Is Revolutionary Girl Utena a brilliant surrealist canvas, an apocalyptic struggle in a dress, or just a pretentious vomit of mahou shoujo cliches? The premise is simple enough. There are beautiful students. They must duel over a woman. There is a tall, handsome stranger manipulating their fates from the shadows and a pure-hearted heroine who must foil his plans. But connecting the dots between these plot points takes great imagination and a good memory of past episodes as this spastic anime refuses to speak in established visual language.
In as much as Utena resembles traditional shoujo, the subplots are predominantly romantic and the script dedicates significant time to surprising us about who is in love with who and why. The way the characters pine for each other or betray each other with slimy self-satisfaction is no less soap opera than Dallas, but even staunch shoujo fans are hardly encouraged to get comfortable here. Director Kunihiko Ikuhara, who worked for years on the Sailor Moon franchise, treats Utena as an opportunity to unravel all the tropes he established with his earlier work.
Instead of fluffy whimsy, Utena mimics the barbed melodrama of Brother, Dear Brother, where beauty is cruel and the cruellest characters are the most beautiful, and their whirlwind emotions suck the narrative into the netherworld of sexual abuse, gender-based violence, and incest. And rather than fixate on cute magical battles, the story explores that peculiar universe of women’s sexuality and fluid identities as their bodies develop and they try to disentangle their knotty emotions. Ultimately, Utena’s whirlwind themes and melodrama make it maddeningly difficult to interpret.
But the greatest challenge (particularly for impatient viewers) is the ceaseless repetition of symbolic sequences. Each arc has its own trademark sequence. One of my favourites occurs in the third arc, where students are transported into Chairman Akio’s and Touga’s sports car and hypnotised into challenging the heroine, Utena Tenjou, to a duel. This occurs every episode and always concludes in the same way with Akio draped over the bonnet and their shirts indecently flapping open to reveal gleaming smooth chests. I have heard plenty of complaints that the repetition is excessive and annoying, but I enjoy their pomp and ceremony. Most importantly, Ikuhara is no hack – there is intention behind his lavish and carefully constructed repeat sequences, a sense that their unusual plethora is precisely the point.
Most obviously, repeating these scenes turns them into islands of reliability in an otherwise eclectic story and gives us ample opportunity to reinterpret events. I dismissed Akio and Touga’s shots as tacky fan service at first; later, I interpreted their glaring (homo)eroticism as an ironic wink at the shoujo fans; and at the last, as Akio’s and Touga’s personalities became more apparent, I saw their semi-nudity as representing self-absorption and sexual predation. Those aren’t the open chests of men being fed to the tweeny dogs, but of men absolutely convinced that they can entice anyone they damn well please. As each iteration revealed a new layer of meaning, I began to savour and look forward to the process of discovery, and that is sort of how the whole show works.
Winsome beauties, sparkles, and pastel-perfect colouring combine with sweeping action choreography to make a generous visual buffet. But Utena’s technical merits are of secondary importance - what makes it look superb is the direction and detail evident in the world concept. This is a constantly shifting, dreamy landscape exploding with quirks and surrealist detail. Some scenes look like theatre productions while others effectively merge different realities. As an example of the latter, one scene involves students conversing about their duels in a club room while simultaneously playing baseball.
Utena’s sound design complements the discordant themes. Ominous organ chords in the background convey a heavy, portentous feeling even though the colours are bright and the characters beautiful. Unique monophonic choruses singing eerie, disjointed lyrics pound the atmosphere with grandiose intent. Apart from that, the score has much variation and a memorable, emphatic sound. However, insistence on discord and a choir either composed of the voice acting cast or amateurs makes this a tough one to recommend for those of standard tastes.
The characters’ peculiar backgrounds, explored in episodic mini arcs, give the story momentum and their resonant personalities easily pull the viewer into their perspective. Utena, for instance, decides to become a prince in homage to the one who saved her life a long time ago. She does this by adopting masculine traits on top of her feminine ones and assumes a rare (but not new - see Rose of Versailles) gender type where women are heroic and girlish and tough-talking and innocent all at once. Others insist on calling out her ‘weaker’ girlish facets to humble her but in the process deny the possibility that she is an inseparable compound of both. Her battle of identity (becoming what others wish vs remaining true to onesself) eventually becomes more salient and more interesting to follow than her duels.
