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.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is routinely described as Neon Genesis Evangelion for girls, and not without good reason.
At the very start of the series, we are given a vague explanation of some of the events that lead to Utena becoming who she is today. When her parents died when she was only a child, she fell into a serious depression. In the midst of this, a strange, prince-like man approached her, presenting her with a rose-crested ring, and telling her the ring will lead her back to him one day. So far, so generic shoujo. But normally, the female protagonist would simply be wooed by the mysterious man, and desperately need him. Utena is a little... different. She didn't want the prince... she wanted to be the prince.
We then cut to the present-day Utena, a tomboyish teenage girl who sticks out like a sore thumb, for her unique charms, loveable personality, and for wearing the boy's uniform instead of the girls (though interestingly, not one boy in the series wears the same uniform as her), who goes to the boarding school of Ohtori Academy. Amidst her everyday life at Ohtori, a series of events lead her to discover that other people at the academy also bear the ring with the rose crest, and that it unlocks a dueling arena where they must fight for possession of Anthy Himemiya, a withdrawn, timid girl who is known as the Rose Bride. The reason? They'd rather not explain that.
The most obvious reason for its comparison to Evangelion is that despite having a clear plot going on, there is clearly so much going on in the background being held from us by major characters that the series' strongest point is drawing you back to find out just what the hell is going on at Ohtori. Utena, however, has something of a leg-up on Evangelion in this respect in that more questions are actually answered, albeit semi-cryptically.
Another clear comparison, however, comes in the form of one of its biggest faults, and that is taking some seriously excessive animation-saving measures. Evangelion relied more on unusually long pauses and obscured mouths, whereas Utena relies more on stock footage. Way too much. While it does gradually improve on it, Utena's biggest fault by far is that it is extremely repetitive. Sequences are constantly repeated, and there's usually only around 15 minutes worth of original footage in each episode.
However, here's where it gets interesting: Utena has 3 clearly defined story arcs. For the first, the Student Council arc, this is where the repetition hits hardest. However, in the following two arcs, the Black Rose arc and the Car arc, this weakness becomes a strength. With the change in plot direction, the story becomes far more interesting, and with it, the repetition stops being annoying and starts being a tool to use to its advantage, building a strong, Monster of the Week (or in this case, Duelist of the week) style pacing, and on many occasions using it to play with our expectations, use well-placed character connections to create interesting comparisons, and its best point, it uses it to build excellent character development.
Another criticism of it, however, is that it often falls back on fillers. More unfortunately, these fillers are either recaps (but don't let that put you off, as they all have their reasons... especially the third, which is not to be skipped under ANY circumstances), or generally focus on the series' most annoying character, Nanami Kiryuu. Most of them simply end up abound with unfunny comedy, with one interesting example in which Nanami wakes up one day and finds that she has laid an egg (or at least, believes she has). This should probably be reminding you of something. The episode in general becomes an interesting metaphor for the insecurities of puberty, which, at its core, is something that Utena has a lot of parallels to.
On which note, I should bring up another thing it has in common with Evangelion: symbolism. Symbolism absolutely everywhere. However, this definitely beats Evangelion in this respect, because the symbolism always has a clear meaning, whether it be blatant abstract physical parallels, or subtle details that you will pick up subconsciously. In the latter's case, this is more specific to Utena's last, and best arc: the Car arc. More specifically, the titular car itself. The car, and its driver, clearly represent the adult world, power, seduction, and corruption... in particular, this is clear out of how the driver picks up vulnerable people, and... well, given what is implied to happen at the end of each car ride... you can probably fill in the blanks.
Overall, the series does start slow, but progressively becomes more and more impressive, with a clear, defined improvement with each passing arc. This builds up to a climax that brings together everything, an amazing crescendo of symbolism, perfect dialog that oozes brilliance with every line... to be perfectly honest, it may very well be my absolute favourite scene in any anime, ever.
The characters of Utena are one of its main draws. Every character in Utena is slowly revealed to be a flawed, vulnerable individual, each with their own personal struggles. There are also a few outwardly antagonistic characters who, as the series progresses, are revealed to really not be as bad as you'd think. The most interesting characters, however, are definitely the Rose Bride herself, Anthy Himemiya, and her brother, Akio Ohtori. The two have a tragic, mysterious backstory, as well as the most powerful presences in the series. Love them or hate them (and there are strong camps for both), you can't ignore either one.
