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.
When Utena Tenjou was very little her parents died, and a prince comforted her in her time of loss, giving her a ring with a rose seal. He so impressed her that she decided to become a prince herself one day. Now, Utena is a teenager at Ohtori Academy who's athletic and notorious for dressing in a boy's uniform. When a member of the Student Council humiliates a friend of hers Utena challenges him to a duel, and he accepts only when he sees she possesses a rose seal ring. She soon discovers that this is no normal duel - it's a bizarre and ritualistic battle that the Student Council regularly conducts. In fact when she wins, Utena finds to her considerable chagrin that she gets to have Anthy Himemiya, a rather docile student, as her 'Rose Bride'. If she wants to keep Anthy she'll have to win more duels against members of the Student Council and others. What is the ultimate purpose of these duels and Anthy's role as the Rose Bride?
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