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Review: BESM Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Rose Collection

BESM Revolutionary Girl Utena: the Rose Collection, also known as Revolutionary Girl Utena Ultimate Fan Guide #1, is published by Guardians of Order (GOO) and has been long awaited since its postponement in publication one year ago. I will fully admit my bias here: I have been a huge Utena fan for three years, and so I am apt to pick apart such a book mercilessly; however, since GOO touts these anime companion booklets as "Ultimate Fan Guides," I think it's only appropriate an "Ultimate Fan" review the book. As "ultimate" goes, I can't say the book quite hits the mark, but it was still worth the wait, being quite a handy little reference manual for Utena fanfic writers, roleplaying gamers, and Utena and anime collectors in general.

The book covers the "Student Council Arc" (episodes 1-13) of the series only, with no spoilers for the rest of the series. Of the 96 pages, 80 are in full-color glossy detail (probably the reason for the somewhat steep $19.95 price tag), featuring detailed episode summaries, character descriptions, and many pictures from each episode. Usually the layout is stunning, but some of the larger pictures are of somewhat disappointing quality, being somewhat dark and slightly blurry–as if they were taken from amateur, low resolution screen caps. The pictures are also all mostly small, but on the upside, we see about 7 shots from a single episode per page, many of which capture the essence of the scenes and characters. Not all the pictures are bad, either, although the poor quality of a few stands out against the good quality of most. The final 16 black-and-white pages are dedicated to playing in the Ohtori universe using GOO's "Big Eyes Small Mouth" (BESM) Tri-Stat Roleplaying System. Although primarily for gamers, the last section also features further analysis non-gamers may still find interesting.

After a concise two-page summary of Utena as well as of features of shoujo and mahou shoujo anime in general, the full-color fan guide section jumps straight into summaries of Episodes 1-13. Sadly, the first major section of the book is also its weakest, content-wise. While the episode summaries are extremely detailed, they are written in a choppy, "Utena did this. Then Utena did that," manner, not making for compelling reading, and its matter-of-fact style plays down the more dreamlike or metaphorical sequences that occur in the story. There are also a few content errors; an example (one of the most glaring) is the claim that the nameless boy Jury remembers in episode 7 is "Ruka, the captain of the fencing team," when "Ruka, the captain of the fencing team," is an entirely different character–with noticeably different physical features from the boy in Jury's memories–who does not appear in the series until two story arcs later. This particular error is especially odd because even if the character were Ruka, the author and editors seem otherwise careful not to reveal any character names that aren't mentioned in the Student Council arc, e.g.; the girls later to be called Aiko, Keiko, and Yuko are only referred to as "Nanami's nameless minions" because their names aren't mentioned in episodes 1-13. Such errors and inconsistencies could confuse fans who haven't obsessively watched the series several times (unlike certain review writers). Regardless, the point-by-point episode descriptions are at least mostly accurate, and certainly well enough for someone who is already thoroughly familiar with the series. The summaries are detailed, straightforward, and well-put together enough to be a valuable resource for fan fiction writers and other Utena enthusiasts who don't want to scan through every episode to remember, "Which was the one where Touga did that...?"

After the episode guide comes the much more interesting section: the character summaries. Where the episode guide avoids grand extrapolation, the character descriptions dare to go into deeper analysis, and fortunately the writer does this very well. Most of the character descriptions are spot-on, both in including even small but notable external details and outlining character histories as well as speculating upon deeper explorations of each character's motives. No Utena fan worth their salt could ever agree 100% with someone else's interpretation of a character, but the summaries are written thoughtfully and intelligently, allowing for stimulating argument at the very least. Like the episode guide, this section is full of pictures, capturing each character in various states of emotion, costume, and action, capturing the best of their performances. The character descriptions are also written in a much more smooth flow than the first one, allowing for much more enjoyable reading overall.

