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.