REVIEW: Revolutionary Girl Utena

Revolutionary Girl Utena | 少女革命ウテナ (ANIME VERSION)
Release: 1997

The 39-episode animated masterpiece about the girl-prince and her Rose Bride is not only ground-breaking as a yuri anime, as a 90’s shoujo it is virtually unrivaled. Ostensibly a magical girl anime (that isn’t), or a romantic fairy tale (not quite), it burrows into a dark juxtaposition between fantasy and reality, tearing apart the motives and ambitions of its cast while the unknown actuality of the setting looms ominously over them, swaying between purgatorial and theatrical.

To review Utena with any modicum of authenticity is a heavy project for which I am unworthy. When engaging any media, I adore picking out parallels, meaningful transitions, reoccurring symbols and themes, and emphasizing the significance of the details. But Utena is so overwhelming on all accounts that a analysis of that sort would better be a thesis in format. Its wicked surrealism makes the whole experience metaphysical to the point that you’ll have no idea if the plot is what it is, or something else entirely, and its intricacies would be impossible to describe exhaustively.

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So first, let’s take a step back and focus on what’s really important: is it gay?

IS IT GAY? 9/10

My completely arbitrary point system was a little tough to divvy out for this one, because even though Utena is often considered the pinnacle GL series, in the anime version of the story, Utena and Anthy never actually kiss or explicitly declare their romantic or sexual interest in one another, so I can’t give them the big 10. That doesn’t mean they aren’t “canon”, per se: in the film version of the story, the romance is explicit, and Word of God confirms that the romance exists in the anime, too, but I only give points for base material alone. We have to look at Utena and Anthy’s relationship seriously, with this caveat.

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But let’s not undervalue the dousei-ai in the series, either, because it does exist – and not as a mere aesthetic between Utena and Anthy, either. Same-sex love and eroticism is an ongoing feature throughout the 39 episodes.

Nor is it limited to the leads. If anything, the side characters are more explicit in their homosexual interests. Juri, the female captain of the fencing club, is in love with her female classmate Shiori to the point of this dominating her story line. Utena’s own female classmates play at having a crush on her – though unlikely serious, her friend Wakaba continuously alerts the audience to female homosexuality by calling tomboy Utena her girlfriend who is “way cooler than the boys”.

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As a bonus, the series doesn’t limit us to GL. A true shoujo, Utena ensures its male cast receives some attention, too. The antagonist of the second arc, Souji Mikage, exists as a pink-haired antithesis of Utena, complete with his own Rose “bride” – Mamiya Chida, a male version of Anthy, with whom he interacts with intimate implication. Miki Kaoru, the youngest student council member, is briefly flirted with – and is nearly molested by a male teacher. Finally, in the final arc, student council members Touga Kiryuu and Kyouichi Saionji, while not necessarily romantic, share a role as duelist and bride reserved previously for couples. Furthermore, the series doesn’t shy away from sexualizing male bodies, as it does female bodies, and amps up the masculine sexuality by the final arc to the point where the leading male players constantly take their shirts off together for no discernible reason beyond aesthetic.

It isn’t that Utena forgoes heterosexuality for homosexuality. Rather, the series is keenly interested in exploring sexuality through the lens of power and human connection.

BACK UP – WHAT IS THIS SHOW ABOUT?

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Protagonist Utena Tenjou is a student at the boarding school Ohtori Academy, who is popular among her classmates for her athletic prowess and noble personality. To the ire of her teachers, she wears a boy’s school uniform instead of a girl’s, and has a reputation for being a tomboy. But it’s more than that: her parents died when she was a young child, and a traveling prince comforted her in her grief and gave her a rose signet ring, which she still wears. She was so moved by the event that she aspires to be a prince herself.

Despite her popularity, Utena has little aspiration beyond being a mediocre student. But things get weird when she meets a mysterious classmate named Anthy Himemiya, who, though always politely smiling, seems emotionally vacant. Anthy is apparently the girlfriend of Kyouichi Saionji, a student council member and captain of the kendo club, who regularly abuses her.

When Saionji humiliates Utena’s friend Wakaba, a furious Utena confronts him in the kendo dojo and challenges him to a duel. Saionji realizes she is wearing the rose signet ring (something all the student council members have) and accepts. But rather than fighting in the dojo, Saionji invites her to the dueling arena – a hidden place in the sky up a spiraling staircase facing an upside-down castle that can only be reached through an enchanted door obscured in a forest, access to which is activated by the magic of the rose signet ring itself. Utena has both never seen this fantastical place before, but accepts its existence without complaint, and ascends the staircase accompanied by epic apocalyptic rock music.

