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20 Years of Utena Fandom with the Ultimate Superfans

by Giovanna & Yasha of "Empty Movement",

The groundbreaking Revolutionary Girl Utena celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and what better way to commemorate its legacy than with two of the biggest Utena superfans in the English-speaking world? Giovanna and Yasha are the administrators of the oldest active Utena fan site on the internet, whose Rose Garden forums are still thriving with Utena discussion to this day! This is their story of how Utena fandom evolved over the past two decades.

Wow. Has it been twenty years already? It doesn't feel like it. New fans find Revolutionary Girl Utena every day, and we've been kept young by experiencing it alongside them. It's great to watch people go through that arc of discovery; it reminds us of when we first watched it—a very long time ago.

If you've enjoyed Utena enough to look around, you've maybe seen the website that we own (and still update, when we have time), Empty Movement. If you discovered anime by way of Crunchyroll and next-day subtitles, you might not realize that twenty years ago, building a website like ours was just what you did when you liked a show or movie or particular artist. There was no standardized social media platform to broadcast from, and fandoms were limited to the number of people motivated to deal with writing HTML. Families of little websites joined together in curated webrings, clamoring for a place on sites like Anime Turnpike that aggregated them. It was an overwhelming mess of tributes, some of which you can find archived on Empty Movement, while others can by summoned from the Wayback Machine. They mark the beginning of the internet's anime fandom outside Japan.

You'll find references to obtaining VHS fansubs, an absurd practice where you would send blank VHS tapes to a total stranger and hope to have them returned with the anime of your choice. You may run into mailing lists, newsgroups, and other cumbersome precursors to Tumblr, Twitter, and their ilk. You certainly will find evidence of the eternal drama that is a fandom: the trends in interpretations, the humor flirting with the inappropriate, and the constant intimacy that drives each fan to stake out a claim to their own territory.

And man, people got protective about what they considered their territory! Most often, it was a character that someone identified with, although sometimes it was a particular set of characters or a story arc. It has always been easy to step on people's toes by accident—or on purpose. Poor maligned Shiori got the worst of it at first; she was referred to as “the goat of Satan” by no small number of fans. Tempers ran hot over different interpretations, and neutrality could be difficult.

Our website is a relic of those early days, and we have used it at times to bear the torch of this fandom's birth, but tempers still run hot when people discuss Utena. That hasn't changed, but the venues have, and the nature of discussion has changed with them. Over the years, the community moved from newsgroups and mailing lists to Livejournal, then to our forum, and now, like most fandoms, it's concentrated on Tumblr. In a few years, it will be elsewhere, and wherever that is, people will still be debating whether Utena was being selfish or not by fighting Touga a second time in the first story arc.

What has changed most over the years are the viewpoints from which people experience Utena, and like the best stories, that constant reinterpretation is what has kept it young. We like to think Empty Movement, by its content or simply its permanence, has encouraged that. Utena grew up, so to speak, and it now demands more from its newcomers than ever before. Once, you could enjoy Utena because it was Sailor Moon's darker half, and you managed to beat the odds by obtaining the series at all. But twenty years later, the whole show and movie are readily available, and most watch them on particular recommendation. Since it's a work that makes itself so personal, it would be hard to examine Utena without also examining yourself, and that is ultimately where its longevity comes from.

Would you believe that in the beginning, Akio used to be seen as something of an aspirational figure? It's true! You could tell who the dudes in the fandom were because they often liked him, while most of the girls dismissed him easily. Now, people are less likely to write him off as either a cookie-cutter villain or power fantasy. His character is uncomfortable, requiring a depth of consideration you might not give a story that hadn't stood the test of time. As for Anthy, the universal tendency early on was to see her as powerless, sometimes mindless, barely even a person at all. Way back then, she was just a poor useless creature whose main purpose was to prove Utena was a Prince. That perspective seems to have died with the maturation of the fanbase. People are more willing to attribute some strength to Anthy and see her with nuance.