From a technical standpoint, the art style is pretty bad at its worst and excellent at its best. Like most of the series, the art makes a clear progression with time, with the car scenes in particular looking absolutely gorgeous (and they damn well should). The music is also a mixed bag, being somewhat cheesy in its execution, but having some good quality music in there (expect the main transformation theme to get stuck in your head a lot), but with a lot of cheesy battle themes. Most of the background music for the series is superb, though, and several tracks are absolutely perfect for the series, most notably Poison, and the everpresent car's theme, the latter of which is a pimptastic blues/jazz song that fits with its scenes perfectly, being yet another reason why the car scenes are the coolest thing ever.
Overall, Utena starts off slow, but it's definitely worth sticking with. The series truly progresses into something absolutely amazing with time, creating an excellent cast of characters, showing off some brilliant directing, and making a stone cold classic in the process. Oh, and did I mention that the car scenes are cool?
Final words: Car scenes are cool.
For Fans Of: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Princess Tutu
Before you read this review, I would ask of you to please not judge it solely on the high rating. I have put a lot of work into this and I do address things like repeated footage and why I still give it this rating. Besides, what anime of this format does not have reused footage?
This anime is one of the best I have seen and, is arguably the best Shojo anime ever made - although it breaks away from that fold very fast. The show slowly moves into a darker territory that many shows do not dare approach. The biggest surprise is how subtlely and tastefully it explores things like incest, lesbianism, obsession and adoration. This show explores all these spectacularly well, in fact you could still go on decoding imagery and sounds after viewing the series 30 times because it is so rich in metaphors and allegories.
The animation is exquisite in this show. Not just in the sense that things are drawn well or move well and fluidly but also in what imagery is selected to drive a point home. One thing that springs to mind to point that out is in the second last episode, badminton was used as a symbol and the detail put in the racket or the shuttlecock is graphically breathtaking. The reused footage will not be to everyone's taste but I enjoyed those sequences immensely as it gave the start of the duel a ritualistic feel. I also love the detail in the background and the characters. Just a stance has meaning and purpose in this anime, as a model and a Fine Art student - it was great to see references to Michaelangelo's drawings, as well as a few famous paintings that were presented just for the sheer story behind them. The architecture is also imaginative and well drawn, much like in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh I also love the way attention is paid to slow moments, as well as faster ones as they radiate symbolism and meaning. The colours and the rose motif are more things I appreciate about the series and I do think it has an original style by marrying its own to its close inspiration, Rose Of Versailles.
The characters and the backgrounds are also extremely well suited for each other unlike shows like Naruto or Ranma where characters can look juxtaposed onto the background. The restraint in the use of 3D imagery is also something to be applauded as it allows the show to keep the beautiful fairytale feel and style.
The sound of Utena is another one of its strengths and it is so well suited to the battles or the overall theme of a particular episode, not to mention Rinbu Revolution and Zettai Umnei Mokushiroku which are just amazing left of the centre pop songs. Every episode features either a new composition or a new song, which is to be applauded in this day and age where most series use the same tunes over and over again. The duel songs are also terrific, they don't only sound great but they add another layer of meaning to the story as well as the characters. Seazer (the composer, also a 60s Japanese personality) did a wonderful job with his work here as the music does not just suit the anime but elevates it to new heights. It raises the bar in how anime can really make full use of the sound. The voice actors match the high standard of the soundtrack by delivering a universally amazing performance. A notable cast member is Kotono Mitsuishi, who breaks out of her cute signature character Sailor Moon for an amazing dark turn as Juri Arisugawa.
The story seems quite simple at first but the layers that it is wrapped into makes it very complex and entertaining. The most amazing thing about Utena is how much it kept me on my toes, there was never a moment where I knew exactly what the outcome of an episode would be, how they would affect or change the characters. Even the filler episodes include footage that can answer questions one might still hold over a particular situation or character, or give you a fuller understanding of a character.
The execution is what sets the story apart as well. It never gets manipulative to try and make you side why a particular character for a particular episode. Instead, it depicts these instances realistically, with just a little irony to really hit it home.
The characters in this show are also amazing. I can't think of another show (except maybe Rose Of Versailles) that has such full and deep characters, even Nanami who can seem quite shallow (and is reminiscent of the depiction of a young Marie Antoinette in ROV) has a strong presence and further episodes explore her character very well. Even the secondary characters are given situations (via the Black Rose Arc) to explore their feelings and more interestingly, how they affect other student council duelists. I felt after watching this that no character was one-dimensional as they all had a chance to show different facets of their personality (Be it through a whole episode or just a scene; that's how symbolic the series can get).