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When she reaches the arena, she sees Saionji and Anthy, who, dressed in full regalia, silently pins roses to the chests of the duelists. Anthy then explains that duelists lose if the rose is dislodged, and wishes Utena luck – causing Saionji to slap her to the ground and identify her as the Rose Bride who is engaged to the reigning dueling champion, which is currently Saionji. Utena, now pissed off again at Saionji’s toxic masculinity, has brought a wooden kendo sword, but Saionji draws a real sword – from the chest of Anthy.

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Even so, you bet your ass Utena wins, avenging the honor of women everywhere. But that night, Anthy shows up at Utena’s dorm and reveals that she is now engaged to Utena.

Utena rejects Anthy’s contractual romance, because she firmly believes that the doll-like Anthy deserves to have her own free will. Whether or not Anthy does is an ongoing question throughout the series. But at the end of the day, aspiring prince Utena must defend Anthy, so agrees to duel again and again with student council members hoping to steal the Rose Bride for their own. Each battle, she draws the sword from Anthy’s chest after Anthy’s unexplained magic transforms her appearance. Utena is able to win, thanks in part to the mysterious aid of the prince from her memories, who seems to imbue her abilities.

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It is revealed that whoever is engaged to the Rose Bride will ultimately earn the power to revolutionize the world. That is, according to a mysterious entity that communicates with those who bear the rose signet called End of the World. What revolutionizing the world entails in unclear, but the student council members want that power for their own individual purposes.

Things get stranger and darker as the series progresses. It becomes less clear what is real and what is only a dream or hallucination. Arc two antagonist Souji, a genius teenager, seeks to delve into the darkness in the hearts of various students at Ohtori, which he exploits in order to position them to kill Anthy so that Mamiya, a boy who has the same distinctive dark skin and violent hair as Anthy, can be the new Rose Bride. Souji entrenches the condemned students in the spirits of schoolboys who died several decades prior, whose bodies are eerily kept in a mausoleum below the school and are adorned with black rose signets.

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Yet the plot is somehow a product of Souji’s own delusion: despite appearing as a teenager, he was the one who killed all the boys and so should be in his thirties, and Mamiya himself was a boy who died back then – a boy who actually looked nothing like Anthy. How Souji’s fantasies took physical form is linked, perhaps, to Anthy herself: who creepily transforms from the image of the false-Mamiya next to a mysterious man claiming to be her brother.

The brother in question, Akio, is the acting chairman of the school. On the surface, he seems perfect: an intelligent astronomer, engaged to the beautiful daughter of the current chairman, and a loving big brother to his sister Anthy. The image is polluted when we see that Akio and Anthy’s relationship is not only supernatural, it is incestuous.

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Akio becomes the main antagonist along with the revelation that he is End of the World. His role as puppet-master, aided by Anthy herself, twists the events of the world both within the school and outside. He arranges one final set of duels to solidify Utena’s place as reigning champion, at which point she will be invited to ascend into the mysterious castle in the sky. Akio is a predator: he is not only fucking his sister, he seduces and has sex with students on the regular, ultimately including Utena herself. When Akio reveals that he was the prince of her memories, Utena is shaken to the core. She has trouble recalling the reality of her memory, and after lapsing into the role of princess, she finds her resolve again when she realizes that the prince of her childhood had shown her a woman trapped in eternal torture, and a young Utena had vowed to become a prince in order to save this woman when the prince of her memories refused.

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The tortured woman, of course, is Anthy – christened a witch who, many years ago, sacrificed herself to protect her brother from the onslaught of a mob. Tortured to death(?) by piercing swords, she now endures ongoing agony, with her real self sealed away inside the castle.

But Utena’s determination to save Anthy takes a hit, literally, when Anthy stabs her in the back with a sword during her final duel with Akio. Even so, with the fantasy of her own self as a prince shattered, Utena endures to free the real Anthy from her pain. And when she finally liberates the real Anthy, she disappears. Empowered by her precious connection to Utena, Anthy leaves both Ohtori Academy and the venomous clutches of her brother to search for Utena.

At least, that’s the gist of it.

SO WHAT DOES SAME-SEX LOVE MEAN?