Many others begin as stereotypes but flourish into complex beings during their character arcs. The standout performance comes from comic relief character, Nanami, whose capriciousness heads deep into slapstick terrain but stops just short of overbearing. Her unusually obsessive love for her brother Touga anchors her theatrics and pads out her superficial behaviour with substantial intentions. Despite being a secondary character, her rich development ends up rivalling Utena’s.
Notable departures from this achievement include the male antagonists, Touga, Saionji, and Akio, who through callous psychological and emotional bullying almost cease to be human and become more symbols of human vice. If they are not slapping their female cohorts into submission, they are coldly seducing them for their own gratification. While they blend nicely with Utena’s melodrama, their characterisation is too obvious (Akio telling Utena with undisguised relish how his name is that of the star associated with ‘Lucifer’) and at times overcooked to tastelessness (the script excusing Saionji’s physical abuse of Utena's friend, Anthy, by simultaneously implying that he loves her).
Despite recognising some controversy in Utena’s execution, I cannot with equal conviction call it flawed. The show remains intensely likeable and amusing and, more importantly, full of worthwhile observations. It poeticises coming of age and effectively unpacks feminine identity and sexuality to equate them with heroism. Eccentric and light-footed, Revolutionary Girl Utena delivers a lot of marvellous weirdness.
There are plenty of reviews for Revolutionary Girl Utena that are better than what I can hope to come up with, so I'll just use this space to write my impressions. I started watching Revolutionary Girl Utena without knowing exactly what to expect, although after having read a couple of reviews I did know that I could set my expectations high. And the anime is definetely worth a watch. More than one watch actually; I've just finished the last episode and I have to admit that I'm sure many things escaped my notice and that I didn't pay the due attention to many other things, so I will probably watch it again in the future.
I have to admit that initially I didn't think that it was great, neither the story nor the characters. I kept on watching just out of curiosity, to see if all the duels and swords and rose-crested rings and rose-bride stuff actually made any sense or not. I found all the repeated footage annoying, even more so the music which I thought was kind of old sounding, like something an outdated and forgotten 80s power metal band could have come up with. And I didn't like the characters, Anthy least of all, but also all of the Student Council, they just seemed to be acting in accordance to rules, orders and roles they were given without fully understanding or questioning them - and that seemed incredibly stupid to me. But the more I went on watching the more my opinion changed. So I suggest you start watching it and keep on watching, having faith that things will eventually start making sense because they will. I don't think it's the kind of anime that everyone will appreciate, it's basically a fairy-tale with plenty of symbolism, character development and surreal landscapes. I really appreciated the writer's irony though, which many times is subtle - but sometimes not so subtle at all. As for the music, I liked it so much that I downloaded the soundtrack: those metal pieces which I found so irritating at the beginning I came to like after hearing them countless times, and then you have jazz pieces and classical pieces as well, all of them well-executed and well-arranged. But irrespective of the genre, all of the music serves its purpose well, enhancing the atmosphere and creating ritual spaces inside the flow of the anime so that as soons as you hear the first notes of a particular song, you have a pretty good idea of what's coming. Same goes for the repeated footage. In fairy tales there are certain sequences that must be followed, functions that repeat themselves, patterns and paradigms and tropes - Revolutionary Girl Utena follows this scheme. But it's more than that, it's ultimate message is that you must break the shell, shatter the rules and roles and decide for yourself.
It's set in an Academy attended by elementary, middle and high school students, both boys and girls. Our protagonist Utena is a tomboyish girl who likes to wear a boys uniform. From the very first episode you learn that her parents died when she was a little girl and a prince on a white horse came along to save her, giving back to her the will to live she had lost. As a matter of fact, she liked the prince so much she decided to become a prince herself - that's why she dresses as a boy. So from the start there's no mistaking that Utena is an independent and non-mainstream character. The prince gave her a ring with a rose crest telling her that it would lead her to him some day, and so it does because the rose crest is the symbol of Ohtori Academy. But more than that, Utena soon enough realises that those who possess rings with the rose crest are known as duelists, they have the right to fight other duelists in a special arena in the sky over which an upside-down castle is magically floating. Whoever wins the duels gets to be engaged to the Rose Bride and will eventually be given the power to bring revolution to the world. So Utena starts dueling, initially without any particular reason, then slowly she develops an attachment to Himemiya Anthy - the Rose Bride - and she fights for her. And via the many duels we also get to know the personality, story and motives of the other duelists. The plot is obviously centred on Utena: Will she find her prince? Will she herself become a prince? Will she be able to change the world? What does she really want to be? And about Anthy, mysterious till the end: will Utena be able to free her from being the Rose Bride? Does she even want to be freed? All the other characters are pretty much as good. Each story deals with a topic and has other layers of symbolic meaning behind it, with themes going from incest to the relationship with one's parents, unrequited love, homosexuality, lack of self-confidence or excess of it, bullying, physical abuse, jealousy, friendship and betrayal and love love love of course - it deals with most of the problems and vulnerabilities teenagers can have to face and it's basically an allegory of the struggles linked to the coming of age process. Utena herself, noble and independent and straightforward, to remain true to herself will have to betray and be betrayed and compromise and suffer.