This show has the best value of any show I can think of as you will definitely have to watch the whole thing twice and maybe more to understand all the subtleties. It is also a great, enjoyable show that no one open minded should miss. It is a unique experience and a fascinating look at what adolescents go through emotionally. The use of symbolism to explore this will be a turn off for some but it is so complete and deep that you will be left with something for taking the journey. It is a remarkable title and I recommend it to every anime fan.
The story follows a pink hair chick with dead parents name Utena Tenjou who finds herself involve in a competiton of duels between members of the student council for custody of the Rose Bride, a cute meganekko with a mysterious past named Anthy Himemiya. What follows is a semi-episodic tale full of freudian symbolism, fairy tale motifs, loss of innocence, growing up, incest undertones, character psycholgy, breaking cycles and just plain good ol 90's surreality. In other words it's Sailor Moon meets Highlander meets the Shawshank Redemption. The series is 4 arcs long:
The Student Council Arc: Serves to introduce the characters and settings. Kiryuu Touga serves as the closest thing to a main antagonist of this arc. Episodes 1-13
Black Rose Arc: Revolves around a Pink Haired psychologist named Souji Mikage who manipulates those close to the student council members against Utena in order to kill Anthy and replace her with a young boy name Mamiya Chida as the Rose Bride. Episodes 13-24
Akio Ohtori Arc: Akio Ohtori, the school chairman, is revealed to be "End of the World" who manipulates the student council members once again to confront Utena for Anthy. Episodes 25-33
Apocalypse Arc: The Final Events of the show. Episodes 34-39
Just be warned that the series dosen't spoon feed you like a toddler and you might have a risk of difficulty of following the story, but certain elements do make alot more sense on rewatches thanks to proper foreshadowing, something most modern series today lacks.
Pretty diverse and memorable with it's cast, we have Tomboy with existanal issues Utena, Doormat with a hidden mean streak Anthy, Envy with green psychopath Saionji, Closeted Lesbian Juri, Genius Nostalgiatard Miki, Queen Bee with a brother complex and annoying voice Nanami, Playboy Touga, and Akio Ohtori, who lets just say makes Makoto Ino from School Days look chaste by comparison. And that's just the main cast. And yes, they are all psychologically messed up, but the show is about how their insecurities play out and how they are resolved by the end.
Visuals: Neutral to Positive
Very shoujoish in design but distinct with buttloads of spinning roses and everyone sporting colorful hair. Animation itself is fine for something made in 1997, contains a bit of stock footage played for symbolism. Also has it's once in awhile moments of off-modelling though I heard the Blu-Ray released fix those derp moments.
Composed by Shinkichi Mitsumune, known for his OSTs for shows such as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Zero no Tsukaima, Rozen Maiden, and Speed Grapher. His musical work here is argueably his best work. Featuring a variety tracks that mixes classical orchestral themes with outre choral harmonies and surrealist rock. Each of the duels presented has their own duel theme, which is astounding considering the Tv Airing of all 39 episodes ran fom April 2nd to December 25th 1997.
Voicework: Neutral for the CPM Dub, Positive for Japanese
Utena used to been licensed by the now gone and forgotten Central Park Media, a New York anime distribution company that was notorious for their questionable voicework that gave 90's dubbing a bad reputation, their run of the 1st arc is kind of a trainwreck with actors who are more experienced now today than they were at the time such as Rachel Lillis and Crispin Freeman, after a one year gap of production of the arc dub, they voiced on in the next three arcs ranging from meh to kinda good, with my favorite performances in the dub being Dan Green as Mikage and Lisa Ortiz as Shiori. Sadly the damage done from their work on the 1st arc does makes the english dub difficult to reccomend. The Japanese Version does fare better in terms of directing while featuring notable names such as the late Tomoko Kawakami, Yuriko Fuchizaki, Takehito Koyasu, Kotono Mitsuishi, Aya Hisakawa, Takeshi Kusao, Hikaru Midorikawa, and Jurota Kosugi. I should warn that Nanami and the Shadow Girls can be pretty annoying to listen to in either versions, so feel free to mute that s*** whenever they are on screen.
Overall Verdict: Positive
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.