In the context of Revolutionary Girl Utena, the meaning of dousei-ai is difficult to pinpoint. In all actuality, since Utena is about troubled and toxic relationships, the same-sex relationships aren’t exempt from the same treatment.

Except, of course, the purported purity of Utena and Anthy’s relationship. But even this is challenged at several points, especially when Anthy’s true feelings are a mystery for the vast majority of the series, until they finally meet and overcome this challenge in the series’ climax.

On an aesthetic level, Utena is a gender-bender rife with androgynous imagery. But androgyny doesn’t exempt gender roles from infecting the minds of the characters. It’s impossible to talk about same-sex romance without talking first about gender roles.

THE CONSTRAINTS AND TRANSCENDENCE OF GENDER ROLES

It’s difficult for me to write “masculinity” and “femininity” without scare-quotes, so I won’t. But Revolutionary Girl Utena would find the scare-quotes appropriate, so let’s do this.

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Utena aspires to be a prince, but it is never the case that she identifies as a boy. What distinguishes prince from princess is not only aesthetic and vocation (in that Utena prefers to wear shorts instead of skirts, and prefers athletics over jewelry), it’s agency. Utena approaches her problems head-on, and would rather duel for the things she believes in than be a passive entity to the whims of others.

But Utena reverts to “femininity” on two key occasions: when she falls in love (or believes she falls in love) with men. First, during the climax of arc one, Utena finally is upset from her winning dueling streak when Touga, the student council president, defeats her. He conflates himself with the prince from her memories, shaking Utena’s resolve and luring her into gendered perplexity. Utena is further shocked when Anthy becomes Touga’s bride/doll, and the relationship Utena had cultivated with her evidently disappears. Utena therefore goes passive and, to the shock of the school, dresses in the female school uniform.

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The second occasion, of course, is with Akio himself. When Akio seduces her, she blushes and wavers. Finally, in perhaps the most unsettling episode, Utena goes out with and sleeps with him. Over the course of the date, we only see and hear Utena, now wearing a dress and makeup, and finally nude and floundering for words as the deed is done. When Utena enters the castle at the end, Akio transforms her appearance into a princess, instead of Anthy transforming her into a prince, and tells her swords are not appropriate for ladies, and dueling is no longer her role. He further taunts her that she could never be the one to revolutionize the world, because she’s just a girl.

Utena’s female gender identity but “masculine” presentation are at odds with the rest of the world. She is scolded by teachers for not being more ladylike, and both Touga and Akio try to discredit and dominate her by feminizing her. Furthermore, Utena, though she appears confident and unaffected by the judgment of others, weakens and questions herself when confronted with male romantic dominance.

Utena does simplify things. If “masculinity” is assertion and “femininity” is passivity, then Utena isn’t innocent from the toxicity that comes along with it. A key mistake that Utena makes is shoving her own perceptions of what Anthy wants and feels onto her without trying to understand or listen to Anthy’s own voice. Utena decides that Anthy wants to be saved, and that Anthy hates being the Rose Bride. The doll-like Anthy agrees to whatever her fiancee projects onto her, but when her master is swapped, so too does Anthy’s personality.

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When Anthy stabs Utena in the penultimate episode, it might reflect Anthy’s rejection of the domineering “masculinity” that all agents – including Utena – force upon her.

But Utena isn’t the only character to conflate gender roles. Fencing captain Juri is also not confined by the female school uniform, as she is a student council member and thus is entitled to pants. While prince-like herself, Juri, it should be noted, is also a model, suggesting that unlike Utena, Juri doesn’t absolutely reject “femininity” in order to find strength. Mamiya, the anti-Rose Bride, is also feminized in the series by Souji, despite protesting that he’s a boy.

Given the shoujo art style, androgyny is rampant. But “masculinity” and “femininity” are both constructed and deconstructed throughout the series.

THIS ISN’T A KIDS’ SHOW: SEXUALITY

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If Revolutionary Girl Utena teases at being a coming-of-age, sexuality and having sex are vehicles that drive the loss of innocence. The series isn’t coy about sex. Characters have sex, and when they do, it’s noxious, because Utena is about toxic relationships – while not all these relationships are necessary romantic, most of them become sexual in order to demonstrate their corruption. Utena, while generally disinterested in romance, is seduced by Akio in order to destroy her resolve to save Anthy and revolutionize the world. Akio, of course, is an engaged man (though for what it’s worth, he murders his fiancee) and he uses Utena’s surrender to sensualism despite this as an emotional ammunition to shatter her self-image of nobility.