Shiori gets more sympathy now than she ever used to, whereas Ruka is the subject of far more criticism than he once was. Juri is still considered to be a tragic, strong person crippled by her own love, but her sexuality is far less surprising now than it was in the 90's. Miki has pretty much always been Miki, though whether that's something to pity him for often changes. Saionji used to be utter trash, had a stint as a tragic victim, and now he's back to being trash except he has sensitive feelings okay. Touga used to be Utena's one true prince (OTP?) who tried to rescue her and really loved her. That's changed, and now he's seen as a garbage person, more abusive in his subtle ways than Saionji's violence. This suits us fine, because he's way more interesting as trash than he ever was as a misguided Prince.

Perhaps it's Utena herself that has grown with the fandom, the internet, and the world in general. Early on, she was the Real Prince that she claimed to be, and with a dozen other anime playing on similar themes, such interpretations were easy. They still are, but there's a totally different generation of fans watching Utena now, and they see a totally different show than we did. We always thought Utena didn't get enough credit for being a confused, messed-up kid who chose to keep caring when she had every reason in the world to stop. We hear more of that view now, along with a dozen others we never thought of. The story has grown with the passage of time, and each generation (oh god we're old) has brought something new to it.

That, more than anything, is what the fandom has given us over the years. We've spoken to so many different people, had so many discussions, and tried to see things from so many different points of view, that the experience has been engraved on our hearts. Everyone has a reason for what they believe, and everyone takes home something different. We may shake our fists, disagree, argue, or laugh along, but the fans, the conversation, and the medium itself has changed. As always, it's the act of talking about it and learning from each other that matters. That's something the Utena fandom has always been good about. No matter how personal things get—and they can get really damn personal when someone is criticizing a character you feel like you could be if things were just a bit different—the majority of the fans have been willing to talk about what they believe. They've been willing to empathize with and respect each other's different points of view. It's fandom at its best.

It's been awesome to see Utena appear in other shows, like Steven Universe and Kill la Kill, because it tells you that people you've never even spoken to have felt the impact of this show deeply. As an anime, Utena was its own proof of concept, that the medium could be valid, long-lasting, and universally relatable. Utena creates its own mythos with the Dueling Arena and the Prince and all that, but frankly, those elements just add spice and surreality to a work that draws most of its context from familiar feelings and relationships that cross cultural barriers.

Multitudes of people that we've talked to, young and old, new and not, have felt that same shock of recognition. We still wonder what kind of alchemy happened to make this show so very personal. How did the Be-PaPas hit on just the right mix of archetype and personality, of symbolism and allusion and direct reference, to make these characters and their situations so relatable? How did they make art out of this anime?

It had to have been an accident. Somewhere between Yūichirō Oguro's planning, J. A. Seazer's music and Shinya Hasegawa's art, somewhere in the triangle between Chiho Saitō and Yoji Enokido and Kunihiko Ikuhara, something crept in that wasn't really any single one of them. Ikuhara is a surrealist. Enokido brought a darkness to the characters. Saito instilled a hopefulness. That's it. That's all we got. A flash in the pan. A critical mass of talent. It's the exception to the norm that every fan searches for and finds in a different place.

Will we ever see anything like Utena again? The series, movie, and manga alike are each deeply flawed in their own special, aggravating ways. Utena can be trivial, impenetrable, and sometimes utterly stupid. It's fantastic in spite of its flaws, but it's not a comfortable piece of work. It says some really terrible and true things about people and how they're willing to treat each other. The reason we've never been able to let go of this story is because it doesn't play nice and tell you to believe in Princes and happy endings. Instead, it tells you that no one can rescue you; you have to rescue yourself. More importantly, you can rescue yourself. That's a mouthful, no matter the medium, and it's why Utena is still here.

It's why people still fall in love, spending years on translating the game, writing college theses, and referencing Utena in other works. It's also why we've met so many fans in person. Even if we're separated by states, countries, religions, and perspectives, it's a whole set of injokes that brings us together, like a secret language. Or maybe it's just a guarantee that you have enough in common to have a good conversation. We've met so many people who would never have crossed our paths otherwise, who have demanded our consideration, changed our views, and challenged our thinking. And us? Hell, we got married and our ‘wedding rings’ are matching Utena tattoos. None of that would have happened if there hadn't been a hard little core of truth in Utena that leaves a damn deep mark when it hits you. And that mark lasts.

Twenty years, huh? It doesn't feel that long at all. Are you sure?

How did Revolutionary Girl Utena leave its mark on you? Let us know in the forums!

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