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?
StoryIs 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.AnimationWinsome 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.SoundUtena’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.CharactersThe 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).OverallDespite 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.Story/Plot: 8/10Animation/Graphics: 7/10Music/Background: 8/10Characters: 8/10Overall: 8/10For 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.
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