“Masculinity” as a toxic construct is a frequent adversarial force. Sexually active men who sleep around with, exploit the feelings of, and even abuse women describe all the main baddies (except Souji) – particularly Saionji, Touga, and Akio, but additionally the one-off Ruka from Juri’s plot.

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And, just to be clear, female characters also use sexuality as a weapon for cruelty. Miki’s twin sister Kozue sleeps around with men specifically to hurt Miki. Shiori, the girl Juri loves, dates Ruka to hurt her.

Nor are all male characters sexual predators. One of the kindest characters is student council member, fencer, and professional pianist Miki. Despite being a duelist, he is gentle-hearted, and his flaws are mostly limited to seeing others as better people than they really are.

But most of the relationships are toxic, and even the kind-hearted are entrenched in them. This is most effectively demonstrated with the frequent use of incest.

Beyond the obvious example of Akio and Anthy, the other two siblings pairs of Touga and Nanami, and Miki and Kozue, veer toward incestuous corruption. Miki, who innocently loves his sister but unknowingly pushes expectations upon her that she cannot meet, alienates the aforementioned Kozue, who sleeps around to destroy his perception of him, while simultaneously being bitterly obsessed with him – to the point of hospitalizing a predatory teacher who seems to be molesting him. Kozue’s dark feelings are exploited by antagonistic agents to attempt to sexually assault her brother and then pull a sword from his chest. Similarly, the relationship between Touga and Nanami, his younger sister, is toxic. Nanami, one of the most violent and unpredictable characters, is viciously possessive of her brother. While one-sided, Nanami’s incestuous interest overwhelms the series from early on – until it is reigned in and even redirected when Nanami spies Anthy and Akio having sex, and realizes her interest in her brother is more innocent. Even so, Touga manipulates and disparages her until she finally decides to transfer schools to be free of her confusing feelings for him.

SWORDS AND DUELLING

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The imagery of the duelists fencing is fantastical to fairy tale proportions. From the costuming of Regency-inspired uniforms, to the wondrous dueling arena in the sky, to slicing a rose off of your opponent’s breast, there is something gorgeously civilized about the matter.

The most fantastical part of the whole affair, of course, is drawing swords out of “brides”. In the first arc, Utena draws the sword out of Anthy. After that, pairing isn’t limited to the Champion and the Rose Bride: in the second arc, the Black Rose duelists draw swords out of victims of their obsessive feelings. And in the third arc, the person in the “bride” role draws the sword out of the heart of the duelist him or herself, before handing it over to the duelist.

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The pairs suggest romance, whether twisted or not. Utena’s opponents generally carry toxic feelings for the vessels of their swords. We can’t ignore the phallic imagery of the sword – certainly not on this blog of all places – and Utena’s sexual imagery is never accidental. In arc 2, drawing the sword from victims reads as sexual assault. By arc 3, both members of the pairing have some twisted feelings for one another.

Of course, Utena and Anthy are – on the surface – the exception. The suggested purity of their feelings contrasts the confusion and negativity of their opponents.

There is a lot of drawing swords out of bodies. But the only time swords are stabbed back into human flesh is in the penultimate episode, when Anthy shoves her sword through Utena. And Anthy is the Rose Bride and sword-vessel for a reason. Her eternal torture involves her being pierced with a million swords, which contaminates the metaphysical imagery of Utena drawing a sword from her chest.

PERCEPTION AND FAIRY TALES

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The disconnect between perception and reality is at its peak when tearing apart ego. Characters know what they want to be, at the expense of truly connecting with their peers. This is the juxtaposition between fairy tales and adulthood, where neither are quite true.

This is ultimately Utena’s fatal flaw: in addition to projecting feelings onto Anthy, her self-image of being a prince is ultimately egotistical. Utena admits that protecting Anthy was more about her ego than about truly helping her.

But once both the prince and the princess inside Utena are deconstructed, a broken Utena can clearly see Anthy’s suffering. Bleeding out, all Utena can think of is that she promised to help Anthy no matter what – no matter if Anthy betrayed her. Utena, realizing that the only times she has ever been truly happy was when she was with Anthy, is desperate to free Anthy from her suffering and stumbles toward the Door of Eternity, which not even Akio was able to open. As she tries to wrench it open, it transforms into a coffin. Fingertips bleeding, Utena strains to pull the lid open and finds the real Anthy inside. She begs her to take her hand, and this Anthy in turn begs her to run while she can. But Utena doesn’t abandon her, and she and Anthy finally clasp hands, promising that some day they will reunite.

