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Review: BESM Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Black Rose Saga

The "Black Rose" story arc (episodes 14-24) of Revolutionary Girl Utena is a deeply complex mix of hazy memory and harsh reality, full of metaphor, and progressively much darker than the first season. Unfortunately, Guardians of Order's "Ultimate Fan Guide" to the same set of Utena episodes fails to live up to the depth, beauty, and subtlety of the arc. Like the first fan guide for the series, BESM Revoltionary Girl Utena: The Black Rose Saga, written by Emily Dresner-Thornber and edited by James Nicoll, remains a useful resource for Utena fan fiction writers, collection completists, and BESM gamers. What were a few weaknesses in the first book grow much more noticable in the second, on top of which is clearly inconsistent writing and embarrassingly poor technical quality.

The book is laid out identically to the first Utena guide, with a brief introduction, followed by detailed episode summaries, character analyses, setting descriptions, and finally a small section devoted to playing Big Eyes, Small Mouth in the setting of Revolutionary Girl Utena. The 15 pages of BESM material is in black and white, but the rest, again, is printed full color on quality glossy paper. Frustratingingly, as in the first book, many of the full color images, notably the larger ones, seem to be of noticeably low resolution; fuzzy images and bad color abound even more than before. Unfortunately, what is wrong with the appearance of the book extends to the text as well: small irritations have become regular flaws.

Dresner-Thornton's descriptions of the episodes and characters are as detailed as ever, and I must point out the pacing of the episode descriptions, with more varied and eloquent text, has improved since the first. However, the very straightforward descriptions belie the dark and sometimes dreamlike nature of the Black Rose Saga; Dresner-Thornton states overly matter-of-factly such mystifying events as the drawing of a sword from a character's chest (meant to be a transmogrification of the character's heart), and iterates robotically the comic relief episode where someone turns into a cow. There is a character in the Black Rose Saga who is described as computer-like; one wonders if Dresner-Thornton's only excuse for such bland writing is that she is trying to emulate the story's villain.

Speaking of villains, the book's treatment of the characters isn't much better. While the character descriptions do attempt to delve into the motivations and psychology of the people populating Ohtori Academy, the "black-and-white" nature of the text seems to affect the analysis as well. Characters in Utena are enormously complex, "shades-of-gray" kind of characters, and yet one suspects Dresner-Thornton desires to turn all of them into plain heroes and villains–the arc's villain Mikage, a victim of manipulation and his own twisted memories and desires–a character one could write a whole book about if one wanted to discuss him fully adequately–ends up being mostly written off in the end as "insane." This sort of character "analysis" does a disservice to the often subtly-motivated characters in Revolutionary Girl Utena. At least the text is detailed and thoughtful enough to start a discussion among Utena fans, even if one finds it inadequate.

Granted, I don't envy Emily Dresner-Thornton. I gather that these fan guides are meant to describe the basics and let fans use what they need while giving them room to breathe their own life into the series through writing and roleplaying; Utena is an enormously difficult series to "boil down"; ask any dedicated Utena fan to describe the series as briefly as possible and he or she will have great difficulty, probably adding after whatever they provide, "but it's so much MORE than that." I can't be too forgiving to the writer though&3150;maybe if she just stuck to the dry facts in some form of consistency, it would be easier to be less critical, but sometimes her choice of detail is utterly nonsensical. The text overall is enormously verbose, noting any possibly significant action one might see on screen, and yet she overlooks certain key factors (e.g., a tear falling from a girl seemingly brainwashed as Utena tries to bring her back to herself) and describes other things that we really didn't need in an episode summary (e.g., "a drop of water falls onto a black rose"– a seconds-long shot we see many times through the whole arc, so don't need reiterated to us that it happens again in episode 22). The character traits described are sometimes dead-on, but at other times inexplicably hyperbolic–sure, Miki gets a few good one-liners, but that wouldn't lead me to describe the usually shyly intellectual, somewhat awkward boy as "a master of cutting wit." At other times, the writer seems to be completely making things up–she's given poor old Tokiko grandchildren I'm sure the series never mentions, and I've never seen the Student Council use a "special key" only they have to access the elevator to their meeting chambers–why waste precious printing space describing something that doesn't exist?

The BESM section is even more minimal than in the first book, taking only a few pages to describe how some of the specifics of the Black Rose arc work in terms of game mechanics, and then providing updated character sheets for all characters involved. A few setting-specific items and traits are listed, but there are still few guidelines for GMs or players on ideas for creating new characters (not even a character points limit, since the in-story characters have varying point distributions) and no ideas for campaigns beyond exactly repeating what is "seen on TV." Most of the character sheets are well-thought-out, but some characters have inexplicable character traits: for example, Shiori Takatsuki, a girl who has had only one boyfriend whom she broke up with before we meet her, and Kanae Ohtori, a character who has been engaged to Akio Ohtori through a formal arrangement, are both given "Seduction (Male) 3," whereas Kozue Kaoru, a character who proudly states that's she's "added one" more boyfriend to her large string of them, is only given a stat of 1 in the same area (a score of 3 is relatively high for a typical character in BESM's student romance setting, if I recall correctly, and would be reserved for the real "experts"). I can't help but get the feeling that little thought was put into the BESM area as a whole. Odd, since Big Eyes, Small Mouth is what I originally thought GOO was most famous for.

Topping off the lack of thought and consistency in writing and design, there are a number of technical errors and issues that add to the sloppy quality of the publication. Throughout the book, grammar bounces between standardized American English and British English (it's a Canadian publication), including one page repeating both the words "color" and "colour." The character name "Chida" is constantly misspelled "Chiba" (except on one page where it's actually spelled right, and this somehow makes the error stand out all the worse). There are also a number of typographical errors, including occasional chunks of random punctuation marks in the text. I have to wonder if perhaps the proofreader was replaced by a kitten walking across a keyboard. Finally, on a design note, there are pages where the font size is noticeably larger than on other pages; it seems rather than choose to stick with an even layout, the editors instead chose to use the "student-frantically-writing-a-term-paper" method of design: bump up or down the font to make it fit the required length rather than properly edit the text to fill out the pages properly. Having been a layout editor for a brief period of time, I know there are some typesetting tricks to make something fit a page, but I also know it's an absolute no-no to make font adjustments obviously noticeable by actually changing the size. Overall, I wonder if it would be too cheeky to mark up the book with corrections and send it back to Guardians of Order along with my resume; it seems they could use a competent copy editor.

More importantly, a competent editor is obviously lacking (and that's something I probably couldn't qualify for); I notice that Michelle Lyons, who edited the first book, is absent in the credits for this one. Her name generally indicates a decent GOO product (Slayers d20 was wonderful), and judging from how this book turned out, I can only presume that whatever was good about the first book was likely her doing. While BESM Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Black Rose Saga has enough detail and basic accuracy to still be handy or interesting to own by fanfic writers and diehard Utena buffs, this little book is just not quite worth the cover price. I'd commented that the first book, while fun, doesn't quite make "Ultimate" among fan guides; this sequel falls far below the "Ultimate" expectation.

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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