I liked the artwork a lot, too. Surreal and dreamy landscapes, and the characters are all extremely expressive. At times though I thought it lacked details and was a bit over-simplified.
It's not a perfect anime - I understand who defines it as pretentious - but it's entertaining and interesting and above all, intelligent in all the themes it puts together and how it presents them and deals with them. It makes you think, which isn't exactly something that can be taken for granted.
What I Liked: Allusions to mythology, takarazuka theater and Christian mythology make the series a good series for analysts. Crazy amounts of symbolism. Anthy, for being a three-dimensional and sometimes nasty character. Every character has a complexity about them that makes the series highly interesting as their ideals and motivations clash. Great soundtrack. The Black Rose Saga version of Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku. The Akio Ohtori Arc dueling sequences. The series' take on all manner of things including teenage sexuality and gender roles. The leveling out of the serious tone of the series with some (almost) pure comedy episodes.
What I Didn't: Off-model animation sometimes plagues important scenes. Characters suffer from Spaghetti-Limb Syndrome. Copious amounts of repeated footage probably takes up a good 12 episodes worth of time. Sometimes the symbolism falls into the realms of the outright ridiculous (cars, for example). Akio's as much of a flamboyant and ridiculous fop as he is a horrible, horrible person. Incest why? Pacing is as slow as snails at times. Shame that Nanami was the punchline most of the time.
Final Verdict: Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of those series touted as a classic and luckily for good reason. Even with its unfortunate pacing issues and sometimes lacklustre animation, the series is filled with allusions, symbolism, red herrings and some of the most interesting and highly developed teenage characters to grace a Shoujo series in a long time. The series also manages to address social and interpersonal issues like teenage sexulaity and gender roles with flair. All in all, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a brilliant series with enough content to satisfy even the most fussy of literary analysts.
Kunihiko Ikuhara is a director who used to work for Toei Animation on the production of Sailor Moon. When he left in 1996 he was frustrated over the restrictions imposed upon him and eventually created another shoujo series in which he took every cliché of the genre; every intensified component of fairy tales; each and every aspect of adolescent struggles and combined all of it in an apocalyptic turmoil of psychological drama. The result is called Revolutionary Girl Utena and is known by fans as one of the more eccentric and allegorical titles available in the world of anime.
In her younger years, Utena Tenjou met with a prince who comforted her after the deaths of her parents and received a beautiful ring together with the promise that they’d meet again as long as she maintains her nobility. She swore to become a prince herself and eventually ends up attending the strange Ohtori academy in which the student council members participate in duels where the winner gains possession of “The Rose Bride” Anthy; a mysteriously submissive girl who, according to an unknown entity known as “End of the World” holds the power to bring a world revolution.
The above is about as much as one can give away without moving into Spoiler-land. The story revolves around a series of duels Utena has to win once she’s gotten possession of Anthy and relies on a highly repetitive formula with lots of stock footage to establish an almost ritualistic feeling for each episode. Combine this with the exploration of most subjects relevant to the process of adolescent maturity that you can think of and add Ikuhara’s fetish for prominent symbolism for further comprehension of Utena’s nature.
Another important factor is that the show treasures character development more than plot progression up to the point where the two terms not only complement but replace each other in favor of captivating storytelling. Viewers who demand a straight-forward approach will find themselves disappointed over the fact that most revelations are subtle and can only be found in the symbolism that ranges from simplistic to downright nightmarish. As far as purpose goes, the central story in Utena is not revealed until the later part of the show which means that patience is a virtue you’ll require. Those who can accept characterization as a substitute for traditional storytelling will enjoy this immensely and the subtle complexity of the story makes it a gem in the unpredictable sea of anime.