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The swords that pierce the other Anthy scatter and go after Utena herself. Mirroring Anthy’s initial sacrifice for her brother, Utena takes on her pain to liberate her from her torment. Utena apologizes that she couldn’t be a prince to Anthy after all, and disappears into an onslaught of swords.

PURGATORY: OHTORI ACADEMY

By the end of the series, the plot is so surreal that the viewer is forced to make his or her own conclusions about what the hell is going on. Even the baseline story can be difficult to follow and things get more disturbing and disjointed. Scenes seem to be ordered out of place, the theatrical shadow puppets go meta, and there’s no clear line between fact and illusion.

Dark hints scattered throughout the series, more overt toward the end, suggests something about Ohtori Academy is unusual. First, the characters don’t leave the school grounds except in gag episodes – which are themselves too psychedelic to take seriously. Supernatural elements, like the dueling arena, are acknowledged without suspicion. Parents are notably missing, and what few adults there are are either minor background characters or so uncanny their very existence is unsettling. The dueling arena and the castle in the sky are apparently illusions crafted by Akio, but the story absolutely cannot be stripped of its fantastical elements to find some kind of baseline reality: the magic is ingrained in what is happening. The fact that Akio and Anthy allegedly lived hundreds of years ago before Anthy’s sacrifice further conflates things.

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End of the World’s creed about a chick being forced to crack its egg to be born or else it will die before it has ever even lived draws haunting imagery, especially when the shell metaphor is conflated literally with the lid of a coffin. That Utena emerged from a coffin as a child after her parents died may even suggest her own death. And after Utena disappears post-Revolution, the students at Ohtori Academy seem to forget about her.

It has therefore been suggested that Ohtori Academy is some kind of purgatory. Therefore, Anthy freely leaving it at the end to search for Utena turns into divine ascension.

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Final image of the anime

FINAL THOUGHTS

Revolutionary Girl Utena is, to sum up, absolutely batshit and a must-see for anyone who fancies themselves an anime connoisseur.

Watching the series, I kept wondering how a production like this got green-lit. It’s not clear who the target audience is. I mean, obviously it’s me, but I’ve come to the painful realization that I represent a niche. Utena presents itself as a children’s cartoon, a la Sailor Moon, complete with kiddish humor and subplots, but it absolutely is not. The series hints at the macabre early on, but by the end, everything is so twisted that it creates a stark contrast to the wavering purity of the feelings between Utena and Anthy. However it was made, Utena is brutally unique – dare I say, revolutionary.

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CHARACTERS: Beyond Utena and Anthy themselves, the cast was colorful – literally and purposefully, with hair colors determining the shade of their dueling rose. My favorite side characters were Miki and Juri, who are certainly not bad guys even when they take an antagonistic role. But the real antagonists are delightful. Akio is terrifying in his predatory charm. Touga and Saionji, while evilly obnoxious in the beginning, have a weird love-hate camaraderie that transcends them at the end. The worst character was absolutely fucking Nanami, but I don’t think we were supposed to like her, anyway. The second worst character was the useless animal mascot, Chu-Chu, who has the audacity to dominate early episodes without even being cute.

MUSIC: Absolutely fantastic. While I may be alone with this, I never once tired of Utena’s apocalyptic transformation music, “Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku”. The opening and ending credits are also excellent – 90’s anime music at its fucking best.

ART AND ANIMATION: The designs are absolutely beautiful, but the quality is pretty dated. The overall aesthetic composition of the series is both amazing and baffling, overwhelming with symbols to the point where some seem like deliberate red herrings. By the final arc, everything feels broken. The shadow puppets that perform every episode are revealed as real people, albeit faceless. The long pauses during key moments might make you think your video player froze, only for the resume to startle you.

JAPANESE VS ENGLISH TRACK: Most of the voices sound and act pretty similar in both. Rachael Lillis performing as Utena in the English track is so iconic for me, but some of the English extra voices are a little more grating than their Japanese counterparts. You can’t go wrong with either version, though.

WHERE TO WATCH IT (LEGALLY): Amazon

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