime is fun I really wasn’t in the mood for it, and had to bail. I do intend to pick it up again later, though.
You know how Japanese kids have a habit of being sucked into digital worlds? As in Digimon, Summer Wars, etc.? Sword Art Online is one of those, but in the first half at least it’s more stylishly done than most. A games designer has produced a virtual reality multi-player RPG called Sword Art Online, for which players have to wear a headset. However, for reasons that no one ever bothers to explain, he has introduced a twist. The headset can only be removed if and when a player reaches the highest of the game’s 100 levels. If anyone tries to remove it before then, or if a player is killed in the game itself, microwaves will instantly fry the physical player’s brain. The only means of escape is to beat the game itself.
This, famously, is an anime of two halves. I liked the first half, even though the main character was a little uninteresting (at least to me – he seemed to fascinate all the females on screen in a suspiciously Marty-Stuish way), and promising characters and story-lines were dropped capriciously. However, the different landscapes and settings were nice to see, and I really like the way the series explores the ways that different people cope with their situation, or fail to. Some settle down in the virtual world, deciding not to waste their lives trying to leave it; others devote themselves to escape; some are loners by instinct, others form guilds or gangs. There are some interesting discussions on the lines of “Are we wasting our real lives?” vs. “This life is as real as any other”.
The second half of the series was a lazy rehash of the first, with some really disappointing extras – such as the hero’s little sister’s incestuous love for him (not that I dislike stories of incest – hey, I was raised on classical mythology – but this one came from nowhere and seemed to be thrown in just because), and the fact that the first arc’s kickass heroine spent the whole second half of the series in a cage, waiting to be rescued by Our Hero.
The first episode of Kotoura-san, a story about a psychic girl, was really great. It showed how her psychic abilities (which as a young child she doesn’t realise are unusual) drive her friends away and split her family, as she naively speaks truths that others would rather keep secret. Socially isolated, Kotoura loses confidence and becomes prickly and unapproachable, until a good-hearted lunk takes a shine to her and she is unable to put him off by the usual methods. Slowly she comes to appreciate his sterling qualities, and even though his lustful teenage fantasies are all too plain to see (both to her and us), these are more than compensated for by his good nature and genuine liking for her. The school Psychic Club take an interest too, and together they dwindle into having fairly inconsequential but charming adventures, in a way that reminded me a little of Haruhi – which is fun (and the kind of thing you pay your money for in, say, Kiniro Mosaic), but not as super-interesting as it promised to be at the start.
Other notable features include Kotoura’s rich grandfather, whose incestuous lust for her is played entirely for laughs – including making her sit on his lap (she’s about 14) in order to get his help with a problem. After that, he eggs on the good-hearted lunk shamelessly, wanting him to seduce his granddaughter so that he can thrill to the experience vicariously. On the other hand, he is the only one of her blood relatives who sticks with her, and he works hard to effect a reconciliation between her and her mother (his daughter). Japan, you continue to confuse.