Utena creates a fascinatingly surreal landscape with top notch animation based on contemporary standards and a visual direction that glorifies eccentricities. Masterfully including traditional concepts like shadow puppets but complementing them with heavy allegorical undertones, Ikuhara is so formidable when it comes to creating beauty that it’s no wonder people interpret every single frame in the show as symbolic.
As should be expected, proclaiming that every frame carries symbolic value borders on both ridiculous and pretentious but, as will be clear to anyone who watches this, the entire series is packed with various undertones that reach the almost insane levels where the majority of stances; the most slight aspects of a character’s body language represent something such as dominance or submission. People who enjoy interpreting symbolism would be wise not to underestimate Utena since it might prove far too incomprehensive without several viewings.
Even if you exclude the beautiful allegories, the show is a visual extravaganza with beautifully animated vignettes and splendid fluidity that creates an artistic flare that can’t be compared to any other anime out there.
Utena thrives on featuring epic choirs who present increasingly bizarre lyrics that contemplate either duels or the repetitive preparations the protagonist undergoes before the actual fighting. Almost all the songs used throughout the show were designed for that very purpose and few of them fail to provide a feeling of grandeur that is much needed. From an instrumental perspective the very same quality can be found in beautiful pieces dominated by violins and skillful piano play that’s about as impressively suiting as the magnificent voice acting.
Every duelist in the student council has his own motivations for wanting the Rose Bride. While the story cryptically declares that she holds the key to revolutionizing the world, all of these individuals know what they want to change but seem to be clueless as to how. One thing is clear though, and that is that they all carry plenty of psychological baggage that include everything from severe brother complexes that border on the sexual frontiers and unrequited homosexual love. All of this creates an increasingly dark inferno of severely deranged emotions that origin from the very darkest aspects of human consciousness that Ikuhara wants to portray. There are few characters in Utena who have simplistic reasons for acting like they do. Furthermore, all of them are equipped with personal flaws that make the characterization come off as incredibly realistic. More importantly than anything else, though, they all relate to each other in various complex ways that create the very foundation for the plot.
In the end, the characters in Utena are nothing short of fantastic. It’s surprising to see them develop in a painfully realistic fashion whereas the story itself holds little regard for logic, but that in itself adds further to the sincere charm that complements the darker elements of the series. As is getting horribly rare for me as far as fictional works goes, I found at least a few characters I could relate to and I’m certain that most teenagers will. Come for the visual promises of eccentric glamour and stay for the top notch characterization!
Utena is not perfect but then again I doubt anything fictional ever can be. Several episodes exist for no other purpose than to highlight a specific trait in a character we’re already aware of in occasionally amusing and occasionally tedious slapstick. However, with a thespian soundtrack and a serenely beautiful sense of expression the show chooses to explore interesting themes and glorify the very concept of eccentricities! The narrative uses hidden subtleties and a repetitive formula to work its way towards a climax of epic proportions propelled by the exceptionally wonderful characterization. If I were to summarize this review in one compliment I would say that nothing has been made either before or since that can be closely compared to the bizarre masterpiece that is Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Roses, duels, lesbians and shadow theatre. Gee, I must be talking about Utena…
Yup, this is a very distinctive series and quite bold for its time as well. The main reason is simple; it has one of the most forward lesbian relationships ever… No wait, it actually has one of the most distinctive… No wait, it actually has lots of gays and incestuous siblings too… And they are all masked with some weird symbolisms, like flowers and thorns and swords and some weird upside-down castle in the sky… and what’s with those girls doing shadow theatre?
That is pretty much the attraction of this series; everything is one big allusion to immoral relationships, backed up with weird symbolisms, psychedelic sceneries, and characters that are not feeling very well up there in the head. And although it is all mostly aesthetics, it still creates an overall feeling that was hardly surpassed by anyone else thereafter. Surprisingly, the studio behind the animation is the notorious J.C. Staff, which is famous for its shitty adaptations full or retarded fan service and low production values. In this particular case though they made an exception and gave us something good. So let me make yet another list of the things I liked in it.
1) It has lesbians. Sure, there were other shows before Utena with that type of girls; the most famous being Neptune and Uranus from Sailor Moon. The thing is, all previous shows had that element only as a minor extra to a whole different story, while here it is actually part of the main story. I mean what do you think the title is all about? Let me help you; not because she is a rebel fighting some tyranny-centric regime. She is in fact fighting against the status quo in a quest to become the thing moral restrains forbid her to be: A man. Confused?
