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.