The full color section also features a brief one page description of Utena's "literary influences": Riyoko Ikeda's 1970s manga and anime Rose of Versailles and Herman Hesse's novel Demian. This section is quite informative even if it only has enough space to just touch upon these works' influences upon the series. Finally, the Fan Guide provides some brief setting descriptions (again with pictures), translations of opening and closing themes, and series credits for both the original Japanese production and Central Park Media/Software Sculptors/Enoki Films English distribution. It's a shame some of the descriptions do not go deeper into analysis and description, and yet the intent is not to spoil later arcs, so the writer is restricted to what she can say about certain characters and events. She does an excellent job with description while keeping her mouth shut about important future matters.

In the BESM section, even non-BESM-players will be pleased to find that the information provided in this section to be fascinating, especially (in the case of non-BESM players) if one can get past the gaming lingo. An example of the setting descriptions they provide: "The problem is that the [duelling] game is a trap. No one can win because they are so obsessed with winning that they can no longer look past the prize. At the same time, [the Student Council] cannot leave the game; it has gone too far now to quit. The pull of the conspiracy keeps them there, since leaving means giving up position, knowledge, prestige, even power with in the walls of Ohtori Academy." Nice setting stuff here, although not too extensive (since so much is covered in the fan guide). The most fascinating part of this section is their description of "Soul Duelling," interesting both from an interpretive perspective as well as a systematic one. The Duelling system, designed to handle the students' strange sword fights to gain the Rose Bride, ignores one's physical prowess but instead sets up a system to "fight" based on the strength of one's soul–reinforcing many fans' interpretation that swordsmanship is a less important factor in the Duels than one's fighting spirit. Mechanics-wise, the Soul statistic (one of the three main attributes in BESM) is used for attack rolls intead of offensive and defensive combat values, and damage is done in draining energy points rather than health. Because the Duels are so central to the Utena setting, the Soul Stat costs twice as many points to raise than in an ordinary BESM setting. There are a few new skills and attributes, as well as write-ups for the few "magic" items in the game, such as the Sword of Dios. Rules additions are not very extensive–Utena after all is mostly "real-world" and thus doesn't require extensive systems for science fiction or fantasy artifacts (I wonder if this will change for Utena books #2 and #3, as situations become a bit more mystifying). Amusingly, they tell you not to use the "Attractive" attribute in an Utena-based game, as it seems to be a common trait among the characters there and thus not worth mentioning. Most of the characters range anywhere from 10-50 points, very low power level in the world of BESM. Oddly, the hero Utena's points are in mid-range rather than top-range (although her Soul is higher than any other character). Wisely, no stats are included for the secret mastermind of the Duels, End of the World, so that Game Masters basing a game solely on the Student Council arc can make up the character as they see fit for their purposes.

There are only two real disappointments with the BESM section: the first is that the character pages are a bit bare, with character quotes taking up big white space with over-large fonts. They could at least have added more quotes if nothing else. The second, more significant disappointment is that advice for the Game Master is minimal, and what is there mostly surrounds how to run the Duels. Suggestions for plot ideas would have been welcome–including ideas that don't necessarily center upon duelling in the arena. After all, Duels don't happen every single episode, and much of what is interesting in Revolutionary Girl Utena is the character interaction and other shenanigans that go on outside the Duels; the Duels after all are often simply a culmination of significant events beforehand. With so much that goes on at Ohtori, from machinations in the Student Council tower to hysterical 13-year-old girls believing they're the target of a stalker-murderer, it's sad all the writer provides you for gaming ideas is, "These stories will involve the Student Council fighting for the Rose Bride." Given the entire series revolves around the Student Council fighting for the Rose Bride, that isn't much help. Considering the shortness of the book and the bareness of the gaming pages, the editors ought to have given much more space and thought to Game Master advice, especially for a setting so potentially complex and full of intrigue as Utena.

But the fan guide and game section are written in such a "these are the facts" manner, it's clear any complexity from the series is left to be dealt with by the fan alone. Since the series gets more metaphorical and complicated in the later episodes, I'm curious to see how they will handle it in Books 2 and 3. Regardless, the book was a great deal of fun to look through, and many Utena fans should find it a useful and colorful reference.

Death Quaker's Realm All original materials © 2003 R. Pickard. Revolutionary Girl Utena and all related concepts belong to Chiho Saito, Be-Papas, Shogakukan, Shokaku, TV Tokyo
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