Well, that is the main story you see, she was fascinated by this handsome prince when she was a little girl and years later she decided to go look for him in this prestige school. But not as a frail girly girl in need of a knight to come to her rescue but as a rough tomboy, able to fend herself in swordsmanship and in a way becoming a prince herself. So in a way she doesn’t want to find a prince; she wants a confirmation that she can BE a prince by becoming his equal in everything. Yes, it’s weird as hell but on the other hand shows how people can find what they desire inside them and not looking for it in the far corners of the Earth. It may not make much sense but it has its logic.
So she goes to this school where they say something really revolutionary will happen soon that will change the world forever. Well, ok, it is already pretty revolutionized even without that upside-down castle in the sky; as most students there are… um… quite liberal with relationships.
Sure, today we get a dozen lesbian couples per anime season and most of you would think that it is not that special anymore. Which is not true, as modern anime on the subject are again using it as a hook of interest in an otherwise plotless, simple, slice-of-life tale of which I get bored fast. But Utena is different because…
2) It has distinctive action. Every episode has a duel between swordsmen… or should I say swordwomen? Anyway, it always has one such duel and it’s never JUST about swords. The preparation for the duel has some really weird shit going around, like people turning to plants, swords appearing out of chests, cars popping out of the ground, coffins burning… It again looks like random images at first but the naughty mind can attribute everything to some erotic taboo, which again makes the whole show interesting.
It is true that the action part is not really that good. There is no choreography or much tactics used in it and most of it seems to repeat identically on every episode. I never said it has GOOD action; I just said it has distinctive action and that makes it memorable even if it’s bad. Because down to it, everything in this show…
3) It is artistic. Really, from the artwork, to the symbolisms, to the innuendos, to the theatre, to the freaking simple scenes they are just talking, it is all some crazy stuff regarding more what it means to be happy and liberated than what they had for dinner or something trivial like that. And God, I loved it for that.
After all that I mentioned, I must make it clear that this show is not for everybody. In fact, you should not even bother watching it if you don’t like any of the following elements:
1) Too much repeated footage going around. Almost as annoying as those Sailor Moon transformations and attacks, but hey, it follows a pattern so it is kinda expected.
2) Bad action. You won’t find mountain-levelling attacks or amazing swordfight choreography in this show.
3) Little actual story and many fillers. Most of the episodes are stand-alones and fillers, which can also be annoying if you like on-going plots. But as I said, it is following a pattern and does allow you to get to know and like the characters more.
In all, it is a show that heads more for aesthetics and colourful personalities and less for plot or good action. It does a fine job with it too; much better than most later shows with similar kinky themes. Utena is also the third interesting gender bender anime character after Sapphire in Ribbon no Kishi and Oscar in Rose of Versailles and also used to be a symbol of lesbianism a decade ago. So sure, it left its own impact on both the anime world as well as the real world and got a place in the most historically important titles.
In case you liked its quircky style, the same director made a decade later another show with a similar feeling, caller Mawaru Penguin Drum. Give it a try.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 9/10
General Artwork 2/2 (artsy)
Character Figures 2/2 (memorable)
Backgrounds 2/2 (artsy)
Animation 1/2 (basic)
Visual Effects 2/2 (artsy)
SOUND SECTION: 8/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (corny but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 4/4 (great)
Sound Effects 2/3 (ok I guess)
STORY SECTION: 6/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 1/2 (erratic)
Complexity 2/2 (lots of symbolisms)
Plausibility 0/2 (none)
Conclusion 1/2 (cheesy)
CHARACTER SECTION: 9/10
Presence 2/2 (strong)
Personality 2/2 (rather cheesy but well founded)
Backdrop 1/2 (simplistic but it’s there)
Development 2/2 (overblown but it’s there and it’s strong)
Catharsis 2/2 (overblown but it’s there and it’s strong)
VALUE SECTION: 9/10
Historical Value 3/3 (all-known)
Rewatchability 2/3 (high because of its artistic appeal although lots of scenes can easily be skilled)
Memorability 4/4 (extremely artsy to the point of forever remembering it)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 7/10
Less fillers and repeated footage would make it awesome but I still liked it as it is.